If you tried to plan a day to contrast two extremes of power, I don’t think you could come up with anything better than what we’ve got today. In just a couple of hours, there will be four – count ‘em – four football teams that will begin either their final leg on their Super Bowl journey or their last stop. Even if you’re not a fan, with the 49ers in the mix, the games are hard to ignore. There’s going to be a lot of weight being thrown around – both on the field and off. Big displays of power happening on the field, with the biggest players, the offensive tackles, weighing in at an average of 314 pounds. There’s big-time power brokering happening off the field as well, with advertisers lining up their millions of dollars for Super Bowl ads.
Then we have Jesus. The contrast is stark. As Matthew Skinner commented in Enjoy the Super Bowl; Be Suspicious of Its Values: “Careful, Jesus, or you’ll get blamed for contributing to the wussification of America.” I mean, how can a nice Jewish boy compete with the likes of Nick Bosa and Trent Williams?
First of all, the playbook Jesus is using is the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, and he’s paying special attention to the prophets – offensive linemen like Isaiah when he stands up in the Temple and announces his mission in life: “to bring Good News to the poor, proclaim liberty to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and release to those in prison.”
He would also have known very well the passage from Micah we just heard: “you know very well what’s required of you: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
On any other Sunday, we might nod our heads and think, “Oh yes. Beautiful. That is how the world should be.” But today, as we watch the spectacle of 300-pound titans crashing into one another and then we put that image up alongside Jesus; it makes a very bizarre picture.
And then, to add to the incongruity, we get part of his most famous sermon – we call them the Beatitudes – in which he identifies those who are blessed, namely the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted – none of whom what we would describe as powerful people. And then Paul gets into the act too, with what even he admits sounds like the absurdity of the message of the cross: that God’s weakness is more powerful than human strength. Again – in the context of what today is all about, it sounds even more ridiculous.
Now, I’m not knocking football, although I do have serious reservations about the physical dangers of the game, like severe head trauma and brain injury. But that’s a subject for another day. What I appreciate about the juxtaposition of the Beatitudes with today’s big games is the way that it throws into very sharp relief the values of Jesus – the values that Jesus not only embodied but calls us to embody as well.
But appreciation doesn’t make it easy. It may be a big football day, but it’s also the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany. We’ve moved from the sweetness of the birth and baptism of Jesus to the Sermon on the Mount, where the revelation of what means to follow Jesus is taking shape. And it’s beginning to look like a mighty big challenge. It’s not a game and it’s not a spectator sport. The revelation of what it means to live in the realm of God has radical implications. One of the hardest is to reject conventional ways of power and control. After Jesus’ death, Paul radicalizes it even more by appealing to the wisdom, power, and strength of the cross. Clearly a life of Christian disciple is a stark contrast to what usually passes for wisdom, power, and strength.
This isn’t new to any of us. We’ve heard the Beatitudes many, many times. But there’s a danger in these beautiful, familiar verses, a trap we could fall into if we’re not careful: that is believing Jesus is setting up the conditions of blessing, rather than actually blessing us. In other words, I might hear Jesus stating the terms under which I can be blessed. So when I hear “Blessed are the pure in spirit,” I might think, “Am I pure enough in spirit?” or “I should try to be more pure in spirit.” Or, when I hear “blessed are the peacemakers,” I think, ” I really should be more committed to making peace.” And, of course, in so doing, I fail to see the point.
Maybe events in our recent news cycle can help us see more clearly what Jesus was trying to convey. The horrific mass shooting of workers at two mushroom farms right here in San Mateo County last week brought once again to our attention the issue of gun violence. But in the wake of this deadly shooting, what came to light was the conditions in which all the farmworkers were living, conditions the San Mateo County district attorney described as “squalor.” Representatives of local nonprofits said that they regularly took food and supplies to the farms to help workers and their families, who are struggling because of the high cost of living and the low income they make.
In our comfortable lives, in an affluent area, we often forget about our neighbors who do not enjoy the same standard of living. While advocacy organizations have said that these conditions are standard across the state and across the whole industry itself, it’s often when a tragedy strikes close to home that we pay particular attention.
I was eating a slice of mushroom pizza yesterday and suddenly wondered where those mushrooms had been grown, who had grown them, what were their lives like, did they themselves have enough to eat, enough to bring security to their families.
And when I re-read the Beatitudes, especially the blessings of the poor in spirit (Luke’s version says simply ‘the poor’ and those who hunger and thirst for justice (Luke’s version says ‘those who are hungry,’ I couldn’t help thinking of these lowly mushroom farmworkers – these blessed ones. Not blessed in power or status or wealth, but in stature in the eyes of God – as Jesus well knew and wanted us to know, too. And in knowing, caring. And in caring, looking for ways to, as best we are able and in whatever ways we can, bring close the kingdom of heaven to those so loved by God.
This isn’t to say that we care only for those closest to home. It’s just that oftentimes the revelation of a need in our own backyard stirs us to compassion and action. But as I was working on announcements for today and saw again our Christmas/ Epiphany appeal for Women for Afghan Women, I recognized our interconnection with all the blessed ones – both local and global. The Beatitudes cause us to take the blinders off our eyes to see them – much the way the prophets of Israel cause us to do.
It’s been said that the prophets were about two things: criticizing and energizing. They disturbed the status quo. They made people question the usual order of things, see the normal state of affairs in a different light. They afflicted the comfortable and the complacent.
But they also comforted the afflicted and energized the people of God. They weren’t just negative naysayers; they offered positive affirmation, and encouragement. Their intention was to generate hope in a new future. They advocated for a new way of living – in every dimension of human life: personal, social, spiritual, economic, and political.
Micah was such a prophet. When you read the entire book, you hear his words of disaster and destruction. But then he turns and energizes God’s people with words of hope, and he gives us one of the most memorable passages in the Bible: “What does God require of you? Simply this: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
How do these words land with us as we read about the farmworkers of Half Moon Bay?
Jesus continues in the prophetic tradition, bringing both challenge and comfort. His Beatitudes turn the values of the world upside down. Wealth, position, fame – not bad in and of themselves. Successful football players have earned them, but we remember, too, the dangers of the sport.
Even power isn’t necessarily an evil thing. But as it is said, “Power corrupts.” The temptation to abuse power is always present. The terrible news of the beating death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, a black man killed by five black police officers, is an example of the ubiquitous nature of the temptation to abuse power.
How do Jesus’ words land with us as we read about the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis and about the farm workers in Half Moon Bay?
How do we align our values with those prophesied by Micah and taught by Jesus?
Today, according to Jesus, the workers in the smelly compost of a mushroom farm are first in the kingdom of heaven. What does that mean as we think about doing justice, loving our neighbor?
Later on, during the announcements, I’ll share a message from Pastor Sue Holland at Coastline Lutheran Church in Half Moon Bay about ways to help the farmworkers. We can decide how the words of Micah and Jesus land with us – as individuals and families and as a congregation.
I don’t think I’ll ever eat a mushroom pizza in ignorance again. For – as Jesus said, “Blessed are the farm workers of Half Moon Bay. The kingdom of heaven is theirs.” Amen.
FIRST READING Micah 6:1-8 In spite of all that God had done for Israel in the past and all their sacred rituals, the prophet is declaring, they had really missed the essence of what it means to be religious. Totally rejecting their sacrifices as worthless, he declares the simple truth: God requires only justice, kindness and humility. It is written . . .
Hear now what YHWH says: “Come, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice! Listen to my indictment, you mountains and you enduring foundations of the earth; for I have a dispute with the people and I am putting Israel on trial. O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Give me an answer! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent Moses to lead you, and Aaron, and Miriam! My people, call to mind the plans devised by the ruler Balak of Moab, and how Balaam ben-Beor answered him! Remember the journey from Shittim to Gilgal and recall how I brought you justice”
“What shall I bring when I come before YHWH and bow down before God on high?” you ask. “Am I to come before God with burnt offerings? With a year-old calf? Will YHWH be placated by thousands of rams or ten thousands of rivers of oil? Should I offer my firstborn for my wrongdoings – the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? Listen here, mortal: I have already made abundantly clear what ‘good’ is, and what I require of you: simply do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
SECOND READING 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 According to the world’s standards of power and might, the message of the cross seems stupid and offensive. Yet it reveals the paradoxical way that God works power and salvation through weakness, rejection, and suffering. Hence the message of the cross becomes true wisdom and power for believers. It is written . . .
For the message of the cross is complete absurdity to those who are headed for ruin, but to us who are experiencing salvation, it is the power of God. Scripture says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and thwart the learning of the learned.” Where are the wise? Where are the scholars? Where are the philosophers of this age? Has not God turned the wisdom of this world into folly? If it was God’s wisdom that the world in its wisdom would not know God, it was because God wanted to save those who have faith through the foolishness of the message we preach.
For while the Jews call for miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here we are preaching a Messiah nailed to a cross. To the Jews this is an obstacle they cannot get over, and to the Greeks it is madness – but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, Christ is the power and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
My friends, consider your calling. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential, and surely not many were well-born. But God chose those whom the world considers foolish to shame the wise, and singled out the weak of this world to shame the strong. The world’s lowborn and despised, those who count for nothing, were chosen by God to reduce to nothing those who were something. In this way no one should boast before God. God has given you life in Christ Jesus and has made Jesus our wisdom, our justice, our sanctification and our redemption. This is just as it is written, ”Let the one who would boast, boast in God.”