Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What Does the LORD Require of You? (1/29/17)

The Godfather is, without a doubt, one of the best movies ever made. The opening scene is masterful. It may seem like an odd place to begin my sermon, but I believe the emotional tone of the prophet Micah is very similar to the tone of this scene. Furthermore, God's call, through Micah, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, provides an interpretive framework for all Scripture.
What Does the LORD Require of You? (1/29/17)

          Good morning! Last Sunday it felt like it was the middle of April; now it feels like January again. What a difference a week makes.
          This morning’s reading from the prophet Micah is another one of my very favorite scriptures. It’s foundational to my understanding my faith; it reminds me of how I must live my faith. It also reminds me of one of my very favorite movies, The Godfather. Every time I read the words of Verse 3, when God says to Israel:
3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
     In what have I wearied you? Answer me!”
Every time I read that, I hear Marlon Brando saying, “Bonasera, Bonasera, what have I done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”
Here's the opening scene of The Godfather, in case you haven't seen it.
          I love movies, and The Godfather is one of those movies that is nearly perfect in every way. My fraternity brothers and I must have watched The Godfather a hundred times when we were in college. We may or may not have missed a few classes because we didn’t want to tear ourselves away from this masterpiece. By a show of hands, how many of you have seen The Godfather?
          The opening scene is about six minutes long. In that scene, a funeral director named Bonasera comes to the home of Don Corleone, a mafia boss. Bonasera asks Don Corleone to kill two men who attacked Bonasera’s daughter and hurt her very badly. He offers to pay Don Corleone for this service—Bonasera calls it justice. Bonasera is very nervous. He has trouble explaining the situation. We don’t even see Don Corleone until halfway through the scene, but we know he’s in charge the whole time; he’s the Godfather.
          For those of you who don’t know the story, Corleone refuses the request. He tells Bonasera that what he is asking for is not justice—his daughter is still alive. More than that, he rebukes Bonasera for not coming to him in friendship. Corleone points out that his own wife stood as Godmother to Bonasera’s daughter. But Bonasera didn’t want Don Corleone’s friendship, because he was afraid that he, Bonasera, would get into trouble if he offered his hand in friendship to a criminal such as Don Corleone. At the end of the scene, Bonasera asks for Don Corleone’s friendship and calls him Godfather. Corleone accepts the request, extending his hand in friendship. And then in a final act of contrition, Bonasera kisses Don Corleone’s hand. Don Corleone offers his version of justice, but only after Bonasera has entered into right relationship with the Godfather.
          Now I don’t mean to make this a sermon about one of my favorite movies. But I have to tell you, the tone of this scene is exactly like this passage from the prophet Micah. In this text, God is contending with God’s chosen people, Israel. Some scholars call this a covenant lawsuit. That is, God indicts Israel for its faithlessness. The people are not living into the covenant; they’re not upholding their end of the bargain. And just in case they’ve forgotten the covenant, God reminds them that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and later raised up leaders such as Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
          When the people hear this charge, they ask what they can do to make the charges go away. They ask how much it will cost them, like Bonasera asking Don Corleone how much it will cost to get vengeance. The people ask God:
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
          and bow myself before God on high?
          Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
          with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
          with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
          Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
          the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
The people want to know how much money they have to put in the collection plate to get back in God’s good graces.
          But God isn’t having any of that! God doesn’t want money or offerings. God wants faithfulness! God wants righteousness! God wants us to live into the covenant, into a right relationship with God.
          How do we do this?
          What does the Lord require of us?
          God tells Israel that they already know the answer. And we already know the answer, too. God requires us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. That’s what righteousness looks like. We don’t make amends by offering thousands of rams and tens of thousands of rivers of oil. No. We must repent! We must return to faithful living according to God’s covenants.
          Often, we read the Bible as a set of rules; a checklist for achieving salvation. The Ten Commandments certainly seems like an easy checklist to follow. But simply following the rules isn’t enough. We must also be faithful to the spirit of the Law. We must remember that each one of us was created in God’s image, that each of us was created in God’s love, and that God sets us free from slavery—as God set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt and as Christ sets us free from slavery to sin and death. What’s more, when we view the commandments as just a set of rules to follow, we often fall into the trap of looking at our neighbors, and seeing all the ways that our neighbors are breaking the rules. We see only righteousness on our parts, while all our neighbors are busy sinning.
          The true sacrifices that the Lord requires are not rams or olive oil. God asks that we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. These notions of justice, mercy, and humility are the guiding principles for all of the Law. We should always be aware of God’s call to justice, mercy, and humility as we interpret Scripture and how we are called to act in the world.
          God commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Jesus affirms this as one of the two greatest commandments. To love our neighbors—to live into that covenant—we must do justice and love mercy. But we don’t always do this. When we focus on the rules, we see sinners all around us. We see our own righteousness and we grow proud. We fail to practice humility. We see unrighteousness in everyone else. We label our neighbors: we call them addicts, we call them lazy, we believe they are undeserving of our love. The labels we use give us an excuse to avoid engagement. We fail to live into the covenant and we fail to hear the call to discipleship. So how do we break out of this rut?
As always, Jesus shows us the way forward. This morning’s gospel lesson is the opening to the Sermon on the Mount. This is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in the Gospel of Matthew and it tells us a lot about Jesus. For Matthew, “Jesus is the teacher of all righteousness.”[1] So Jesus begins his public ministry by teaching his disciples. According to Karoline Lewis:
This means teaching is important. This means being a disciple is to be the consummate student, a learner. Being a disciple in Matthew demands that our first act of discipleship is to recognize Jesus as teacher.
Why is teaching so important for Jesus? Or, for that matter, why is learning so critical for a life of faith? It’s important to remember that who Jesus is simultaneously reveals who we are. For Matthew, the disciples are students, learners. But that learning cannot happen outside of the realm of promise.[2]
Jesus is the teacher; the disciples are his students, we are his students. Our learning takes place within this realm of promise. To put it another way, we must remain faithful to the covenant in order to learn from Jesus and follow Jesus.
Both of our lessons this morning are about righteousness. We can’t learn from Jesus or follow Jesus if we are not humble. And Jesus certainly calls us to acts of justice and mercy. Those who follow Christ’s call are blessed; it is part of our identity as disciples. Jesus tells them, tells us:
You are blessed. You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. Only with these claims of identity in place can the disciples, can we, live out what Jesus will ask us to do.[3]
By reminding us that we are blessed, Jesus equips us for the work that we are called to do. This is difficult work and Jesus knows it, so he reminds us of the costs of discipleship:
  • You won’t get rich.
  • You will mourn.
  • You must be meek—that is, humble.
  • You must hunger and thirst for righteousness.
  • You must be merciful.
  • You must be pure in heart. You can’t have any other motives when you do this work; you can’t do this for your own reasons.
  • You will be persecuted and reviled for following this call.

Yes, you will be rewarded for following Christ’s call, but you must not do this because you seek a reward. Following Christ’s call is an act of covenant faithfulness. The list of blessings is a description of all disciples:
The Beatitudes are identifiers of discipleship; characteristics of the faithful; attributes of believers. They are truth-tellings. They name our blessings but also what is at stake in these blessings. This is why this sermon has to be preached here and now to the disciples and not later. They have to know who they are in order to be able hear the rest of what Jesus has to say about who he needs them to be.
And this is also who Jesus needs us to be. Right here and right now. In this congregation and in this community. Let us work together to make it so. Thanks be to God. Amen.
          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. We are called to participate in His saving work. We are called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12,” retrieved from:
[2] Karoline Lewis.
[3] Karoline Lewis.

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