a sermon on Matthew 5:1-16 and Micah 6:6-8
preached on August 14, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
With each passing day, I am increasingly convinced that we live in an incredibly self-centered world. We need look no further than the presidential election for strong evidence of this, as both candidates embody this difficult reality in our midst. One candidate has spent the last twenty-five years building her résumé for this office, her sights set on achieving for herself the same position that her husband once held, doing everything she can to preserve her chances of reaching her personal goal. The other candidate built a real estate empire centered around his own name, using every trick he can come up with to promote himself and his brand along the way, and now shifting that network to promote himself into the highest office in the land. There may be more behind the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump than simple self-centeredness. They may truly hope to make a difference in the lives of average people and uphold the values of our nation, but so much of their rhetoric and actions simply work to reinforce the cultural tendency that puts the focus solely on ourselves along the way.
The self-centered words and actions of our presidential candidates are very much reflective of the broader society. In a world filled with so many options, it is very easy for us to make choices that primarily benefit ourselves while hurting others. Our national image has become that of rugged individualists, people who manage to succeed solely on the basis of their own character and fortitude without any outside support. And even our vision of religion and spirituality has become deeply rooted in individual choices and personal relationships, with the primary focus being on what a life of faith can offer me, whether that be an inspiring word for the coming days or a promise of eternal life.
The fifth of the six Great Ends of the Church that we have been considering this summer suggests that this self-centeredness that is so prevalent in our world nowadays cannot define the church. This great end, “the promotion of social righteousness,” calls on the church to be about more than self-preservation and self-promotion—it insists that we look beyond ourselves and our own usual interests to work for the transformation of the whole world.
Our two texts this morning from the gospel according to Matthew and from the prophet Micah give us some pretty clear examples of the social righteousness that we are called to promote. First, in our reading from Matthew, we hear the opening of Jesus’ famed Sermon on the Mount with these words that set forth a strange set of blessings—and then call those who follow him to offer those blessings to others. The Beatitudes, as these blessings have become known, turn the expectations of the world upside down. Here blessing is offered not to those who enjoy the riches of the world but rather to those who are in greatest need. Here blessing is shown not by the amount that people have clearly received in this world and this life but rather in the promise of something deeper and greater in a time yet to come. Here blessing is given to the poor, the hungry, the quiet, the persecuted, the peacemakers—those who stand at odds with the expectations of the world—demonstrating God’s clear and constant preference for the poor and outcast.
Jesus’ promises here are outlandish in their proclamation of mercy, compassion, and grace—just the kind of message that I think our world needs to hear in these days. In a world of scarcity, where the rich keep getting richer and the poor are so often left to fend for themselves, the Beatitudes show us that the rich mercy of God ought to be our model too. In a world where tears are suppressed and some deaths from war and violence are viewed as justified, the Beatitudes show us that God’s compassion extends to all through our actions. And in a world where people cry for vengeance and insist that there be no grace for those who they disagree with, the Beatitudes insist that God’s grace prevails as a new way emerges for all of God’s creation. Ultimately, these are not words to be lived in the world to come—they are words that come to life now when we follow Jesus on the path of new life.
This way of mercy, compassion, and grace was not a new invention of Jesus. The prophets of Israel and Judah had cried out for something like this for centuries, demanding that the people repent of their self-centered ways and take up a new way that embodied care for all of God’s people. They suggested that the political division and exile of the people of Israel was deeply rooted in the people’s inability to care for the widows and orphans who lived among them and so to honor the God who had led them out of Egypt.
The words of the prophet Micah that we heard this morning put this challenge before them loud and clear. The prophet made it clear that God was not all that worried about the specific form, content, and place of worship. God was not concerned about receiving the right burnt offerings, witnessing large sacrifices that showed off the donor’s wealth and status, or even watching people give up the largest blessings of life and family. Instead, the prophet insisted that the most proper offering required by the Lord was simple: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”.
These words echo those of the prophet Amos that inspired the banner hanging here that embodies our call to promote social righteousness:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The church’s work of “the promotion of social righteousness” is rooted in the key concepts expressed in these scriptures, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” and to “let [our] light shine” in the darkness of our world.
The promotion of social righteousness begins in this work of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God along the way. When we stand up for God’s justice in the world, we embody the way of the Beatitudes in our lives as we live in mercy, compassion, and grace. We insist on the value and dignity of all people and especially those who have historically been dismissed in one way or another by the powers of our world. And we work to make room for the voices of peoples long silenced to be heard over the din of the privileged and powerful who so easily dominate the conversation.
Alongside our actions toward God’s justice, we are called to live with deep kindness toward all humanity, setting aside even our most reasonable anger to demonstrate the kind of new life that God offers through our words and actions.
And all these things culminate in a humble walk with God, stepping away from the self-centeredness of our world and pointing instead to the One who enables and empowers this way of life in our world.
Even when this call to the promotion of social righteousness is as clear as it is in scripture, it is easy for us to hold back from it. Maybe we think that this is not the right time to speak up for a new and different way of justice. Maybe we will be required to give up some part of the power and privilege we have enjoyed so that we can walk the pathway of kindness and humility. Maybe living in mercy, compassion, and grace will require us to give up some things that are dear to us or set aside assumptions that we have carried with us for far too long.
But Jesus insisted that the work we do is like a light that belongs on a lampstand, not under a bushel basket. We are called to “let our light shine before others,” to invite others to walk in this way of justice, mercy, and hope with us, so that God’s work might be clear and the world might be transformed. The great song “This Little Light of Mine” is rooted in these words of Jesus, and it has become a call for God’s people to live in ways that promote social righteousness each and every day.
In describing the use of this song during the Civil Rights Movement, historian Charles Payne describes one way that God’s people have promoted social righteousness and let their light shine:
A staple of Black church music, “This Little Light of Mine” is an appropriate symbol of the movement’s rootedness in the cultural traditions of the rural Black South. Depending on tempo and emphasis, it can carry a variety of meanings. In the small sanctified church in which I was raised, it was sung during collection, presumably signifying that whatever one had to give mattered to the Lord. In Mississippi particularly the song became an anthem of the movement and a special favorite of Fannie Lou Hamer’s. One activist wrote: “It was sung in churches, in freedom schools, on marches, on picket lines, at jails and in Parchman [prison] where hundreds of demonstrators were jailed. The song became a force.” The idea that everyone had some part of freedom’s light was close to the heart of the message that organizers both carried into the [Mississippi] Delta and found there. (I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, p. 5)
In today’s Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof recounts an incredible story of kindness and social righteousness that can inspire us as we let our light shine:
In Georgia, an India-born Muslim named Malik Waliyani bought a gas station and convenience store a few months ago and was horrified when it was recently burglarized and damaged. He struggled to keep it going.
But then the nearby Smoke Rise Baptist Church heard what had happened. “Let’s shower our neighbor with love,” Chris George, the pastor, told his congregation at the end of his sermon, and more than 200 members drove over to assist, mostly by making purchases. One man drove his car around until the gas tank was empty, so he could buy more gas.
“Our faith inspires us to build bridges, not to label people as us and them, but to recognize that we’re all part of the same family,” the pastor told me. “Our world is a stronger place when we choose to look past labels and embrace others with love.”
So may we, today and every day, join our voices and actions with the people of Smoke Rise Baptist Church, the faithful marchers and prisoners of the Civil Rights Movement, and countless other saints throughout the world to let our light shine into the world as we walk in justice, kindness, humility, and compassion in this world until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.