Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Give Me that Old Time Religion

Rev. Kathy Donley

01/29/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12

 

I have been gone for just two weeks, but wow! a lot happened in that time.  Being on vacation and then at a conference, I avoided most media and social media, but it was impossible to avoid everything. Current events are good for many things right now.  They are good for reminding us of tragic history and hopefully avoiding repeating the tragic parts.  They are good for helping us recognize the importance of really participating in our participatory democracy.  And if you’re a preacher, our current current events are exceptionally good for making ancient texts seem surprisingly contemporary.

 

Take our text from Micah, for example.  Micah’s ministry was in the Southern kingdom of Judah in the 8th century before Jesus.  He was speaking to people who were witnessing the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, and wondering if they would be next.  Their questions became more urgent as they anticipated the approach of the Assyrian army: 

“What does it mean to be God’s people in history?” 

“Who is this God we are serving and what does God want of us?” 

“How do we continue as God’s people if our nation does not survive?”

 

I don’t know about you, but those questions resonate with me just now and I am interested in whether Micah’s answers might be relevant in our context.


The sixth chapter of Micah is a kind of summary of the earlier chapters. In the first part of our reading, God confronts the people with their failures.  In earlier chapters, those failures were listed more explicitly.  They included “injustice perpetrated against the poor and powerless, a complacency that pretended nothing was wrong, and abuse of power by political and religious leaders”.[1]  (Does any of that sound familiar?)

 

Verses 6-8 are a response to that confrontation.  It is as if the people are saying, “Well, what do you want from us, God?”  We Christians often misunderstand the nature of sacrifice in Old Testament times.  We think that people maintained relationship with God just through the offering of sacrifices.  It would be more accurate to say that sacrifice was intended to be a celebration of God’s grace, an act of worship in which a person acknowledged his or her relationship with God and took on the responsibility of acting faithfully.[2] 

 

That was the intent, but Micah sees that it has been perverted in popular understanding. The people have substituted a form of worship for faithfulness to God.  To make his point, Micah moves into absurdity.  If one ram is good, then a thousand would be so much better.  If one offering of oil would normally be righteous, then 10,000 rivers of oil should keep God satisfied for a long time.  Micah’s listeners would have understood his sarcasm.

The point is that God does not need the blood of animals.  What God wants are behaviors that embody justice and kindness.  God’s judgment was falling on Judah because the people’s actions in worship were unrelated to how they lived the rest of the week.  What does God want? the prophet asks.   The answer comes back. Give me that old-time religion: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.

 

There is a story told that the queen of Belgium made a visit to Poland years ago, when Poland was under communist rule. Everywhere she went, she was accompanied by a guard of the secret police.  Since she was Catholic, she often attended mass.  On one occasion, while she was kneeling in prayer, she noticed that the guard standing beside her was moving his lips and saying the prayers.

 

She was surprised and asked him, "Oh, are you a Catholic?" to which he responded, "I believe but I don't practice."

 

Then she asked, "Then are you a Communist?" to which he answered, "I practice, but I don't believe."[3]

 

For Micah, belief and practice need to come together.  Right relationship with God means integrating head and heart, enabling our faith to influence our economics and our politics and our interactions with our neighbors.

 

If we fast-forward about 700 years to the time of Jesus, we see a similar context.  Judah still exists as a nation, but it is a nation under Roman occupation.  The questions persist – What does it mean to be God’s people at this time in history?  How do we continue as God’s people if our nation does not survive?

 

Micah was addressing people who were complacent and smug that their religious practice was sufficient.  On the other hand, Jesus’ audience is primarily people who are besieged and bewildered, people who wonder what they have done to deserve the oppression that they are living under. 

 

This is Jesus’ first recorded public teaching in Matthew’s gospel.  And so, we might see these verses as a kind of introduction or preamble, in which Jesus is calling people back to the basics, back to a foundational understanding of what it meant to be God’s people.   This section, called the Beatitudes, describes the conditions and behaviors which God regards as valuable, as honorable.   Jesus lived in an honor-shame culture.  In that kind of culture, almost everything about the quality of your life hinges on how you and your family are perceived.  Are you honored or shamed?  If you are honored, then you will have more and better choices of where to live and which parties to attend and whom to marry.  If you are shamed, then your options will be much more limited.  Honor and shame are human categories, but there was often a perception that God was involved, so that if you had honor, it was an indication that you were pleasing to God.

 

In our translations, the beatitudes say “blessed are those who . . .” but perhaps a better translation is “honored are those. . .”  This is hard for us to get because it is not our culture.  And because this is a familiar passage, it may be harder for us to realize how counter-cultural it was for Jesus to place honor on those categories. 

 

Many people have rewritten the beatitudes in contemporary language.  One scholar has tried to capture some of what our culture blesses.  Listen for the contrast with what Jesus blessed.    This scholar says that the world proclaims:

 

Blessed are the rich, in things and in self-assurance.

Blessed are those untouched by loss.

Blessed are the powerful.

Blessed are those who are “realistic” about righteousness, compromising at every turn.

Blessed are those who demand and exact an eye for an eye.

Blessed are the crafty and opportunistic

Blessed are those who are bold enough to make war.

Blessed are those who, doing good things, receive many accolades.

Blessed are those who, following Jesus, are widely praised and adored.[4]

 

During a break at last week’s conference, one pastor said to me, “You know we have all these songs about being blessed and we say ‘God bless you’ to people. But we never sing about how good we feel about being poor or hungry.  When we say ‘God bless you’, we certainly don’t wish that God would make them struggle to pay bills or have to fight for equality because of the color of their skin.”  He is right of course.  This word “blessed” must have sounded very strange when Jesus pronounced it on the poor and the meek and the oppressed.

 

When I read this passage, all the verses start to run together.  I find it helpful to notice two sections.  The first section is verses 3-6.  These four beatitudes describe oppressive situations which are valued because God’s reign reverses them.  Jesus is announcing and inaugurating God’s kingdom and in that realm, these political, economic, social and religious disasters will be transformed. 

  • The poor in spirit are the financially poor whose spirits are crushed by economic injustice. 

  • The mourners are those who see the destruction, the misrule, the evil being wrought by the powerful elite.

  • The meek are those do not resort to violence or seek vengeance, but who live with faith and expectation that God will act.

  • Some are literally hungry and thirsty because of unjust land practices, access to resources, taxes and debt.  Justice has been so thoroughly denied that there is no reason for hope, no cause for joy, and yet, Jesus says that these people are the valuable ones in God’s kingdom.[5]

 

The first four verses are about situations. The second section is verses 7-12. These are not situations so much as actions.  Jesus announces God’s reign, but it is not yet complete.  There is a partnership between God and humans.  And so, Jesus honors those humans who participate by showing mercy, by acting with integrity, by seeking peace and well-being for all.  But Jesus also warns them that if they do these things, they will suffer verbal and physical violence for it. 

 

I wonder where we find ourselves right now.  Some of us are feeling more keenly than ever before those oppressive situations of verses 3-6.  We are anxious and depressed, fearful and worried.   If that is where you are, know that Jesus says you are honored, valued, esteemed by God.   Some of us find ourselves more engaged than ever in showing mercy, valuing integrity, waging peace, demanding justice. If that is where you are, know that Jesus says you are honored, valued, esteemed by God.

 

One word for what we are doing is resistance.  We are resisting what the world calls success in order to participate in God’s ordering of the world.  The way of active resistance is new to many of us. But it has always been required of those who follow Jesus.  I am finding hope and courage in the expressions of active resistance around us and in the stories of those who followed God in the way of resistance in the past. 

 

Many of those were ordinary people, people whose names we don’t know.  Like a priest who served a South African township called Sophiatown in the 1950’s.  He was a white Englishman.  Sophiatown was a black suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa.  He resisted the government.  He tried to stop the military trucks that came to take people away in the night and the bulldozers that smashed their houses.  That priest wrote a little book, called Naught for your Comfort, which exposed the evil of apartheid. About him, Nelson Mandela said, “No white person has done more for South Africa.” 

 

But, not unexpectedly, he was persecuted.  His own bishop admonished him and sent him home to England.  But he took with him his book to share with the world and he left behind a young black teenager who had been his altar boy and whom he had faithfully visited when the teenager was in the hospital with tuberculosis.  The priest’s name was Trevor Huddleston.  The altar boy was Desmond Tutu. 

 

Huddleston’s impact on South Africa, through his ministry to Desmond Tutu, is immeasurable.[6]  Huddleston stood for truth; he sought justice; his actions were part of a God-movement in history.  So, if you are feeling anxious or despairing, poor in spirit, if you think that there is little you can do just now, do not underestimate the importance of standing for truth.  Don’t get weary.  Just keep standing.

 

Desmond Tutu was not writing a definition of being blessed, but it is what I hear in these words of his.  He wrote, “I have sometimes wondered whether those who live in threatening situations, confronting injustice and oppression, marginalized and made voiceless by poverty, and almost invariably without much clout - -whether only such people are really able to hear the paradoxically exhilarating message of the Gospel, and that their peculiar circumstances expose them, make them particularly open, to the splendidly liberating words of the Scriptures.”[7]

 

Brothers and sisters, may we be blessed, may we be honored, to hear the exhilarating message of the Gospel and be open to its splendid liberation.  May we seek justice.  May we love kindness.  May we walk humbly and wisely with our God. Amen.



[1] Dennis Bratcher http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearA/Aepiphany4ot.html

[2] Dennis Bratcher http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearA/Aepiphany4ot.html

[3]As told by Dan Vestal in his sermon A Rediscovery of Biblical Religion http://day1.org/484-a_rediscovery_of_biblical_religion

[4] Matthew Myer Boulton in Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Volume 1, Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013)   p. 76.

[5] This analysis of the structure as well as the definitions of each category are the work of Warren Carter in Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, (Maryknoll, NY:  Obis Books, 2000) pp 131-134.

[6] As told by the Rev. Peter Storey in his book With God in the Crucible:  Preaching Costly Discipleship (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002), p 129-130.

[7] Desmond Tutu in his forward to Peter Storey’s book With God in the Crucible:Preaching Costly Discipleship

 

 

 

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