Friday, November 9, 2018

“Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly” - November 11, 2018

Text: Micah 6:6-8, Mark 12:28-34

The world is changing rapidly.  We all know this.  Culture and technology and social dynamics keep changing and evolving.  For better or worse, the world is a different place than it was 20 years ago.

One of the big changes over the past 20 or 25 years has been that more and more Americans, when surveyed, claim no religious affiliation.  I have mentioned before that this group has been called “The Nones.”  Writing a few years ago, researcher Robert Putnam said that “It is now, roughly speaking, 35 percent [to] 40 percent of younger Americans … who say that they have no religious affiliation.”

That’s a big change.  For many years about 5 to 7 percent of Americans said they belonged to no religion.  The shift, Putnam says, is “a quite novel and interesting, significant development.”

Well, it is more than novel and interesting and significant.  For those of us in the church, it is scary.

The reason many people are staying away from the church is not so much that they don’t believe in God or find Jesus an appealing figure.  It is because of the ways that Christians and church leaders have presented themselves in public: as judgmental, hypocritical, and overly political.  Somehow, people have got the message that the Church is mostly concerned with toeing the line, being on the right side of hot-button issues, and gaining political power.  Love and grace and welcome are not the first things that come to mind for a lot of people when they think of the church. 

Our situation is not terribly unlike that of the prophet Micah, who lived 2700 years ago.  It was a time in which there were elaborate outward shows of religiosity but a lack of deep, transforming faith.  Religious leaders had promoted a status quo religion that kept the powerful in power but turned a blind eye to injustice.  And then Micah showed up.  His message of judgment against the faithful – against the religious leaders and those who considered themselves righteous - must have been quite a shock.

If we were to go back to the verses and chapters preceding our reading from Micah this morning, we would find a no-holds barred condemnation of the faith and worship of Israel.  God’s acts on behalf of Israel are made clear.  God had been faithful, but Israel had turned from God.

Last week we looked at the prophet Elisha and the healing of Naaman, the Syrian military general.  Elisha prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel.  Micah lived about a hundred years later and prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah.  He was one of the writing prophets, many of whom we find in the short books at the end of the Old Testament.  Micah is one of those books that is kind of hard to find when you look it up.  But don’t be misled by the brevity of the prophetic books; their message is powerful. 
The prophets thundered against Israel for cheating, abuses of power and privilege, exploitation of the poor and powerless, self-indulgence, and retreat into vain religiosity.  “You cows of Basham,” raged Amos, “who oppress the poor, and crush the needy.”  “Your wealthy are full of violence,” said Micah; “your inhabitants speak lies.” “Because you have plundered many nations,” said Habakkuk, “all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you.” “The people went far from me,” said Jeremiah, “and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”

Pretty tough stuff.  The people had turned from God and failed to live as God had demanded. 

Micah’s understanding was that Israel had turned to elaborate ritual sacrifices while at the same time engaging in wickedness, cheating, violence by the wealthy toward the poor, and rampant lying.  Now, it wasn’t that God was against ritual practice per se.  Ritual can be very meaningful.

I mean, think of our own ritual practices.  Things like communion and then joining hands in a circle after a communion service.  Baptism.   Christmas Eve.  Praying the Lord’s Prayer.  And yes, giving our offerings.

Ritual can be important, but Micah said that these rituals were meaningless without accompanying righteous behavior.  Offering a ritual sacrifice was no substitute for faithful living.

Micah brings an indictment against the people and then turns to a kind of ridiculous hyperbole.  Speaking for Israel, he writes, "OK, we are guilty as charged.  So what do you want, God?  Do you want burnt offerings?  How about thousands of rams?  How about 10,000 rivers of oil?  Would that do it?  Would that be enough?  Would that set things right?”

Just what is it that God wants from us?  Essentially, Micah says that God doesn’t really want anything.  Because God is not after things; God is interested in us.  Faith is a relationship.  Micah 6:8 describes that relationship. What God wants is a certain way of living from us, a way of living that walks alongside God. 

Amos and Hosea, Micah and Isaiah, all of the great 8th century prophets can be summarized in this one verse: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”  This is the high water mark of prophetic religion, and is seen clearly in the teachings of Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t about laying down a bunch of legalistic rules; he was about living in relationship with God.  For Jesus, it all boiled down to love God and love your neighbor, which is pretty similar to what Micah is saying here.

First, we are to do justice.  Not just like the idea of justice, but actually do it.  This means that we work for the good of all people, especially those who are powerless.  We work to change structures and systems so that everyone is treated fairly and equitably.  There is a social dimension to faith, and as Christians we are to be salt and light in our communities.  We are to live in a way that honors and respects and values everyone.  We do justice and we work against injustice.

Righting wrongs, providing opportunities for those who need it, seeing all people as God’s children, full of worth and value – these are all elements of justice. 

And then we are to love mercy.  If you look in five different translations of the Bible, you might find 5 different words here.  It may read kindness, or loyalty, or love, or grace.  The word that is hard to translate here is hesed – a word that has shown up again and again as we have made our way through the Old Testament – almost every week, it seems, in our scripture reading.  It means something like loving kindness.

Hesed is when you are in serious trouble, you are really hurting, and there is someone who has no reason to help you but they do anyway – they go out of their way to help.  That is what it is to be on the receiving end of hesed. 

I remember a really bad ice storm several years ago.  There were tree limbs down everywhere.  We have a big sycamore tree in our back yard, and every time the wind blows we have a bunch of sticks to pick up.  That happens routinely.  But with this huge ice storm, there were all kinds of limbs and branches down in our backyard, along with an unbelievable amount of the smaller stuff.  I was working on it with both a chainsaw and a rake, thinking that this would take days to clean up.

And about then a woman just showed up in our back yard to help.  I had never met her but she apparently lived nearby.  She had already cleaned up her yard - it was a small yard and she didn’t have much to clean up - but she wanted to help other people.  So she was out looking for people to help.  And she did.  I couldn’t believe it.  That was hesed.  Kindness and mercy and help that was in no way expected, but freely chosen.  She helped out for awhile, and the job didn’t seem so impossible, and then she went on and helped somebody else.

It is interesting that we are to do justice, but we are to love mercy or love kindness.  So it’s not just that God wants us to do good toward others; God wants us to love doing good toward others.  We are not just called to love our neighbor, God wants us to love loving our neighbor.

And then we are to walk humbly with God.  The key word here is walking.  Life is a journey, and walking humbly means that we journey with God; we learn from God.  In Judaism, the word for ethics and morality is “walking.”  It describes how one should go about one’s day-to-day life.  Our walk is never taken alone.  Psalm 23 says, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  Walking with God.

The life of faith is not about a bunch of arbitrary rules.  It is not about outward shows of piety and goodness.  It is about walking humbly with God.  As that relationship with God grows, we more and more are led to do justice and love mercy.  As we love God, we are more and more led to love our neighbor.

Micah says that authentic faith is not about outward show or ritual acts; it is about relationships.  Our stewardship theme this fall is taken from Micah 6:8: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.”  As a church, we are engaged in all of this and our gifts support all of this. 

The focus on relationships extends to our financial giving.  We don’t receive a bill from the church and we are not asked to pay our dues.  We give willingly and joyfully, out of a relationship.  The Old Testament idea was to give 10% of one’s income as a tithe, or gift to God.  Jesus’ teaching goes beyond this and says that it all comes from God – it’s not that 10% belongs to God; 100% belongs to God.  We are stewards of all of these gifts.  So the question is: how do we use what God has blessed us with and entrusted to us?

We give out of relationship.  God blesses us, and we want to give.  We see needs, and we want to give.  We understand how important our mission is, and we want to support it.

God has created us for giving, and we are at our best when we are giving.  E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary to India back in the mid-20th century.  He was from Baltimore and on trips home from India he would speak in local churches.  One Sunday he was scheduled to speak at a church in a small town in Pennsylvania.

It was his habit to get to the church where he was speaking very early.  When he got to this particular church there was no one there except an older man sitting and playing a simple one-finger tune on the organ.

They got into a conversation.  Jones learned that as a young man, he had been very successful.  He made a lot of money.  Then the Great Depression hit and he lost everything.  He couldn’t find a job until his church needed a custodian and hired him for the job.

The organ that he was playing a tune on with one finger was the organ he had donated to the church when he was young and affluent before the Depression.

He said he loved coming to the church early in the morning before work and just sitting at the organ.  And he told E. Stanley Jones, “The only things I have left, are the things I gave away.  The only things that I have been able to keep are what I shared with others.”

God has created us for giving.  And we are at our best when we are giving.  Cheryl Chatman is the Dean of Diversity and Executive Vice President at Concordia University in St. Paul.   She told the story of her uncle and his life of stewardship.

Cheryl’s uncle was an electrician.  He owned and operated an electrical business.  He was not satisfied just to hire people and provide a job for them.  He strategized about how to give them a sense of self-worth and dignity.

So he started with three men in his mother's garage, teaching classes at night to help them secure electrical licenses.  The class grew and had to be moved to the church’s fellowship hall.  Eventually 46 people regularly attended classes that he taught and are now either journeymen electricians or master electricians.  This resulted in first time home ownership.  It resulted in tuition money for advanced education for their children, four of whom later opened their own successful electrical businesses.

This stewardship trickled down through families and generations.  Aside from the employees and their families, this man provided assistance to senior citizens through gifts of meals, help paying bills, and home repairs.  Chatman’s uncle was a steward who provided opportunities, supported livelihoods, and cared for the elderly.  He was doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  And in the next generation, that legacy continued.  
What does God require?  What does God ask of us?  Not ritual practices, not going through the motions of religiosity.  God wants lives of justice and kindness and humility – God wants people who will walk with God. 

As we offer our financial pledges of support for God’s work today, we are committing to support the work that we all do together, the work of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.  Our financial commitments are symbols of what is in our heart, symbols of our commitment as individuals and as a church to follow Jesus as we love God and love our neighbor.  Amen.

“The Gifts of Everyday Saints” - November 4, 2018

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14

Last Sunday, we thought about wisdom and discernment as we looked at Solomon, known as the wisest of Israel’s kings.  Under his leadership, the great temple was built in Jerusalem, along with an ambitious program of public works, including a palace for the king.  Beyond that, Solomon lived lavishly.  He became fabulously wealthy and lived a life of luxury.  To support all of this, the people were taxed heavily, and by the end of his reign, the nation was nearly bankrupt.  He was known as the wisest of Israel’s kings, but he did not always make such wise choices.

After Solomon’s death, the nation was divided north and south.  It is during the time of the divided monarchy that the prophets Elijah and Elisha arose in the northern kingdom of Israel.  Elisha was Elijah’s protégé, and at the end of Elijah’s life, Elisha took up his mantle, or cloak - literally.  This is where the expression comes from for passing on authority from teacher to student.

It was in the time of Elisha the prophet that we come to today’s scripture.  Naaman was the commander of the army of Aram, an ancient country that is today part of Syria.  Naaman was a military hero and a powerful man. 

But there was a problem.  Naaman had a secret.  He had a terrible skin disease.  Presumably, he had gone from doctor to doctor seeking help for his affliction.  Unless one was born into the royal family, a person could not rise any higher than Naaman.  But his power and status did not protect him from illness.

Now, Aram was on the northern border of Israel.  There was a history of warring and raiding between the two nations, but at the moment they were at peace.  But during an earlier raid on Israel, an Israelite girl was taken captive, and she was now Naaman’s wife’s servant.

Inexplicably, this servant girl cares about Naaman.  It’s hard to imagine why; perhaps because this slave girl had suffered, she had compassion for the suffering of Naaman and his family.  And so she tells Naaman’s wife that there is a great prophet in her home country, back in Israel, who might be able to cure him.

Although this servant is unnamed and seems a relatively minor character in the story, there would be no story without her.  It is her suggestion that makes everything possible. 

It says something about the depth of Naaman’s desperation that he listened to the advice of this slave girl.  They were at peace at the moment, but the Arameans generally held the upper hand with Israel.  It would be humiliating for this great man to go to Israel, of all places, on bended knee.  But the leprosy threatened to take everything from him, and so he willing to try almost anything, even willing to listen to a Hebrew slave girl. 

Naaman mentions the servant’s suggestion to the king, and to his surprise, the king thinks it’s a great idea.  Of course, there were political implications to consider.  Naaman’s visit would create quite a stir.  The king sends along gifts: silver and gold and ten new suits, the latest in Aramean fashion.  And rather than sending Naaman to the prophet, he sends him to the king of Israel.  This needed to be handled at the proper level.  A person like Naaman wouldn’t just go hat-in-hand to an Israelite prophet. 

The letter sent to king says, “I have sent Naaman to you so that you may cure him of leprosy.”  And the king of Israel is scared to death.  “What, you think I can just cure leprosy?” he asks.  He was obviously being set up.  When he failed to provide the cure, Aram would have an excuse, a pretense, to beat up on Israel again.  It was a potentially dangerous situation, and the king tears his clothes as a sign of his despair.  But word of Naaman’s visit reached Elisha the prophet, who sent a message to the king of Israel.  “Send this guy on over to me,” Elisha says.

It’s interesting that this slave girl, a captive in a foreign land, has heard of the prophet Elisha and believes he can heal Naaman – but the king seems clueless about this.

Naaman and his whole entourage, with horses and chariots and servants, goes to the house of Elisha.  As commander of the Aramean army, he expects to be treated with dignity and respect. 

Naaman and his traveling group pulled up at Elisha’s place.  And they waited.  He was surprised that Elisha did not rush out to receive him.  But instead of being received with honor by Elisha, this Israelite prophet just sends out a servant.  Imagine that!  Naaman, the commander of the Aramean army, arrives at the home of an Israelite prophet.  This had to be the biggest thing that had happened in these parts in who knows when.  This mighty general arrives, and the prophet doesn’t even bother to see him!  A scrawny messenger boy tells Naaman to go dip in the Jordan River seven times, and he would be clean.

It was a slap in the face is what it was.  Elisha’s prescription was no better than his bedside manner.  The Jordan River was really not much more than a muddy creek.  It was shallow and at times rather foul-smelling.  I mean, if you dipped seven times in the Jordan River, you were likely to get a skin disease.

Naaman is infuriated.  He has come all this way, gone to all this trouble, brought expensive gifts, just to have the servant of an Israelite prophet tell him to go dip in a godforsaken mudhole.  If he were going to wash in a river, they had way better rivers back home.  Of all the nerve!

Naaman said, “I thought the prophet would come out, and wave his hands and call on his God, and say magic, mysterious words to cure the leprosy.  I thought there would be drama.  I thought there would be spectacle.  I thought it would be a big production!”  And Naaman stormed off in a rage.

And for the second time, it is not the mighty and powerful people, but a lowly servant who saves the day and points Naaman towards healing.  His servants approached him and said, “Look, if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?

The servant was right.  If Elisha had prescribed a vegan diet, or sent Naaman on a difficult quest, or asked him to do a dangerous mission for God, he would have done it.

That kind of prescription would have been easier for Naaman because it would have meant that he had earned his healing.  It would have meant that he himself was responsible for it.  Likewise, he wanted to pay for the treatment with gold and silver and fine clothing.  But Elisha would not take it.  For Naaman, to simply accept a gift was a lot harder.

But the servant’s words were true.  He would have done anything.  So it made sense to at least give Elisha’s prescription a try.  He goes to the muddy waters of the Jordan, and he immersed himself seven times in the water.

Naaman had to set aside his pride and humble himself.  The text says, “He went down,” and he really did have to go down.  He had to stoop to taking advice from an Israelite slave girl, then he went down to Jerusalem, and then even further down to the prophet in Samaria.  He had to lower himself to the point of being set straight by his own servants, and finally he went down into the muddy Jordan, washing with the very common people of an enemy nation, before he found healing.

“The Doctor” was a movie starring William Hurt as a physician who is diagnosed with throat cancer.  As a teacher in the med school, he is used to people following his commands.  He is in control and in charge, and he is not used to being a patient.

As a patient, he finds that he has to do a lot of waiting.  He is treated like anybody else and has to go by other people’s schedules, not his own.  He is not used to feeling unimportant; he is not used to all the indignities of being a patient.  In the course of his treatment, he becomes friends with a fellow patient who teaches him a great deal about living and about dying.  He makes a full recovery, while she does not.

When he returns to his teaching position, one of the first class projects is to assign a bed to each student and to attach a hypothetical disease to each of them.  Each make-believe patient has to undergo all of the tests associated with that disease.  The nurses, much more familiar than doctors with the day-to-day care of patients, seem pleased.

This doctor was not only cured, he was healed.  He experienced a conversion of sorts, and returns to his profession, both a changed man and a much better doctor.

It may have been that way for Naaman.  He was cured of his illness, and we have to hope that in the process, he was healed as well, that he learned humility, learned to listen to others, and was a changed man after the experience.

November 1 was All Saint’s Day, and today is celebrated as All Saints Sunday.  This is not necessarily a major emphasis of our Baptist tradition, but it strikes me that the story of Naaman is fitting for today.

We recognize, of course, saints of the Church, and we might mention someone like St. Francis from time to time.  But our understanding is that all Christians are saints – meaning not that we are all perfect or especially godly, but we are all God’s people, all loved and called by God.  At Helen Sassaman’s memorial service a couple of weeks ago, she wanted to have “When the Saints God Marching In” as part of the service, so Mindy played it.  That song is talking about all of us.

Two of the characters in the story of Naaman that might seem like minor characters are actually crucial to Naaman’s healing.  First, a slave girl points him toward the prophet in Israel.  And then one of his servants encourages him to follow Elisha’s instructions, again pointing him toward healing.

There is even more.  The slave girl was taken from her home, from her family, from her community.  She was a captive in Aram.  She had every reason not to help Naaman.  Yet she does.  Naaman’s servant who tells him to follow Elisha’s instructions is likely also a slave.  How do you wish good and healing upon one who has done you evil?

The last couple of weeks have been awful, filled with hatred and violence.  But in the midst of that there have been rays of hope and love.

After the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the shooter, a man who had murdered 11 Jews and injured many others, was taken to Allegheny General Hospital.  Even while in the ambulance and in the emergency Room, he kept yelling that he just wanted to kill Jews.

Well, in the ER, his attending doctor was a Jew.  His nurse was a Jew.  They cared for him as they would anyone else.  Jeff Cohen is the president of the hospital.  He lives a couple of blocks from the synagogue, where he is a member.  He heard the gunfire.  He was concerned for his mother, who he thought ma have been in the building.  Yet Cohen went to the shooter’s hospital room.  He asked how the man was doing and if he was in pain.  The man said that no, he was fine.  And then the man asked who he was.  He said, “I’m Dr. Cohen.  I’m the president of the hospital.” 

The FBI agent guarding the patient told Dr. Cohen, “I don’t know if I could do what you just did.”

As I think about the story of Naaman today, in light of all that is going on in our world, I’m thinking that instead of Naaman or Elisha, maybe the slave girl, who does good for one who has done her evil, who points Naaman toward healing, is the person for us to focus on.  This girl may help us to think about the idea of everyday saints.

We are not great military leaders.  We are not national heroes.  We are not amazing, miracle-working prophets.  We are not superstar saints.  But we can do what this young girl did.  We can do what Naaman’s servant did.  In small acts of compassion and caring, we can make a difference.  In our own way, we can try to emulate what the doctors and nurses at Allegheny General Hospital did.  It’s not easy, but we can act justly and we can show kindness and we can follow the way of Jesus even in the face of hatred and opposition.

Each act of kindness and compassion and unexpected goodness contributes to the healing of both ourselves and others – as well as our community and our world.  Each time we care for our neighbor or choose to be generous or help a person in need or express concern for a friend or act to protect the earth or welcome a stranger or give of our time to make our community a better place, we are contributing to healing.  In this season that we think about stewardship, it strikes me that such acts of kindness and caring and compassion are powerful acts of stewardship.

It is not just the big names and superstars.  It is the gifts of everyday saints who make a difference in our lives.  Who are the people that have blessed you, who have made a real difference in your life?  We can look around and see some of those people, some of those everyday saints, here in this place.  And we can give thanks to God.  Amen.