Tola’s sermon preached on Jan. 29, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Jan 29, 2023 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Jan. 29, 2023

Let us consider a very modern phenomena: the Top 10 List.

Top 10 Movies of 2022. Top 10 Sandwich Shops. We create Top 10 Lists, and post them on social media. Top 10 German Import Cars. Top 10 Vacation Destinations in California. We invite our friends to respond with their own lists. Top 10 Star Trek Characters. Top 10 Prog Rock Albums.

We use some of this information to make choices in our lives, and to justify those choices. Top 10 School Districts in King County. Top 10 Places to Live.

Many of us chose Issaquah, or Sammamish, or Bellevue, because we researched and found out that these and neighboring cities had an appealing combination of housing, and schools, and services, and amenities.

I did. I moved to Klahanie in 2003, and then into Issaquah in 2006, because I had done extensive research and had decided that the Issaquah School District would provide a rock solid education for my children in a community I could afford. I had worked the variables to produce an optimized outcome.

It is a very modern idea that we can hone our lives through the acquisition and analysis of information to achieve a maximal level of value, happiness, and satisfaction.

What our readings have in common today is that they all, in one way or another, suggest that idea- the quest for an optimized life- is nonsense.

Psalm 15 that we heard today comes from an entrance liturgy that would have been asked of visitors at the gates of a Jewish temple. Does it ask about where they live? Or how they make their living? Or their success in life? No. It measures suitability in terms of leading a blameless life, doing what’s right, and speaking the truth. It talks about having no guile upon one’s tongue, doing no evil to one’s friends, heaping no contempt on one’s neighbors. Doing no wrong, keeping one’s word, not taking advantage of the poor or conspiring against the innocent- it assures us that “whoever does these things shall never be overthrown.”

Note that this is also sometimes translated as “shall never be moved” or “nothing can ever shake him.” I think the Psalmist here is not talking about rewards in the material world, but about gaining the spiritual surety and clarity to be at peace with this world, and expectant of the next.

Christ builds on this and deepens our understanding in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. He starts with “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” That phrase- “poor in spirit” has always caused me a little confusion, but because it’s paired with “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” I sort of… went with the flow. But what did Christ actually mean?

In Hebrew, “poor” as a noun means not only those who are materially poor, but also- crucially- the faithful among God’s people. The “poor in spirit” are those who have nothing except their faith in God.

We know of a very modern manifestation of this idea. I have spoken before of my beloved Uncle Rick, and his struggles with alcohol. In later years he told me the breakthrough that after thirty years of hard drinking led to twenty-five years of happy sobriety. It was the Alcoholics Anonymous concept of admitting that he was powerless over his alcoholism, and that he had to turn his will and his life over to the care of God. My uncle decided to be “poor in spirit,” because he had spent decades trying to talk and plead and reason his way out of his drinking, and none of it worked.

It is a very American concept that with enough information and enough analysis and enough hard work we can overcome any problem, we can dust ourselves off and pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and all those time worn cliches. But can we?

Christ’s first message in today’s Gospel is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It sure sounds like he’s saying that the most important thing is to give ourselves over to God.

He then goes into the actions and behaviors that will be pleasing in God’s sight- mourning, meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking. Note that none of this is about the material things in life, but entirely about our relationships with others. (More on this later.)

And what will we get? Spiritual comfort, mercy, God’s presence, and nothing less than the kingdom of heaven.

We live in an intellectual age, where the accumulation of knowledge and the appearance of reason and planning are often held as the highest civic and personal virtues.

Paul in his letter to the Corinthians does not reject wisdom and knowledge, but he makes it clear that- as my uncle found out- they are insufficient foundations upon which to build one’s life.

First, Paul quotes Isaiah quoting God- “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Wisdom will only carry us so far.

Then he contrasts our own intellectual efforts with the vast timelessness of God’s wisdom: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

There are times that reading the Bible puts a smile on my face, because it is so clear that human nature has not fundamentally changed since Christ’s time. There is comfort in this, I think. We are not so evolved as we like to think we are.

We have made great strides in the condition of our world. We have used science to extend and improve our lives. We have conquered the air and are in the midst of exploring the vastness of space. We understand the cell, and the lightning, and the atom, and how to calculate more information in a second than all the scribes and scholars in the first five thousand years of human history.

But are we happier? Harvard University recently completed a 75-year study of the graduates from the classes of 1942, 1943 and 1944. The study’s number one finding was that the warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on life satisfaction. Intelligence, and affluence, do not.

The authors cautioned recently that the average 29-year-old today will have spent only 58 days with their closest friends, but 4851 days interacting with media and digital information. This is modern science agreeing with the Beatitudes.

Now more than ever, we must take the lessons from the Psalms, and the Gospel, and the apostles, and anchor our hopes and aspirations in our faith in God, and our trust in Christ’s instruction to focus on how we treat and love all God’s children.

We must not be distracted by the modern race to measure, control and optimize our lives. We cannot let choosing the right community, the right reading material, the right schools, and the right baubles, get between us and realizing a life that is pleasing in the sight of God.

Or as the Apostle Paul said, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”


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