It’s About the Walk

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.”

On October 19, as our congregation observed “Preschool Sunday”, we considered the command to “Walk Humbly with God”.  The scriptures that helped us engage this topic were Psalm 131 and Mark 10:13-16

For the last several weeks, we’ve been looking at one of the key texts in the Old Testament. The people have left God’s best for them and are now faced with the threat of war, exile, and even the extinction of their nation. They turn to Micah, God’s spokesman, and say, “Well what can we do? How are we supposed to stay alive?” And the response, which you’ve already heard this morning, is clear: “He has shown you what is good – and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?”

That’s how we stay alive. Do justice: that is, when you are in a position to assist one who has been wronged or to lift up someone who has been stepped on, do it.

And love kindness: that is, growing into a pattern of living where those acts of justice come, not as a response to a command, but out of the depths of your heart.

And walk humbly: that is, shape your daily behavior in such a way so that God’s power and presence in the world is more visible to the people who are around you. When the prophet, or God, or you and I, use the word “walk” in this way we are referring to a way of life.

I find it interesting (and refreshing) to see that this last condition on how we are to make it out of here alive does not hinge on our theological dexterity. It is not based on our intelligence, nor does it rely on us having the correct position on current political issues. The prophet asks us about the way that we live.

In that way, of course, he reminds us of Jesus, who wasn’t particularly big on inviting people to sit around and make sure that everybody agreed on a particular set of ideas. Jesus didn’t come with a slate of answers or a political agenda to which he required everyone to adhere.

DustNo, when Jesus wanted to get inside of your head or your heart, what did he say? “Follow me.” “Walk like I do.” The way that you live, and the one that you follow, says a lot about what you believe. The Jews have recognized this when they refer to the collective body of written commandments as wisdom as halakha – that is, “the way to walk”. Neither Micah nor Jesus talks about ideas in the abstract; instead, they invite us to join with the Lord in a way of living.

And how does Micah invite us to walk? We have a very rare Hebrew word here, which is usually translated as “humbly.” As I look at that word, and at the ways in which it is used in other places, I think that I will agree with those scholars who suggest that a more faithful translation would be “wisely” or “carefully”. We are to engage the world (that is, to live) each day knowing who we are and who God is, and acting as if that matters.

The scriptures you’ve heard this morning talk about that kind of awareness and lifestyle. And, not suprisingly on Preschool Sunday, each of the verses point us in the direction of children.

The 131st Psalm is very useful to us in our daily devotion because it reminds us to be alert to two dangers in the Christian life. On the one hand, we are to be alert to the evil of pride. A modern translation of this passage gets it right: “God, I’m not trying to rule the roost, I don’t want to be king of the mountain. I haven’t meddled where I have no business or fantasized grandiose plans.” (The Message)

If we are to walk wisely, we must remember that we live in relationship with God. We are not in charge, we are not in control – we have a place in the universe that is less than primary.

That idea, even though it sounds terribly obvious when I stand up here and say it out loud, runs counter to the experience that most of us have every day. Our culture tells us that we are supposed to be on top of the heap and exercise our own power and strength. When Eugene Peterson writes about this verse, he says,

It is difficult to recognize pride as a sin when it is held up on every side as a virtue, urged as profitable and rewarded as an achievement. What is described in Scripture as the basic sin, the sin of taking things into your own hands, being your own god, grabbing what is there while you can get it, is now described as basic wisdom: improve yourself by whatever means you are able, get ahead regardless of the price, take care of me first. For a limited time it works. But at the end the devil has his due There is damnation.[1]

An essential, if seemingly-obvious, aspect of the faithful walk is recognizing that at the end of the day, God is in charge and I am not. Pride is my enemy.

But the Psalm does not only warn us against the evil of arrogance. The next passage cautions us against the resignation that can come from a clingy dependency and a refusal to grow up into being our own person in God’s sight.

Dave with Caitlin & MackenzieOne of the great blessings of being me – and there are many – is that I have known a lot of babies. Not only that, but people seem to trust me with their children, and will willingly hand me the little angels when they are only a few hours old. And here is something I have noticed about every infant I’ve ever held: sooner or later, that baby will get fussy and start to scream at me for something that I will never, in a million years, be able to provide. You know what I’m talking about – there I am holding that baby, smiling for the photos, and what starts out as a nuzzle before too long turns into a situation where that child is rooting around expecting old Pastor Dave to come up with some milk. Sooner or later, every infant cries – not for a relationship, not for affirmation – but for a meal. If you have ever been a mother, you know what it is like to be yelled at, not for who you are, but for what you provide. You are a meal ticket.Dave with Caitlin & Mackenzie

But the Psalmist compares himself to a weaned child resting at its mother’s breast. A weaned child is not looking at mom as a commodity. A weaned child is there because that child has learned that mom’s lap is a delightful place to be in and of itself.

Many of you know that I was away for much of 2010. I traveled the world and saw some amazing things, and I am hard pressed to say which of the experiences I was blessed with was the most memorable. For four months, I was living in a dream.

But this is one thing I hope I never forget about that trip: In September of 2010 I arrived home from the airport. As I carried my bags up the steps on Cumberland Street, I heard a small voice coming from next door: “Hey! Pastor Dave is home! Pastor Dave is home!” And before I could reach my front porch, I was bowled over by my next-door neighbor and covered with kisses.

Samaiya was only about two and a half years old at the time, and she didn’t need me for anything. She wasn’t expecting a gift, and she didn’t think I had snacks. She just wanted me. That is what Psalm 131 looks like – rushing to embrace God because he is there, and he is good, and he loves you, and because you love God.

A few hundred years later, Jesus holds out the children in his community as special. He doesn’t think that they are pure or perfect. He commends them because they are willing to be blessed, eager to be loved, and wanting to be taught.

A weaned child is content with the relationship for its own sake. That child doesn’t see her mother as a means towards satisfying herself, but rather as a good and loving presence that is to be treasured and received. Again, I would imagine that the parents in this room know the difference between a weaned and an unweaned child.

But here’s the deal: weaning is hard work for both the wean-ee and the wean-er. It’s confusing and painful and noisy. But it needs to happen eventually if the child has any hope at a real and somewhat normal life.

In your spiritual life, are you weaned?

The reason I ask that is that from time to time, someone will come into my study and say, “I don’t know, Pastor, it’s just different. I’m not feeling it any more – not like I was. When I first followed Jesus, I knew that God had my back. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I cried out for something and there was a miraculous answer right then and there. When I needed God, he was right there. But now, when I pray, it seems different. I cry out, and I’m not sure that God even hears me. Does God still love me?”

Of course God loves you. God couldn’t love you any more. But maybe God is weaning you from an infantile dependence on the emotional lift you think you need in order to get through the day so that you might grow up into a discipleship that is healthy and vigorous. Maybe God is teaching you how to discern and act for yourself, building on the lessons you’ve already learned, so that you can walk wisely in this world.

I just spent twenty-four hours with my daughter and her husband and my eleven-month old granddaughter. It was wonderful. I had not seen them since September 1.

But things are changing. Do you know that the last time I was there, Ariel carried Lucia everywhere. It seemed as if that child could not move on her own – the only way she got from the living room to the kitchen to the car was if some big strong grown up came along and scooped her from one place to another.

But yesterday, I put that baby down in the living room and when I went to the kitchen to get some coffee, I turned around and she was there! I set her by the table, and in ten seconds she was climbing towards the sofa.

And you say, “Of course, you idiot. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Lucia is learning to walk. Watch out – once she’s mobile…boom!”

Of course she has to learn to walk. Like she will learn to feed herself, and dress herself, and think for herself. We would not have it any other way.

In the same way, those of us who are made in the image of God are called to learn to walk on our own, and freely, in the direction that God has set out for us.

Sooner or later, we all get to the questions that Micah’s audience had in the 6th century BC: what does God want from me? How am I supposed to live, anyway?

The answer provided here and demonstrated by Jesus is clear and natural: a step by step living with and walking with God, living for others; a life where we advocate for the powerless and care for those who are hurting and help those whom are are able.[2]

We come together each week to remind us that this walk is for us, and for our children, and for those whom God loves in our community – which is to say, it is a walk to which each of us is called.

I don’t know what scares you or thrills you or bores you or excites you about your life today. Are you concerned about Ebola, or worried about your property values? Are you afraid you might be pregnant? Or concerned that you never will be? Is it your job, your marriage, or your lack of one of those conditions? I don’t know.

But I do know that God has put you in a place where you can learn to walk towards his best. You may cry out and sense an immediate rescue. And you may find a season of confusion and discomfort. You may find, in the struggle, that you have resources or abilities you did not realize were yours. You are still you. And God is still God. Our calling to so live as if those things are both always true. Thanks be to God, they are. Amen.

[1] A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (InterVarsity, 2000), p. 152.

[2] Adapted from James Limburg’s commentary on Micah 6:8 in the Interpretation series (John Knox, 1988, p. 193).

Do You Love Love?

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.”

On October 5, World Communion Sunday, we considered the command to “Love Kindness”.  The scriptures that helped us engage this topic were Psalm 136 and Colossians 3:1-14

Angry Sports ParentIs 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.”

Little+Mermaid+TritonAnd he was right. While Ariel and I share a lot, it is not in her nature to engage in some of the sporting activities that I so enjoy.

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?

micah-6-8This 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.

hesedAnd 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.

Wolves_in_NorwayAccording 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.”[1]

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.

[1] “The Tale of Two Wolves”, http://www.nanticokeindians.org

Careful What You Wish For!

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.”

On September 21, we considered the command to “DO” Justice.  The scriptures that helped us engage this topic were Amos 5:4-7, 18-24 and Matthew 7:21-23.  

A man hides in the woods and shoots two State Troopers in Blooming Grove, PA, killing one and wounding another.

Drug cartel violence in Honduras causes families and children to run for their lives, which results in an influx of refugees that threatens to overwhelm our nation’s border.

IsisA single mother works full-time, but still cannot earn enough to feed her family, let alone move to a safer neighborhood.

Members of a terrorist group execute hostages and share the grisly images of the beheadings globally.

Police officers, sworn to serve and protect, shoot and kill an unarmed teenage boy in Ferguson, MO.

You work hard, you practice all summer, and are one of the better players on the team. Nevertheless, you get cut, and the coach’s kid – who is nowhere near your skill level – is starting.

In each of these situations and a hundred more, we cry out: “This is not right!” There is something in the system, something in the universe, that is fundamentally flawed and broken. When stories like these come across our televisions, our news feeds, or our kitchen tables, we pause and we lament the truth that things are not as they should me.

We want the killings, the discrimination, the violence, the favoritism, the fear – to stop.

More than that, there are times where in our anger and our pain, we want to inflict punishment and suffering on those who have caused it for others. I’ve got a relative who is a State Trooper. Would you like to guess what his friends were saying about the self-styled “survivalist” who took the life of one trooper and dramatically altered scores of others? What do your friends say ought to be done about the people who are beheading Christian children in other parts of the world, or beating their own children senseless?

We want to give them what they deserve, don’t we? We want to make them pay. We want to watch them cry out for mercy themselves. We want to hurt them so badly that… and then we remember the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who told the people of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL in 1963, “the reason I can’ t follow the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy is that it ends up leaving everyone blind. Somebody must have sense and somebody must have religion.”

We may accept the fact that doing more of the same isn’t best, but we want something to be different. We need to know that there is hope. If we have no hope, then we descend into a pit of lawlessness and despair – we loot, we riot, we lash out – because without hope, we perceive that nothing can ever change, and if nothing is ever going to change, then why not respond with violence and mayhem?

We were created for wholeness. We were designed for a world wherein people do not attack each other randomly, or manipulate and use one another, or diminish the personhood of their neighbor. We are “wired” to feel at home in a place characterized by security, completeness, purpose, and integrity.

The word that characterizes that kind of world is “justice”. In Hebrew, it’s mishpat – an action or a decision that establishes or reinforces what is right. In a just world, children are not abused and there is no such thing as a “race card” and terrorist extremists do not exist.

We want that kind of world. I know that we do.

In the Old Testament times, God’s people often found themselves, like us, in situations where things were not as they had hoped. And they began to pray for what they called “the Day of the Lord”: the yom YHWH. In their public worship and private lives, people proclaimed that there was much that was not well in the world, and there was too much pain. Yet the prophets continued to indicate that God would come. And when God comes, they said, God is going to straighten things out. God is going to bring justice! God is going to speak truth! God is going to make things whole and complete!

And when the people heard that, they cheered, “Bring it on! What’s not to like about that? You bet – we want to know the Day of the Lord!”

In our reading today from the prophet Amos, God’s people are told to be careful what they wish for. Like his colleagues Joel and Zephaniah, Amos reassures the people that the God who is coming is a God who will set things straight. The only problem, he says, is that the ones who are longing for the Day of the Lord are themselves crooked. The Day of the Lord will be painful, says Amos, because God’s people are themselves a part of the problem. Specifically, Amos points to the ways that the wealthy and powerful in Israel have neglected and mistreated the poor and the vulnerable. The prophet is incredulous: the people claim to be crying out to a God of liberation while at the same time they are adding to the burdens of those that are oppressed.

Norman Vincent Peale was one of the more influential American preachers of the 20th century. He remembered a day when, as a young boy, he found a big old cigar laying in the street. He slipped into a side alley and lit it – and suddenly felt very grown up and mature. As luck would have it, who should come down the sidewalk but his father. The young man quickly hid the stogie behind his back and tried to distract his dad. He pointed to a billboard advertising a visiting circus and said, “Can I go? Please, Dad, when it comes to town, can we go?” And his father looked him in the eye and said, “Norman, never make a petition while at the same time you are hiding a smoldering disobedience.”[1] That, of course, is what the “faithful” were doing: “God! Give us freedom…but not them.”

Eight hundred years after Amos, Jesus sounds very prophetic when he looks at those who are clamoring to be associated with him and says, “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord’ is going to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” What does he mean by that?

inconceivable2Well, in the words of that brilliant theologian Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

When people – whether it’s fishermen in the first century or folks like us in the 21st – use the word “Lord”, we can only do so when we are referring to One to whom we are willing to submit, or One who is worthy of my ultimate loyalty. Too often, we say “Lord” and we mean someone who we are counting on to come and save my sorry rear end from some painful situation that may or may not be of my own doing. I experience some discomfort, dis-ease, or alienation as a result of some of my own choices, and I call out “Jesus – Lord! Come and save me!” When I do that, I’m not treating Jesus like the master of my universe and the One who orders reality. I’m treating him like the good-natured, if somewhat gullible, friend who will give me a ride home after I’ve had too much to drink, or the girlfriend who will take me back again and again, even after I cheat on her or beat her.

Cranach The Elder, The Form of the Body of Our Lord Jesus, 1553

Cranach The Elder, The Form of the Body of Our Lord Jesus, 1553

But when the Prophets speak of the Day of the Lord, and when Jesus says that he is Lord, they are saying that there is One who is worthy. There is One who has the authority and the power to direct my actions – One on whom I can center my life and my being. That affirmation has not changed since the time of Amos or Jesus. The call is simple: order our lives to reflect what the One we call Lord deems important. Jesus is Lord when we treat him as such. Jesus is Lord when we act like the stuff that matters to him matters to us.

One aspect to this kind of living is justice. In our theme verse for the month, Micah tells us that what God expects of us is pretty simple: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

To “do” justice. That’s the first benchmark we receive from the prophet Micah.

Not to demand justice. Not to admire justice. Not to clamor for it in the streets. We are called to “do” justice.

“Do” justice. What does that even mean?

Really. In the face of terrorism and abuse and multinational corporations and systemic racism and situations that are simply just not fair, I’m supposed to “do” justice. What does that even look like?

There is an individual component to it, to be sure. Doing justice means that we are willing to stand with those who are on the margins, to speak for those who have lost their voices, and to stand between those who would do damage and those who are vulnerable. What does that mean?

I saw an example of it not too long ago. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to embarrass anyone publicly, but I will tell you that in our youth group, there are some wonderful and amazing young people. And there are a few kids who will, for various reasons, get on your last nerve day in and day out.

We were getting ready to go on a trip, and three of our young people asked to meet with me. “Pastor Dave,” they said. “We want to talk with you about so and so.” Oh, yes, I could see that coming. This is a young person who – through no fault of their own – tries my soul. I braced myself. “So, look. On this trip, are you going to put us in small groups for activities and discussion?” I said that I was. “Well then, when you do, make sure that you put so and so in with at least one or two of us. We don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this person is hard to deal with, and a lot of the other people in the group aren’t always nice to this person. We really want to make sure this person has a good trip, and so please put this person in our group.”

Do justice. Stand up for the vulnerable and love those who are difficult to love.

Another example: think about how you shop. When you go out to buy something, where does it come from? Are you stocking up on so-called “deals” that are only possible because the people who produce those goods are living in inhumane conditions and being paid poverty-level wages? Does your desire for the latest “gotta have it” toy or accessory bless the people who live near where the raw materials were taken from the earth? I know that it’s impossible to know where everything we eat, use, wear, and drive comes from…but it’s pretty easy to be attentive to some of this. Check out the human rights records of the companies with whom you do business, and see if you’re getting a deal that you can be proud of.

Do you see? In our personal lives, every day we decide when we will speak and when we’ll be silent; we choose how to spend our money and our energy; we show up some places and ignore others. What do your choices say about your intention to Do Justice?

But it’s more than that. Justice assumes communal participation. In our various gathered communities, we participate in things that either bring healing and wholeness or that lead to isolation and death. We do that when we vote, or when we don’t vote; when we decide communally how to spend our taxes or our tithes, and in what we do to register our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with those decisions. As a congregation, are we willing to spend ourselves on those who are on the fringes?

Here’s the scary thing about the passage from Amos: it appears as though Doing Justice is the proof of our willingness to engage in faithful relationship God who invites us into covenant love day in and day out. In our worship, we say and sing and celebrate all sorts of grandiose truths about life and lordship and faith. And, really, they are wonderful and amazing words.

But that’s what they are. Words.

In the complex web of social and economic relationships in which we engage each day; in the decisions we make about where to shop and whose calls to send to voicemail and which cards we send and who sits at our table at lunch; in the normalness of our lives, we say what we really believe and acknowledge whom we really treat as “Lord”. In here, we sing about God’s care and we pray for God’s presence and we celebrate God’s faithfulness. And out there, the world says, “Prove it. I’m watching you, church. God is like that? You show me.”

May the lives that we live in the next six days match the words that we use this morning. May we, in our lives, say Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever – and YES, bring to us and all creation the Day of the Lord. Amen.

[1] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/prayer_unanswered.htm

The Wrong Answers

In the fall of 2014, the good people of Crafton Heights are considering some of the basics of faithful living, using Micah 6:1-8. On Sunday September 14, we also considered Romans 3:21-23

The country is a mess. I mean to tell you, there is not one thing that is going right.

Politically? Please. No matter where you look, there are nothing but broken promises and unmet potential. Leadership? Give me a break. They say one thing and do another. There is incessant, excruciating infighting between the various parties.

Let’s talk about Foreign Affairs. National security is an issue. There is the constant threat of war. Enemies are on the move in places like Iraq, Kurdistan, and Syria. The cost of war is eviscerating any hope for improvements in infrastructure or long-term benefits, and families are crippled by the loss of husbands, children, or property.

The Economic scene isn’t any better. One writer surveys the situation and says that there is “a shocking contrast between extreme wealth and poverty…exacerbated by egregious injustices on the part of the elite rich and ruling class against the stalwart [working class]…driven…into a dependent economic status.”[1] The richest of the rich build elaborate homes behind security fences and enjoy every conceivable luxury, while the middle class workers lose property, security, income, and stability. The disparity between the top .05% of the population and the bottom 50% is appalling.

stoning-of-stephenAnd Religion? Don’t even get me started on that one. By and large, public worship is dying on the vine. Nobody has any enthusiasm for it any more. Oh, a few courageous leaders speak out against the horrors of war and terror; they lift their voices against injustice, all right. But almost without fail, those voices are stilled far too quickly: they are martyred or marginalized. There are a few wildly successful preachers who earn a pretty good living by telling anyone who will listen that all God really wants is for you to be happy and blessed. Every now and then you come across an apparently successful congregation that seems to be full of obscenely wealthy people who bring in their offerings amidst a lot of fanfare and adulation.

Assyria_TP-IIIThe country is a mess all right. I should say, the country was a mess. I’m not talking about the USA. No, no, no. I’m not talking about 2014. The scene I’m describing is from Israel and Judah in the 8th century BC. All those things I just said are mentioned in the Bible – you know, that really big, really old book that has nothing to say about our lives or the modern world because everything is so much different nowadays?

I’m not talking about our culture. I’m telling you about the kind of world into which God sent Micah the prophet. Ha! Failed leadership, constant war, gross injustice, and hollow religion. Like that could happen here, in 2014! Ha!  That’s a good one.

But try to imagine, if you can, God sending a prophet into a world that looks like the one that I’ve described, and giving the prophet the task of helping people to remember who they are, and to claim their identity as God’s own children…only the people to whom the prophet is sent are not at all interested in hearing that message. I know, I often ask you to do difficult things, and this morning I am wondering if you can even imagine that God is not only longing, but willing to speak a word into a culture that is characterized by failed leadership, constant war, gross injustice, and hollow religion. I am hoping that if you can imagine God doing that once, that maybe you’re open to the idea that he’ll do it again.

For five chapters, Micah has thundered God’s judgement on the people for their failure to live in obedience and faith. He has accused and cajoled and encouraged. He has begged and he has threatened. And now, in chapter six, we are presented with a courtroom drama.

Micah Exhorting the Israelites to Repentance, Gustav Dore, 1870

Micah Exhorting the Israelites to Repentance, Gustav Dore, 1870

Verses 1 and 2 introduce us to the cast of characters. The Lord himself is the plaintiff, and he engages the prophet Micah as his prosecutor. The very land of promise – the hills and the mountains surrounding Jerusalem – is called to witness these proceedings. Israel is named as the defendant.

In verses 3, 4, and 5, God, speaking in the first person, recounts the history of his relationship with his people. He speaks in language that is covenantal, and reminds them of the ways that he has provided for them time and time and time again. God brings up names from the past, and shows precedent for how he has consistently come to engage, enjoy, and equip his people. “And yet,” he says, “my people are not interested.”

The speaker shifts in verses 6 and 7, and the defendant, Israel, is given voice. The leadership of the nation is presented here as saying, essentially, “Look, YHWH, what’s it going to take to make all this go away? Yeah, we get it. We haven’t been the model people of God that you say you want. Great. OK. Noted. But look, we’re busy. We’re workin’ here. What do you need? What can we bring to you?”

Look at the suggestions that the people make – each offer consists of something more valuable. “What do you want, God? A burnt offering? No problem. We’ve got animals here. Pick one.”

Calves a year old are a little more expensive, as they have required a great deal of care, but thus far have offered no labor and no return on that investment. “Thousands of rams” seems a bit excessive, but there is evidence that King David made an offering of that size. “Thousands of rivers of oil” seems an obvious exaggeration, as the typical sacrifice called for a pint or at most a quart of oil. The last offer was to bring the firstborn and offer that child to the Lord – and what “everybody knew” back then was that was exactly the kind of offering that the Canaanite god Molech required. There were altars throughout Israel where people offered their children to the fire god.

Do you hear the arrogance here? The people saying, “Come on, God, how long are you going to be busting my chops here? Can’t you just get off my back? Let me give an offering and we’ll be square, OK?”

When I read this, I have in my head an image of one of the junk-bond swindlers from the 1990’s getting up from the defense table, pulling out a checkbook, and paying off a fine for millions of dollars – all the while, eager to go back out and start making money again. Or maybe you remember not long ago when Google was fined $22.5 million for violating the personal privacy settings of its customers…and earned that much money back in about five hours.

In all of these cases, ancient and modern, there appears to be no intent to actually modify one’s behavior. No, the “accused” is simply eager to placate those who are upset and get back to business as usual.

But here’s the deal: God is not primarily interested in business – not business as usual or any other kind of business. God is interested in you. In me. In us. God is not interested in the conventions of the day: God is interested in relationship.

The Ghent Altarpiece (detail), Jan van Eyck (1432)

The Prophet Micah in The Ghent Altarpiece (detail), Jan van Eyck (1432)

Look back at what God says in verses 3 – 5. When we read that, we see the language of covenant. God describes his history with the people in terms of gift and of personal sacrifice. He reminds them of promise and deliverance and the ways that he has willingly bound himself to his people for their own good, the ways that he has consistently given of himself in every age.

Contrast that language with the words that we find in verses 6 and 7, where the people are presented as speaking contractually. In a contract, we see two independent contractors coming together of their own free will. They negotiate an agreement, which implies some level of obligation on every level. A contract is a deal, and property is almost always the most important thing. It’s nothing personal: it’s just business.

And again, I repeat: God is not interested in the impersonal. God is not interested in that kind business. One does not sign a contract with the Almighty.

That is very good news, my friends. Every day, we ought to be eternally grateful for the fact that God will not give in to our demands that he become a bean-counting, score-keeping, party-of-the-first-part, party-of-the-second-part kind of Diety. Because if we insist on trying to contract with God; if we insist on trying to pay our own way; if we insist that we are just fine on our own and don’t need your covenant, thank you very much… Then we will surely perish. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, everyone has sinned. Everyone has fallen short of God’s glory. And since a contract can only be entered into by two independent parties on equal footing acting of their own free will, we can’t contract with God.

The bad news of the Gospel is that God can’t be bought. You don’t have enough sheep, enough oil, enough children to make God happy.

The Good news of the Gospel is that God doesn’t need your sheep, your oil, or your children. Those are the wrong answers.

In verse 8, the prosecutor tells us what does count: “He has shown you, people, what is good.”

It’s not about impressing me with the ways that you keep all of those so-called “rules”. I don’t need you to get straight A’s, or to be so smug and self-righteous just because you have never been caught doing the worst thing that you do, or thinking the worst thought you’ve thought. Again, those are all the wrong answers.

It’s about the walk. The way that you live your life. When we speak of our “walk”, we mean the people that you choose to follow; we mean those for whom you are looking while you are on the journey. It’s not about trying to collect the right answers – it’s more about learning to ask the right questions.

“So don’t come to me with that ‘What’s it gonna take, Lord’ kind of nonsense,” says God. “You know exactly what it takes: Justice. Kindness. And walking purposefully in covenant with me.”

We’ll talk more about those things and that kind of relationship in the weeks to come. For today, let me encourage you to delight yourself in the notion that the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, comes to you and invites you to order your life according to the covenant that God is offering. Let me encourage you to go a little easier on yourselves and a little easier on each other – so that we all have more energy to grow into those things that God is seeking to do in our lives.

Thanks be to God for this amazing gift of covenant. Amen.

[1] Baker, Alexander, and Waltke, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series) InterVarsity Press 1988, p. 138.

The Church of Sheila

On March 2, the folks in Crafton Heights braved the blizzard…er, dust-up of 2014 and gathered to sit around one of the more unfortunate passages in the book of Judges, the story of Micah and his priest.  Our texts for the day included Judges 17 and 2 Peter 1:16-21.

“Everybody should believe in something,” W.C. Fields is credited with saying, “and I believe I’ll have another drink.”  While there’s no evidence that the old comic actually said that, it’s a clever line and lends itself to whatever you want… “Everybody should believe in something, and I believe I’ll have more coffee…”, or “I believe I’ll go fishing…”, or “I believe I’ll turn on the game…”  It’s cute, and illustrates that what we believe shapes our actions.

Of course, everyone does believe in something.  To be human is to believe. Each and every person ever to walk this planet has looked at something or someone and said, “Yes, this thing or this person is worth my trust and my acknowledgement.  I will regard this person.  I will honor this thing.”  To be human is to look at something and say, “Yes, that is Truth with a capital ‘T’”.

I know, sometimes – especially in church – we talk about people as being “believers” or “unbelievers”, but that’s really just shorthand for saying that someone “believes what I believe” or they don’t.  We all believe in something.  It just gets complicated when we get to talking about what or who is worth giving our lives to.

It’s been suggested that the dominant belief in the United States is a faith that might be called “Sheilaism.”  Nearly twenty years ago, a team of researchers published Habits of the Heart, the results of a massive five-year study on American communities and values.  One of the most intriguing insights of the book came in the chapter on religion. A young nurse named Sheila Larson was asked about her faith, and she said, “I believe in God.  I’m not a religious fanatic.  I can’t remember the last time I went to church.  My faith has carried me a long way.  It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” When she was asked to describe the elements of Sheilaism, she said “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”

If that sounds a little extreme, then you should know that a Gallup poll indicated that 80% of Americans agreed with this statement: “An individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any churches or synagogues.”  Sheilaism is then, perhaps, the most popular religion in America.

But we didn’t invent it – not by a long shot.  In fact, as we continue our study of Judges, we see the same phenomenon.  When we left Judges last month, we said goodbye to the last of the true “Judges” in the book: Samson. I hope that some of you remember that cycle of Judges that we used so often, where the people are obedient, and then they leave God’s best for them, and are placed in a situation where they suffer, and then they cry out for God and a deliverer or a “judge” comes to save them and help them to be faithful, until they leave God’s best for them and… The reality is that that cycle has finally broken down.  For the rest of this book, it’s just people leaving God’s best.  There is no crying out, no deliverance, no restoration.  It is a description of how things are.  Spoiler alert: things are not good.  Let’s look at the text.

There was a man of the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Micah. And he said to his mother, “The eleven hundred pieces of silver which were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse, and also spoke it in my ears, behold, the silver is with me; I took it.” And his mother said, “Blessed be my son by the Lord.” And he restored the eleven hundred pieces of silver to his mother; and his mother said, “I consecrate the silver to the Lord from my hand for my son, to make a graven image and a molten image; now therefore I will restore it to you.” So when he restored the money to his mother, his mother took two hundred pieces of silver, and gave it to the silversmith, who made it into a graven image and a molten image; and it was in the house of Micah. And the man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and teraphim, and installed one of his sons, who became his priest. (Judges 17:1-5, RSV)

OK, in the words of Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem.”  Let’s just look at all the things that are wrong with the lead-in to Micah’s story:

It starts out as a burglary report.  Mom is missing 1100 pieces of silver.  It turns out that her son has taken it.  Instead of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, she excuses his behavior and offers him a formal blessing, and promises to give all of the silver to the Lord.  However, she takes 1/6 of the silver and melts it down into an idol, and Micah and his family start to worship that as their god.

In the first five verses of this story, Micah and his mother manage to violate at least six, if not seven of the ten commandments.  So far as I can see, there is no adultery or murder in this passage and there’s no record of them having broken the Sabbath…but everything else? Lying, stealing, idol worship, failing to honor one’s parents, graven images, taking the Lord’s name in vain, and probably coveting…it’s an ethical train wreck here.  How did we get to this place in “the Promised Land”, where God would be with us?  Verse 6 of chapter 17:

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6, RSV)

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a theme that has grown more and more pronounced as we have walked through the book of Judges.  Here is Micah, 3000 years before the sociologists meet Sheila Larson, living into the truth of her core belief: we all get to decide what is right and wrong for us.  There is no higher standard or greater truth.

How does that look for Micah and his family?  Listen for the rest of Judges 17:

Now there was a young man of Bethlehem in Judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite; and he sojourned there. And the man departed from the town of Bethlehem in Judah, to live where he could find a place; and as he journeyed, he came to the hill country of Ephraim to the house of Micah. And Micah said to him, “From where do you come?” And he said to him, “I am a Levite of Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to sojourn where I may find a place.” And Micah said to him, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, and a suit of apparel, and your living.” And the Levite was content to dwell with the man; and the young man became to him like one of his sons. And Micah installed the Levite, and the young man became his priest, and was in the house of Micah. Then Micah said, “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest.” (Judges 17:7-13, RSV)

Micah and the Levite Worship the Idol (Artist unknown, 14th century)

Micah and the Levite Worship the Idol (Artist unknown, 14th century)

Isn’t this great?  Micah has his own god, made of silver that he stole from his mother and then she gave back to him, and now he finds his own priest!  He hires a young man, gives him a $300 suit, an apartment, and a salary. Micah tells the man that he wants him to be like “a father and a priest” – in other words, that he wants to be led and guided by this young man’s wisdom, but in reality, he treats the Levite like a son, and comes to believe that because he has his own little priest in his own little chapel that he’ll be blessed.  The problem, of course, is that he has his own little god, too.  He’s not worshiping the creator, there’s no mention of YHWH, the God of the covenant.  He has tamed and domesticated the One who brought his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land and instead, is worshiping some shiny metal and doing whatever he wants to do.

That comes back to bite him in the rear end in chapter 18, where a group of men from the tribe of Dan are on the move and they hear about Micah’s idol.  They steal the idol, and they make his priest a better offer and hire him away from Micah, and proceed to invade the town of Laish, a village beyond the boundaries of the territory that God had given to Israel.  Judges 18:27 describes Laish as “a people quiet and unsuspecting” who the Danites murdered before they burnt down the city and built their own right on top of the ruins.  There was no help for the people of Laish – no deliverer – because everyone was doing what was right in his or her own eyes.  Look at what is happening here: God’s people are going outside of God’s best and subjecting strangers to the terror that they themselves had survived.  “There was no king, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes…”

It is horrible.  And it happens again and again and again.  Amazing Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us, a more recent study of American culture, found the same thing: that given half a chance, we tend to shape religion to suit our own lives and desires, rather than expecting our faith to shape and discipline our lives and desires.  This study reveals that in the last fifty years, Americans would rather change their religious views in order to fit with what they perceive to be politically and financially true than change their political or financial behavior so that it reflects what their religion might expect from them.

For instance, this more recent study found that politically liberal people tend to believe that religion is for those who are conservative, and so many liberals have stopped going to worship because even though they believe in God, they feel like it is compromising their politics.  What shocked me even more was the increase in the number of people who identified as political conservatives who think that “the right thing to do” is to go to church, synagogue, or mosque, even when one doesn’t believe in God.

We live in a time and place where people find it easy to worship what we find convenient and leave the other stuff aside.

Author Timothy Keller puts it this way:

The real issue…is the desire to shape and revise God…We filter out (consciously or unconsciously) things about God that our hearts can’t accept.  In some ways this is the main sin of our time.  How often have you heard someone say: I don’t believe in a God like that – I like to think of God as…?  … We, like Micah’s family, are reshaping God to fit our society and hearts instead of letting God reshape our hearts and society.

American_Idolatry_revisedOuch.

How do we go about the business of being faithful to the God who IS, rather than the God we wish there was?  I think that the reading from 2 Peter has some help for us today.

Jesus MAFA, Art in the Christian Tradition.  Used by Permission.  www.jesusmafa.com

Jesus MAFA, Art in the Christian Tradition. Used by Permission. http://www.jesusmafa.com

First, we must not only allow, but expect the Word of God to be intrusive – to walk into all the corners of our lives, boldly, and point us somewhere.  The author of this letter points back to the transfiguration on the mountain top, when their little picnic with Jesus was interrupted by a voice declaring Jesus to be the Son of God.  They may have met him as a carpenter or a schoolmate, but the voice of the Lord burst in on that reality and said, “Pay attention to him!”  The first disciples – and we ourselves, if you think about it – have been “eyewitnesses to his majesty”.  We’ve seen Truth – but sometimes find it difficult to allow that Truth to filter into and at times, disrupt our lives.

That leads to the second insight from 2 Peter, namely that this Truth is not, primarily, a matter of personal interpretation.  As Peter says, “We have the prophetic message.”  We know the Bible.  Now we have to wrestle with it and allow it to shape our lives.  We have to be open to it, and, as Peter says, allow that light to shine into the dark places of our lives. Will we always agree on what it says or how to apply it?  Not likely.  But we have to realize that none of us has the right to say that “this is my own truth”.  We need each other to continue to help us explore and navigate these waters in order that the Truth might be increasingly apparent to us and visible in our lives.

And how do we do that?  But coming together and considering this word humbly and in community.  Peter indicates that we’ve received the truth – and now we’ve got to figure out what this truth looks like in the world in which we live – and then we’ve got to live it out so that those around us can see and know it.  The only way to do this is to assemble and ask God to help us, together, to be able to grow in understanding his word, not just expressing our own opinions.

Everybody has to believe in something.  And I believe that I need the scripture, the church, and the Holy Spirit to tell me who I am.  Otherwise, I might wind up like old Micah, with a home-made temple dedicated to a shiny god following a pretend priest paid for with stolen money and offering false hope.  I can’t go there.

And, thanks be to God, he doesn’t want me – or us – to go there. So let us follow this voice, however falteringly, in the confidence that God’s Spirit will give us the light that we need at the time we need it in the places where it’s necessary.  Amen.