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Sermon: Epiphany IV                                                               The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris
Micah 6:1-8 & Matthew 5:1-12                                                January 29th, 2017

The theologian Karl Barth is said to have advocated for preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

As we gather together today to worship our God, I know that we come feeling a variety of ways. Some of us want to escape the world. Perhaps the last thing you want to hear me preach about is politics. I know it’s hard. I feel this way sometimes too. And to those who feel this way, I assure you, that each week as I sit down to study the scriptures and read what scholars have to say about them, I pray for the Holy Spirit to show up and guide me. I do not come in with an agenda. There have been, and will continue to be, many weeks where my preaching will be about or touch on the political climate of our nation. There will also be weeks where I do not mention it.

I deeply believe that I cannot do justice to our scriptures, to Jesus, to our God, or to you if I avoid preaching about the connection between our scriptures and the newspaper. Jesus, Paul, and all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures did not live and teach and follow God in vacuums. Their lives and teachings were in response to the social and religious climate in which they lived. The argument that religion, or at least Christianity, should avoid politics makes no sense if you read the scriptures and learn about their contexts.

Some of you come to church today tired of hearing President Trump bashed in our largely liberal community, tired of feeling vilified for supporting or voting for Trump, tired of being misunderstood.

Others come angry, afraid, and truly disturbed by this first week of Donald Trump’s presidency.

There is room here for all of us. The Democratic Party is not God’s party. The Republican Party is not God’s party. We can be sincere in the pursuit of our Baptismal Covenant and support different solutions to the work God calls us to do in the world.

Through the run up to the election, the election itself and now the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, as a preacher, I have been challenged much more than in the past to figure out how to preach the Gospel in connection with the political events of our day without appearing partisan. I want you to know that I take the privilege and power of the pulpit very seriously and endeavor to never abuse the sacred trust that the church in general and you in specific have placed in me by calling me to stand amongst you and preach the Gospel through these human lips. I promise you that it is never my intent to preach partisan politics.

That said, in order to be a Christian preacher, a preacher following in the way of Jesus Christ and of the God that Jesus came to reveal, I must preach on what it means to live as a follower of Christ at this time in this place. If I do not do this, I am not preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a Gospel of love, love of God and love of neighbor. It is a Gospel of justice. It is a Gospel that defends the vulnerable, commands us to welcome to the foreigner, and to care for the poor.

I invite you to enter into conversation with me, especially if this bothers or hurts you. Invite me to tea, meet me at a coffee shop, come talk to me at the office. Share your story with me. Tell me how my words affect you. Share with me how you understand Jesus’ teachings. Tell me what you disagree with me about. Let me know where we are in agreement. There is room for us all here.

So here we are—the scriptures and the newspaper. On Friday, President Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning all refugees, indefinitely banning Syrian refugees and setting a religious test that functionally prefers Christians over Muslims.

There are many things about which faithful Christians can disagree, but welcoming refugees is not one of them (Melody Shobe). There are many arguments in which both sides can find support in our Scriptures, on the question of whether to welcome refugees or the stranger scripture is crystal clear.

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:19)

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren you did it to me. (Matthew 25:40)

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13: 1)

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Matthew 25: 35)

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:13)

Whether we like it or not, the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is concerned with the vulnerable, the oppressed, the marginalized, and those in need. And this God instructs her people to care for those same people. It’s not an optional part of following our God. It is the meat and potatoes.

In our Gospel reading today, we are given the beatitudes, God’s blessings. The Beatitudes give us a vision of God’s heart and God’s dream for the world. God does not bless those the world blesses.

Marcia Riggs writes, “Those who receive God’s favor are not the privileged classes of the Roman Empire or the Jewish establishment. The Beatitudes are spoken to those groups whom God deems worthy, not by virtue of their own achievements or status in society, but because God chooses to be on the side of the weak, the forgotten, the despised, the justice seekers, the peace makers, and those persecuted because of their beliefs.”

This is our God. The God who saved the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. The God who forgave again and again as they doubted and feared in the desert. The God who sent the prophets, one after the other, in an attempt to bring the people back to God. The God who sent Jesus, his son, to live amongst us and love us, and bring us back to God. This is our God. A God who saves. A God who loves.

When we forget this story, when we forget our own indebtedness to God’s forgiveness, love, and grace, we fall out of relationship with God precisely because our relationship with God is characterized by God’s forgiveness, love and grace. And when our relationship with God is distorted, we distort and fall out of relationship with one another. We begin to credit ourselves alone for who we are and what we have. The news of God’s concern for the vulnerable, the oppressed and the marginalized becomes a threat to what we have instead of the Good News, the Gospel, that it is.

The people of Israel, in our reading today in Micah, indeed seem to have forgotten their story and fallen out of relationship with God and one another. They continue their religious practices but they are “talking the talk” while failing to “walk the walk.” They have failed to create the kind of just community envisioned by the God who liberates people from political and economic bondage.

Israel seems affronted that God is not pleased with them despite all their religious practices. “Well then, what do you want?” they demand. A thousand rams? Tens of thousands of rivers of oil? The life of my first-born? They are over the top in their offers, implying that God’s unhappiness with them is unreasonable.

The prophet Micah responds,

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. One of the most famous and loved passages of the Hebrew Scriptures. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

Our practices, our worship, our praises ring empty if we fail to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Carol Dempsey writes, “The last is the most important one. Only when one walks humbly with God will one come to learn and understand how to do justice and love kindness.”

Breaking it down:

Justice is identified with the nature of God. It is an activity of God. Dempsey continues, “Justice is a transformative virtue that seeks to establish or restore community, while aiming to balance personal good with the common good.” Justice deals with relationships between members of a community; the equitable distribution of the goods, benefits and burdens of a community; and the social order or structures that makes such distribution possible. Do justice. Be a voice for oppressed persons, unprotected persons, widows, foreigners, minorities, the elderly, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and every person who is treated as less than God’s child.

Love kindness. We respond to God’s love by sharing it with others. We love our neighbor by caring for our neighbor, by working for justice for our neighbor.

Walk humbly with God implies an attitude of reverence and openness, listening for God’s voice wherever it may be heard.

What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

No one ever said following Jesus was easy. In fact, Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him. Stephen Mattson writes, “while there might be political, economic, financial, and safety reasons for implementing policies that harm people and refuse them help, there are certainly no gospel reasons.” God cares for the vulnerable, the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, the refugee, the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, the social outcast, all who are treated as less than God’s child. And we are commanded to go and do likewise. We can disagree about how best to do this, but whether God commands us to do it, really isn’t up for debate.

There is room here for all of us—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Because deeper than all that, we are children of God, followers of Jesus. We were sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. That is who we are. We have committed to following Jesus Christ—proclaiming the Good News of God, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, striving for peace and justice, and respecting the dignity of every human being. 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?