Micah 6: 6-8 Matthew 5: 5-12
Challenging our Cultural Norms
You know, I’ve got to admit that I’m a Preacher at heart, but a bit “rusty” in practice. So, when Kathy called to invite me to fill in this Sunday, I responded with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it’s been a while and I don’t know if I’m still up to it. On the other, this morning’s scripture lessons are pretty compelling. The danger, of course, is that when a “retired” preacher has a rare opportunity to take the pulpit again, it’s like I want to say everything that’s been on my mind for quite some time and how on earth to I place some boundaries on it and get to the point!
So, here we go. Our readings today, coincidentally (or not!), were at the core of my ordination in East Hartford, CT over 40 years ago. I felt a strong call to a ministry of compassion and social justice and helping to build God’s vision of a new world for God’s whole Creation. And, I believe that today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus’ famous teaching of the Beatitudes, is at the core of what God has in mind for our world. However, in order to get to that core message, I think we have to move beyond Jesus’ words, to God’s Word that lies underneath.
“What are you talking about?” you might say. Whatever Jesus had to say was the Word of God, was it not? To which I would respond, yes and no. Let’s take a look at that phrase, “the Word,” or “God’s Word.” At the very beginning of our Bible, the book of Genesis starts off with the story of the Creation, and that story portrays how God speaks (or utters God’s Word), and worlds were created.
In the beginning God created[a] the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit[b] of God was moving over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
It was not so much the “words” that God said, but the creative force and energy within those words that gave rise to life and all Creation. For knowing, recalling, quoting the exact words in the Bible is not nearly as important as apprehending their inner meaning, that of God’s Word.
The Gospel of John mirrors the Creation story within the context human life, where John proclaims the coming of Christ and talks about that Word becoming flesh and dwelling in our midst.
In the beginning was the one
who is called the Word.
The Word was with God
and was truly God.
From the very beginning
the Word was with God.
And with this Word,
God created all things.
Nothing was made
without the Word. . .
The Word became
a human being
and lived here with us. (CEV)
So, when we read the Bible, though we must begin by reading the words and understanding the context of those words, we must also always ask, “What is the Word of God in the midst of those words?” What is the life giving principle, or message, for my life and our world today? In fact, understanding the difference between the essence of God’s Word and the words of the Bible remind me of the thoughts of a favorite contemporary theologian of mine by the name of Frederick Buechner. In his book, Wishful Thinking, a Theological ABC, in which Buechner reflects on a variety of theological terms, he offers the following provocative definition of a “Christian,” which I love:
“Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are all wrong.
Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day.
Some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy [or Gal].
Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father/Mother, but by me” (John 14:6). He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to God.” He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied; that was his way.
Thus, it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.
A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.”
From Buechner’s definition, I would say that a Christian is someone who is inspired by the Word of God and tries to live out her or his own life in the Way of justice, compassion, and humility (as Micah proclaimed). And so we come back to this morning’s Gospel lesson and ask, then what is God’s Word for today that is wrapped up in Jesus’ words, when he said to his disciples?
Blessed are the poor
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are the pure in heart
Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake
Do you think that when he offered those blessings or affirmations he was setting forth a paradigm for success in his world? Do you think that his words reflect the cultural norms that were striven for in his society? The reality of Jesus’ context was that he came into the midst of a culture where power was revered. A mighty empire ruled the world at that time (it might even have been called the SuperPower of its day), and that empire demanded the unquestioning allegiance of all its subjects (“love it or leave it,” if you will). The religious institutions of the day were there to set forth laws and rituals to be observed. Commerce served the interests of the wealthy and those in power. Those at the bottom of the social and economic ladder were regarded as a means to an end for those at the top.
No, the words that Jesus spoke were meant not to uphold the dominant cultural values or norms, but to challenge them. The words that Jesus spoke conveyed God’s Word that was meant to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” to challenge conventional ways of thinking, to turn upside down society’s definitions of success. And Jesus challenges us today to look at and question the cultural norms that so strongly influence our own allegiances and behavior.
So, I’d like for us to consider together today just a few examples of the cultural norms that are so pervasive in our society that we don’t even think about them. Let’s begin with a commercial seen so often on TV touting AT&T’s cell phone service. The ad opens with an affable young man sitting in a kindergarten classroom and talking with several incredibly cute kids, and he asks a different, but equally obvious question in each segment: “What’s better, more or less? Bigger or smaller? Faster or slower?” The answer, of course, is so simple and obvious that even the youngest children in our society instantly “get it!” “More!” they shout out enthusiastically. “Bigger!” “Faster!” Of course, everyone knows that. But is that the answer Jesus would provide to address the complex social, economic, and environmental issues facing our planet today? Is more, and bigger, and faster in the long term best interests of our planet? Just how might God’s life-giving Word inform that answer?
Then, of course, this afternoon is a high holy day here in the United States, and in many places around the globe. It is Super Bowl Sunday, a time for football fans (and I am one of them, I must confess) and lovers of clever ads and folks looking to get together with friends everywhere look forward to. It would seem to be a relatively harmless form of athletic competition until we look behind all the glitter and promotion to consider a few implications of this all-American holi-day. Did you know that the average price of a ticket for the big game is $4,084, while the average weekly wage in the U.S. is $831? Or that during the 2013 Super Bowl, people consumed 1.25 billion chicken wings, 15,000 tons of chips, and 27 million slices of pizza, while during 2013, 47 million Americans depended on food stamps? Or that for last year’s Super Bowl, 3.9 million people bought new furniture for their Super Bowl parties, while in 2013 more than 3.5 million people in the U.S. experienced homelessness? What does this say about our cultural norms today and what would Jesus have to say about them?
The third cultural norm that I’d like to explore with you this morning is the way that we tend to view the future based on what we’ve supposedly experienced in the past. How tempting it is (particularly as we get older) to think about and talk about “the good old days,” and want to see our future recapturing some of those nostalgic (though perhaps jaded) memories. In last Sunday’s Duluth News Tribune, there was a Letter to the Editor entitled, “PolyMet can bring back the good old days.” In his letter the author wrote:
I attended the public informational meeting on PolyMet at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (“PolyMet public hearing packs the DECC,” Jan. 17), and I couldn’t help but reminisce on growing up in Gary-New Duluth and my time spent at Morgan Park High School. Back then we lived near the U.S. Steel plant and Atlas Cement. These plants allowed for a time of great prosperity for those areas. Times were good because friends and relatives were working and the businesses were booming. Nowadays, those jobs are gone, along with many of the businesses we relied upon and enjoyed. Even today, many of our young people continue to leave for more prosperous areas and our neighborhoods aren’t what they once were.
Life changes. Neighborhoods, indeed, aren’t what they once were. Our church isn’t what it once was. Our relationships don’t remain what they once were. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “Nothing in life is constant, but change.” Our planet is changing at exponential rates, whether we consider global population, our fragile and limited environmental resources, or the increasingly inequitable distribution of wealth in our society and in our world.
We cannot continue with business as usual. We need to open our eyes, to envision our world as God sees it. We must open our ears, to listen for the call of God’s living Word to inspire us. We must open our minds to understand what God intends for us and our world in the future. And we must open our hearts, as we reach out to one another to share God’s all-encompassing love. For, as the Apostle Paul wrote: “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans: 12) Let us listen for God’s Word, no matter who speaks it, that we might challenge those cultural norms we take for granted, and together we might partake in creating God’s vision of love, justice, and peace for our world today. May it be so!