summum bonum

preaching-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Micah 6.1-8, Matthew 5.1-12, and 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”

micah-exhorting-the-israelites-to-repentance-gustave-dore-1832-1883

This word of the prophet Micah is the Hebrew Bible’s magna carta, great charter of life, supreme expression of the summum bonum, “the highest good” of human living.

Amazingly, though scriptural, it’s not especially religious; as religion may be conceived as the creedal declaration or ceremonial possession embodied by (or, worse, entombed in) some sacred institution.

Not for Micah. A “good” life, a “good” religion always involves action, therefore, is always less about what we confess with our lips or symbolize in our ceremonies and always more, in accord with our confession and our rituals, what we profess with our lives.

We “do justice.” Knowing our human longing for fairness, we act equitably toward others. We “love kindness.” Knowing the nature, the reality of human suffering, we act compassionately with others amidst their travails. We “walk humbly with God.” Knowing our personal strengths and weaknesses, our bright lights and dark shadows, we act humbly, with little sense of privilege, even less entitlement, striving to live at one with our Creator, the creation, and all creatures.

At the heart of Micah’s prophecy, this idea of moral instruction as fruit, not seed; in other words, as the articulation of what already is, not the expression of an ambition for what ought be is a lens through which we can view the Beatitudes – Jesus’ description of blessedness, the Christian magna carta, charter of life, summum bonum, verily, the Christian way to fulfill, to do Micah’s word…

the-sermon-of-the-beatitudes-la-sermon-des-beatitudes-1886-james-tissot-1836-1902

To be poor in spirit is to recognize the nature of life in this world – so fundamental that it is the first state of blessedness from which all else flows – that there is little to nothing of circumstance, chance, even our choices (always in response to circumstance and chance) that we command or control. Thus, we, knowing our constant need for God, walking humbly with God, act; mourning with others who grieve, for always with someone, sometimes ourselves there is grief, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for always somewhere there is evil and within us, the temptation to do evil, making peace, for always, both without and within us, there is conflict, even being persecuted on the side of the suffering against the will of the strong, for always someplace there is oppression.

But back to Micah. For grander epiphanies await us!

This great teaching, “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God”, is set within the context of conflict. A trial. God calls the people to answer for their failings of disobedience, which are so severe that God summons “the mountains…and (the) foundations of the earth”, creation itself, to listen.

Yet God, in making this divine case against the people, is not wrathful, wanting to punish them. Verily, in a stunning reversal, God is not the plaintiff, but the defendant raising a question about divine conduct, asking the people to voice their complaints, “What have I done to you? How have I wearied you?”

This is a God who, in calling the people to account, wants, wills to be held accountable. This is a God as judge who wants, who wills to be judged.

This is a disruption, a destruction of all legal tradition, all juridical convention! This is beyond any traditional, conventional institutionalized, religious understanding of God’s nature, God’s being and behaving. This, therefore, is outside of any customary conception of the divine-human relationship.

What is “this”? God rises to the summum bonum, telling us, showing us the highest good! God does justice, loves kindness, walks humbly with us! The chiefest epiphany, revelation of which, as Paul proclaims, is “Christ crucified.” Our God ascends to the summum bonum by being raised on a self-sacrificial cross of crucifixion and death for us.

It is this God, our astounding, worldly-wisdom-defying-and-destroying God to whom we in the awe of gratitude would make offerings, the greater, the better – from a “burnt-offering of one young calf” to “thousands of rams” and “tens of thousands of rivers of oil” to “my firstborn.” And our God answers, “No, I don’t want your gifts. I want you.”

So, then let us do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, which is Micah’s way of echoing Jesus, indeed, Micah’s way of our fulfilling, doing, being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting for God’s righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking.

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This was the original end of this sermon…until a sleepless late last night into this morning as I pondered President Trump’s executive order banning travel to American shores of folk from seven Muslim-majority nations – an act that heartened his supporters and horrified his detractors and sparked protests at airports around the nation of many proclaiming welcome to immigrants and refugees and provoked judicial temporary restraining orders to stay the implementation of the ban; this last, ensuring legal jostling and jousting for some time to come.

I recognize and accept the risk of saying anything that, for some of us, may cross the line from spiritual to political matters. However, I believe that politics, from the Greek polis, city, and, by extension, the human community, is concerned with how we, in the words of the prayer, “live and move and have our being” – think and feel, intend and act – together. Moreover, as a Christian pastor and preacher, as your pastor and preacher, I also recognize and accept my responsibility to share counsel with you from God’s Word of how we “live and move and have our being” in this world.

Now, I never will tell you what to think. I entrust that to your individual, inner spiritual and ethical bearings as guided by the illumination of God’s Spirit. I will share with you a view, a vision of how to think.

And based on this day’s scriptural passages, I submit to you that the tension has heightened excruciatingly between border security and national safety and our anthemic American identity as “the land of the free and the home of the brave”; a land and home, from inception, save for our Native American sisters and brothers, populated by immigrants; some arriving of their free will and others brought captive.

And though here in Laurens, South Carolina, for most of us, the subject of immigration and the concerns of refugees may not rise to the apex of our lists of daily pressing issues, perhaps even of our mildest interest, the values, the virtues of justice as unconditional equality and honoring the God-given dignity of every human being as our Baptismal Covenant bears witness always call us to act wherever we are with whatever we have and however we can for the least, the last, and the left out.

How you, I, and we do that is for your, my, and our discernment. But, in the spirit of Micah, do it, we must.

 

Photograph: me preaching at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, by Pontheolla Mack Abernathy

Illustrations:

Micah exhorting the Israelites to repentance, Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

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4 thoughts on “summum bonum

  1. Paul,

    I just want to say thank you for this sermon! I’ve read it a couple of times already. So much of it jumped out at me. Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly all stand out – regarding how we should live our lives. The fact that God wants “us” and not our gifts is also a great lesson for our world today. We need to get out and “DO” and forget about focusing on material gifts because they won’t fix what ails our world.

    When I got to what would have been the end of the sermon, I felt satisfied and fed, but was thrilled to see that there was more. I understand the difficulty and danger of discussing politics and religion together, but I felt today was the best of all days to share what you did. What’s that saying “desperate times call for desperate measures!” I too got little sleep last night. Thank you for speaking for the least, the last and the left out. It’s a terrifying time for so many people right now. We have much to discern and to question, so I sincerely appreciate you asking your parishioners and readers to focus on this, in the spirit of Micah. I pray for equality and dignity for all, and though I believe we are currently broken, I still ask God to bless America in the hopes that we can once again become United. Much love to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your hopes, Loretta, are mine and, for me, you’ve articulated them well, especially your prayer that God blesses into union. For these are fractious and perilous times.

      I also believe that this past tumultuous first week of our new presidential administration portends more to come, both in executive branch action and negative reaction across our nation and the globe. My fear is that so much so swiftly done (and undone) through ideological machinations driven by isolationism and negativism will make any communal awareness of damage done difficult to discern and to counteract. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that resistance and civil disobedience will provide an antidote to the carnage (a word Trump has popularized!) and particularly the harm done to the least, the last, and the left out.

      Let us pray so…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul, this sermon has absolutely carried me away tonight. I have tears in my eyes as I write this. Your words, your wisdom, and your loving parsing of scripture have taken me to the heights, when I have been inhabiting the depths for much of the past week and most certainly for the past 24 hours. You have inspired hope while I have been treading the margins of despair. Thank you for your clear-eyed courage in interpreting not only ancient texts so that they mean in today’s world, but in interpreting today’s events so that they are clearly within the purview of the Love in which we all move and live and have our being. I give God thanks for you and for the experiences of your life that have brought you to this time and place to speak words of love and wisdom with quiet courage and enormous grace. Thank you, thank you, thank you, my friend.

    I have to ask, have you ever read Carl Jung’s
    “Answer to Job?” If not, I would suggest it to you. Your words about God’s deep self-questioning in Micah are reminiscent of Jung’s words in that astonishing piece of writing.

    With love to you and Pontheolla and gratitude for both of you and your ministries of love,

    Karen

    Liked by 2 people

    • Karen, that I can write and give word and voice to ANYTHING that might be of help to you, one who I love deeply and respect highly, is a gift of grace to me. Thank you.

      Regarding Jung’s “Answer To Job”, amazing! It is one of three works that have been and remain seminal in my understanding of myself and my interpreting of the world around me.

      Love always and in all ways to you, Ted, and Emilia.

      Liked by 1 person

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