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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Law and Order

Date: 01/30/2005

Feast: 4th s in o

James McTyre

Church: LHPC

Bible text: Matt. 5:1-12

Theme: Blessed Are

This sermon is an adaptation of M. Craig Barnes’ sermon, “Walking Humbly,” from National Presbyterian Church, January 13, 2002. Ideas for the sermon also came from Benjamin R. Bishop’s sermon, “God’s Standard of Living,” January 2, 2005. Full credit and many thanks to them for sharing their content and inspirations.

This morning, I want you to use your imaginations. Imagine it’s Saturday night, 8PM. You’re in your favorite seat in front of the television. You’ve set up the metal fold-out TV tray, with a bag of popcorn and your favorite beverage. You’re wearing the insulated slippers the kids got you for Christmas. There is peace in the world. You lift the remote, aim it at the TV, and hear “the sound….”

[cue “law & order” theme]

Oh yeah. There it is. Even better in prime time. But about halfway through, something strange begins to happen. Sam Waterston’s prosecuting attorney voice starts to change. The room spins around. The Barc-o-lounger sprouts wings to carry you through the sky to a place high in the mountains. “What was IN that beverage?” you ask yourself. And then you realize… the law, the order are real. And you, YOU are the one in the witness stand. A voice even greater than Fred Thompson’s says…

Rise, plead your case before the mountains,

and let the hills hear your voice.

Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,

and you enduring foundations of the earth;

YOU have been called to the stand in your own defense. The trees, the foundations of the earth are the jury. And the mountains and hills that have been around since the beginning and have seen everything are the witnesses for the prosecution. And to your horror, you discover that God is the prosecuting attorney. And the charge, the charge is that you have failed to remember.

Failed to remember what? You ask. Precisely. And so God, the prosecuting attorney, approaches the stand and sticks a finger in your face, and demands to know:

"O my people, what have I done to you?

In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,

and redeemed you from the house of slavery;

and I sent before you Moses,

Aaron, and Miriam.

O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,

what Balaam son of Beor answered him,

and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,

that you may know the saving acts of the Lord."

“What did I do?” You shout back. “It’s not like I broke any laws!” But today God isn’t concerned about broken laws. God in the book of Micah doesn’t care that we have or haven’t broken God’s law; Micah cares that we might, just might, have broken God’s heart. A far greater crime.

“Have I bored you?” God asks. “Are you bored with your deliverance? Are you bored with my saving acts?” From the beginning, God has contended with people whose attention runs at a deficit. In the beginning, and ever after, we people of God forget that we are people “of God.” We forget that our life, all life, is a gift from God. “Do you remember,” God asks us, “when you were pleading, begging me to get you out of trouble? What happened to the promises you made, the deals you cut?”

This is a very serious charge, because every time we forget that we exist by the hand of God we begin to act like gods ourselves. Then the worst things start to happen. When mortals try to act like gods they only hurt others. (Barnes)

In the words of Karl Barth, "All sin is rooted in a lack of gratitude." When our hearts aren’t filled with thanksgiving for what God has done, they are inevitably filled with anxiety over what we have not done. And out of anxiety about ourselves we fail to care for others with the steadfast love with which God has cared for us. (Barnes)

When we forget who we are, when we forget whose we are, we invite guilt into our living room, into our hearts.


But the court is feeling permissive today, and allows us to speak in our defense. “OK, God. What do you want?”

"With what shall I come before the Lord,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"

The old saying goes, “The man who represents himself has a fool for a client.” The hot air flowing from our rebuttal heats up the room, but leaves everyone cold. Our words indict us. We remember nothing.

What do you really think God wants from you? What do you really think you could give God that God, the creator of the universe, doesn’t already have? Would God like a TiVo? Doubtful. A 20% tithe? 50%? 80%? What would be enough to get God off our case? The roots of our argument begin to show through. Sounds a bit like bribery, your honor, whisper the trees in the jury box.

At which point, Micah, the prophet can’t take it anymore. With a Breaking News bulletin he cuts into his own story.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

In other words, don't keep asking God what you are supposed to do. And don't keep avoiding your calling with your favorite defense of being confused. (Barnes) (”Come, on Lord. The Bible’s... old, and so big, and there are all these commandments and laws (a lot more than Ten, if you notice). I’m only human. I came with design flaws.”)

This is not the kind of pleading that moves mountains. Or trees. Or God or the prophet Micah. We know what God requires. We know we know. To do justice. To love kindness. To walk humbly with our God.

God isn’t asking us to save the world; but God’s asking us to save as much of it as we can. God’s not asking us to be perfect; but God’s calling us to be as perfect as we can be. God’s not asking us to simply believe in justice and kindness. God’s calling us to do justice and love kindness. And in those times when we get it right (praise God!) God’s calling us to walk humbly, and remember – remember why we’re doing these things in the first place. Remember who gave us the standards of justice and kindness that we’re supposed to do and love. Remember who made us, and to whom we will return.


”Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” Of course we have.

When will you ever have cared for enough of the poor, the sick, or the broken hearted? When are you going to take care of those problems? When will you ever be a good enough parent? When will you ever get the church fully reformed in law and in order? Never. When will your love ever be as faithful, and steadfast as God's is? Never.

We make that confession, not to get off the hook, but to place ourselves squarely on it. We hold ourselves accountable for doing justice and loving freely, but not because we expect to succeed. Rather, it is because as we try, our hands are kept more tightly within God's hands, and we make room for God to be God. We’re guilty. But in confessing our guilt, we remember to grab onto mercy as tight as we possibly can. (Barnes)

I know you people. And I’m proud to serve a congregation that tries so hard to serve God. You DO try to do justice. You DO try to love kindness. You do try to walk humbly with your God. So why are you in court? Why are we all in court? Because we forget. We forget that we’re not God. We forget to live with gratitude in our actions as well as in our beliefs.

And what, then, is our sentence? In the voice of Jesus Christ, the Foreman reads the terms.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The sentence is, “Life.” The sentence is, “Life,” but life with a certain set of conditions. When you do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God, you’re going to realize that you’ve been sentenced to… freedom. In this case, “blessed,” means “aware.” You are blessed not because of the things you do, but because you remember why you’re doing them. You’re blessed because you remember God did them, Jesus did them, the Holy Spirit does them. And because they do, you’re grateful.

Hanging on the bar of God’s justice, beat up by the blessings of life, you may not always feel like having an “attitude of gratitude.” I think God knows that, and that’s why Jesus said these blessings the way he did. More than telling us to simply look for the silver lining in every cloud, God calls us to look to the clouds, to the mountains, to the generations who have been around since the beginning and have seen it all. They’re not only our jury. They also bear witness to the steadfast love of God that carries us through all our trials. In other words: remember.


[cue closing credit music]

Well, dagnabbit. You’ve done it again. You hear the closing credit music and realize you’ve slept through yet another episode of your favorite show. Funny, it seemed a lot like church. And that was no doubt the weirdest dream you’ve ever had.

You’re not the first to have that dream. And you won’t be the last. You’ll be able to see it in syndication for a long, long time.