What is Required?
| Micah 6:1-8
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
|Sun, January 31, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Thursdays are your gift to me. They are my 'sermon sabbath'. On Thursdays I pad around the house in my slippers with a cup of good coffee, with my favourite music on the cd player. But first I go for a run .. a long run. Because, you see, Tuesdays and Wednesdays have always been such good but long days. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are full. They are rich with so many different conversations, meetings and phone calls. By Thursday I am ready for silence and time apart. And my body is ready for exertion. So I go for a run ... and, often, that run is something of a spiritual journey for me. Leaving home I run along the tidal flats on the beach, then by the marina and past the 'No Trespassing' signs onto the train bridge across the Nickomekl River (always with an open for, yes, a not infrequent train!). Once across I enter another world ... a world where for forty-five minutes I see no one else. Running along the dyke, one side is flat delta farm land, lying fallow now ... the other side is a meandering, serpentine river making its lazy way to the sea. At first, the physical sensations take up all of my consciousness ... the familiar burn of exertion in my legs, the cold sting of the January air on the outside of my hands, the sound of my own breathing ... but slowly I begin to notice what is going on around me.
This Thursday it was the birds. Birds everywhere, though at first they were invisible to me. But, then, a bald eagle high in a tree. Two hawks swooping down in search of mice in the field. A great blue heron standing at the edge of the river, motionless. Crows and gulls scavenging here and there. Flocks of geese, wintering over in the river, taking off as soon as I run near. Then I begin to see that there are loons, too. Loons who have begun - can it be true - to pair up. And I recall glimpsing - to my great delight - the first blossoms on the oriental cherry trees outside my office window on Wednesday afternoon. I sense that the loons and the trees know that the days are lengthening and that the chill will soon be gone. Suddenly I wonder if this is how the Kingdom of God breaks in upon the world ... in small signs of promise and of hope, glimpsed while it is still cold and dark. Maybe this is what it means to speak of the church ... and of our lives ... as the first fruits of the Kingdom. I wonder if anyone looking at my life ... or at our life together ... has the same surge of hope that I have when I see the loons and the blossoms? And if not ... why not? What might we live like ... what might our life together look like ... if we lived knowing deep in our bones that the kingdom of heaven was dawning on earth as surely as the loons know that the spring is on its way?
Back home again I sit down to Micah, thinking that my run was a fascinating diversion ... only to discover that these are the very questions that perplex the ancient prophet. Micah, who arrives in prosperous Jerusalem from the poverty-ridden villages to the south. Micah, the village peasant who is enraged by the immoral use of power by the state. Micah, whose wild cry from the underside so easily becomes a domesticated hymn ... sung but rarely put into practice within the congregation of the faithful. Yes, Micah wonders about the lack of congruence between what God is up to in the world and what the people of God are up to in the world. He imagines that the world of nations should take one look at the people of Israel and say 'Thank God'. Instead, he sees a people caught up in the same vicious cycles of greed and fear and pride that enslave the rest of the world. It is not supposed to be this way. Israel has seen what God is up to in the world. Israel has been saved by the generosity of God. But Israel has forgotten. Perhaps we have forgotten, too. Perhaps the church of Jesus Christ as it exists in the Western world suffers from collective amnesia. Perhaps we have forgotten what it means to live in gratitude to God.
This is the gist of the legal proceedings at which Micah is the court reporter. In this court room the mountains and hills ... the foundations of the earth itself ... are judge and jury. God Almighty is the prosecuting attorney. The people of God sit accused, in the defendant's box: "Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord ... for the Lord has a controversy with his people and he will contend with Israel. 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". Yahweh - the God of Israel wants to know what is up. Why are the people not acting like the saved community that they are? Why have they adopted the ways of hording that mark other nations? God longs for a people whose life is marked by gratitude ... gratitude for the gift of life on the other side of death ... gratitude for freedom on the other side of slavery. God longs for a people who, having been delivered into the promised land of the kingdom of heaven, live in the way that God intends all people to live. The church - like Israel - is to be a sign to the nations that Yahweh has something new in store for the whole creation.
But Israel has forgotten. We have forgotten. In the cosmic court room the defendant begrudgingly asks, "With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?". Alright God, what do you want from us? How much will be enough? Burnt offerings? Calves a year old? An offering envelope every Sunday? Ten percent of everything we earn? Thousands of rams? Ten thousand rivers of oil? The car? The house? Our firstborn child? Just how much is enough to satisfy you? This is the language of bargaining and calculation. It is not the language of gratitude or gift. This sounds like a people living in abundance and prosperity who wonder how much they have to share with God in order to keep God off of their backs. It does not sound like a people who come out of their poverty, mindful that it is all gift.
They ask - we ask - what God wants us to do: "Just tell us so we'll know what is required and can get on with it". But Micah's God does not tell us what to 'do'. The people of God cannot work themselves into the kingdom of God. We can only live within God's commonwealth. So Micah's famous summation of all of the Old Testament prophets is not a list of virtues, not a description of good behaviour. "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?". Micah namesthree dimensions of a community that is faithful to God. Each one depends on and is reinforced by the other two. Together they embody God's will done on earth as it is in heaven. A community that embodies justice, kindness and humility is what God longs for ... and what the world longs for. Such a people are the first signs of a new season dawning in creation. This is why Jesus has the audacity to say: "Blessed are the meek ... blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ... blessed are the merciful". Such people as these are like the first tentative blossoms of spring, blooming while the calendar still insists that it is winter. Yes, says Paul, this surprising community of reconciliation seems foolish to the worldly wise and it confounds religious people of every sort. The people of Israel - a congregation like ours - seems puny and unimpressive by the world's standards. Yet it is in such people as this that God's kingdom emerges while the world is still deep in the hold of winter.
And if we find ourselves - like the people of Israel - caught up in the purposes of God ... if we begin to see everything in the world - everything in our own lives - through the lens of God's kingdom coming ... what is required of us? Micah's testimony is memorable in its simplicity ... and an impossible possibility in its scope:
"Do justice" as God does justice. Not as the courts do justice. Not as the world does justice. Do justice as God does justice. Dare we? Dare we imagine doing justice as Yahweh does justice. Walter Brueggemann suggests that, according to the Bible, "Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them ... The work of liberation, redemption, salvation, is the work of giving things back." Giving back land. Giving back dignity. Giving back a life free from debt. This is what Yahweh is up to according to the prophets of the Old Testament. And a people who find themselves living under the reign of God will always be about the hard work of doing justice ... of giving things back. This is easy when we can call on others to give things back. It is less so when it is our turn. The problem is, of course, that if we control what belongs to others long enough, we come to think of it as rightly ours, and to forget that it belonged to someone else. We no longer live from poverty and in gratitude. We live, instead, from abundance and in fear. Not long ago I heard a victim of Arthur Plint in the Port Alberni Residential School say: "We don't really want to see the church bankrupted ... but, to be perfectly honest with you, if we saw a United Church that had no buildings, no property because it had given it all up in seeking to set right the wrongs of the past ... and if that church was now worshipping under a tent ... I would find that kind of a church very interesting, very appealing ... I would want to join that kind of a church."
"Love kindness" as God loves kindness. Not just kind to those who deserve it. Not just kind when it is the polite thing to do. To love kindness as God loves kindness is to be resilient in standing alongside those to whom the world has not been kind ... even those who are not kind. Remember Jan's story of Pastor and Pastora Lopez in Nagua in the Dominican Republic? Raising three children of their own and thirteen adopted orphans, living in dire poverty they worry about other children who need a bed. When their guests from North America wonder how they will possibly feed more children, given their daily struggle for bread, they simply say "God will provide" ... and they believe it. When one of the visitors from the north leaves a suitcase behind the Lopez' thank him because "now we have room to sleep two of the babies", leaving room to bring in two more children into the orphanage. To love kindness is to live kindness ... it is to live open to others and for others ... not locked away for fear of others. Imagine a church known for its love of kindness to orphans of every sort. Hear the only words needed to describe the amazing kindness that welcomes the outcast and stranger as long lost family: 'Kingdom come' !
"Walk humbly with your God". Do justice, give back. That's hard. Love kindness, open up. That's scary. But 'walk humbly'? Us? We who are raised up believing that this is 'the best country in the entire world'? We who live in a world where we no longer live in fear of God? We teach our children to take pride in their accomplishments. We are proud of our church. Being humbled is not something that we look forward to. A humbling experience is not particularly pleasant in our estimation. So we have, instead, humbled God. We have domesticated the transcendence of God ... made God subject to human reason. If we don't like to think of a wrathful God, we decide that God cannot be wrathful. If we choose to believe that all faiths lead to God, then all faiths lead to God. If we don't much like the thought of doing justice (especially if it means giving things back) or of loving kindness (especially if we can't control whom we'll be kind to) then we simply decide to ignore God's will for the earth and for our lives. Perhaps this is where we must begin. Not with justice ... not even with kindness ... but first with humility. Humility which admits that we do not know the way ahead. Humility which acknowledges that God's will for our lives is, at once, exhilarating and terrifying. Humility which discovers that God's own walk on earth is the humble walk of a servant ... not the proud stride of a king.
Yes, we must begin here. Not knowing the way ahead. Not programming and planning our lives full, but opening space and time for God to
work transformation in our life together ... a new way of life that gives others hope ... the way the mating of loons and the blossoming of trees gives hope long before the winter ends. A people who live within the kingdom of God's promised land become a beacon of hope that God's creation is entering a new season: a new season of justice in place of rapacious greed ... a new era of loving kindness emerging from the isolated winter of rootless, homeless despair ... a new world in which this dark age of human arrogance and pride stands humbled, enlightened, by the awesome and inexplicable saving grace of God.