4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12;
Micah 6:6-8; 1 Cor. 1:18-31
BLESS THE LEAST, DESIRE COMPASSION, AND
LET GOD LEAD
I'm going to teach you a Bible verse today. It's an important one
in our family. We have it painted on our living room wall. We were
praying this Bible verse and had it very much in mind when we
adopted our sons from Liberia, Africa. Let's learn it.
Walk Humbly with God
What day is today? [Get folks to shout out, "Super Bowl Sunday"]
Oh, the Super Bowl is today? I was going to say, "Groundhog Day."
Some of you might remember that the comedy Groundhog Day,
with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, is one of my favorite
movies. I like to watch it on Groundhog Day, so I might have to
squeeze it in before or after the big game. We own the DVD, but
it's usually on TV today, too, on some cable channel. It's on Nick
Jr. later tonight. If you've never seen it, I highly recommend it
-- though keep in mind it's PG-13.
I don't have Super Bowl commercials today, somewhat of a tradition.
Maybe next year again. But I thought I'd keep things a bit lighter
by using the story of Groundhog Day to elaborate on Micah
6:8. [At 8:00, go over verse here.]
Let me begin with an overview of the story. Bill Murray plays Phil
Connors, a self-centered, not-very-likable local TV weather man in
Pittsburgh; and Andie MacDowell plays Rita, his kind and considerate
producer, who doesn't care much for her weather man's
On the evening of February 1, Phil, Rita, and a camera man travel to
nearby Punxsutawney, Pa., for a date with that famed
weather-prognosticator, Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog. As Bill
Murray's character Phil gets up at 6 am on February 2 to be there
for Groundhog's Day, he has no idea that a strange adventure is
about to begin for him. He goes through the motions of taping the
news story, and then finds himself stuck in Punxsutawney because of
a blizzard, and stays another unexpected night. When the alarm clock
goes off the next morning at 6am, it's not the next day, February 3.
No, it's February 2, Groundhog Day, again; and he discovers that all
the events of the day happen exactly the same as the day before,
except for him. The only variable is him. In fact, he
finds himself trapped in a loop to seemingly live this one day over
and over and over again. He is the only person who remembers that he
is living the day again. At one point he is so despairing that he
kills himself numerous times -- only to find that he still wakes up
again at 6am on Groundhog's Day.
After a while of repeating this day, Phil figures he can use his
knowledge of this day to manipulate things. For example, he figures
out that, since he alone remembers every detail as they repeat this
one day over and over, he can slowly find out exactly what
to say to Rita to have a successful conversation with her. We see
repeated conversations between the two of them in which he finds out
her likes and dislikes from day to next repeat of the day and puts
them to use in the conversation on the next repeat. His goal is to
seduce her. There is a funny sequence of scenes at the end of many
repeated days where it concludes with her slapping him in the face
to halt his advances.
Things finally change when he gives up his attempts to win her over.
Instead, he has come to care for Rita in a way that he relaxes into
being more like her. He begins to dedicate his days to being a
better person. Slowly but surely, his life becomes one of doing
justice and loving kindness. And he goes from being an arrogant,
pompous fool to being a humble servant who the folks in town come to
admire, even on only one day's experience of him.
Before I share some other scenes from the movie, let's go back to
Micah 6:8 for a minute, and break it down with some other words. I'd
like to suggest this version as one to deepen our understanding of
the familiar version. "God says, bless the Least, desire compassion,
and let God lead." First, "Bless the Least" as a way to understand
"do justice." For ordinary human justice, the order which shapes
human community, things are most often slanted to those who are Most
in the community: most wealthy, most powerful, most prestigious,
most respected. The order of things revolves around serving them.
God's justice that we are called to do seems to flip that
upside-down. God calls us to order ourselves around blessing the
Least among us. This was the focus of Jesus' ministry, Good News to
the poor and left out. Each Gospel writer has a way of emphasizing
it -- perhaps Matthew most of all. Jesus ends his teaching with the
parable of sheep and goats, where Jesus tells the sheep that they
fed him, clothed him, sheltered him, visited him in prison. They are
surprised and ask when this happened. Jesus replies, "Truly,
whenever you did these things to the least of my family, you did
them to me." And the beginning of Jesus' teaching in Matthew's
Gospel? We read it this morning: "Blessed are the poor in spirit,
the mourning, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, those
persecuted for their faith in God's justice." Doing God's Justice of
blessing the Least can sometimes get you persecuted in a world that
caters to the rich and powerful.
In Groundhog Day, when Phil makes his turn to doing
justice, the first person he reaches out to is a hungry, homeless
old man. He begins to not just give him money for food but also goes
to eat with him and spends time with him. Phil's doing justice
begins with blessing the Least.
Next, a few words about "Desire compassion" as a way to understand
"Love kindness." I use the word desire because it is so basic to our
motivation for doing anything in life. Today's celebration of TV
commercials is a sign of how consumerism has come to dominate our
desiring. We desire the things that the rich and powerful can
obtain. God in Jesus Christ comes to teach us how to desire
compassion, to desire the well-being of others. When we learn to
desire compassion, to love kindness, we become a stronger, more
powerful nation. Because each community is only as strong as the
weakest among us. So God's way of blessing the Least and learning to
desire compassion is actually a recipe for becoming not only
stronger people but also stronger communities.
In Groundhog Day, when Phil makes his turn-around, he
tells Rita, as she is falling asleep, "I think you're the kindest,
sweetest, prettiest person I've ever met in my life. I've never seen
anyone who is nicer to people than you are.... I don't deserve
someone like you. But if I ever could, I swear I would love you for
the rest of my life." And he goes on to dedicate his life to helping
people all over town. He learns of their needs and become the
Johnny-on-the-spot. He feeds that old man, saves a young boy falling
out of a tree, changes the tire of stranded older women, and rescues
the mayor choking on his meat in a restaurant. He spends a near
lifetime of days in that one day, learning to be as kind and as
considerate a person as Rita. Loving her kindness he learns to
desire compassion for others.
Finally, a minute on "let God lead" as a way to understand "walk
humbly with God." Phil Connor becomes a much humbler man in Groundhog
Day. But perhaps the most important change for him is letting
go of trying to control everything to letting the day come more to
him, receiving it as a gift, and letting the events of the day shape
what he does. Brothers and sisters, this is the perhaps the most
important thing for us, too, as Christians. It is so important to
begin each day in prayer and Bible reading, learning to listen to
God. What events will God bring our way each day for which we might
respond with looking to bless the Least that cross our paths and
learning to desire compassion above all else. This simply cannot be
done -- we cannot let God lead us -- without spending time listening
to God in prayer and Bible study.
So as we begin implementing our Strategic Plan this year, let us
continue to grow in our ability to listen to God.
"God says, bless the Least, desire compassion, and let God lead."
Brothers and sisters, in our family life, at work, as citizens, let
us prayerfully consider how God can lead us into blessing the Least
by learning to desire compassion. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 2, 2014