By the Rev. Joel Bergeland
Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
Click here for the readings
January 29, 2023
What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” -Micah 6:9
It’s been a trope in TV and movies for decades: the character who succeeds in a career but misses what life is all about. I wrote this piece in December as I was filling up on low-budget Christmas movies, and I can’t tell you the number of slick executives in sports cars I saw who get exchanged by their lover for a wholesome small-town sweetheart in boots with a cute dog. It’s always humorous, and always satisfying.
We might giggle, but we only ridicule in others what we recognize in ourselves. Don’t we find ourselves chasing worldly power and status despite our best efforts? The chase makes us miserable, but without another script, we’re prone to just read the lines the world hands us. Fortunately, the readings today give us a different story to live by, where we see how God conceives of success differently. A preacher could explore these to give folks insights toward a more-fulfilling life.
In Micah, a faithful person wonders what they might give to God. All they can think of are offerings of status and power – calves, thousands of rams, rivers of oil, even their own child. But God directs the human away from markers of worldly success and toward what is good: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. To God, success means joining the good life God created us for — not a moralistic regimen, but the goodness of justice, kindness, and humility, where both receiver and giver are blessed in the offering. In the mystery of God’s reign, it is in giving that we receive. It is by seeking justice for others that we find a bit of wholeness for ourselves. It is by walking humbly that we know how great our own worth is.
The 1 Corinthians lesson reflects on another peculiar mark of success in God’s mind – not accumulation, but the emptying of pretense within us until there is space enough for our neighbor. It’s not the Who’s-Who in the Corinthian church, but a bunch of nobodies, neither wise nor powerful nor of noble birth. Yet these nobodies have found a victory that the world cannot bring: life-giving community gathered by Jesus and his cross. If these Corinthians read the script the world gave them, they would have seen in each other only liabilities and embarrassments. But they are urged to live by God’s script, which sees treasure where the world sees failure and assets where the world sees liabilities, and so they joyfully receive each other as gifts. They have been formed into a community by the foolish wisdom of the cross, and they know that God’s presence in their life together is success enough.
In Matthew, we hear Jesus’ list of blessings reserved specifically for those who the world overlooks. Look at how much the world leaves on the table! The meek, the grieving, the persecuted, the poor in spirit – what the world passes over is full of value! The people that are made to sit on the sidelines become protagonists in God’s story. The people that the world views as burdens God sees as blessings. God eschews our narrow notions of success and worth by finding value in everyone, starting from the bottom up. It’s a radical shift in vision that sees strength in weakness and success in failure – a shift that can bless us when we’re miserably stuck on the treadmill of success simply because we don’t have another script to live by. The script God gives us feels unfamiliar and daunting, and it means releasing long-held patterns and assumptions, but it brings life that is true and rich and more satisfying than the end to any feel-good Christmas movie.
There are many questions scattered throughout the readings today. Give the space to encounter these questions as actual questions, worthy of your congregation’s pondering. Consider using them as jumping off points into each petition in your prayers of the people:
“‘O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?’ We worry about our own worthiness, but your embrace welcomes us all. Grant us a spirit of gratitude for your grace…”
“‘Where is the one who is wise?’ We look for wisdom in the world, but too often we see violence. Give the will to make peace to all who lead…”
Or, read the questions woven with the beatitudes as a litany in two voices to open or close the service, perhaps even during the reading of the gospel:
With what shall I come before
the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Where is the one who is wise?
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Where is the scribe?
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Where is the debater of this age?
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The 1 Corinthians passage speaks of wisdom, and surely there is some wisdom that has accrued over the years in your church members! Form some intergenerational community by arranging for the youth to have conversations with some of the older members. Have the youth ask questions that get at the distinction between human wisdom and the wisdom of God: What is something you did that seemed foolish at the time but in the long run was wise? When did you encounter someone who looked weak but was actually strong? Or go through some of the beatitudes together: When have you been blessed? When have you mourned? Who have you seen persecuted for righteousness’ sake?
What looks foolish to us has a wisdom in God’s logic. Challenge the children to look deeper to find value where the world sees trash. Bring in some old veggie scraps: onion peels, carrot ends, celery leaves. You throw them out, right? Only if you don’t want homemade veggie stock or compost for your garden! Often, the things we are inclined to recoil from still have a blessing to give us. We just need to think creatively and patiently, like God helps us to do. If you have the means, follow up with this on a future Sunday: Bring in the stock or the compost you made and share with the children. If your time with children is at the beginning of a worship service, you even could have stock prepared that day: use an instant pressure cooker and have it ready by the end of service, or at least midway through coffee hour.
The Rev. Joel Bergeland serves as pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Pittsfield, Mass.