The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2023

November 27, 2022 | by Bruce Epperly

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Micah 6:1-8 Psalm 15 I Corinthians 1:18-31 Matthew 5:1-12

Today’s scriptures highlight the interdependence of suffering, power, and justice.  Relationship is the keyword as we look at “what God requires of us” and reflect on the countercultural world of the Beatitudes. The crucified Christ leads us through the world of sacrifice and suffering, reflecting an empathetic God who calls us to empathy and embrace of suffering as God’s companions in healing the world.  We do not embrace suffering for suffering’s sake or as a form of penance.  The suffering we embrace and the sacrifices we undertake – of time, talent, treasure, and power and privilege – aim at solidarity. They are grounded in the intricate and dynamic relatedness of life. They come from a place of strength, grounded in the power of God, flowing in and through us, the emerge of divine possibilities to lure us from apathetic self-interest to empathetic world loyalty.  The relational love of God inspires us to be relational lovers.

Micah 6 involves a spiritual call and response, and question and answer.  While we might accuse Micah of seeing God in anthropomorphic terms, a God who experiences the world, as process theology believes, can easily have a gripe with what we humans have done to God’s great gift of life and planet earth.  “What have I done to deserve this?” God complains.  “I’ve brought you forth out of captivity, saved you from enemies, created a people of a chaotic crowd.  I’ve given you grace on grace and look what you’ve done.”  It sounds like dialogues I’ve heard between parents and teenage children.  What would God say to us today? I can not claim to speak for God, but God’s complaint to humankind, and in particular USAmericans, might be, “Look at the stars and the world I’ve given you.  The diversity of creation, the wonder of life itself, and amazing reality of your life and each breath you take, and yet you oppress one another, you never delight in the stars, you destroy the planet and cause the extinction of my non-human children, and you do not appreciate the gift of democracy and freedom, following dim-witted and dishonest demagogues, falsifying election reports, and disenfranchising your fellow citizens?  Do you really want to live in a dictatorship? Or do you want a world of beauty in which everyone has the opportunity for abundant life?”

At least one person – or a contrived person – is convicted by Amos’ account of God’s complaint, and asks, “What shall we do?  How shall we worship and live?”  And, the prophet replies, speaking for God, “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?”

Loving God, worshipping God, is an orientation of life that shapes the contours of our actions, personal and political.  Do justice, ensure the wellbeing of all, and reduce economic and political inequalities.  Love kindness, let love guide your words and acts, whether in personal or political relationships.  Walk humbly with God, remember you are dust, you depend on God for your existence, you are not self-made but emerge from your relationships with God, other humans, and the non-human world. Tend the garden of life, doing something beautiful for God and ensuring that the world is better because you are here.  Micah anticipates the wisdom of the Epistle of James, “faith without works is dead.”

God is present everywhere, and the Psalmist knows it.  But his question is more specific, “Who can come into God’s tent? Who will appreciate and experience God’s holiness?  Who will live intentionally and self-aware of God’s presence?”  God is here, and we experience God more fully when we live honestly, gracefully, lovingly, and gracefully.  Each moment and life bear the imprint of God, and what we do determines the quality of God’s presence.  The world embodies a greater or lesser impress of God, depending on the quality of our lives and commitments. We make a difference to God.  What we do paves the way or blocks the realization of God’s moral arc of history. We cannot defeat God but we can, for good or ill, shape the nature of God’s presence in our lives and the world.  The word from God from Micah and the Psalmist is clear: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly and in solidarity with you kin and all will be blessed.

The message of “Christ crucified” is often problematic to progressives.  We fixate on penal and substitutionary atonement and transactional atonement and forget the richness of the cross.  The crucified Christ is the sacrificial Christ, who embraces the world’s suffering as the pathway to healing.  The crucified Christ feels the pain of the world.  Empathetic in nature, God in Christ responds to our pain and invites us to respond to the pain of others.  God’s empathetic love in the cross assures us that we can embrace the pain of others in ways that are healthy and transformation.  We don’t need to deny or avoid the pain of the world because God doesn’t.  Salvation and healing come through creative acceptance not apathetic avoidance.  Still, an empathetic God seems foolishness.  To those who want Caesar triumphant or a MAGA hatted God, it is foolishness to say, as Tom Oord does, that “God Can’t.”  Their theology of power suggests that God must destroy all God’s opponents. A theology of power sees the world as us and them, in and out, people like us and people who differ from us, and scorns as foolish a God defined by love and inclusion, a God who is willing to take on the world’s pain, and who cannot right every wrong without our companionship.

But, as Bonhoeffer notes, only a suffering God can save us.  Only a God who knows how we feel, who sees the holiness of those we call enemies, and who sacrifices power to bring healing can lead us toward the future we need in which we claim our agency as world healers along with God.  The Cross is about sacrificial relationships and relational solidarity, not paying off or appeasing an angry God.  God is out to love us and not hurt us even when we go astray.

A parishioner of mine once stated in a bible study on the Sermon of the Mount, “With blessings like this, who needs curses.”  At first, the Beatitudes are pure foolishness. How can the grieving, suffering, persecuted be blessed? How can those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and know their shortcomings be blessed?  Yet, the blessing is a reversal of the world’s values. Christ’s blessings are not for the self-made, independent, isolated, “only I can do this” people – the Musks, Putins, Trumps of the world – they are for those who know that their only hope is in God.  They root themselves in interdependence and relatedness and out of their apparent need, they receive the deep blessing of divine companionship, which gives them the power and courage to change the world.

The blessed walk the path of Jesus, they live by the way of the cross, they know their weakness and imperfection and the fragility of life.  More importantly, within their relationships, they know that God is with them, and that God will sustain and empower them, and they will find their blessing in justice-seeking, solidarity with others, and walking humbly with God.  (For more on the Sermon on the Mount, see Bruce Epperly, “Talking Politics with Jesus: A Process Perspective on the Sermon on the Mount” and “One World: The Lord’s Prayer in a Process Perspective,” both published by Energion.)

When I was a child, our church sang “The Way of the Cross Leads Home,” and while I no longer have a spiritual home in conservative Christianity, God’s way is cross-centered, open-hearted, and demands sacrifice and solidarity to be companions walking in the light of God’s healing vision.  Let us walk humbly, justly, gratefully, and joyfully in solidarity with God and all creation.

Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including The Elephant Is Running: Process and Open and Relational Theology and Religious Pluralism; Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision Of Contemplative Activism; Mystic’s In Action: Twelve Saints For Today; Walking With Saint Francis: From Privilege To Activism; Messy Incarnation: Meditations On Process Christology, and From Cosmos To Cradle: Meditations On The Incarnation. His latest book is The Prophetic Amos Speaks To America. He can be reached for seminars and talks at