God Is Our Strength

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Luke’s Church, San Francisco, on January 29, 2017.

I like it when we read the Sermon on the Mount because it reminds me that sermons are often ignored. If I preach and no one pays attention, that could be discouraging, but then I remember that Jesus preached and no one paid attention. Well, that’s a bit of an over-statement – an “alternative fact,” as we say these days – an exaggeration as we used to say, but not much of an exaggeration because we read this morning, just minutes ago, part of what has been called “the greatest sermon ever preached” and who takes it seriously?

Today we read the Beatitudes – the heart of the greatest sermon – and who was paying attention? Let me put it this way: Who will be changed by hearing it? Or more personally: will you be changed by hearing it? And not just you, not just here. This same lesson will be read today in every Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran Church in the country, It will also be read in a good many Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, probably even some Baptist and evangelical churches. So what would that be: fifty million people? Oh, at least that many, maybe twice that many. A lot. And if they all listened, wouldn’t the world would be different tomorrow morning, maybe even this afternoon. Wouldn’t it?sermononthemt

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . Blessed are the merciful . . . Blessed are the pure in heart . . . Blessed are the peacemakers. . . . “

It is all too easy – way too easy – to think in headline terms. Maybe a name comes to mind of someone we’ve been reading about who is not exactly “meek and merciful and pure in heart.” And yes, of course, we should worry about that and the message it sends our children, the message it sends us. Would the world be radically different if world leaders were in church this morning and paid attention? But that’s passing the buck. What about us? If we can’t at the moment do much about them, what about us? If Washington doesn’t set an example for us, can we maybe set one for Washington or at least for each other. Throw a stone in a pond and the ripples expand ever outward. But it begins with us.

Look also at the epistle reading, which was not chosen to go with the Gospel. We’re just reading through the Gospel according to Matthew and the First Epistle to the Corinthians in sequence and if they happen to speak to common themes, it’s a pleasant coincidence. But that’s what we have this morning: two readings with a common theme, two perspectives on the same subject. Let me try to state one common theme in maybe four words: “God is our strength.” It’s on every dollar bill we spend in four slightly different words: In God we trust. Actually, that’s the reverse side of what the epistle and gospel are saying. The gospel says: Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the persecuted. The emphasis is on our weakness, on our need, and what we are told is that those who know their need are blessed because they can get help. They can get help. Because “In God is our strength.”

Alcoholics Anonymous, you know, has that message right at the center of its program. They find they can’t help those who think they can do it themselves. Many people have to hit bottom, as they say, before they recognize their need and look for help. And then AA can put them in touch with what they call “their higher power” and the AA group can support the person who knows their need.

There is a modern translation of the Beatitudes that begins right there: “How blessed are those who know their need of God.” Another new translation says: “God blesses those people who depend only on him.” Or, as I put it just now: God is our strength. But to know that and act on it, that’s what’s missing. That’s what the Gospel reminds us of. The Epistle is saying much the same things. St. Paul is writing to a church in trouble, divided, struggling. And Paul has advice for them, specific advice, but first he sets out to remind them who they are. “Look at you,” he says. “Look at who you are: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many of you were of noble birth, so what would makes you think you can work things out on your own?”

Paul might ask us the same kind of question. “If you aren’t first in your class, wouldn’t it be smart to ask for help with your home work? If you’re not an electrician, why are you trying to do your own wiring? If you’re not a Wall Street Wizard why are you planning your own investments? If you aren’t God, why are you trying to run your life without help?”

There’s an illusion, a common illusion, that human strength and wisdom can solve all problems. We look at scientists in their laboratories analyzing gene sequences and creating cures for disease and we think if we just fund a little more research maybe we’ll find the happiness gene and we’ll be able to clone it and we’ll solve all our problems and live happily ever after. We look at dot.com millionaires and we think if we just got the right advice, we could buy happiness. But there was an article in the New York Times last week — I’ve lived here now four years and I still read the New York Times! — Is there an alternative, is there a west coast news source I should know about? I still live mentally on the east coast – maybe you do too – but what I read was a long article —- actually it’s a report on a story in the current New Yorker — maybe you read that — about California, about all the Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires who are stocking up on canned goods and bottled water, re-enforcing the walls of their houses, building underground retreats, stockpiling guns and bullets, converting underground missile silos into fortresses. One venture capitalist, told the New Yorker he estimates more than 50% of Silicon Valley billionaires have bought some level of “apocalypse insurance,” like an underground bunker. Fortified shelters, built to withstand catastrophic events from viral epidemic to nuclear war, seem to be experiencing a wave of interest as hints of a new Cold War – maybe a hot war – ramp up. One of these billionaire told the New Yorker that some rich people fear a backlash against Silicon Valley as artificial intelligence takes away an increasing number of jobs from humans. The CEO of a large tech company cited Russian cyberattacks as evidence of risk that the US might fall into disorder. All their accomplishments, and they are terrified about the future and trying to save themselves. And I wondered whether it might be smarter to spend that money on schools and hospitals and foreign aid programs that might do more to stave off apocalyse.

If we are really setting out to “Make America Great Again” shouldn’t we focus a bit on the word “united” in our title: the United States of America? And shouldn’t we ask what makes a nation great? We look at American military might pounding Iraq and Afghanistan into submission and think that might creates right and solves problems and makes the world a better place, and somehow we don’t come to grips with the fact that America has become a symbol of evil for a large part of the world. Power doesn’t get you respect and a personal fortune doesn’t make you secure.

Do you remember God’s challenge to Job? “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements— surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or glorywho laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth? Another modern version is even clearer: God said, “Why do you talk so much when you know so little? Did you ever tell the sun to rise? And did it obey?”

“Blessed are those who know their need of God.” Blessed are those who know who they are and can build on that foundation. Human power does not gain love. The people who come here legally and illegally from all over the world don’t come to join the army or because they are so impressed with our bombers, they come for freedom, but power and freedom are not synonymous. Last week we sent two stealth bombers from Missouri to dump hundreds of tons of bombs on Isis bases in Libya. Do you feel more secure?

Power and security, it seems to me, are very often opposites. Jesus did not convert the world by power, by human strength or human wisdom. The church is not built on that foundation, but on human weakness and God’s power. “God’s weakness,” Paul wrote in today’s letter, “is stronger than human strength.” Much stronger. Infinitely stronger. We did not make this world. It can’t be forced to move by our rules.

They say that one third of the church members in the United States are in church on a given Sunday. That’s been my experience too. The percentage in church every Sunday of course is still less. Does that make any kind of sense? Do we know who we are? Do we know our need of God? The people in AA have one advantage over the rest of us: they know their need. The best attended meetings all week in many churches are the AA meetings. They know they can’t do it alone. But the rest of us don’t seem to know that and sometimes I think that God tests us, tests all of us with blessings, not adversity. God piles it on: the incredible opportunities we have as if to say will they still love me if they can have all this instead? Or is it possible that the wealth we posses~ ~ is not from God? Have we located some other source of strength? We will begin Lent in a few weeks with the story of Jesus’ temptation and the final temptation was the offering of “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory . . .” “All this you can have,” Satan said, “if you fall down and worship me.”

Who do we really worship? Martin Luther once said that “God creates out of nothing, and therefore until a man or a woman is nothing, God can make nothing out of him or her.” Again, we will be reminded on Ash Wednesday, that we are dust. Incredibly comfortable dust with good homes and a security unmatched by emperors, but dust. Without God, we are nothing but dust. But suppose, as I said, fifty million American Christians were to set out tomorrow to build their lives on that foundation. Suppose we were to put God at the center, beginning and ending each day with prayer, turning to God in prayer frequently during the day, reassessing our resources and deciding that there are others whose needs are greater than ours and so setting aside one tenth – only one small tenth – for church and charities. Suppose we were to let our politicians know that our priority is not unlimited military power — not America first — but our neighbor and our neighbor’s needs whether here or on the Mexican border or in Central America or the refugee camps of Syria. Let them know that they are our first concern, not for ourselves or even our country – but for the poor and the disenfranchised not only here but world-wide. Would it make a difference? Well, look what a difference Christian faith has made in the world in spite of the fact that that kind of commitment is rare.

Was Luther, right? Must we be reduced to nothing before God can make something of us, or can we help make America humble again, can we recognize that we are nothing already and come here week by week and be on our knees every day to ask God’s strength in our weakness and find the blessing promised to those who know their need?

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