Doing the Right Thing

A Sermon on the Beatitudes

"Is religious pluralism the great spiritual adventure of our time?" (John Dunne, in The Way of All the Earth).

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail at the church office from a member of an Islamic group in Frederick. The Ahmadiyya Community is sponsoring an interfaith dialogue on February 12, the e-mail said, and they were inviting me to participate. This isn't a good time, I thought. It's late January, which means it's time to finalize the 2011 budget and get ready for the Annual Parish meeting, the day after this dialogue. And I want to attend as many Focus Group meetings as I can. How can I possibly add one more thing to my calendar and to my life? As I continued to reflect, other questions came to me: I wonder how they found me? I wonder who else they've asked to speak? I wonder how outnumbered or how safe I would feel?

How does it feel to be less and less in the majority, when we Christians live in a world filled with different religions? Today, we account for one-third of the six billion people on the planet, with Islam claiming one-fifth. If we add Hindus to Muslims, they will, roughly speaking, equal the number of Christians. Although religious pluralism feels relatively new to us Americans, causing us, perhaps, to wonder just how this happened in our backyard, it was not new to the prophet Micah. In fact, it was an everyday experience of the Hebrew people.

The Israelites knew all about religious pluralism. They were surrounded by hundreds of gods and goddesses belonging to their neighbors. Sometimes they responded to this challenge by destroying their neighbors. Sometimes they simply purchased some of their neighbors' idols, just to be safe. Not a very respectful response, in either case. It is in this contentious context, eight hundred years before Jesus, that Micah prophesies and preaches to his people. He tells of "a long-suffering God who remains faithful to an unfaithful people" (Feasting on the Word, p. 290). Micah exhorts them to listen to their God, who, like a mother, frustrated with her children, bewildered by their behavior, pleads with them, crying out twice, "O, my people!"

How do the children of Israel respond this time? With arrogance and selfishness. They ask, "With what shall we come before the Lord?" (6:6) Today they might say, What do you want from us? Leave us alone. It seems they have forgotten who they are, whose people they are, to whom it is they belong. They can't seem to remember their own history, their own story of salvation. It's the story of their ancestors – Moses, Aaron and Miriam – and the God who saved them. The children of Israel have failed to fashion the kind of community God longs for them to embrace and to enjoy. God, who liberated them from political and economic bondage, longs for them to become a family of faith, and they have not. They have fallen out of right relationship – with each other, with their God.

By the time we get to Micah's final words for today, in verse eight, an indictment has already been handed down. God has already told you what is good, warns Micah. Then he asks them the question, the answer to which they already know. It's a question for the ages. So, then, what does God require? What is the right thing to do?

There are questions for us, too. In any relationship, what is the right thing to do? What do those "right relationships" that God expects of us, relationships God wants and longs for us to have – what do they look like? Micah's answer in that last verse could easily be a Judeo-Christian bumper sticker. Those familiar words say that God wants more than just words, especially if they are empty. Micah makes it clear: in the midst of religious pluralism, God wants nothing less from them than this: "To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with (their) God." But what do justice and kindness look like – for them, for you and for me?

As if there weren't already enough questions in that Micah lesson, we are given another question-begging lesson in the Gospel, known as the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are the beginning of a more-than-a-hundred-verses-long sermon in Matthew. Jesus preached that Sermon on the Mount to those who followed him up the mountain. He begins with blessings. Jesus offers God's consolation to those who find themselves poor, sad and powerless. The ones to whom he preaches are, once again, the children of Israel, a people oppressed, broken-hearted, exiled. But then, Jesus' sermon expands to all God's people who choose mercy, purity and peace – and to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who long for right relationships, who seek to do the right thing, the "God thing."

A professor of ethics says that "the theological heart of the Beatitudes is a call to be disciples (of Jesus) . . . in pursuit of righteousness, grounded in God's righteousness" (Marcia Riggs, Feasting on the Word, p. 312). We do the right thing when we do the God thing, the thing God would have us do. It's not "What would Jesus believe?" It's "What would Jesus do?" And if we follow Jesus, we need to ask ourselves, What would Jesus have me do? When we truly follow Jesus, we walk humbly enough with God to know that, just because we think it's the right thing to do, doesn't necessarily make it God's right thing. To follow Jesus is to walk in humility, with God, led by God, seeking God. Like Jesus does

The Beatitudes are blessings, but they are also attitudes. They're the kind of attitudes that allow people on society's fringe to receive blessings God longs to bestow on all of us – whether we find ourselves out there, on the margins of life, or whether we choose to go there. In case you haven't noticed, the Beatitude I'm lifting up for special consideration today is the one about righteousness – longing to do the right thing, the God thing. As it is with all the Beatitudes, seeking righteousness can require of us both a major attitude adjustment and some significant behavior modification. To be poor in spirit, or peaceful, or merciful, or meek will get you nowhere in our 21st century, orange-alert world, grounded in competition, violence and fear. Yet Jesus, like Micah, turned his world upside down. What is he doing with ours? What IS God's righteousness?

To get concrete and up to date, what would Jesus do in Tunisia? What would Jesus do in Egypt? How about closer to home? What might Jesus have done this week in Lafayette, Louisiana, where Gil Meche, age 32, retired from the Kansas City Royals, giving up his baseball career? Gil decided that the chronic pain in his right shoulder is too great for him to continue his $12 million contract. "I didn't feel like I deserved it," he said. "And I didn't want to have those feelings any more." What do you think? Did Gil do the right thing, the just, kind and humble thing, the God thing?

What might Jesus have done in Phoenix, Arizona, just days before Christmas? The Catholic bishop there excommunicated a nun who works in a local Catholic hospital and serves on the hospital's ethics committee. Sister Margaret McBride had approved of the decision to terminate the pregnancy of a woman who almost certainly would have died. That decision saved the life of the twenty-seven-year-old mother of four. When the hospital refused to fire the nun, the bishop stripped the hospital of its archdiocesan affiliation. Doctors at many Catholic hospitals are now reporting that sometimes "they are forced by church doctrine to provide substandard care to women with miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies in ways that can leave the women infertile or even endanger their lives." ‘St. Joseph's,' said Linda Hunt, the hospital's president, ‘will continue through our words and deeds to carry out the healing ministry of Jesus. Our operations, policies, and procedures will not change.' The Catholic Health Association . . . a network of Catholic hospitals around the country, stood squarely behind St. Joseph's" ("Tussling Over Jesus", The New York Times, 1/27/11).

Please understand me. Catholic Christians are not the only Christians who are still learning how to follow Jesus. Each day, all Christians have more to learn about how to do the right thing, the God thing. Why should we be any different from other children of God? But the question remains: How will we and the church respond to questions of justice and mercy: arrogantly or humbly?

Sometimes, our policies and procedures do the right things, and we can rejoice. But sometimes they do not. Sometimes, over time, our doctrines, dogmas and teachings, our resolutions, rules and regulations become just words. Empty words. Sometimes our words are empty, because we are empty. We may not want to admit it, but we have a God-shaped hole inside us. We are all empty, and we all need to be filled by God, with God. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled," Jesus tells the crowds (Matthew 5:6). Or in a 21st century rendering: "You're blessed when you work up a good appetite (a good hunger and a good thirst) for God. (God's) food and drink are the best meal you'll ever eat" (Eugene Peterson's The Message).

But what does that 21st century meal look like for us Christians? Is it an exclusive meal, for "members only"? Who else does God want us to invite into our midst, to join us at the table? With whom are we ready and willing to share a holy meal? IS religious pluralism the great spiritual adventure of our time?

Which brings me back to the e-mail from my new Muslim friend. I call Saadat my new friend, because I met with him and his friend Kahlil for coffee yesterday morning and spent a delightful hour with them. We got to know each other a bit, then discussed the interfaith dialogue on February 12, which they're calling "Believing in God in the 21st Century." I agreed to speak . . . and to listen. I must tell you that I had some fear about saying "yes" to their request. But I have prayed about it, and I believe I am doing the right thing. Please pray for me and consider joining me and them, at their table, for a spiritual adventure, along with other hungry, thirsty people who have worked up a good appetite for God.