The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (A)
29 January 2017
Almighty and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of thy people, and in our time grant us thy peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
One of the recurring themes from Scripture we have been hearing since we began the new liturgical year back in November is the voice of the prophets calling the nation to account. Seeing injustice, seeing bad governance, seeing secular leaders following their own self interest or misguided sense of right and wrong, prophets boldly speak out. They remind the people that what they have witnessed flies in the face of God’s call to love and justice. This is what religious leaders—or indeed anyone who sees and feels the prophetic call to voice God’s priorities in the face of what they see—again and again are called to do. Indeed, I believe this is what millions of Americans last weekend and last night were doing when they marched in cities and airports large and small. At times like these we are not called to comfort the powerful. In fact, we know that what we do and say will make some quite uncomfortable.
This is what I meant back in December when I trotted out the somewhat clichéed, but still powerful, phrase about “speaking truth to power.” The prophets who speak truth to power risk everything in order to cooperate with God’s purpose, to advance God’s priorities, the priorities of our true leader and ruler, Christ the King. For those of us who believe both in the ideals of our Nation and in Jesus’ call to welcome and love the stranger, we have had a tough week. And for me, this morning in America, Micah’s words ring in our ears:
... the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”
Even after God has showed us over and over again the triumph of love over death, in freeing Israel from bondage in Egypt and in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that God’s priorities are being advanced, “the Lord has a controversy with [the] people,” for injustice is on the rise. Now it has settled in the corridors of power and, in the words of Laurence Housman, “lead by no star, the rulers of the nations still fail to bring us to the blissful birth.” We have but one response in these days, both in the living out of our lives and in proclaiming loudly that others can and should join us. We have one response, for God has showed us “what is good.” For “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
It is as simple and as complicated as that. We are “to do justice and to love kindness, and walk humbly with [our] God.” And as we Christians look for help carrying out this commandment, this injunction that for many has summed up the duties and responsibilities of all—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—who know and love the God of Israel, we find help in the words of Jesus, fortuitously also appointed for us to here today, in this moment, and in this place.
Jesus, having been baptised and then tempted in the wilderness began his public ministry going “about all Galilee teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.” Crowds were drawn to his words and actions and knew that God was at work in Jesus, the God whom they knew from Micah and the other prophets whose call were to lives of justice, mercy, and love. In these early days, Jesus gathered those who had been following him and publically presented his teachings, publically called those who followed him to act in the world in a certain way. He taught that what happened here and now mattered as the kingdom continues to unfold. And what he taught was this:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Here in sum is Jesus call to justice, and mercy, and love. He declared that the poor in spirit, mourners, seekers after righteousness, the pure in heart, peacemakers, the persecuted for righteousness’ sake and others reviled on account of proclaiming and living out God’s message were all blessed. Jesus declared blessed all those who working for the furtherance of God’s purpose.
Absent from this list are the strong, the rich, the successful, and the like. This list is not the list of the most amazing, biggest, most powerful people, but rather those who have worked, sometimes thanklessly, on behalf of God’s project. In our passage from First Corinthians, Paul gets the point:
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
Jesus turns upside down the priorities of the world and turns vulnerability into strength. Paul knows what Jesus is saying: that regular people, people like you and me, and not just the privileged, but people from the margins, people who have been excluded from power, all of us operating with love to achieve justice, can make an extraordinary difference.
In this moment, this moment that feels to many of us like God is asking of us, “O my people, what have I done to you?” Jesus calls us all to the hard work that lies ahead of us to continue to hold to account the powers of the world. We are reminded of Micah’s summing up of our moral duty “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” We are reminded that Jesus names as blessed those who walk this path even at great personal risk. And even though it is not one of the lessons appointed for us today, it reminds me of the moment in Matthew 25 when those blessed asked, “‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’”
The call “to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God” and the reminder that those who engage in this work are blessed are not things we do in theory or in private. They are things we do in the world, that involve actually helping and loving real people who may look and sound and act differently from us. Doing this work has consequences both now and in the future and it is something we are to do both one-on-one and with the prophetic voice to call others into this work.
Today, as every day, we have a choice. Are we going to resist the consequences of the reality of what we do? Or are we going to come to this place and allow God’s Word to seep into us, to allow the rites and ceremonies to connect us with God and with each other across the ages, to allow the Communion we come forward to receive to truly transform us into Christ's body so that we may go forth from this place, to do the work God has given us to do, to visit the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, to love our neighbour as ourselves and thereby love God? I have known and been a part of this community now for almost a decade and I know the answer. We will do the latter. It is part of our Anglo-Catholic tradition, it is who we are, it is our way to bring what we do in this place out into the world. Let us be bold and do this prophetic work together!
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Thomas Aquinas, Priest and Friar, 28 January 2017
© 2017 Andrew Charles Blume