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? 

1 comment:

  1. Your sermons have been very endearing. Humans make all these rules, Jesus left it at 2, right? Love god, and love your neighbor as yourself. Pretty simple.