Sunday, January 30, 2005

Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A

Sometimes, the process matters more than the outcome. I was reminded of this recently when watching a West Wing rerun on television. Some of you may know that The West Wing is my favorite show, and one of the reasons I like it so much is because of the writing – its just loaded with great lines that speak to my regular everyday life, all wrapped up in the context of a fictional White House. Anyway, the episode I was watching takes place on election night. In the midst of the celebration though, there is a change of power in Venezuela. The country is on the edge of free elections, when one of the candidates stages a military coup and simply takes power, arresting his opponent and leaving three dozen people dead. Leo, the chief of staff, relates this information to his date for the evening and she responds, “Well, he is the one you wanted.” Leo tells her “The process matters more than the outcome… and that’s what we wanted.” It’s a striking parallel on this day of elections in Iraq, where we have high stakes in both outcome and process. Certainly, in times like these, the process matters.
How do I know process matters? Because Micah tells us in today’s lesson. Micah is faced with a society that had gotten caught up in its wealth.

Money and power became the answer to everything. Rather than spending quality time with one another, people spent money on quality stuff, and offered that as a substitute. When they hurt one another, they tried to make up the damage with really good presents – a kind of guilt offering - rather than working on repairing the relationship. Naturally, this became their response to God as well. As the people became aware of their failings in that relationship, they try to respond with their stuff: thousands of rams, rivers of oil. Now, we all know that we can’t build a close relationship with anyone simply by buying them expensive, pretty things: it doesn’t work with our children, it doesn’t work with our partners and spouses, and it doesn’t work with God. But doesn’t that temptation sound familiar? Its scary to think that what God wants more than anything is our hearts– when we are all too painfully aware of our failings and weaknesses, our hearts may seem like shoddy gifts. But sure enough, this is the ultimate answer to that nagging question: What do you get the God who already has everything? Simple, Micah tells us. Your hearts, your life, and your love.

Thankfully, I am not one of those people who is totally tired of Christmas carols by the end of the Christmas season. The reason I say “thankfully” is because I have had a Christmas song in my head all week as I’ve been thinking about Micah.
The song is “In the Bleak Midwinter” and the words of the last verse keep circling around in my head:

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb
If I were a wiseman, I would do my part
Yet what I can I give him, give my heart

The song may be out of season, but the sentiment clearly is not. Micah makes it clear, and Paul repeats the message: Our wealth, our good family line, our solid education – they just don’t man that much to God. What God wants is something that everyone can offer, regardless of their social status- their hearts.

Of course, this isn’t to say that offering our material stuff to God is a bad thing. Certainly, at the end of a stewardship campaign and on the eve of a capital campaign, I’m not going to stand up here and tell you not to give your money to the church! But this is why the process matters. Giving of our time, talents and treasure is a good thing, a wonderful thing - but there is simply no substitute for doing the work of relationship. The same is true for our worship. Beautiful worship can and does bring us closer to God. But making sure our words are poetic and our space is lovely is no substitute for making sure our relationship with God is just as lovely.

When our generosity or piety are simply attempts to circumvent the work of relationship – to bribe God into thinking we’re on track with our faith life – then we are already off track. First we give our hearts and build our relationship with God. Our treasure will follow close behind, and it will be given for the right reasons. The process matters.

How else do I know that process matters? Because in the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches us the same lesson we heard from Micah, hundreds of years earlier. He climbs a mountain with his disciples, and starts his great teaching by telling them, “Being in favor with God may not look like what you think. You are in favor with God when you have humility in spirit, when you love justice and seek after righteousness, and when you act with mercy.” Jesus is not impressed by prestige, or power, or money. He does not want our showy displays of learning or extravagant piety – He wants disciples. Disciples who will do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. When Jesus sits down with his disciples and begins to teach, he is not telling them about some other group of people – he is talking about them! And once again, the process matters. The Beatitudes are not just a how-to list, and they are not the “Seven Habits of People Effectively In God’s Favor.”

This list is not how we become disciples of Jesus – this list is what our lives will be like when we follow Jesus because disciples of Jesus are marked by one thing: Love. Who among us has not mourned over the loss of a loved one? Who among us has not looked at the injustice all around us in the world, and wished and prayed for something better? These are signs of our love, and Jesus calls us to love deeply and bravely. The kind of love that will drive us to make peace among our neighbors. The kind of love that causes us to seek righteousness in the world for all of God’s children. The kind of love for one another that means we will mourn deeply, not just at the loss of those close to us, but for all the victims of violence, disaster, poverty and war. There are so many days when it seems like what we have to offer will never be enough. The utter destruction from the tsunami is overwhelming, let alone the number of people in the world fighting hunger, HIV/AIDS, violence, addiction every day. If we are living life with our hearts and eyes open to the presence of God in the world, we will experience poverty of spirit in the face of such need, we will hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, we will mourn, we will see so many places in need of peacemaking. But by tuning in to God’s presence in the world, we also receive the promises of the Beatitudes.

When we mourn, we can be comforted by our belief in God’s abiding presence. When we walk with integrity and live in hope, we will see God at work in our hearts and all around us. In walking with Jesus, we find others on the same path who will share our work and celebrate the glimpses we get of God’s kingdom here on earth. It may not ever be enough to make the world a perfect place, these offerings of our individual lives. If we are willing to start with giving our hearts and our love – to try and be the people God made us to be – then the Beatitudes will be a hallmark of who we are, the world will be a more loving place, and the promises of Jesus will be ours as well.

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