What Does the Lord Require?
Matthew 5:1-12; Micah 6:1-8
Good morning. Happy Candlemas. Candlemas? You don’t know about Candlemas, the Holy Day that celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. You’re not familiar with this? I think the Roman Catholic Church still celebrates Candlemas, but I guess most of us think of today as Groundhog Day.
I thought about having John play the intro to the song “I Got You, Babe,” and then repeating everything I said in the previous paragraph, but I wasn’t sure how many of you would catch the reference to the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day. In that movie, Murray’s character lives the same day, over and over again, until he gets something right. It’s a really funny movie.
Anyhow, this morning’s reading from the prophet Micah is one of my very favorite scriptures. It reminds me of how we are called to live our faith. It also reminds me of one of my very favorite movies, The Godfather. Every time I read the words of Verse 3, when God says to Israel:
3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!”
Every time I read that, I hear Marlon Brando saying, “Bonasera, Bonasera, what have I done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”
I love movies almost as much as I love music, and The Godfather is one of those movies that is nearly perfect in every way. My fraternity brothers and I must have watched The Godfather a hundred times when we were in college. We may or may not have missed a few classes because we didn’t want to tear ourselves away from this masterpiece. How many of you have seen The Godfather?
The opening scene is about six minutes long. In that scene, a funeral director named Bonasera comes to the home of Don Corleone, a mafia boss. Bonasera asks Don Corleone to kill two men who attacked Bonasera’s daughter and hurt her very badly. He offers to pay Don Corleone for this service—Bonasera calls it justice. Bonasera is very nervous. He has trouble explaining the situation. We don’t even see Don Corleone until halfway through the scene, but we know he’s in charge the whole time; he’s the Godfather.
For those of you who don’t know the story, Corleone refuses the request. He tells Bonasera that what he is asking for is not justice—his daughter is still alive. Then he rebukes Bonasera for not coming to him in friendship. Corleone points out that his own wife stood as Godmother to Bonasera’s daughter. But Bonasera didn’t want Don Corleone’s friendship, because he was afraid that he, Bonasera, would get into trouble if he offered his hand in friendship to a criminal such as Don Corleone. At the end of the scene, Bonasera asks for Don Corleone’s friendship and calls him Godfather. Corleone accepts the request, extending his hand in friendship. And then in a final act of contrition, Bonasera kisses Don Corleone’s hand. Don Corleone offers his version of justice, but only after Bonasera has entered into right relationship with the Godfather.
Now I don’t mean to make this a sermon about The Godfather. But I have to tell you, the tone of this scene is exactly like this passage from the prophet Micah. In this text, God is contending with God’s chosen people, Israel. Some scholars call this a covenant lawsuit. That is, God indicts Israel for its faithlessness. The people are not living into the covenant; they’re not upholding their end of the bargain. And just in case they’ve forgotten the covenant, God reminds them that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and later raised up leaders such as Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
When the people hear this charge, they ask what they can do to make the charges go away. They ask how much it will cost them, like Bonasera asking Don Corleone how much it will cost to get vengeance. The people ask God:
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
The people want to know how much money they have to put in the collection plate to get back in God’s good graces.
But God isn’t having any of that! God doesn’t want money or offerings. God wants faithfulness! God wants righteousness! God wants us to live into the covenant, into a right relationship with God.
How do we do this?
What does the Lord require of us?
God tells Israel that they already know the answer. And we already know the answer, too. God requires us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. That’s what righteousness looks like. We don’t make amends by offering thousands of rams and tens of thousands of rivers of oil. No. We must repent! We must return to faithful living according to God’s covenants.
Simply following the rules isn’t enough. We must be faithful to the spirit of the Law. We must remember that each one of us was created in God’s image, that each of us was created in God’s love, and that God sets us free from slavery—as God set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt and as Christ sets us free from slavery to sin and death.
The true sacrifices that the Lord requires are not rams or olive oil. God asks that we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. These notions of justice, mercy, and humility are the guiding principles for all of the Law. We should always be aware of God’s call to justice, mercy, and humility as we interpret Scripture and how we are called to act in the world.
God commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Jesus affirms this as one of the two greatest commandments. To love our neighbors—to live into that covenant—we must do justice and love mercy. But we don’t always do this. When we focus on the rules, we see sinners all around us. We see our own righteousness and we grow proud. We fail to practice humility.
We see unrighteousness in everyone else. We label our neighbors: we call them addicts, we call them lazy, we believe they are undeserving of our love. The labels we use give us an excuse to avoid engagement. We fail to live into the covenant and we fail to hear the call to discipleship. And the process repeats itself, over and over again, like the movie Groundhog Day. So how do we break out of this rut?
As always, Jesus shows us the way forward. This morning’s gospel lesson is the opening to the Sermon on the Mount—the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. For Matthew, “Jesus is the teacher of all righteousness.” So Jesus begins his public ministry by teaching his disciples. This highlights the importance of teaching; this means “being a disciple is to be the consummate student, a learner.” If we wish to be disciples, then first and foremost, we must be students. This is part of how we remain in the covenant with God.
Both of our lessons today are about righteousness. We can’t learn from Jesus or follow Jesus if we are not humble. And Jesus certainly calls us to acts of justice and mercy. But humility doesn’t come naturally for many of us. We are proud, and in our pride, we are likely to substitute our own judgment for God’s justice.
So how do we get past our own pride and live into Christ’s call to discipleship? Like the disciples, we listen to and study the Word of God. We study the scriptures that we like, as well as the ones that make us uncomfortable, like the calls to social justice in the Old Testament, or the calls to social justice that Jesus gives us in the New Testament.
Of course, we can all do this on our own, but it’s even better when we study the Word together. So, come to adult Sunday school. Come to Koinonia on Wednesdays. Or, if you can’t make those studies, let me know, and we’ll find another day and time for a new Bible study. In these groups, we can study our own lives of faith as we strive to be disciples.
The work of discipleship is difficult and Jesus knows it, so he reminds us of the costs of discipleship:
· You won’t get rich.
· You will mourn.
· You must be meek—that is, humble.
· You must hunger and thirst for righteousness.
· You must be merciful.
· You must be pure in heart. You can’t have any other motives when you do this work; you can’t do this for your own reasons.
This is why we have to come together to do this work; it’s too difficult to do it on our own. Following Christ’s call is an act of covenant faithfulness. Let us seek new and creative ways to be faithful. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. We are called to participate in His saving work. We are called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3155
 Karoline Lewis.