Sunday, February 19, 2017

Holy

Holy
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 33-37
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 2-19-2017)

As a boy, our church sang “Take time to be holy” with great gusto. Congregations that listen to Leviticus never sing that hymn, not because it is wrong, but because it is incomplete. Holiness, for Leviticus, is not something that occasionally we “take time to be”; holiness is what those created in the image of God do, every hour, every day. Why? Well, Leviticus answers that question sixteen times this one chapter alone. Why? Because “the Lord your God is holy.”
So, just what is holiness? It is not a measure of how often we say grace over a meal, but how often we act graciously toward others; not a measure of how many times we sit in church on Sunday, but how we stand for those who need us to raise our voice on their behalf every day. Holiness does mean “to be set apart,” “to be set apart” from petty pursuits that distract us from living into God’s grand vision. It must also mean “to be set apart for,” “to be set apart for” life lived on behalf of others, because our God is holy, so we are to be holy, every day, every hour.
While “Holy” is a frequent visitor to Leviticus, unfortunately, Leviticus is an infrequent visitor to Christian pulpits. Even when Leviticus does visit, it is often dismissed as being a part of the archaic and arcane Old Testament. Too many Christians believe with the heretic Marcius of the 2nd century that Jesus arrived to delete the first half of what we know as the Bible, especially to delete such ridiculous books as Leviticus. The only problem with that approach to reading the Bible is that one of Jesus’ favorite chapters in the Bible is Leviticus 19!
 So, for better or for worse, Leviticus and his friend “Holy” are back today. I must confess that I have mixed emotions about her arrival, because I too am a bit uncomfortable with the whole notion of “Holy” and holiness. When I think of “Holy,” I picture people like Mother Teresa and Archbishop Desmund Tutu, people of extraordinary spiritual grace. Or, far less inspiring, I picture those folks who drive me crazy, the “holier than thou” crowd, always pretending to be more spiritually enlightened than the rest of us. Either way, “Holy” is a word I use sparingly and reluctantly and her arrival today gives me pause.  
Fortunate for us, “Holy” is not waiting for an invitation, not hoping for a favorable public approval poll before she unpacks her bags and settles in to stay. “Holy” is not shy. She is no recluse. She lives not only in the homes of those with extraordinary moral character, but with anyone who is willing to let her in. Pay attention even a little and you will see how “Holy” really gets around.  
My first memory of meeting “Holy” was as a young boy. I grew up in Newport News but my cousins grew up in rural Eastern North Carolina. In the late spring, my brother and I would often head to Mt. Olive to harvest everything from melons to cucumbers to tobacco. Early on, I was struck by how inefficient my uncle and cousins were in harvesting crops. Never shy to share my opinion, I remember asking one cousin why they did not go back through the field to collect all the melons missed the first time through. He looked at me with that “you city fool” look and said, “Ain’t you ever read your Bible, Gary? Those other melons are for folks who need to eat them more than we need to sell them.” He was, of course, citing Leviticus 19:9-10 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.” Who would ever think that my first encounter with “Holy” would come from a conversation with my filthy, from head to toe, cousin?
If you have been taught in church that the Bible is a spiritual book uninterested in such mundane earthly affairs, like economics, like picking melons and tobacco, like foreclosures and fair labor practices, like avoiding slander and libel, then your Bible teachers skipped much of the Bible, and certainly skipped the third book of Bible, Leviticus. Just read Leviticus 19:35-36:  “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances. . . . I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
Leviticus knows that we will never get our economics and public policy right until we get our theology right. We will never “be holy” if we treat neighbors – human or creation – as if they are something other than “Holy.” I love how Walter Kaiser defines “Holy” in Leviticus: “To be holy is to roll up one’s sleeves and to join in with whatever God is doing in the world. . . . In Leviticus, if you want to be holy, don’t pass out a tract; love your neighbor” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 2, 1136).
Leviticus invites any who would welcome “Holy” as the “Lord your God is holy” to hold a broad and generous notion of “neighbor.” Read Leviticus 19 alone and “Holy” resides in us when “neighbor” is more than the person living next door or the friend at school, “neighbor” includes the poor, immigrants, refugees, laborers, the deaf, the blind, and the good earth itself.
“Holy” is not here to help us care for those of similar advantage as ourselves; “Holy” is here to make sure that we care for those who are most disadvantaged. “Holy” lives wherever we make sure that the powerful cannot prey on the powerless and the vulnerable cannot be consumed by predators. I fear that much of the current political rhetoric around immigration, the environment, and public education has “Holy” ready to pack her bags.   
Holiness is not about wearing haloes, but it is often about wearing the scars that result from listening to God and following Jesus and acting on behalf of our neighbors. As long as “Holy” is confined to church sanctuaries, she is really no bother and frankly, of little interest. When we walk out of the sanctuary with “Holy” into God’s beloved world, we often are met not with adulation but resistance and disdain.


The late, Appalachian preacher, Fred Craddock tells a story about holiness-resistance that he experienced in his first church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. When Oak Ridge itself was built, the little town was suddenly overrun by construction workers who lived in hurriedly assembled trailer parks.
Craddock writes, “After church one Sunday morning I asked the leaders to stay. I said to them, ‘Now we need to launch a calling campaign and an invitational campaign in all those trailer parks to invite those people to church’. ‘Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think they’d fit in here’, one of them said. ‘They’re just here temporarily, just construction people. They’ll be leaving pretty soon’. ‘Well, we ought to invite them, make them feel at home’, I said. We argued about it, time ran out, and we said we’d vote next Sunday.
Next Sunday, we all sat down after the service. ‘I move’, said one of them, ‘I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in the county’. Someone else said, ‘I second that’. It passed. I voted against it, but they reminded me that I was just a kid preacher and I didn’t have a vote (Craddock Stories, p. 28). 
Maybe Leviticus is such an infrequent visitor to the pulpit because “Holy” comes along too, more often than not, she is a trouble maker. The symbol of the Iona Community in Scotland, a community committed to revitalizing Christian worship and Christian life, is the wild goose, which is itself an image for the Holy Spirit. “Holy” does not calm the waters, but stirs them up when they are far too calm.
As a child of the 60s, God knows how many times I have listened to and sung Simon and Garfunkel’s, “The Sound of Silence.” The lyrics that will never shake free from my memory are “No one dare disturb the sound of silence.” “Holy” dares. “Holy” sings when others wish she would not. Maybe that is why she is here today and in pulpits across the land, across the globe. Maybe she is here to confront the deafening sound of silence?
“Holy” will not rub our backs and whisper soothing things to us while we refuse to speak on behalf of our neighbor, whether it is our neighbor being sent to substandard schools or living in substandard housing or having no housing at all, our pre-teen neighbors being sold into sexual slavery on the street corners of Atlanta and D.C., Chicago and L.A., our sea and sky neighbors being polluted by our waste and wasteful ways, our without proper paper neighbors being targeted and rounded-up, families and children alike. “Holy” will not condone our silence when hateful speech becomes the standard speech on the right and on the left.
William Sloane Coffin once said, “Christ came to take away our sins, not our minds.” To that saying, I would add “and not our voices.” Earlier this week, Polly sent me a church sign that she and Walter saw in their recent trip to Charleston, S.C. I am convinced it is a sign that was written by “Holy.” It reads:
BE THE CHURCH. Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.
At risk of editing “Holy,” I would change the last line to read:
          Embrace diversity. Choose Welcome. Love God.

To live into that “Holy” sign means that we will do more than sit here on Sunday. We will also use our feet to march and our voices to shout and our emails to protest and to advocate on behalf of our gay neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, our river neighbors, our mountain neighbors, our people of color neighbors, our impoverished neighbors. We will dare to disturb the deafening sound of silence.
          So, Cove friends, do not “take time to be holy.” Instead, make room for “Holy.” She has unpacked her bags and she is here to stay!

                    AMEN

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Synergy



Synergy
Text:  I Corinthians 3:1-9
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 2-12-2017)

 Synergy is a term in vogue in businesses today. Most English dictionaries define synergy as “the interaction of multiple elements in a system to produce an effect different from or greater than the sum of their individual effects.” True faith, says Paul, is to live in synergy, to work together to carry out God’s good purpose.
Paul writes letters to the church in Corinth precisely because they are NOT living in synergy, NOT working together. The sin eroding community in Corinth is the same sin that erodes community in churches today and not just churches. It is also ripping apart our country. The sin is the appalling lack of synergy.
Rather than celebrating the diversity of people and gifts and perspectives alive in any congregation, church people far too easily rush to their particular interest corner. Some say:  “I don’t care much for preaching, I come just for the music.” Others say, “I am not a big fan of church music; I’m just here for the mission.” Still others say, “I don’t get much out of worship; I’m just here for the community.”  
When Christians divide into special interest groups, inevitably, community erodes. Paul fears that is happening in Corinth, so he reminds them: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe . . . I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth . . . For we are God’s servants, working together, synergia.” A church is as healthy, says Paul, as its commitment to live into God’s synergy.
 True synergy happens whenever the community celebrates every gift-giver working together, whenever it honors the member who gives up a Saturday to hammer and sheetrock at the local Habitat House as well as the member who fills all the trays for communion as well as the member who sits on the preschool board as well as the member who sends out notes of consolation to those who are grieving as well as well as those who produce the Sunday bulletin as well as those who stand up to sing every Sunday, as well as those who protest and advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable, as well as those, who, like Sharon and Jessica, accept the call to serve as ruling elders, and the list goes on.
In the early years of the church, Irenaeus of Lyons commented on this text from Paul:  “The church has been planted in the world as a paradise.” For those of us who have lived in, worshiped in, worked in, battled in, and sometimes have been scarred by the church, it seems that Irenaeus was exercising some serious poetic license here.
Most spouses who have been together for many years can quickly point out all the bothersome habits and annoying tendencies of their partner. Usually, the list is rather long and grows longer whenever tension arises. The same is true for churches of every size.
Maybe, though, Irenaeus was not talking about the church he saw but about the church God was calling into being. Maybe Irenaeus was calling the church to a greater vision, not unlike the vision offered by the Apostle Paul to the Church in Corinth, a vision of true synergy alive within the church, where all gifts are valued and every gift giver is treasured, a church able to rise above petty annoyances, to set its sights higher, to celebrate what is right and invaluable and precious about each person in the body of Christ.
When we live into God’s synergy, something special happens, as Scott Peck illustrates in his marvelous parable, “The Rabbi’s Gift.” Peck writes: “The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of antimonastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth . . . it [the monastery] had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.
“In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. . . As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

“The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. ‘I know how it is’, he exclaimed. ‘The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore’. So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things.
“The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. ‘It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years’," the abbot said, ‘but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?’
"’No, I am sorry’, the rabbi responded. ‘I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you’.
“When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, ‘Well what did the rabbi say?’ ‘He couldn't help’," the abbot answered. ‘We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving --it was something cryptic-- was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant’.
“In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi's words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that is the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.
“Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I?
“As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
“Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
“Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.”
When synergy happens, amazing things like a revitalized monastery, a revitalized church, happens. When Presbyterians are at their very best, they lean on each other, count on each other, celebrate each other’s gifts, debate respectfully, and they learn that working together takes longer than simply working with those of like mind, but it is so much more satisfying, so much more life-giving.
I do not need to tell you this, because Cove could teach courses on synergy for churches of every size. Maybe, though, I need to remind you of your gifts, because maybe synergy is our calling in 2017. Maybe God is calling Cove to demonstrate to a fractured society and a divided church the amazing things that can happen when we work together despite our differences and sometimes because of our differences.
To live into this calling will require the cooperation of every last one of us. I’m in. How about you?
AMEN


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Repairers of the Breach



Repairers of the Breach
Texts: Isaiah 58:6-12
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 2-5-2017)


 The picture that first introduced me to this congregation is now nearly a year old. It is a marvelous photo of many of you standing up front holding signs that read, “We Choose Welcome.” Why? Why choose welcome when there is much talk today of building a separation wall along our Southern border and restricting the travel, if only temporarily, of select neighbors from the Middle East?  
Read Scripture from start to finish and you will find that “We Choose Welcome” is far more than an immigration slogan; it is an expectation from God for all who claim to put their trust in God. Just ask Isaiah.  
For just a moment, imagine the most devastated urban landscape that you have ever driven through or lived in or seen on film. When you do, you may come close to imagining the devastation met by returning refugees to Jerusalem. They returned not to the city of their dreams, but to a city that fifty years earlier had been torched by the Babylonians, left to decay in ruins, and tended to by the weakest and most vulnerable citizens who had been left behind.
Where do you start when facing such devastation? How do you find the resources to rebuild what your parents and grandparents had built only to see go up in flames? How do you fight the urge to take the next bus back to Babylon, after all, Babylon has been your temporary home for half a century?  
Into the devastation and to a people overwhelmed with the tasks before them, the prophet Isaiah speaks a word from God. The word is not: “Fear not, I will take care of you. Everything will be just fine.” Actually, the word from God is not about what God will do at all. It is an invitation from God to returning refugees to claim a new name and to live into that name. God says to those devastated by what they witness in their homecoming: “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isa. 58:12).
The “breach” is far more than a Temple in rubbles, houses in disrepair, streets largely unpassable. The “breach” is the loss of confidence in God, in what God makes possible in people of faith, what God can accomplish in those who trust that God joins them even in the ruins. “Repairers of the breach” are those called not simply to restore devastated buildings, but to restore the faith and future of devastated people. “Repairers of the breach” welcome others into the land because they know what it is like to be unwelcome in another land. “Repairers of the breach” is a name worth claiming by any people of God. It is certainly a name and a calling worth reclaiming in 2017.
The Sufi tell a story in their tradition:
Past the seeker, as he prayed, came the crippled and the beggar and the beaten. And seeing them, the holy one went down into deep prayer and cried, “Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?”
And out of the long silence, God said, “I did do something about them. I made you.”
What if you and I stop looking to the heavens for God to do something about refugee resettlement, racial and religious discrimination, gun violence, inadequate health care, and poorly resourced schools? What if you and I were to recognize that God is looking for us to be “repairers of the breach”? What if people were to hear the name, “Cove Presbyterian Church” and immediately responded, “I know Cove. They are that small but mighty, welcoming community who are Repairers of the Breach”?
Saint Augustine once wrote: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” That is what welcoming “Repairers of the Breach” do; they get angry at the way things are and they have courage to see that things do not remain that way. They find partners in passion and they are not easily distracted.
Some worry that we might overstep our faith should we step out of church and engage in public matters. Isaiah does not share this worry. He fears just the opposite. He fears that people of faith who need to speak out will hide away in their little religious enclaves and stay silent.
Chapter 58 is a rallying cry for people of faith to model and to work for an ethically demanding world. It is simply not sufficient to be people of faith who come to worship, sing hymns, pass the peace, and enjoy a cup of coffee or a good lunch after the benediction. Worship designed to make us feel good is not worship worth God’s time or ours, says Isaiah.   
Isaiah laments, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast [worship] day, and oppress all your workers” (58:3). The worship Isaiah envisions is one that leads the community of faith to model and to demand humane economic and political practices in society.  
In words that sound much like what we will later hear from Jesus, Isaiah preaches, “Is not this the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice. . . . Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.” YOUR OWN KIN, says Isaiah. Homeless folks – YOUR OWN KIN.  Food stamp users – YOUR OWN KIN. Illegal aliens cleaning our houses and staffing our fast food restaurants and picking our grapes – YOUR OWN KIN.  Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews – YOUR OWN KIN.
          Don’t you hate it when the Bible goes messing around with our neat divisions of church and state, religion and politics, faith and economics?! Isaiah sees worship not as a time to snooze, but a time to get singed by the fire of God’s passion for justice. True worship, says Isaiah, stops the holy cover-up where we pretend we can worship God on the one hand and ignore or abuse our neighbor on the other. 
Pay attention to Isaiah and listen to Jesus and they both might just ruin a good Sunday lunch, but while they are at it, they might just feed your soul with the food of what really matters so that you and I can go and do the same.
Names matter. Just ask Isaiah. I am honored to be named one among you who, in so many ways, “choose welcome,” you who are “Repairers of the breach.”
AMEN

Monday, January 30, 2017

Post these



Post These
Texts: Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-9
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA 1-29-2017)


Wherever I have lived, I have run into the same argument. One group insists that a large version of the Ten Commandments be displayed in the state Capitol. Meanwhile, another group rises up in a fury to oppose the idea as a clear violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.  
Over the years, I have engaged in plenty church-state arguments, but I have always felt that this was a bit misguided. I am a fan of the wisdom gleaned in the Ten Commandments, but if someone were to ask me what biblical texts need the most public display, I would recommend the two texts read today – the beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel and the beatitudes of Micah 6:8. I would never fight to post them on the walls of a public building, but I would gladly insist that all who appeal to God in political and public discourse appeal to the God who is revealed in Micah 6 and Matthew 5.
The beatitudes of Micah and Jesus both address one of the world’s oldest questions:  “What does God expect of us?” The older I get, the more I am amazed at how many people seem dead certain that they know the exact answer to that profound question. God thinks this, some tell me. God thinks that, others say.

Just shy of 3,000 years ago, after noting an absurd listing of things that people confuse with God’s will, the young prophet Micah said, “Let me make it simple for you.” “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Micah’s beatitudes – do justice, love mercy, walk in humility with God – along with Jesus’ beatitudes are blessings that still wear well in public and in private life today. About these beatitudes, Andrew Foster Connors says it well. They are where “faith finds its legs.”
Take care, though, because like any short, pithy sayings that would fit on a T-shirt or on a placard or inside a fortune cookie, Micah’s beatitudes and later, the beatitudes of Jesus, are easily subject to distortion. I can think of no greater distortion of Micah and Jesus’ beatific words than what happened at the Elmina Castle in Ghana in the 19th century.
Built as a trading post by the Portuguese, merchants came from across the
globe to the Elmina Castle to buy and sell gold, silver, and cocoa. By far, the most valuable commodity to be traded, though, was slaves. Ironically and sadly, during the time when the castle was held by the Dutch, it was occupied not only by soldiers, a governor, and human chattel below, but also by a church above. A Dutch Reformed sanctuary was maintained on the upper floor of one part of the castle. 

On the bottom floor of this part of the castle were four slave dungeons. Imagine a classroom designed to hold fifty students, their desks, the teacher's desk, and other classroom materials. Instead of fifty students, packed into the room, one hundred and fifty women, barely clothed, if clothed at all, were forced to subsist in their own waste and fed only enough to keep them alive, so they would never gain the necessary strength to fight back.
Directly above this room, with only a single layer of construction between, was the room used by the Dutch as the sanctuary to worship God. I can imagine the preacher in the Dutch sanctuary above reading Micah 6:8 – “love justice, do mercy, walk in humility with God” – while below women were being shoved through the Door of No Return onto ships that would transport them into slavery in South America, the Caribbean, and North America.
Micah’s beatitudes were never intended to be pietistic platitudes to be spoken in worship and then ignored in our public life. These words are our ministry marching orders, where “faith finds its legs.” We do not help others because we hope that God might take note of our beneficence and shower down blessings upon us. We help, says Micah 6, because, though never deserving, you and I always walk in the beneficence of God.
As Jesus begins his beatitudes, he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In his book, Credo, William Sloane Coffin writes: “It is ironic to think of the number of people in this country who pray for the poor and needy on Sunday and spend the rest of the week complaining that the government is doing something to help them.”  For the last twelve years in Atlanta, I worked with poor families, many without shelter, who had to spend long hours to receive minimal public assistance. Meanwhile, they would listen to those with more than they need lament dollars being thrown at those who could help themselves, these well to do folks never once lamenting the countless and costly ways that the rich in our society can legally game the system. “The poor in spirit,” says Jesus, care for the poor with comment and without complaint.
When Jesus blesses peacemakers, he is not spinning language to suggest that those who have the most guns or the most drones and who torture the most often get to call themselves “peacemakers.” Jesus knows that most Roman emperors referred to themselves as “peacemakers.” No, “peacemakers,” for Jesus, are those who renounce violence as the weak deceiver and divider that it is, are those who eschew every form of violence within families and within the family of nations, who welcome refugees seeking asylum from any nation, who believe passionately that Micah was not fantasizing when he imagined and worked for the day when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Micah 4:3).       
 Carol Dempsey takes Micah’s beatitudes to a level not even anticipated by the ancient prophet when she writes:  “Given the scientific fact that all of creation is a part of one unified web of life, the practice of justice and love now needs to embrace both human and nonhuman life, and the humble walk with God is a walk of holy reverence and awe across the planet, with people being attuned to and learning from the divine Spirit that pulsates at the heart of all.” Just as I argued last week that words matter, so Carol would argue that “creation matters” and therefore “blessed are” those who tend to our fragile creation. Helping people and caring for creation, however it is done, by whomever it is done, and by whatever cost it takes, is at the heart of Micah’s and Matthew’s beatitudes.
Micah and Jesus are both realists. They warn that living into and out of the beatitudes will not likely win us gold stars, pats on the back, or great public approval ratings. Believers in God who insist on justice and mercy for all had better be willing to pay the price for such insistence. Tom Long writes, “Those who benefit from the weakness of others do not want the world to be compassionate. Much money and power are invested in maintaining injustice. If every wage were fair, if every person were honored as a child of God, if every human being were safe from exploitation, many would lose their grip on status, self-gratification, and affluence” (Tom Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
When you and I live out Micah’s and Jesus’ beatitudes in and beyond the church, we not only avoid recreating the horrors of places like the Elmina Castle, we offer the world the most powerful public display of God’s just, merciful, and humble grace, a display that is far more powerful than any tablets ever posted in any public building.
The poet Mary Oliver opens a new collection of her poetry with “I Go Down to the Shore”:
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out, I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall –
what should I do? And the sea says in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

For those who follow Jesus and listen to Micah, the question is never “What shall/what should I do?” Those who would follow Jesus know the answer to that question. As followers of the Blessed One, we can tell the world in our own lovely voices:  “Excuse me, I have work to do.”
Excuse me, Cove Presbyterian Church, we have work to do – justice work, merciful work – and if you take Jesus seriously, all of it is blessed work, blessed work, indeed.
AMEN