Epiphany 4A Sermon (2011)

4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12;
Micah 6:6-8; 1 Cor. 1:18-31


(This text is part manuscript and part notes for extemporization; it was also accompanied by notes distributed to the congregation)

In reading this week for preparation I ran across an insightful commentator speaking on the third Beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” It’s insightful not only for the Beatitude itself but also for the motto I’ve been lifting up recently, “Down is the new up.” Instead of what’s considered the traditional emphasis on going up to heaven, people of faith today are noticing that the Bible’s emphasis is in the other direction, namely, God’s power of love and life coming down from heaven to earth. This commentator really picks up this theme of, “Down is the new up.” He writes of those blessed in this third Beatitude:

…they are the meek, who renounce all rights of their own for the sake of Jesus Christ. When they are berated, they are quiet. When violence is done to them, they endure it. When they are cast out, they yield. They do not sue for their rights; they do not make a scene when injustice is done them. They do not want rights of their own. They want to leave all justice to God…. What is right for their Lord should be right for them. Only that. In every word, in every gesture, it is revealed that they do not belong on this earth. Let them have heaven, the world says sympathetically, that is where they belong. But Jesus says, they will inherit the earth. The earth belongs to these who are without rights and power. Those who now possess the earth with violence and injustice will lose it, and those who renounced it here, who were meek unto the cross, will rule over the new earth. We should not think here of God’s punishing justice in this world (Calvin). Rather, when the realm of heaven will descend [Rev. 21], then the form of the earth will be renewed, and it will be the earth of the community of Jesus. God does not abandon the earth. God created it. God sent God’s Son to earth. God built a community on earth…. But Golgotha, too, is a piece of the earth. From Golgotha, where the meekest died, the earth will be made new. When the realm of God comes, then the meek will inherit the earth. (1)

What do you think? Any guesses about who wrote this? One of Pastor Paul’s favorite new Emerging Church authors? It was written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1936, as Hitler’s power was rising. I don’t agree with everything here. Bonhoeffer had learned of a contemporary, Mohatma Gandhi, who was leading the people of India in a “meek” revolution in the sense of nonviolent and humble, but not in the sense of “leaving all injustice to God.” Gandhi very much claimed the Sermon on the Mount in his nonviolent resistance to human injustice. But I find it amazing that Bonhoeffer was so ahead of his time in ringing out a “heaven on earth” theme. He knew that Hitler’s politics were evil, and so he proclaimed the politics of the kingdom of heaven to stand against them.

What about our politics today? I’m not implying that our American politics are evil in the same ways as Nazi Germany, but neither are they yet the politics of the kingdom of heaven, which is why we continue to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

Motto of earthly kingdoms (from Obama’s State of the Union, quoting Robert Kennedy):

“The future is not a gift; it is an achievement.”

True for both current parties, right? Each party holds out a different path to the same goal: enabling personal achievement.
But is this motto true? The word “grace” can substitute for “gift,” and we get:

“The future is not grace; it is an achievement.”

As Christians of the Lutheran tradition, who emphasize grace, do we agree with this? It may be the motto of earthly kingdoms, but is it the motto of the kingdom of heaven? I don’t think so.

It is also crucial to notice that in the old “up” tradition, we can have our cake and eat it, too. We can say that the eternal future of going to heaven when we die is a gift, it’s grace, but in the meantime here on earth the future is an achievement. We separate the futures for heaven and earth, so that we can continue to live the ‘gospel’ of achievement here on earth?

But what about if “down is the new up”? What if the earth itself and all life on it is of supreme importance to God, so much so that this whole creation is what God sent Jesus to save? The future is not about going up to heaven; it is about heaven coming down to earth. And it is a gift.

Let’s undertake an exercise of seeing life as grace, gift: On any given day, as you place the family meal on the table, how many people were involved in bringing that meal to you? Farmers/ranchers, food processors/packagers, markets, transportation at every step. What about the infrastructure? Gas for your stove, electricity for your microwave, running water and sewage for disposal, trash removal — not to mention the table itself and the house around you, keeping you safe and climate-controlled. Now, go back along each step: what about the farmer’s seed, fertilizer, equipment, help harvesting? Any immigrants involved along the way? Finally, what about Creation and life itself? Who made the earth to bear such bounty, the rain to fall, the sun to shine? Can we say that the future is an achievement and not grace? Yes, all these people involved is an achievement, but not a personal achievement. It is an achievement we make together by God’s grace. When we have but a small role in the massive joint achievement of everyday survival — the survival of God’s whole family on this earth — then we sense that achievement as grace.

It’s also important to see, then, that I’m not simply pitting grace and achievement against each other as mutually exclusive. I think that’s one of the mistakes of the Reformation. We elevated grace so much that we could no longer talk meaningfully about achievement. The future is both grace and achievement. It’s not simply a matter of turning the human motto around. “The future is not a gift; it’s an achievement” doesn’t become, “The future is a gift, not an achievement.” What has happened because of modern individualism is that we mess ourselves up when we think in terms of personal achievement. The future is a gift because it’s not a personal achievement. Rather, it’s designed by God our Creator to be a joint, family achievement with all God’s children working together.

And so in the kingdom of heaven, it is no achievement at all if anyone is left out of the bounty, or someone gets way more of their fair share. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ State of Creation address. We are called to be light to the world, bearers of the motto of the kingdom of heaven:

The future is a complete and utter gift of interdependence upon God and one another; there is no common achievement in working together as long as anyone is left out.

One final word of blessing from the place and time when God began this whole business of saving Creation: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.'” (Gen. 12:1-3) What if our Presidents, instead of ending their speeches with “God bless America,” ended with “God bless all the families of the earth”?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, January 30, 2011


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship [Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4; Fortress Press, 2001], pp. 105-106.

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