Scripture Text: Matthew 5:1-12 & Micah 6:1-8
We tend to throw around the name “God” a lot. So much so, I’m not sure that we always know what we mean when we say the name “God”. Does the name “God” mean what it originally intended, or is it so loaded with cultural, religious, and political baggage that the name “God” is disconnected from the Ultimate Reality to which the name points? This past week, I read a book by American theologian, John Caputo, entitled The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. This challenging book is helping me to shape by own personal theology of God, and it also helped me to understand the Beatitudes in a new light.
In The Weakness of God, John Caputo argues that “God” is actually a “name” for an “event” and that our interpretation of that “event” is what we call theology. And that the purpose of theology is to separate the “event” from the “name”, otherwise worldly forces will attempt to prevent the “event” of God from happening. Caputo argues that when we give a name to something – like “God” – it “…can accumulate historical power and worldly prestige and have very powerful institutions erected in or under [its] name…” And throughout history, the name “God” has developed a powerful influence, enabled by powerful theological beliefs, political organizations, and religious institutions such as the Church. As such, these beliefs, organizations, and institutions use the power attributed to the “name” of God to push their own worldly agendas instead of building God’s Kingdom.
Yet while a “name” can be held captive to beliefs, organizations, and institutions, an “event” cannot. Because an “event” is not something we do; it is something done TO us. While we can instill a “name” with all kinds of meaning and power, an “event” is out of our control. And even when we try to contain an “event” by giving it a “name” – the “event” always breaks free. The name “Christmas” can NOT contain ALL the meaning and depth and influence of the event that is Christmas. Therefore, God will always be bigger and beyond the “name” and attributes humans apply to God. God is an “event” that happens to us and is out of our control, no matter how much we try to box God in with “names”, theology, and institutions.
And when such a God “event” happens to us, we are required to respond to it. The event elicits a response, not because it is the cause or because it is present – but because the God event calls us to respond or rather, provokes us to respond. The God event calls us to bring about the appearance of the Kingdom NOT through powerful, strong forces – like through violence or political actions enacted in the “name” of God – but through weak forces, through the weakness of God. As Caputo says, “The kingdom of God is the rule of weak forces like patience and forgiveness, which, instead of forcibly exacting payment for an offense, release and let go… The kingdom is a way of living, not in eternity, but in time…living for the day…as opposed to mastering and programming time, calculating the future, [or] containing and managing risk.” And as I look at both of our scripture texts today, I can see what Caputo is talking about when it comes to this God event, to this inability to contain God, to this call to respond to the event, to this kingdom of weak forces. And this God event calls us to embody a way of life built on the beatitudes.
In the prophet Micah, we find a biblical text so well-known that it is regularly tattooed on people’s bodies, memed on social media, and quoted as a show of Christian righteousness. But we must keep this scripture in context. It’s not just a moral exhortation. It’s not a just show of piety. It’s a cry of God against God’s own people who forgot the “event” of God in the past and, instead, tried to domesticate God to their own advantage. To a people who tried to manipulate power in the “name” of God rather than respond to the “event” of God throughout their history. And so, God calls the people into court, demanding they testify to their recent injustices against the poor and outcast among them. Yet, before they can speak, God testifies against them – recalling all the events in which God saved them from destruction – starting from the Exodus. God upheld God’s end of the covenant, yet Israel failed through their unjust actions towards the least among them. Israel acknowledges its guilt and asks what it can do to make themselves right before God again: Bring burnt offerings? Sacrifice a thousand rams? Offer rivers of olive oil? Sacrifice their first born to atone for their sins? But Israel still doesn’t get it. The people still don’t understand what God is calling them to. God doesn’t want a show of religious power. God can’t be manipulated by a ritual or act of worship. God is not concerned about your religion as much as God is concerned with how you live – particularly how you treat those who can do nothing for you in return. And so God simply replies back: I’ve already made it plain and simple how it is you are to live: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously. Doing justice? Love kindness? Walk humbly with God? Those are acts of power and strength. Those are signs of weakness – benefitting the weakest among them. Why should people in power do that? Why should they act in a way that the world sees as weak?
And yet, Jesus teaches the same in the Beatitudes – the beginning of his famous Sermon on the Mount. But the problem with the way we often read the Beatitudes, is that we read them from a “name” of God perspective instead of an “event” of God perspective. Read through the power-affirming “name” of God perspective, the Beatitudes are a seen as series of moral actions and attitudes through which you can earn the power of God’s blessing. The problem is, Jesus is NOT saying, “Do these things and then you will be blessed.” Jesus is saying, “You are already blessed by God because of these events in your life, and there is hope for you in the future completion of the kingdom.” You just have to recognize the blessing of God within those events – events such as mourning and hunger and mercy.
For God is the event that calls you to bring about the Kingdom of God, not through strong forces, but through weak forces. Weak forces that make your heart restless and provoke you to go beyond yourself into unknown places you once thought you would never go. God is that churning in the pit of your stomach that motivates you to finally do something about the things in the world that cause you to mourn, that make you hungry for justice, that urge you to show mercy to others, and that inspires you to work for peace even when people ridicule you and tell you it’s all too big, that you’ll never make a difference. That deep calling from within is the God event. And you are already blessed with events that are calling you to become the Disciple you are born to be. And when you finally answer the call from the God event, you experience transformation. And your actions in response are the weakness of God which is counter to the power the world selfishly manipulates in God’s name.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus lifts up these weak forces as signs of the Kingdom and the object of ridicule by the world. Weaknesses like, feeling “you’re at the end of your rope” (or “poor in spirit”), which blesses you with a constant, humble dependence on God that continues on into the completion of the kingdom. Suffering the loss of “what is most dear to you” (or “those who mourn”) blesses you with knowing the world is not as it should be, and in the event, you are comforted by God’s call to do something about it. Being “content with just who you are” (or “the meek”) blesses you with discovering your worth in God, not in this world, and you are called to show others they’re worth in God too. That gut-wrenching, “good appetite for God” (or “hunger and thirst for justice”) blesses you with a desire for more than fleeting human justice – you desire the radical, upside-down, eternal justice of God’s kingdom to be manifest in this world, by working together, accomplishing one act of God’s justice at a time. “Caring” for others, (or “being merciful”) blesses you with both compassion and forgiveness, action over attitude, in response to the call to imitate God in the Christ event which offered you undeserved compassion and forgiveness and continues to do so even now. Getting “your inside world – your heart and your mind – put right” (or “the pure of heart”) blesses you with freedom from attachments to money and material things – so that you are so fully devoted to God that you see the face of God in all the events of the world – good and bad – just as you will see God’s face in the fulfillment of the kingdom. Showing “people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight” (or “the peacemakers”) blesses you with the event of God’s peace – of God’s shalom – and calls to enact it by helping people cooperate for the welfare of ALL people – building bridges of understanding instead of walls of fear – no matter how futile or nonsensical your efforts appear to the world. Committing “to God” and “provok[ing] persecution” by people who “put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you” blesses you because the God events in your life revealed to you the vision the Kingdom, and so you push that vision forward no matter how difficult, unpleasant, or unpopular it is – knowing that many before you have done the same despite what the powers of the world have done to them, even in the name of God.
That is the blessed kingdom of the weakness of God that Jesus teaches. It’s “…a domain in which weakness ‘reigns’… not the weakness that lacks the power of faith or the courage for action, but the provocative and uplifting weakness of God…that…should not be underestimated because it is a divine force. [Because]…whenever powerlessness exerts its force, whenever the high and mighty are displaced by the least among us…[when]…whatever first is last, whatever is out is in, whatever is lost is saved…[whatever] confounds the dynamics of strong forces…mocking the business-as-usual of the powers that be…” the event of the kingdom of God is occurring. And the Beatitudes are more than a description of that event. The Beatitudes are also both a blessing and a call – a blessing of the weakness of God already working within you and a call to use that weakness so that God’s “kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
For throughout the history of the world, it has been those weaker forces that have brought about the most momentous and long-lasting changes. The British Empire was brought down in India, NOT by using violent force, but by the weakness of non-violent protests. The initial goals of the Civil Rights Movement were accomplished, not by a show of political power, but by the weakness of the powerless. For it is the weak forces that, over time, outlast the strong forces of this world, and completely overcome the powers that be.
Even in your own lives, it is the weakness of God that brings about your transformation. It is the weakness of God throughout life events of – hitting rock bottom, mourning your losses, learning humility, crying out for justice, being forgiven, confronting your inner issues, making peace with your enemies, and suffering ridicule for your authenticity – it’s those events of weakness that eventually overtakes, overturns, uproots, and unhinges you until you are left hanging by a prayer where all you can do is respond to the call of God to participate in the next event. And when you do that, when you finally respond to God’s provocation – then you embodying beatitude living. A life where being blessed means being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, and pure in heart NOT wealthy, powerful, famous, successful, or beautiful. Those are the ways of the world that Jesus warns against. And when you know you are already blessed, you seek to build a better world so ALL people can be blessed. A world called the Kingdom of God. A world that works according to the grace, mercy, and peace of the Beatitudes rather than the punishment, vengeance, and competition of this world. A world where you are blessed – not because you earned it – but so that you can be a blessing to others.
And if this is the way of the Kingdom, then it should also be the way of the Church. Imagine a church that shunned all the ways of power and prestige that the world promotes, and embraced the weakness and humility of God, as seen in the event of Christ Jesus. Imagine a church built around Beatitude living – showing people they are already blessed so that they can be a blessing to others – rather than commodified living – meeting the members’ needs simply to promote their own wealth, image, power, and success. Imagine church members who are less reliant on their own prosperity and more fully reliant on God. Imagine a church that takes its tears over injustice of the world and uses them to make things right, even just in its own community. Imagine a church humble enough to welcome all who it encounters with gentleness and humility – even those other churches reject, even those who can contribute nothing to the church financially or socially. Imagine a church where all the members share life together in such a way that no one among them ever goes without the basic necessities of life. Image a church where mercy isn’t just something the church prays for but is an action the church takes towards those in their community. Imagine a church where members spend time on deep, self-reflection so they can heal from their inner wounds and truly learn to love themselves – because if you can’t love yourself, how can love your neighbor as yourself? Imagine a church where instead of avoiding or gossiping when they disagree or hurt each other, the church members talk to each other – no matter how uncomfortable it is – and work towards reconciliation rather than plotting revenge. Imagine a church that speaks the eternal truth of God’s unconditional love even when it upsets others, even when it’s unpopular in the community. Because I guarantee you, there are people out there looking for a church like that. A church that embodies beatitude living, unashamed of its weakness, blesses others with its blessings, authentic in its relationships, and boldly proclaims the truth of God’s unconditional love. That’s a church that we can be. That’s the church that we are on our way to becoming. A church that embodies the beatitudes. And it all begins by embracing our blessings. AMEN.