Sunday's sermon text...
Our second reading this morning doesn’t require any real introduction. Keep listening for the Word of God speaking to you this morning from the Beatitudes as found in Matthew’s gospel.
READ Micah 6:1-8 (Matthew 5:1-12)
Change of plan. I’m going to focus this morning mostly on the words from Micah. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the message of the prophets. God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you?
What God expects from us… in light of all the grace, mercy, and goodness that God has consistently shown… what God expects from us are not just token signs of our own religiosity. That’s what the response of verses six and seven are all about with their talk of presenting before God the proper animal sacrifice. Empty symbolic acts or rituals… God isn’t interested in these things. The prophets… not just Micah… make this point time and again. And the truth is… we still need to hear it today. With what shall I come before the Lord… shall I give you an hour of my time maybe once a week to passively be in your presence? Is that enough to meet your holy requirement? I will stand when we sing, but I will not sing. I will close my eyes in prayer, but my thoughts will be elsewhere. I will listen to your word read, but I will not study it at any other time. O Lord, for all that you have done for me… it is the very least I can do for you.
What does the Lord require… what does God expect in response to all that God has given… but for us to live transformed lives where justice, kindness, and humility are the constant norm and not the exception.
Let’s start with that last requirement… because as I see it, humility is the source value behind the other two requirements. Humility before God… our response to God is likely in proportion to our feelings of humility… our individual and collective capability of being truly grateful for God’s actions towards us.
“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you?” Early on in the passage God tells us to remember what happened from Shittim to Gilgal. And I have to admit… when I read those words… I had no idea what happened from Shittim to Gilgal. In a way, that makes God’s point right there. We have forgotten what has happened… we have forgotten all that God has done… is doing… will do. It took some time for me to research and to find the answer which is back in the third and fourth chapters of the book of Joshua. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the people come to the river Jordan and they prepare to cross over into the Promised Land. They make their camp on the west side of the Jordan at Shittim. At the end of three days of encampment, Joshua gives the command. The Ark of the Covenant… the presence of God among the people… the Ark goes before the people and as it approaches the river Jordan… just as the priest’s foot touches the water… the waters part and recede and the people pass through on the dry ground. On the eastern bank, the people make their camp at Gilgal. So what happened from Shittim to Gilgal? More than the parting of waters. Saints… grace happened. Let your metaphorical minds loose and see the big picture. God took a people, wandering lost in the wilderness because of their collective sin… and leading them through the waters of the Jordan… began to shape them into a holy priesthood of believers. God made the way. God made the way creating a path of transformation to go from the sin-laden wilderness into the land of God’s promise. There were no boats made during the three days of encampment at Shittim. No bridge was built by a corps of engineers… spanning the Jordan to aid in their crossing. God, and God alone, brought the people across on the dry land. God’s grace… and God’s grace alone… brings people over from sin to promise.
Saints, do we respond to God’s grace with the proper humility required?
Micah knows that the people of his day have forgotten about Shittim and Gilgal… just as we have forgotten. God knows the people have grown tired of being chosen. They have begun to believe that being God’s chosen is a sign of privilege and personal status… just as so many American Christians have come to believe that being God’s chosen is a means for individual blessings and receiving their deserved heavenly reward. They believe that being chosen means they are called to enjoy the reaping without having to do any of the sowing required. Micah is not going to entertain such foolishness. He makes sure the people know that that kind of thinking is not going to play here. Being chosen by God’s grace means that we are to be an extension of God’s grace to all peoples. Being chosen doesn’t heighten our own divine status so that we can boast in our own position, but it both reduces us and lifts us to the role of servant. We are chosen to serve God for the purpose of serving others. A servant who has no humility is not much of a servant.
God redeems us by grace. Grace isn’t an act of pity, but an act of confidence born from God’s love for his creation. Through grace God says I have breathed life in you and my breath resides in you still. I have made you for great things. And so Micah points us in that direction.
What great things does God intend for us? To love kindness and to do justice.
Kindness seems almost like a wimpy word these days. It gets ridiculed too often. Yet, simple acts of kindness have the ability to transform lives. When there is little kindness, as the prophet Hosea says, “swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.” Those are prophetic words. Basic kindness is the foundation of all civility… something that seems to be sorely lacking at the moment. I’m not sure we can claim to be living in a civil society at the moment. In his book on civility, Stephen Carter has this to say about kindness. “We can see another rule of civility – one of the simplest and most straightforward – a simple duty of kindness: Civility creates not merely a negative duty not to do harm, but an affirmative duty to do good. In the Jewish tradition, this duty is captured in the requirement of chesed – the doing of acts of kindness – which in turn is derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God. This understanding imposes a duty to do as God would do. Civility itself may be seen as a part of chesed: it does indeed require kindness toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers, and even when it is hard. When we are polite rather than rude, warm rather than cold, when we try to see God in others, we are doing acts of kindness. In all these acts, we welcome the stranger, not because of any benefit we think will come to us, but because we come to believe that welcoming the stranger is right.” Basic kindness. Seeing God in others. Treating others not as they may treat you, not being kind in the hopes of having that kindness returned or rewarded, but acts of kindness because that is how God has acted toward you, because God treated you… you sinner who deserved condemnation… God treated you with grace. This is what God is telling us with his opening question, “O my people, what have I done to you?” The answer is… God you have treated us with a kindness born from grace. Jesus will retell this same principle in one of his parables. A king forgives a man his great debt, but before the day is out the man will turn on another… demanding payment of a debt owed to him, forgetting completely the grace that he found at the hands of the king. The forgiven man is devoid of the humility born of the grace shown to him… in forgetting he cannot extend kindness but only cruelty and judgment… and an ignorant blindness of being able to see the image of God in his fellow man.
Walk humbly with your God. Love kindness. Do justice. The prophet Isaiah, speaking for God, speaks about justice this way… “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan plead for the widow.” Isaiah gives us those common Old Testament examples of justice… rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan and pleading for the widow. In each of these cases, we can draw the ethic of standing and helping the one whose image of God is being ignored or repressed by another. Justice is linked to kindness in that it recognizes that all human beings are created in the image of God. Justice fights for that recognition even at the expense of oneself. That is why true justice must be done by a servant of God.
Finally… think about those Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount… and I want you to notice the justice that is described there… the justice that is at the heart of the Kingdom of God that Jesus is proclaiming to his disciples. First, we hear how the poor in spirit, those who mourn and the meek are blessed. In each of these Beatitudes, Jesus speaks of how they will find justice. Right? It’s not that they are poor in spirit or mourning or meek that is blessed… it’s not their condition, but that justice will come to these in whom God’s image is being obscured. In the Beatitudes, Jesus is describing the Kingdom of God… he is describing what happens when God’s people live as God’s people… he is telling us what the fulfillment of Micah’s words look like. The first three Beatitudes describe those in need of justice; the remainder describes those who do justice. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Those who are pure in heart, for they will see God. The peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad… for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Do you see it? Go back and look at the Beatitudes in Matthew and you’ll see how they all fit together in the doing of justice.
Saints, the prophet Micah… all the prophets who spoke on the ethics of our faith… they still stand before us… accusing us… pointing out our love of empty rituals and sacrifices. Exposing our idolatry and the gods we carve out for ourselves with our own hands. What does the Lord require of you? God’s answer is clear. Do. Love. Walk. God does not call us to feel a certain way or to just believe in a certain set of religious doctrines. God does not want us to show our faith through empty symbolic action that never takes us anywhere. In God… through the prophets… through our Lord Jesus Christ… we are called to real action that will immediately affect the lives of all those around us… all of those who share with us the image of God. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God. Amen.