What Does the Lord Require of You?

a sermon for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

First sermons are important for any leader, because they tend to outline what they think is most important. Jesus’ very first sermon was the “Sermon on the Mount” and it echoed words from 700 years before.

How many of you know what an “earworm” is? An earworm is a song that you just can get out of your mind, long after it’s no longer being played. It plays over and over in your head until it almost drives you crazy. Scientists who study this kind of thing believe that 90% of people get stuck on earworms once a week. That’s important because even people with severe memory loss or dementia remember words to an earworm.

So of course I’m going to teach you an earworm.

What does the Lord require of you? What does the Lord require of you?
Justice. Kindness. Walk humbly with your God.
To seek justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

(For an example see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCcMdL8F5lk
Song by Jim Strathdee.)

This is my favorite verse in the entire bible because it states very simply what our relationship with God and one another is supposed to be all about. Justice. Kindness. Humility. What could be simpler than that?

Of course, this verse didn’t just come to us out of nowhere. It came from the prophet Micah, who lived about 700 years before Jesus. He was preaching against the idolatry of the people of the Judah and warning them about the destruction of Jerusalem. He imagines that the Lord is holding court – he is making a legal argument that Israel has abandoned its promises to God. “Rise,” the Lord says, “Court is in session. The case of God v Israel will not be presented. God will contend with Israel.”

As prosecutor in this courtroom, God goes first. God reminds the court of all the amazing things God has done for the people of Israel – saving them from slavery in Egypt, rescuing them as refugees in the desert, giving them leaders who were wise and loving to bring them to the promised land.

For its part, Israel doesn’t put up much of a defense. In fact, all she does is ask how she can please the Lord. What can we do to make things right, Lord? Should we bow and scrape? Should we give you animal sacrifices or rivers of oil? Do you want our first-born sons?

“None of these,” God replies. “All I require of you is to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

Jesus started his ministry in the same hilly region of Israel that Micah lived in. And today, we heard the first part of his very first sermon – the Sermon on the Mount. As you might imagine, first sermons are important for any leader, because they tend to shape the outline what he thinks are most important. Jesus’ sermon begins with the Beatitudes. Beatitude literally means “the blessed,” and here he lists them, one by one:

Those who are poor, not just in terms of money but also in spirit – the disheartened, the discouraged – they are blessed by God. Those who mourn, who lost loved ones through disease or war or simply from old age. Those who are meek, who are never boastful or arrogant, but live humbly and without notice. Those who are starving for righteousness, who have suffered from injustice and oppression – all of these are blessed by God.

Those who show mercy to others, who forgive the offenses of others and show compassion even in the face of criminal acts. Those who are pure in heart, who live lives as innocent as children. Those who are peacemakers, who turn the other cheek and seek to make peace with their enemies, foreign and domestic. Those who are persecuted, especially in the name of righteousness. These, too, are blessed by God.

And blessed are all of you, his disciples, who may be hated, reviled, and persecuted, who may be the object of ridicule, scorn and lies because you are willing to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus – rejoice. Because there is a special place in God’s heart for you and for all God’s prophets, like Micah, Isaiah, Amos, and even Martin Luther King.

In what might be called his inaugural sermon, Jesus sets out a new agenda for the church and he tells his disciples that things are going to be different from now on. Instead of serving the rich, the powerful, and those who have the most influence and authority, the disciples would serve those who lived on the absolute edges of society – the sick, the poor, the persecuted and those seeking justice and mercy. These are the people Jesus calls the Blessed Ones. And, if we are truly followers of Jesus Christ, these are the ones we are called to serve today. As Christians, we are called by Christ to extend mercy to all of God’s children. As Christians, we are called by Christ to speak out on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.

Last October, while meeting with a group of Catholic and Lutheran Pilgrims from Germany, Pope Francis said, “You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian. You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25 [feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, etc.] It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help….If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

My friends, we can certainly disagree on how our country is run. That is the mark of a free society. Jesus never said anything about tax law or gun control or school vouchers or a wide range of issues that face us today. But in his inaugural sermon, Jesus did say quite a bit about who God feels deserves our blessing. We are called to welcome the stranger in our midst, not because it is politically correct, but simply because Jesus says we have to do it.

The Beatitudes are a call for the Church to make Jesus visible in the world at a time when the world seems to have forgotten what it means to be merciful. They are a call to all of us who follow Christ to reveal him to the world by opening our hearts to those need us the most. They are a call for our nation to live into its promise to be a shining city on a hill.

Even people who have forgotten everything else remember earworms.

What does the Lord require of you? What does the Lord require of you?

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