The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – January 30, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Micah 6:1-8Psalm 151 Corinthians 1:18-31Matthew 5:1-12

By Bruce G. Epperly

Today’s readings describe a countercultural ethic and spirituality. Holistic in nature, the biblical tradition joins the theology, ethics, and spiritual formation of persons and communities. Good theology is always practical and life-changing. Theological reflection is judged by its fruits: Does it contribute to healing the earth? Does it bring reconciliation or alienation among peoples and nations? Does it promote our responsibilities to vulnerable and excluded people as well as to those who benefit from the social order? Likewise, spirituality without works is irrelevant: contemplation leads to action that transforms the social order and personal relationships in light of God’s vision for humankind and the non-human world. Conversely, without spiritual depth ethical behavior and social action become parochial and divisive; apart from the well-spring of spiritual experience, social reformers lose heart and burn out over the long haul.

Micah describes a call and response in which divine gracefulness is intended to inspire justice and care in the body politic. The prophet describes God’s concern that the people have not shared the grace they’ve received. Divine care and deliverance is not intended to promote self-interest but encourage justice-seeking.

Micah asserts that authentic worship is more than praise and individual sacrifice, but involves justice, kindness, and humility. God’s grace invites us to a way of life, characterized by humble companionship with all creation, especially our human brothers and sisters. There is no “us” and “them” among those who have received God’s grace and know it; there is only “we.” We are all, regardless of social and economic standing, dependent on a creative wisdom and liberating justice beyond ourselves. As recipients of grace, we are challenged to be grace-givers, bringing grace and well-being to those who most need it, recognizing our ultimate solidarity as God’s beloved and graced children.

Psalm 15 connects worship with ethical behavior, both individually and corporately. Spiritual maturity cannot be separated from our interpersonal and political behavior. While the preacher may choose not to dwell on the issue of charging interest, the prohibition against lending money at interest is an interesting theme to consider. How we use our possessions and largesse, even if we are honest in our dealings with others, is an ethical issue. Making a profit or maintaining wealth is not an individual matter but an issue of social well-being. Faithfulness demands that our economic gain promotes the economic well-being of others. Economic practices which focus only on the bottom-line go against God’s intention for community and commerce.

I Corinthians contrasts worldly wisdom with divine wisdom. God’s wisdom is not about grasping power, individual profit, and coercion, but the surprising powerlessness of God, revealed in the Cross and the powerless Christian community. God does not rule by coercion, but by suffering and embracing love. Like the Tao, of Chinese religion and philosophy, God’s work in the world appears low, despised, and weak; but despite its apparent weakness, it will outlast the powers that be. This passage challenges our behavior in congregational and denominational life, which often imitates the powers of the world through: win-lose behaviors, marginalization of opponents, inability to mirror and listen to diverse viewpoints, and hierarchical and unilateral decision-making. Order is necessary in congregational and denominational life to insure institutional growth and well-being; but is this order grounded in humility, relationship, and care? Order without love and justice – without healthy relatedness – is ultimately violent.

In the spirit of Philippians 2:5-11, the mind of Christ is relational, persuasive, loving, and non-coercive. The power of Christ, grounded in the love, inspires every knee to bow not out of fear but gratitude.

Matthew 5 continues the vision of a subversive spirituality, ethic, and theology by pronouncing blessing, well-being, and privilege on those who, at first glance, appear to be at the margins of society and religious life due to their current experience or the value systems they affirm: those who grieve and those who are meek, humble, and persecuted. Each of the beatitudes lifts up those who would be judged as outsiders or ethically countercultural. Wealth, pleasure, possession, power, and ease do not insure the experience of blessedness. Rather, in the midst of challenge and trial, we can experience God’s loving care. Further, all the beatitudes refer to interdependent relationships and not individualistic values: those who mourn know their vulnerability and dependence; those who seek peace recognize relationship as essential; the merciful imaginatively experience the pain and challenges of others; the humble know that their well-being is connected with the well-being of others; the persecuted know that they cannot stand on their own, but need divine grace and companionship to remain faithful. Our blessing arises out of our sense of solidarity with all creation and our recognition that God’s grace is the source of every blessing. Our agency and creativity is relational, not individualistic; life-affirming rather than self-interested.

Today’s scriptures invite the preacher and her or his congregation to a holistic, life-affirming faith which joins theology, spirituality, ethics, and social responsibility. Our relationship with God involves belief, but just as importantly practices that reveal and expand our sense of relationship with all creation. God’s realm is about prosperity: abundance that is intended for all and not just a favored few. God’s realm invites to consider how we believe as well as what we believe.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.