by Ellen Sims
texts: Micah 6:6-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
I’ve never felt so strongly that the church is relevant and necessary in our world. I’ve never believed so firmly that the church Jesus set into motion, and especially the progressive iterations of that church today that I see, for instance, in the United Church of Christ, are relevant and necessary for addressing this world’s injustices and mending its fissures. I’ve never appreciated so fully our own small role, Open Table, in ushering in the ways of God . . . until now.
Today’s lectionary scriptures unite as a forceful rebuttal to voices in this world’s kingdom. This world tells us we are made worthy by our wealth and power ; the biblical prophet, however, insists that we please God by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly (Micah 6:8). Leaders of nations and captains of industry declare that might and money are the virtues of their kingdoms. But the Apostle Paul says that real strength lies in giving ourselves away for others. Indeed, he asserts, what this world values is foolishness in God’s eyes (I Cor. 1:20). As leaders of this world act to subject those on the margins to state-sanctioned persecution, Jesus blesses the persecuted (Matt. 5:11). All our lections for today stress that even though this world disrespects weakness, compassion, and humility, those are the ways of God and the ways that take us deeper into the heart of God. Those are the qualities that operate when God’s realm holds sway.
Church is one of the few places where we can recalibrate and orient ourselves away from the God of materialism and militarism—and turn toward the God who loves the meek and the poor in spirit, the different and the disregarded. The work that is ours to do as a church is saving work. Helping to usher in God’s kindly kingdom can save individual lives and must have a role to play in saving planet earth.
Of course, our church, although committed to serving others, is not a social agency. We feel we come alongside others in the community and then find that we ourselves are “saved” as we learn from and love those different from us. A week ago we received a check for $10,000 from the UCC in support of our Free2Be youth group, a grant helping to ensure that our support for local LGBTQ youth can continue for years into the future. While some on the Religious-Right-By-Might have tried to “pray away the gay” and while some political leaders aim to legalize discrimination, we believe our LGBT youth group gives us glimpses of how the “kingdom of God” may operate. We might even say that the Free2Be youth are “saving” us — from prejudices and narrow understanding — and saving us for love and kindness and new realizations—all of which bring the kingdom of God closer.
Our commitment to social justice, however, does not mean the church is merely a launching pad for activists. The church offers us community — not a group of perfect people, but supportive, covenantal companions along the way toward the now and coming kingdom of God. In addition, the church offers ancient scriptures to ground us in the wisdom and poetry of those who’ve gone before us. The biblical stories give a narrative frame for the stories of our own lives that sustain us and give our lives meaning. Now more than ever in my lifetime, the Bible’s description of those who rule this world’s kingdoms through domination and oppression seem very real, and the Bible’s antidote to domination and oppression and narcissistic belligerence is much needed: peacemaking, strength in weakness, speaking truth to power, refusing to play by the rules of force and dehumanization.
Finally the church provides us with spiritual practices that refresh and strengthen us in hope and love. Working for God’s coming kingdom is hard. But the church offers regular practice is expressing gratitude, for instance—one of the best and simplest means of keeping joy and hope alive.
I belong to and support many good organizations that are making our world a better place. But it’s in and through Christ’s church that I am able to enact the recursive practices of praying and acting, caring for others and caring for myself, turning inward while extending myself outward, rooting my life in the ancient practices and stories while moving forward, in faith, to address today’s fresh challenges to justice and compassion. I honor and appreciate the Christian tradition I’ve received. But I also am encouraged to challenge it, revive it, reshape it in some ways because, as the UCC says, God is still speaking.
Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, said this week that refugees are not a biblical issue. Leviticus 19: 33-34 clearly says otherwise. But even less directly relevant scriptures undermine Graham’s claim that the Bible is silent on the topic of welcoming the stranger. Today’s scriptures points us to a God who surely calls us to care about the plight of Syrian and other refugees, to the Jesus who began his Sermon on the Mount by blessing the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the mournful and meek and merciful.
Jesus says God’s kingdom gives the privileged place to the vulnerable ones, the outsiders. If the “kingdom” we inhabit does not make a place for the outsiders, God’s realm can’t be constituted, and we can’t experience God’s full reign. The church of Jesus is needed at a time such as this to offer a way of living together in opposition to the path of power, privilege, disrespect, and violence.
Thy kingdom come, O God, on earth as it is in heaven.