Epiphany 4A Sermon (2014)

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


Children’s Sermon

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.

God says,
Do Justice
Love Kindness
Walk Humbly with God
Micah 6:8


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 self-centeredness.

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

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