Epiphany 4A (January 29, 2017)

“With what shall I come before the Lord?” The great Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel considered this question from Micah to be “the most urgent question of religious existence: What is the way of true worship?” That resonates with me. I cannot prove the existence of God. I know God is real. It is a matter of “what now?” How am I to worship God, experience God, listen to God? I was a senior in college in the capstone Seminar in Theology—with a bunch of Religion majors and fellow Philosophy majors—and I don’t remember which book we were discussing, but a classmate lamented that people these days do not want to have some sort of mystical union with the divine, to be at one with God and have no distinction between themselves and others. And I said, “I do.” And of course everyone laughed, because that totally could’ve been a joke from me. So I started to explain my answer and the rest of the class stared at me like, “What? Tim wants that?” And the thing is, I know I’m odd, okay—I’m different—but I can’t be the only person who seeks spiritual communion with the divine. Micah’s question is a question I ask. With what shall I come before the Lord?

It’s a tricky question because of course I cannot make myself righteous or holy. Though maybe that isn’t a given. I heard last week that a random poll of ELCA members revealed that 50% of responders said “good works” were how you got into heaven. We are determined to get it all backwards. We tell ourselves that we can just work hard, do good things, and Jesus will take up our slack and it’ll all be cool. Since we start with ourselves, that makes us the ones who decide what is good and evil. And we always pick whatever we like as good, and we always pick the things we don’t like as evil. This is all backwards. We don’t work to impress God and then let Christ cover any shortfall. Christ does everything for us so that we can do Christ’s work.

That is what Paul is going on about in 1 Corinthians, today. Paul quotes Isaiah 29, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Now, Paul attacks “wisdom,” not intelligence, scientific inquiry as we know it, or being well-educated. I mention this because long before we had heard of “alternative facts” the Church was full of people claiming learning was a waste of time, and pointing to texts like this as proof. (I went to seminary with some of them.) But Paul attacks conventional wisdom. “Wisdom” in Paul’s world is not a piece of knowledge but an attitude toward life. The Corinthians think they’ve got the world figured out: their culture has its notions of right and wrong, good and bad, and they know these things. Everybody knows these things. They’re conventional wisdom. In Christ, conventional wisdom has been crucified.

The crucified Christ forever challenges what we think we know. For Paul and his fellow Jews, Christ crucified is a “stumbling block” because it is a contradiction: “Messiah” and “dead guy hanging from tree” cannot be the same guy. For Greeks, Christ crucified is “foolishness” because it does not fit into any halfway decent scheme wherein we can climb to heaven. Everyone is left dumbfounded that God would be some Palestinian guy dead on a cross. And this guy says some dumbfounding things. “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” We’ve heard these things before. They make less sense the more you think about them. But maybe they are Jesus’ way of answering Micah’s question, “With what shall I come before the Lord?” Maybe they’re the crucified Christ’s guide to worship.

Here’s why I say that. Our word “blessed” translates a Greek word Homer used to describe the gods on Olympus. You might approximate it, “congratulations.” “Hey, congratulations on being a god, Apollo. Must be way better than being mortal.” “Well, I’m not gonna lie to you: it is pretty sweet.” That Greek word translates a Hebrew word that meant something along the lines of “happy because of a right relationship with God.” Each language carries the sense of, You’re in a good place with God. Each of the beatitudes carries the sense of, “You’re in a good place with God if you’re…”

Read this way, the Beatitudes become a sort of spiritual discipline. Oh, you want to know how to worship God? Great! Here’s a guide. All faith traditions have adherents who follow spiritual disciplines, or seek a mystical experience of God. (I’m odd, but I’m not the only one.) Across world religions, the mystical involves some effort: physical or mental exercises yield the result. Those of you who did Guided Meditations in Advent did a form of this. We got our breathing under control, envisioned what the guide was saying, and while we relaxed we worked at it. The exercise yielded results. In the Beatitudes, Jesus offers another form of spiritual discipline.

With what shall I come before the Lord? How shall I worship? Be “poor in spirit,” humble. It is not haves versus have nots. Humbly acknowledge that God is the source of all, owner of all, and you just happen to be holding some of it, now. How shall I worship? Mourn, lament. Mourn the devastation we humans cause. How shall I worship? Meekness, nonviolence. It is not being a doormat. It is asking, “Have we really tried not being violent?” (The answer is almost always, “No.”) How shall I worship? Hunger and thirst for righteousness. Righteousness as the prophets speak of it, a righteousness which sates physical hunger and slakes physical thirst. How shall I worship? Be merciful. God is merciful to us; if we want to experience God, make some mercy happen. How shall I worship? Be “pure in heart.” Listen to God, and not wealth or power. This is not a call to withdraw from the world and follow a handful of moral rules that just happen to be the life you already have. Live in the world for God. How shall I worship? Be a peacemaker. Build bridges. Build relationships. Seek not merely an absence of conflict, but seek harmony. How shall I worship? Recognize that at times the world will attack you. A few months ago at a City Council meeting I heard a citizen say to the Council, “You’re not a Church; you’re supposed to protect us.” The Church, by following Jesus’ spiritual discipline, makes enemies. And it is a way we experience God. Who has more enemies than God? People blame God for everything. It’s cold. The Bears lost.

People blame God for serious stuff, too. Heroin epidemic. Addiction in general. Homelessness. Immigrants. Urban decay and gentrification. Illness. Violence. People hide from these behind the walls of the church and beg God to take them away. When we turn to Christ and ask, “How shall we worship you,” Christ says, “Since I’ve taken care of the whole forgiveness, being right with God thing—you know, everything—you can remain in a good place with me—be “blessed,” if you will—by facing the problems of the world.” The gist of the beatitudes is that our spiritual discipline is our ministry to the world from our location here on the south side of Valparaiso.

With what shall we come before the Lord? We shall come before the Lord with our mission. We shall worship by our ministry, here. We shall gather. We’ll come from up the street or two towns over, longtime members and first time visitors, with as many backgrounds present as there are faces present, all of us seeking God’s presence. We shall hear the Word. We’ll mourn with the psalms and the prophets. We’ll mourn with those who suffer racial discrimination, or are unemployed or underemployed. We’ll mourn with those who suffer around the world, and with those who suffer in the room beside us. We shall baptize and remember our baptism. We’ll be pure of heart, because Christ says so when we’re dunked in the water, and pure of heart in following Christ and not wealth or power.

We shall share the meal. Christ will sate our hunger and slake our thirst for righteousness with his own body and blood. We’ll sate the hunger and slake the thirst of Valparaiso’s hungry and thirsty, through the food pantry, or First Contact, or the shelter. We’ll humbly proclaim that all belongs to Christ and we’re just holding it for a bit, and we’ll call upon our community to share God’s wealth.

And we shall be sent. Sent to work for peace and harmony. To bring wholeness to those who grieve. To make peace—not just the absence of open conflict, but peace—in our city. To face the challenges of the world, not despairing, but knowing that this is our spiritual discipline, this is the way of true worship as Christ reveals it, and that in doing it we see God.