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.

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