Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly - a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany, 2014

Two rows of children are separated by a large field, each facing the other holding hands. It’s seems an innocent enough game that children used to play. Alternately, each team would call out: “Red rover, red rover! Send Harry right over.” And then Harry, or Mary or Frank or Sue, would break from his or her row and run to the other side. Now, I know that it’s hard to believe given my current frame but I was one of the smaller kids in the neighborhood, the proverbial ninety pounds soaking wet. So this game wasn’t really my favorite. What the point, after all? To show off one’s strength? To demonstrate one’s power over another? Or maybe the point was to get caught, demonstrating and becoming acutely aware of one’s weakness. So I would hold tightly to the hands of my comrades, classmates, and friends, unsure of which was worse: the pain that would surely accompany the weight and force of the kid trying to break through or having to face my fellow gamers when the kid got by. Honestly, the odds of me stopping any of them were slim. Or maybe it was worse having to run myself., getting caught in the web of arms linked on the other side. None of the choices was good.
But at such a young age, influenced so heartily by my peers, I had not yet figured out that within each of us is the power to not play the game, within each of us is the power to break convention and go against the flow. It would be many years before that consciousness became an awareness that was put into practice.
In those days, I would play. I would see a kid racing towards me – not to my side of the line or to my neighbor but right at me. I knew that it would not end prettily, broken and mangled we would topple to the ground. Undoubtedly, my hand would fall, usually out of fright but, if not, then certainly out of weakness. But then it would get worse. “Red rover, red rover! Send Robby right over!” I would do my best to must the courage and as much strength as my boney frame and mop of curly hair could find. I could sense the panic setting in. But maybe this time I’ll get through. I could sense the resolve of those on the other side, hands tightly knit. But more than sense the resolve, I could see it in their gritted teeth and planted feet. Oh, how I longed to break the chain. And then a part of me longed to not run at all. I could hear the whispers in my head, “Red rover, red rover! Dear God, what do I do now?”
In the lessons today from Micah, the air is thick with tension. God and the people of Israel are in the middle of a lawsuit. God has a complaint. Micah has become the voice through which the charge is leveled. The parties have come to court to see who is at fault in their fractured relationship. The mountains and the hills are witnesses. The specific nature of the wrongs committed is not verbalized here, except indirectly: Gad asks the people, through Micah, what God has done wrong. There is a controversy with God about which God asks, rhetorically of course what God has done to lead Israel to separate themselves from God:
‘O my people, what have I done to you?
   In what have I wearied you? Answer me! 
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
   and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
   Aaron, and Miriam.
Have you forgotten, O Israel? Have your memories become lazy and hazy? Have you grown forgetful in what has been done for you and about which has been given you? Indeed, Israel chose to not remember their story – of how God delivered them from the land of Egypt, guided them despite their stubbornness through the wilderness, and brought them safely into the land of promise. They didn’t remember and they forgot and so the people grew complacent, seeking now to possess more, to be more, and to want more. The became willing to bargain with, to bribe, and to buy off God. And it was a calculated scheme. “With what,” they asked themselves, “shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” The litany of liturgical acts that follows were traditionally meant to appease the gods: burnt offerings, calves and rams, oils, and even the firstborn son.
So here we stand with two questions: God’s inquiry of what God had done and Israel’s inquiry of how to appease God again. It’s a dynamic setup in the story, one that demands something now be spoken definitively, a declaration rather than a question. So Micah steps forth, daring to speak for God,
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?
A gracious and poetic slaying of the beast. “Get a clue,” Micah is saying, “God has already told you what God requires.”
All we really know about Micah is that he was from a place called Moresheth, a small village probably in the Shephelah, southwest of Jerusalem in the rich pastureland and farmland of the Judean foothills. We also know that Micah was a prophet who spoke from the poor farm workers who were suffering at the hands of the powerful landlords and merchants. Micah was the voice of the farm laborer, the common everyday people of the age. He witnessed in the injustice that was going on in society and was quite willing to name it by its proper name. He felt called to address the ones in power and to speak the truth to them, against evils no longer tolerable.
Micah was not removed from the suffering and plight of the people. He was in the midst of it. He knew all too well that justice would not be given away, that it would not come as a gift from those in power. They were far too preoccupied with their own comfort and prosperity and security. Justice would have to rise out of the people. Those having been alienated from what should be theirs, trudging down a path towards death, dared to envision change, new ways of being and living in the world, different and dynamic alternatives to the current unjust situations.
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? To do justice is not some romantic ideal nor is an abstract concept. The idea of justice isn’t about ‘getting even’ or ‘making someone pay for what they did.’ That might be American justice but it is a far cry from biblical justice. Justice in Hebrew (mishpat) is far more complex and comprehensive. Justice in ancient Israel was about the restoration of balance, the righting of relationships to the way they were intended to be. Justice is about letting all people be what God created them to be, their proper selves in relationship to God, the other people, and to all of creation. Justice is not a deal struck but an atmosphere engendered within a community. It is closely knit with that richly laden Hebrew word shalom.
Justice, therefore, disrupts the current state. It dismantles and breaks down that which is out of balance and that which demeans creation. It disarms. And then it transforms people, institutions, and systems into those which bring balance and promote healthy relationships.
Justice happens when we see the goodness of divine creation in all creation. Justice happens when we recognize that all people matter before God. This is why doing justice is so closely linked with loving kindness. Kindness seems to be as plain and pedantic a virtue as any. It is pedestrian with not a day passing when each of us can, in some way, exercise kindness somehow. Small or substantial kindness…it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is available and present when it is called for. But notice what Micah says, “love kindness.” It is not merely enough to do kindness, we are to love kindness. It is not merely about the doing kindness but about the loving kindness in the everyday.  
We can see all kinds of injustices, tragedies, and atrocities, but seeing is not enough. It is not in the seeing, but in the being moved to do something about it that we dare to change what is unjust, that we dare to exercise the kindness that we love. The Good Samaritan who will not pass by another human person, even when that other was considered an enemy. The father of the elder son who would not choose one son over another but found his arms wide enough to embrace both, even the one who walked away. Mary and the other women standing at the foot of the cross no matter how painful and frightening. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah weeping together in their grief. The woman with the alabaster jar, breaking it open and pouring it out without holding anything back. Jesus weeping, praying, breaking bread, healing, anointing, blessing, and inviting the people. These are flesh and blood examples of loving kindness, loving tenderly, loving steadfastly.
In our American society, to do justice and to love kindness are not virtues often highly prized.
Freddie was one of those kids. You don’t know Freddie. I knew Freddie. You know kids like Freddie, especially if you are teacher. Freddie was one of those kids that teachers just had a hard time getting a hold on, his Sunday School teachers were no different. And so when the attention of Sunday School turned towards the Christmas pageant, the teachers thought it wise that Freddie have a simple part, perhaps the part of the innkeeper. Freddie would have three lines, all the same. “No room at the inn,” Freddie would say after Mary and Joseph knocked at the door. ON the night of the pageant, the two of the children dressed as Joseph and Mary came to the inn. Knock. Knock. Knock “No room at the inn,” bellowed Freddie right on cue. So far so good. The couple knocked again. Knock. Knock. Knock.”No room at the inn,” repeated Freddie. A third time Mary and Joseph beckoned. Banging even harder this time, they pleaded desperately for a place to lay their heads, ‘Please, is there any room in the inn?” Now, this time Freddie was moved with compassion. He forgot his line. “Well,” said Freddie, “why don't you just take my room?” The pageant came to a halt. Some parents were upset for their children were the stars and grandparents, aunts, and uncles had come, some from afar. For most, though, the spirit of the presence of the God which they were seeking found its way into Charlie's words of kindness. Freddie had taught us all what it meant to do justice and to love kindness.
And  Freddie also taught us what it meant to walk humbly. To walk humbly is not to walk with your nose in the air nor is it to walk with the your shoulders slumped to the ground. To walk humbly is to not exalt yourself nor is it belittle yourself or others. To walk humbly is not to be bothered by other people's opinions when you seek after righteousness. To walk humbly is not to think that you can do it all by yourself nor is to think you can do nothing. To walk humbly is not to be above someone nor is to be below someone, but rather to be with someone. To walk humbly is to be in communion with God and one another. It is about paying attention to what is around us. It is about listening to the stories of others as well as to your own story. Walking humbly is about letting God enter your story and about letting yourself enter God’
“Red rover, red rover! Dear God what do I do now!” What can I do? Well, I can begin by breaking the chains of injustice and war. I can begin by loving kindness everyday and everywhere. I can begin by sharing my story, walking humbly with my God.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God? 

Are Your Ready for an Adventure? - a sermon for the third Sunday of Epiphany, 2014

You see, Jesus turns up at the waterside. And when Jesus turns up at the waterside (or anywhere else for that matter) things are going happen. They may have met him before. Perhaps they had heard about him. But it doesn’t really matter. No, today Jesus calls them to a new beginning taking place. Jesus glances at these working men, with their nets and their hard-won catch, and he announces, in a voice perhaps both cosmic and comic, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” This landlubber on shore has just issued a challenge.
The call narratives in the bible have many things in common, three of them important for our story today.
First, God calls to a place. God calls us to a place in the world where we are already going. There is a lot of work to do. There are a lot of stories to be told. There are a lot of fish to be caught. God sends us now into the world in peace to the place where we already are to make disciples. But moreso, God calls to have a place in and with Jesus. Why did those four respond? Why did the other before them respond? Were they sick of being fishermen? I tend to think not. Instead, possibly, they sensed in John the Baptist a glimmer of hope. Perhaps they realized a new opportunity in this dynamic preacher from Nazareth. Maybe they found in Jesus the place where they were intended to be. Having a place is really important. When they sinned, Adam and Eve were tossed out of their place. Cain was doomed to wander without a place. Abraham and Sarah were called to journey from a place to a still better place – a promised place. The children of Israel were delivered from Egypt and again promised of a place – a place flowing with milk and honey. As he fled from Saul, David had no place to lay his head but upon victory with God had a place in the palace in Jerusalem. We all need a place. In Jesus, the disciples found a place where they could find mercy, purpose, stability, forgiveness, security, and a sameness that gave unity to their lives.
Second, God calls us to a time. And that time is the same for us all. The story heard today reports that the four in the gospel responded “immediately.” They left their father in the boat! Other call stories are similar. Immediately is the trend. Immediately is the time. Jesus calls us to “now.” “The kingdom is near.” The moment is now. Opportunity awaits. Seize it. “The kingdom is near.” So without delay, they followed him.
Third, God calls us to adventure. GK Chesterton writes, “An adventure is by its nature, a thing that comes to us. It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose.” While other rabbis would have waited for disciples to come to them, this Rabbi Jesus goes out and finds his own. What’s more, he looks not among those likely and typical candidates. He doesn’t look among the smartest, the brightest, the most well-trained and well-connected. No, he looks down at the docks, interrupting fishermen at their work. Discipleship would be a great adventure. We are taken away from predictable lives, plunged into adventure and woe to anyone who dilutes this adventure with dullness. Woe to anyone who makes discipleship into something safe. But blessed are they for whom the adventure remains forever sharp, who find themselves always at a new beginning.
Are these four men – Andrew, Simon, James, and John – ready and equipped for the adventure that comes to them, that chooses them? Are they ready for this adventure of discipleship? Jesus at the waterside does not collect resumes nor he does check references. The personal histories of these four do not have the last word about their futures. Christ's call means a new beginning. He takes a wide-open risk by inviting them. They do the same in response.
Indeed, subsequent events demonstrate their imperfection. Simon Peter will betray Jesus with a boldfaced lie. James and John, the Sons of Thunder, are not always the most agreeable pair, indulging in dreams of their own enthronement. Andrew doesn’t really appear again does he? Maybe his flaw was playing it safe. Yet Jesus never withdraws his invitation to adventure. They are partners with Jesus to the end.
“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it ... the end of safety,” wrote novelist James Baldwin. “The call to discipleship of these four fishermen, the beginning their story represents, implies the breakup of their familiar world, the end of their safety.” They leave behind old securities: the waterside, the boat, the nets, those days of fishing that so resembled one another, and even old Zebedee, the father of James and John, standing astonished in the boat as his two sons suddenly walk away. The new beginning requires this. Disciples must walk away into the future. They may be afraid but they are not so afraid that their faith does not lead them forward.
The story today tells us of a new beginning for four fishermen. They are called out from their occupation as fishermen about which they know a great deal and into a new occupation as fisher’s of people, about which they claim no knowledge.
Likewise, discipleship for each of us here gathered is new beginning, such that appear before us again and again. We experience the end of safety and comfort so that we may participate in a new world, finding ourselves engaged in Christ and with Christ. So, here’s the thing: However strangely it happened, Christ has come to us – to each one of us. However unjustifiable we may think it is, Christ chooses us. However ill-prepared we might think we are, Christ sends us out into the world to be the next new beginning.

Are you ready for the adventure – here and now?