Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on January 30, 2011, the Sunday of our Annual Meeting of the Parish.
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
Gracious God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so direct our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Some of you who have been in the rectory may have noticed that I have a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the entryway. It’s a print that Richard Bowen gave me shortly after I came to Andover, and it’s taken from the very first formal portrait made of Lincoln, done in charcoal, the original of which hangs in the library here in Andover. When you look at the portrait one of the first things you realize is that this is someone who would never be elected president today! His handlers would insist on a new suit, and a better haircut, and probably even a little plastic surgery for the television cameras.
But behind this ungainly, awkward, and rawboned specimen of a man was one of the keenest minds of his times – perhaps of all times. A few years ago I read William Miller’s “ethical biography” of Lincoln. Early in the book he talks about both his courage and the raw power of his intellect, and how he used them even as a young Republican congressman from Illinois to speak out against a Democratic president (President Polk) for what he believed was an immoral and illegal war being waged against Mexico. What particularly offended Lincoln was the way President Polk invoked God in support of this war. Lincoln believed that it was wrong to invoke God and claim God’s blessing – saying, in effect, how sure he (President Polk) was that God is on our side. Rather, as Lincoln put it, we should worry earnestly whether we are on God’s side.”
This was often Israel’s greatest challenge – making sure they were on God’s side – not that God was on their side. There’s a big difference. One leads to religiously sanctioned violence; the other to our embrace of God’s will and purpose. And God used the prophets to help them keep this straight.
Listen to the voice of the prophet Micah in the words we heard today: “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.” And then the Lord speaks, reminding them how they were brought out of Egypt, and how they were redeemed from slavery. And then we hear the voice of the prophet once again, wondering aloud about how to appease God’s anger and God’s frustration with the fact that the people keep going astray and forgetting that they cannot take God’s blessing for granted. He asks this question – a rhetorical question: “Shall I come before [God] with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 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?”
And then comes the response, a response that tells us what it is that God really wants – what it really takes to be “on God’s side.” God isn’t looking to exact tribute from us. God doesn’t want to make us suffer or to pay for our sins, and God doesn’t really even care that much about whether we practice the right rituals or not. What does God want? And then the prophet says, “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.”
What God wants from us is our concern for justice, kindness, and humility.
Eight centuries later, Jesus appeared on the scene in Galilee, and began his ministry of teaching, proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom, and healing the sick. His life and ministry were a living witness to God’s very nature and being, and to what things will look like when we are really on God’s side.
Jesus’ ministry of teaching begins in the Gospel of Matthew with the Sermon on the Mount; and those familiar words with which it begins ring in our ears from the Gospel today:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth... and so on.
If you listen closely to these words, you begin to realize that what Jesus describes as “blessed” are very different from what we usually think of when we think of being blessed. We usually imagine that we are blessed (which is another way of saying that God is on our side) if we have a good job or lots of money, are healthy, or have no need of anything. But Jesus seems to be saying something very different.
He’s calling us to make that spiritual leap from having God on our side (and everything going our way), to us learning to be on God’s side. And God, it turns out, is on the side of the poor, the brokenhearted, the meek, and those who show mercy.
This past week nine of us from Christ Church were in Haiti. And for all you read and see and hear about Haiti, we were witnesses to what it looks like when people really take seriously Jesus’ call to follow him as disciples – to teach, proclaim good news, and heal the sick. The village of Cange, where we were based, is a model for what Haiti can become, and we will be sharing more of that experience here at Christ Church in the coming weeks. We were blessed to be in a place where we could learn something about what it really means to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek and to hunger and thirst for what is right. We were privileged to see the world from a different perspective – and it does look different. And it helps us understand why God would care so much about justice, kindness and walking humbly with God.
I say all of this today as something of a warning to us as we conduct our Annual Meeting in just a little while. It’s a warning that we not be too quick to measure ourselves and whether God is on our side or not, by the same standards we usually measure things. It’s tempting to apply all the measures of success that we use in our culture – numbers of people, or numbers on a balance sheet, or the numbers of programs we provide. When these things are going well, it’s easy to pat ourselves on the back and say, look how great we’re doing! God is surely with us! We ended another year in the black! We have a strong staff in place, lots of new people in our pews, and some of the best programs for children and youth anywhere. And you don’t find finer, more inspiring music on a Sunday morning anywhere north of Boston! God is surely on our side!
God, it turns out, is measuring us by a different set of criteria. “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” How will we look when we measure ourselves by these standards? How concerned are we with not just a hand-out to the poor, but with creating more just systems that allow people to enjoy what is rightfully theirs? How kind are we to one another and to those who differ from us? How willing are we to hear the other and to listen for God in humility – not assuming we have all the answers?
“Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
This year will be a year of change and transition for us here at Christ Church. We’ll have some transition as Adam moves on and a new priest joins our staff. And we’ll undertake our long-awaited building project, and see our beautiful new organ installed. Once all of that is behind us, it will be time to move on and look to the future, and begin to set some new goals for ourselves. But our goals and our aspirations must be rooted in a vision that is grounded not in what we want, and then invite God to be part of it with us, and to bless us – but in what it is that God wants for us. If we are really to be the church, we want – we NEED – to be on God’s side. And we’ll be on God’s side only to the extent that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God; and as we learn the blessedness of being peacemakers, pure in heart, merciful, meek and poor in spirit.
Even as we celebrate a good year just past, and all of the blessings we enjoy in this place, and in our life in Christian community, I pray that we will seek an even deeper blessedness that opens us more and more to participate with God in what God cares most deeply about.
Is God on our side? We can never be totally sure of that. But let’s be sure that we’re doing everything we can to be on God’s side.