SJF • Epiphany 4a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Because Easter comes late this year, we will have a full set of nine Sundays after the Epiphany — which means we will be hearing, starting today and for the next four Sundays, selected passages from the Sermon on the Mount. I want to take advantage of this opportunity to reflect with you on some of the key elements in the teaching that Jesus gave the people.
Today, we start with the Beatitudes — a well-loved text of promised blessings. But who are the blessings for? Not the powerful, but the meek. And in keeping with Micah’s prophecy and Jesus’ words, I want to explore today the meaning of meekness — which is not weakness, but humble strength that trusts in God.
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To get some idea of what it means to be meek, let me tell you a story. Some years ago, a governor was running for re-election, and one day he arrived late at a church barbecue, having skipped breakfast and lunch on the campaign trail. As he moved down the serving line, he held out his plate, and the elderly woman on the other side of the chafing dish smiled graciously as she placed one barbecued chicken breast on it. The governor looked down at the lonely piece of chicken, and then smiled and bowed a little, and said to the woman behind the chafing dish, “Excuse me, could I get another piece of chicken.” The woman replied, “I’m sorry, sir, but to have enough to go ‘round it’s one piece to each person.” He appealed, “But I’m starved,” and again, shaking her head gently and smiling, said, “One to a customer.” Finally, he decided to use the weight of his office and said, “Madam, do you know who I am? I am the governor of this state.” She answered, “Governor, do you know who I am? I am the lady in charge of the chicken!”
That is meekness — a humble power that will stand up for what is right and fair regardless of who is issuing challenges, who is using position or power to take advantage. Meekness is not lying down as a doormat to be walked over, but the strength to be true to oneself and, as the Quaker tradition puts it, to “speak truth to power.” It is the pin-prick that takes the air out of all fo those who are too full of themselves; it is the strength of a Rosa Parks to stay in her seat when told to move; of an unarmed man standing there to face a tank in Tiananmen Square; dare I say we’re seeing some of this at work in Tunisia and Egypt even now — people who have had enough standing up. It is the voice of the child that is honest enough to say that the emperor has no clothes. It is not weakness, no not at all, but a kind of confidence and trust in what is right and true and just and fair, regardless of the powers arrayed against you. It is reliance on that promise given by God, who chooses what is weak to shame the strong, the foolish to shame what is wise. It is the answer of truth to the lies of power.
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This is all the more important when people pretend to impress the one who has the real power — God himself. All of us stand in that situation in the face of God. And today’s reading from the prophet Micah shows us the absurdity of trying to impress God. As I’ve said from this pulpit before, God knows us, through and through. God not only knows who and what we are, but knows every possible who and what we might become, for God is not only the Lord of what is, but of all that might be. So it’s no good trying to fool God, or trying to impress God.
Not that people don’t try. I suppose sometimes we get so used to impressing each other that we figure we can impress God, too. And rather than trying to frame our lives along the best possible course that God has laid before us — and since God can see all our journeys and our resting places God knows which is best for us — instead of trying to do what God wants for us, we, like the ancient Israelites, worry more about how good we look in God’s eyes, or think how good we look.
Micah, like most of the prophets, shows us that God has a bone to pick with his people. They’ve gotten the idea that God’s primary interest is in how many sacrifices they can carry out. We all know it is a sign of wealth to show how much you can give up — when people buy hundred thousand dollar cars when they could do perfectly well for a quarter of that to get where they’re going, but want to spend more to show off — like the rich man who lights his ten-dollar cigars with twenty-dollar bills. So the people of Israel wonder how high they have to pile their sacrifices: these burnt offerings and calves, thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil. They are even willing to sacrifice their own sons and daughters — imagine — that is how far they have strayed in their foolishness and wickedness.
But God is not impressed by all this show. Remember, God knows his people intimately, and will not be fooled by their showy display of sacrificial zeal, showing how much they can give up in their religious exercises. As Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said, “It is a great mistake to think that God is chiefly interested in religion”! God isn’t interested in religion, God is interested in people, in the standing of their hearts, not in the number of their sacrifices. God cannot and will not be bought off. You can’t fool God, and you can’t impress God.
So Micah tells the people what God really wants, or rather reminds them of what God has always wanted: for them to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God. It is meekness that God desires in his people: a commitment to fairness, justice, integrity and humility.
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Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, and Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, reaffirm this timeless teaching. Those who are blessed are not those who succeed in making themselves look good — the rich, the powerful, the wise. No, on the contrary, the blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the seekers after justice, the workers of mercy, the peacemakers and the pure in heart. Within and behind all of this blessedness, all of these beatitudes, is a simple attribute, a simple virtue: meekness, the attitude of humble witness to the truth.
Although it is the opposite of pride, which is pretending to be more than you are, meekness doesn’t mean pretending to be less than you are. Meekness isn’t about pretense at all, it is about knowing exactly what and who you are, and speaking the truth you know. Such an attitude is merely reasonable here in our present life: who looks more foolish than one knocked from a high horse! But it is all the more reasonable as we stand before the one who can’t be fooled, the one who knows us through and through, from beginning to end. Meekness is integrity and authenticity and honesty — for if honesty is the best policy when dealing with each other, it is all the more so when we are standing before the one who already knows the truth: God, who is, as we well know, the only foolproof lie detector.
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But though ultimately it ends with God, it starts with us: learning and understanding that meekness is important in our interactions among ourselves: knowing exactly who we are and who it is we’re talking too, when we speak to each other. Though I may be the governor, that doesn’t entitle me to extra chicken; and though I’m the one serving, I don’t have the right to deny that one piece or to dole out extra helpings. Meekness is about understanding exactly how and where one stands, and not being afraid to stand there.
It is both in treating each other with proper respect, and acting with proper dignity — both sides of what it means to be a child of God — that we can come to learn how to walk in true humility and meekness with the one who is above all. This life, sisters and brothers, this life is the school of charity, and we spend our semesters learning to love our neighbors so we can learn to love God. Why is it that Jesus so often used stories about household servants and their interactions among themselves as they awaited their master’s return? (I’ve been watching “Downton Abbey” on PBS, so this is on my mind!) How impressed is the master when he sees his servants treating each other badly? Rather than that kind of power-playing, the proper operation of God’s household depends on each doing the task given to us, the gives given to us, working with the skills God has given. When we learn to honor and celebrate the gifts that others have, not denying our own, but offering them so that all can share, we will by walking in meekness, doing justice and loving kindness with each other, and that is how we will learn how to walk humbly with our God.
Meekness, as I said, isn’t about pretense; it is the ultimate reality check; And as with each other, it doesn’t need to take the form of telling God, “Look how small I am” — God knows that already! — but confessing “Lord, how great thou art!” As we stand before him on our last day, God will recognize and welcome us there because we have not feared to stand before him and walk with him here, in our earthly pilgrimage, following him in the way of justice and humility practiced towards each other.
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Let us not boast of anything, except the cross of Christ. What does God ask of us? Not countless sacrificial offerings; not the cleverness of human wisdom, nor the pomp of earthly majesty, not reliance on noble birth, nor the wealth of things that are valued in this world; not physical strength, not power nor boasting. God wants each of us just as we are, without one plea, boasting only in the cross of Christ, boasting only in the Lord, and doing justice to each other, showing loving-kindness to each other, and walking with him in meekness, knowing who we are and who he is.+