Last week I went down a YouTube rabbit hole. Someone sent me a link for an early 1980s commercial for the Sony Walkman, and my nostalgia got the better of me. I proceeded from one vintage commercial to another, until (an hour of time wasted) I’d been reminded of virtually every famous commercial slogan from the past forty years. You’ll remember many of them, because, well, they’re memorable. That’s the whole point. Here’s what we’re going to do: I’ll name a company or brand, and you call out the slogan. We’ll have to pretend we’re Baptists for just a moment, since we Episcopalians—the Frozen Chosen—don’t usually cry out in church. Don’t be afraid; give it a try! Here goes:
Kentucky Fried Chicken: “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good!”
Wheaties breakfast cereal: “The Breakfast of Champions”
Folger’s Coffee: “The best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup.”
Well done! Here are a few more. Remember the Wendy’s slogan in the 1980s that, in turn, became a catchphrase in the 1984 presidential campaign? “Where’s the beef?!?” Or, recall Volkswagen’s mid-century slogan to launch the original VW Beetle in the United States, during a time when the trend in American cars was to be as big as a boat? VW instead encouraged people to “Think small.” I always liked MasterCard’s slogan, “There’s some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.” In a split second, the viewer believed that a wallet-sized plastic card gave access to every dream.
That’s what good slogans do. They are short, catchy, and memorable. They bring to mind the product they represent, and they present to the imagination the vision of a different world and make us want to be part of it. As a trite but effective example, KFC’s slogan—“Finger lickin’ good”—first makes us hungry and then transports us to a place where we are satiated with delicious comfort food. Or, Wheaties’ slogan transforms the couch potato into a gold medal Olympian.
I like to think I’m an intelligent, sophisticated person, immune to the manipulation of Madison Avenue advertisers. But I’m not. Last year I was at a clergy conference in Washington, D.C. By the time my plane landed, I’d waited on my bag, and Ubered to the hotel, I was travel weary and irritable. My back hurt, and I wanted to take a nap, but instead I dropped my bag in my room and went reluctantly downstairs to meet a few friends who were also attending. On a bulletin board just outside the hotel bar was an advertising poster showing smiling, carefree, happy people lifting their cocktail glasses in a toast. The sign’s slogan said, “What if, no matter what happens in your life, you were meant to be here?”
Oh, brother, I was hooked. Without even realizing it, I thought, “Yeah, that’s right!” So, I walked into that bar with a new spring in my step, not even noticing that it was a dingy and shabby bar, and proceeded to run up a tab.
This morning’s Gospel reading is the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We hear these verses often, but we rarely take note of where they fall in Matthew. Just prior to the sermon, Jesus has called his disciples, that first small band of closest confidantes and friends, and now Jesus’ message has begun to catch steam. Immediately before today’s reading, Matthew tells us, “Jesus’ fame spread…and great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.”[i] In other words, Jesus’ Galilean start-up has suddenly gone viral. And it’s at that moment that Jesus messages his famous sermon, which is the very heart of Matthew’s Gospel.
The sermon is long; it goes on for three entire chapters. That said, the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount can be distilled into its opening verses we read this morning, the Beatitudes. They serve as an abstract, a thesis paragraph of sorts for the sermon, when Jesus says, “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 those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy…” And all the rest.
The Beatitudes are certainly briefer than the entire Sermon on the Mount, but even they run on for twelve verses. Given a full weekend spiritual retreat or a several-session Adult Forum course, one could study all nine Beatitudes and glean a depth of meaningful understanding. It would take at least that long. That’s why most preachers will select a single Beatitude on which to preach rather than the entire list. But such a homily can capture only a sliver of what Jesus is talking about. It would be a partial understanding, which could even lead to a misunderstanding by accentuating one Beatitude and ignoring the rest.
What to do? It would surely help if Jesus had a slogan, something to capture the imagination and call to mind a new vision of life as effectively as, for instance, Disneyland’s slogan “The happiest place on earth.”
Those here at Saint Mark’s who have already taken classes with me are aware that I am generally not a fan of slogan Christianity, because too often whatever slogan Christians choose is really more about what they want Christianity to be than what the Gospel actually says. That said, in our harried lives and TikTok world of minute attention spans and it would be helpful to have a succinct and memorable way to understand and truly articulate the Gospel, a genuine Gospel slogan of sorts.
And, in fact, we do. We read it today, too. It is not directly from the mouth of Jesus, but rather from the Old Testament prophet Micah. It is proof that the Gospel does not begin with Jesus but much farther back in God’s salvation history; that Jesus came, as he himself says in Matthew, to fulfill the work that God’s prophets had begun. In today’s Old Testament reading, in his challenge to the people of Israel, Micah presages the Beatitudes. He takes their truth—already distilled from the entire Sermon on the Mount—and distills it further into a single sentence, provocatively posed as a question. Micah asks, “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?”
There it is, the entire Gospel in a phrase. A slogan worthy of Jesus: 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?
Succinct. Memorable. Drawing our minds immediately to our Creator, and casting before our imaginations a new vision of life. Micah first calls us to recognize that, despite our pretensions otherwise, we are not God, and we must recognize our fragility, our contingency, and our need for humility before the one who makes us in love. And the faithful response to that God is both to deal kindly with one another and to labor tirelessly in this world to mirror God’s own act of creation by creating just structures ourselves.
Micah poses his Gospel slogan in the form of a question, and the answer to that question is the Church. Not MasterCard, not Disneyland, not any other organization in this world, but the Church—the Body of Christ—is called to be the crucible in which the vision Micah presents first become reality. And that finally brings me back to that poster I saw outside the Washington, D.C. bar. It was a cynical poster, selling alcohol as happiness. But God can redeem anything! Recall that that slogan asked, “What if, no matter what happens in your life, you were meant to be here?” Here, at Saint Mark’s Church in the middle of Little Rock, Arkansas. What if? What if, right here, God means for you to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? As Micah says, that is, indeed, good.
[i] Matthew 4:24-25