As the Autumn begins, the gathered community in Crafton Heights is focusing on Micah 6:8 –
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.”
Is there anything more frustrating, or perhaps more pathetic, than watching a parent try to manipulate, pressure, or bully a child into an activity that the child clearly does not enjoy, but from which the parent derives a great deal of pleasure or affirmation? Do you know what I mean? The classic case, I suppose, is the dad who signs up to coach the Little League team and then spends all of his time molding Junior into the second baseman he’s sure he could’ve been if only he hadn’t broken his leg in the 10th grade. You’ve seen him – yelling at the poor kid, drilling it into him, pushing him again and again and again – all so he can get out there and have fun…
Or maybe you’re more familiar with the mother who is so afraid of the fact that her youth may be fading that she enters her four year old into all the beauty contests and dresses her little princess like a starlet, teaching her to move and look at the camera in a way that is not natural for a pre-pubescent child.
Don’t get me wrong: we want our kids to enjoy themselves, and it’s natural for us to desire that they love the same things that we love. But sometimes, they are simply not wired that way. A long time ago, I was thinking about the fact that my daughter was entering her teen years and I was afraid I was going to “lose” her. I happened to be fishing with Adam when we encountered a man and his twelve-year old daughter, complete with matching hip waders and fishing vests. I gestured to the pair, and said, “Some day, Adam…Some day, that could be me.”
He looked at the pair, and then back to me, and said, “Have you met your daughter? If you are looking for some quality bonding time around a shared interest, you better call down to the Joy School of Dance and see if they’ve got a size 36 tutu for you to wear, because that child is not coming to Lake Erie with you in November.”
How about when you invite a friend to dinner, and you make your absolute favorite dish? I mean, you knock one out of the park! You take the first bite, and you know – you know! – that it is as it should be. And you look at your friend, who says, “Well, um, I guess it’s interesting.” Seriously?!?! That’s it? Don’t you love it! Come on, try it again. Eat some more.
Or you bring a boy home to meet your parents, and you are so excited because he is it! I mean, he’s a dream come true. You introduce him to the folks, and they don’t like him.
How do you get someone to love what you love? Is that even possible?
This month, we’ve been looking at Micah 6:8, which contains God’s expectations for those of us who follow him and who bear his name. Do you remember that verse? “What does the Lord require of you?” Require. What’s the bottom line?
The last time I was with you, we talked about God’s call to do justice. OK, I can live with that language. To be frank, it’s about what we might expect from a Supreme Being. Do this. Don’t do that. There’s nothing here about trying, or wishing, or hoping. Do it. We can talk about what justice is or is not, and how it looks in the neighborhood where you live, but the command is a simple one. Do justice.
But look at the next requirement: we are to “love kindness”.
Seriously? I not only have to be kind, but I’m supposed to love kindness? How is that supposed to work? Is God like a pushy parent down at the dance class – working out his own issues through us? “Love this…and that’s an order…”
Let’s look at the word in question. We are told that we are to love “kindness”. The Hebrew word, hesed, is one for which there is not a precise English translation. Some places we see that it means “kindness”, while other times it carries the meaning of “mercy” or “faithfulness” or “loyalty” or “love”. It is a beautiful word.
And you know that word. You may remember it from Lamentations 3: “The hesed of the Lord never ceases and his mercies never come to an end”. Maybe you prayed it at the last funeral you attended, when the preacher led you in the 23rd Psalm: “Surely goodness and hesed will follow me all the days of my life and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.”
Hesed describes what is supposed to happen in a relationship – whether it’s a human or a divine relationship. Hesed is not a set of warm emotional feelings (although there’s nothing wrong at all with warm emotional feelings). Hesed describes the way that we are treated by God and the manner in which we are to deal with our neighbors. It’s an action, not a feeling.
When God wants to describe himself, he uses that word in Exodus, saying that he is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in hesed and faithfulness, keeping hesed for thousands…”(34:6-7). Hesed is, in fact, God’s very nature. One of the most prominent places where we find that kind of love explored is in Psalm 136, which we’ve shared as a part of our Call to Worship and Prayer of Confession this morning. Hesed is who and what God is all about.
And the good news, my friends, is that you are made in the image of God. Genesis 1 tells us that you are a chip off the old block – and therefore, that hesed is not only who and what God is, but it is who and what you are. This is waaaay better than being the son of the guy who lettered in four different sports back in the day, because it’s about how you are made.
And Paul wants to drive that point home when he writes to his friends in Colossae, so he reminds them that they have been renewed in Jesus Christ. If some part of the image of God that is in us has been tarnished, says Paul, there’s no need to worry, because Jesus has polished that all up. You bear the Divine image. You are like God! You are destined to live and share hesed in this world.
“Yeah, Pastor Dave, that’s a nice pep talk and all that, but, well, to tell you the truth, I tried being nice. I really did. For about a week and a half a few years back. And I hated it. And everyone screwed with me. I’m just not cut out for that hesed business.”
The way I read it, my friends, it’s not really an option. Because while my daughter is free to say that she’s not interested in fishing with me, any child of mine is going to have hairy legs and an oddly-shaped head. Nothing that anyone can say about that – it’s just true. It comes with being my offspring.
And the same is true of you and hesed. You are created to love.
The question is, do you love love? I mean, that’s the requirement: we are to love and nurture that part of us that is reflective of God’s image and intentions.
According to a story that comes from the Cherokee tradition, an elderly brave was talking with his young grandson about the battle that goes on inside of every human being. “Inside of you there are two wolves, each of which desires to control you. One of those wolves is evil: it loves to see you caught up in anger, jealousy, greed, pride, and selfishness. The other is noble, and represents joy, peace, love, and hope.” The young boy looked at his grandfather and said, “Tell me: which of those wolves will win?” The old man put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and said, “The one that you feed.”
How do we get to the point where we love love? I’d suggest that it is as simple (and as difficult) as choosing which of those wolves to feed.
On the one hand, we can seek to weed out the things that threaten our ability to live into the fulness of God’s purposes for us. Paul talks about that in Colossians, but the trouble is that he uses a lot of Bible-sounding words like “fornication” and “impurity” and “desire” and “wrath”. What does that look like in real life?
Well, for me, one of the things that I had to do was stop watching South Park. When that show came out almost two decades ago, I thought it was one of the smartest, funniest, perceptive shows on television. I liked watching it. This animated sitcom follows four young boys around their home in Colorado, and it is well-written. But here’s the thing: when I was watching that show, I found myself being enthralled by the sarcasm and satire that is done so well. I noticed that I was, myself, trying a little harder to be sarcastic and caustic in my humor. It was a great show – but it was turning me into a jerk – so I stopped watching it.
Similarly, there are people who simply bring out the worst in me. When I am around them, I am liable to act in all sorts of ways that are contrary to my God-given nature of hesed. Saying “no” to the toxicity that these people would bring into my life is one way of feeding the hesed that lives in me.
But it’s not enough to simply avoid the bad. Part of what we are called to do is to practice the things that will help us to develop the gifts of hesed in our daily lives.
Practice. Do. When we gather for worship, we allow ourselves to remember that we are a part of a community. By physically being present, we put ourselves in a position to claim the truth that is true – even when we can’t always feel it.
When I practice making a certain percentage of my money available for the Lord’s work, I’m not depending on how I feel at the moment. I’m following through with a decision that I’ve made, and trusting that acting like a generous person will allow me to become one.
When you decide to spend a couple of hours a week in a volunteer project, you proclaim with your lifestyle the things that are important to you. When you choose to forgive the person who wronged you, you are saying that you believe in and trust in the grace that is there for you when you do wrong.
Look, you know the truth: none of these things are warm and sentimental, like a cup of hot apple cider or pictures of kittens on the internet. But all of them will help you to grow into the kind of hesed for which you were made.
A.J. Jacobs is a young man who, a few years ago, decided that he was going to try to live a year following the Bible literally. He began the year as a non-religious Jew, but he found that he was hungry for some sort of faith. He thought that if he acted like a person with faith, he might learn something about that. He did. One of the key insights of his Year of Living Biblically is that it is far easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than it is to wait around until you feel like acting differently.
This morning, I hope that you will choose to come to the Lord’s table, and that you will be renewed in your awareness of God’s gift of hesed that is for and in you. Further, I dare to hope that you will be renewed in your desire to be a channel of God’s gift of hesed to the community that we share. Can you love hesed?
Look, I don’t want to sound like an overbearing Little League parent here, but you’ve got this. Come on now. This hesed? It is all you. Let’s see it. Thanks be to God! Amen.