From the Heart

Micah 6:6-8

What does God require of us? Micah says we are to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with our God. Doesn’t sound all that hard, does it? We’re all kind people, most of the time anyway. We attempt to practice justice by loving our neighbor, most of the time anyway. And we’re humble enough when it comes to loving God. But is most of the time enough?

In his book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann suggests that the prophets of Israel were about two things. Their ministry included both criticizing and energizing. The prophets criticize the elite, they disturb our status quo, they question the reigning order of things, they help us to see the normal state of affairs in a different light, and they advocate for a new way of living every dimension of life: personal, social, spiritual, economic, and political. The prophets afflicted the comfortable and the complacent. Brueggemann says that when we read the prophets we should expect “a slap on our helmet.”

But the prophets, he goes on to say, also energized God’s people. They comforted the afflicted. They intended to “generate hope, affirm identity, and create a new future.”  They weren’t just negative naysayers. One of the functions of a prophet was to offer positive affirmation, and encouragement. Brueggemann concluded his remarks by saying, “Yes, the prophets dished out the vinegar; but they also gave us honey for the heart.” [I]

So, bearing in mind the vinegar and the honey, the two faces of a prophet if you will, let’s take a deeper look at this passage. But as we begin to do that I think we must first consider the meaning of humility. The common connotation of the word “humility” is “to be taken down a peg,” right? To be humble is to lower one’s self to the level of others. But humility also carries with it, overtones of repentance. One often has to be haughty or arrogant or prideful before one discovers humility.

Now these are all good definitions and helpful for us to understand our place in the order of things. But I think Micah was driving at something else here. Consider that he uses humility as the descriptor for being in the presence of God. And not just in God’s presence but actually journeying with God in this life.

This is fascinating considering the common theology of Micah’s day. Remember the God of the Hebrew Bible was “other-than,” God was literally believed to be in the Holy of Holies, in the Arc of the Covenant, in the center of the Temple. There was no Jesus yet. There was no understanding of an incarnate God, yet. There was no wider understanding of God being with or journeying beside anyone.

Or was there? Think about some of the earliest writings in the Bible, the Psalms. In the Psalter, some of the writers there seem to have a personal understanding of the divine both in creation and within the events of their lives. Even Genesis uses human characteristics to describe God, God walking in the Garden of Eden for example. And there were many incarnational visions, especially among the prophets, of what a messiah might look like, a warrior, a king, a liberator, a servant.

My point here is that Micah was really ahead of his time theologically. He’s proposing that humility should ultimately be endowed with an understanding that God is not “other-than” but instead “present-with” us as we walk through this world.

And this is no small thing as we look at this prophecy of Micah. He was criticizing the elite class of his day. Before and after this text he’s anything but hopeful. Micah said that God would cut down, destroy, demolish all of their buildings and their idols, their cities and even their horses. Real gloom and doom kind of stuff. At one-point Micah even says, “I will make you a sign of destruction, your inhabitants an object of hissing!”

Now, this is important to the contextual integrity of this text. Micah wasn’t a fortuneteller looking into his crystal ball, he was looking at the failure of the nation and what that failure would most likely cost them. What was that failure? They failed to live up to their covenant with God. God’s covenant challenged them, as a nation, to care of the widows and orphans, to provide relief to the suffering and liberation of the oppressed. But they weren’t doing that. In fact, Israel was doing quite the opposite, the were stuck deep within that trap that I alluded to earlier; the trap of “I’ve got mine, too bad for everyone else.” Does that sound familiar to anyone as we think about the state of our nation today?

But, it’s not all hopeless. Remember Brueggemann’s words. A prophet was also tasked with energizing the people. And it’s this energizing grace that lays at the heart of this passage. What do I mean? Well, inserted among all of this doom and gloom is a short message of hope; a message to show them, and us, a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. And what does this flicker of hope look like? What does God require for hope to win the day? God as told you, human ones, what is good and what is required to express that goodness. “Do justice, embrace faithful love,” older versions of the Bible say, “love kindness,” and finally, “walk humbly with your God.”

But here’s the thing. Here’s the nugget that we can take-away from this articulation of hope. These “requirements” are not disconnected from one another. They’re interdependent. Like the peanut butter and the chocolate in a Reses cup, each one is enhanced by the other.

I mean, what does it mean to “embrace faithful love”? Maybe it means going out of our way to share random acts of kindness? How? Well, how about smiling at a stranger just to brighten their day or giving a hug to a friend who’s down so they might feel the literal embrace of faithful love? I don’t know. Maybe walking dogs at the humane society just because you can? There are so many examples of this. So many ways we can be kind.

But if being kind represents the little things that we can do to share an embrace of faithful love, then doing justice takes it to the next level. Doing justice is kindness on steroids. Doing justice is taking those random acts of kindness and intentionally acting in such a way that brings the embrace of faithful love to the whole of society. Doing justice means changing our narrative from “I’ve got mine” to “we’ve got ours.” Do you see what I’m driving at here? Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. This is important so I’ll say it again. Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. The two are inseparable.

So, when we take-action, when we live-into our covenant with God as a people and as a nation, when we’re just to each person and kind to everyone, we’re sharing our embrace of faithful love. When we advocate for the rights of immigrants, we’re sharing the loving embrace of God with the “widows and orphans” who are seeking something greater for themselves and their loved ones. When we march to raise awareness of the on-going disaster of climate change and when we challenge ourselves to address and reduce our own carbon footprint, we’re embracing the planet with the love of God. When we propagate peace, both within ourselves and to the ends of earth, we’re offering the peace of Christ to everyone as we coexist in this world by respecting all forms of religious expression. And we do all of these things, my friends, all of these things, not of our own accord, but as we walk humbly, side by side, and hand in hand with each other and with our Creator.

Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. May it be so for you and for me. Amen and the people of God said, Amen


[I] Dan Clendenin. Micah: Prophetic Critique and Pastoral Comfort (www.journeyingwithjesus.net) 2017

 

 

Restoring Beauty

Matthew 5:13-20

Nelson Mandela once said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”[I]

This, it seems to me is the perfect way to begin to understand the Sermon on the Mount. I say this because Mandela’s words offer us the security of balance over the fear of chaos. What do I mean? Well, there’s an important balance that can be found throughout Scripture. And although it’s foundational for truly grasping the message of the Bible, I’m afraid that far too many of us have missed this balance across the years. The balance I’m talking about here is the balance between grace and demand.

You see, in the Bible, God’s grace, God’s gift of life and love and mercy, always precede any demands.  This is true from the Ten Commandments to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to the Apostles’ teachings. Grace always precedes demand. The point here is that we who have experienced God’s amazing grace in the gifts of love and new life and community are to reflect that grace in the way we relate to others.[ii]

Now, this balance is crucial for our understanding of Scripture and our understanding of live in general, because when we downplay one side or the other, it skews our vision. When we overlook the fact that all the demands of the Bible are grounded in the grace, we tend to turn those demands into rigid rules that are often applied in a strict or exclusionary way. I mean, we can all think of various communities in our world who enforce a ruthless set of demands and expel those who don’t live up to them; and often, unfortunately, in the name of religion. But I don’t think that’s a very accurate portrait of the God who has lovingly called the human family into relationship throughout the centuries.

However, the opposite is also true. It’s far too easy for us to focus only on grace and ignore the very real demands of living a life of faith. And when we make this mistake, we miss the whole point of God’s outpouring of grace in the first place. The point is to shape us into the people we we’re meant to be from the beginning. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “…when we ignore the demand for heartfelt obedience to God’s commands, we turn all that God has done for us into ‘cheap grace.’”[iii]  In other words, grace is something that needs to be lived-out through our participation in acts of justice, compassion, and mercy toward one another. Does that make sense? The invitation to love our neighbor is equal and inseparable from the graciously-restored beauty of loving God with, as Jesus tells us, “all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.”

Now, we see this balance of grace and demand beautifully reflected when we look at the imagery of our Gospel lesson for today. Jesus says that we are the “Salt of the Earth” and in the same breath, he also says that we are the “Light of the World.” Remember now, this invitation to be salt and light comes at the beginning of his very first sermon to his followers, as reported by Matthew anyway. So, it makes sense that he would tell them what it would look like to be his disciple. What the demands would be to follow him.

Which begs the question for us: what does discipleship look like? Well, simply put, Jesus is telling us that we are no longer expected to live or work for ourselves alone, but for others.[iv] And that, for me anyway, is the very foundation of morality. When we are able to think of the other, whoever the other may be, if we are able to think of the other before ourselves, that’s the beginning of what it means to live a virtuous life. So, the balance between grace and demand that Jesus invites us to consider today is really at the core of what we should aspire to as a community of faith. And these images of salt and light challenge us to strike this moral balance.

First consider salt. Salt is the doing. It’s the “boots-on-the-ground” work of peace and justice. It’s the finding-it-within-ourselves grit to stand up for those on the margins of society, even when it’s unpopular. Salt is speaking out for those who are oppressed, befriending those who are lonely, bringing hope to those who are hopeless, loving those whom society has deemed unlovable; salt is becoming good news to the “poor in spirit” who Jesus lifted up in the Beatitudes. Being salt is being the hands and feet, the heart and voice of God in this world. And Jesus warns us here, doesn’t he? What good is salt, he says, if it loses its saltiness? What good is it to say we’re followers of Jesus, that we’re people who stand for social justice and inclusion and equality, if we don’t actually practice what we preach? If we’re going to be salt my friends, we have to be “salty.”

Now, being light isn’t completely disconnected from being salty. When Jesus says that we’re “the light of the world” he’s inviting us to be shinning examples of discipleship for all the world to see. My friends, when we overcome that “fear of being powerful” that Nelson Mandela so beautifully articulated in the quote that I begin this message with, it’s then that we can display who we are as God’s people on that metaphorical lampstand. And remember that Mandela said, “it’s a power that’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. [When] we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

So, if salt is the acts of compassion and justice that come from the power of God within us, then light is the display those powerful actions for all to witness. And these “witnessed actions” find their grounding in God’s invitation, God’s call, God’s demand, to practice kindness, to promote peace, and to participate in bringing the justice of God into this realm. But remember, grace always precedes demand. So, it’s though the grace of God and because of the power of God that resides within all of us, that we are invited to act.

One final thought this morning. I know that being salt and becoming light isn’t always comfortable or easy. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said it this way. “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”[v]

As we journey together, my siblings in Christ, the path won’t always be sunny. Sometimes there will be naysayers along the way. People who have let their fear of the other, fear of the unknown, or just plain self-righteousness cloud the mission of justice and ministry of extravagant inclusion to which Christ has called us. Don’t let that stop you! When someone’s throwing shade, let your inner God-light shine through. When someone’s degrading or cutting down people from other races or ideologies or from other nations or religions, no matter how self-important that person thinks they are, let your saltiness overcome their fear, their hurtful words, with the wonderful flavoring and preserving power of God’s justice.

One final, final, thought. Please remember that we do all of this because the Reign of God, realized in the person and life of Jesus the Christ, is walking this path with us. God is present through the Spirit in the world and deep within our very being, right now and forever from now. And it’s because of this presence that we can continue to be salty; it’s because of this presence, that we can shine, that we can reflect the Light of God, to all the world.

May it be so for you and for me, Amen & Amen.

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[i] Nelson Mandela quoting Marianne Williamson.

[ii] Alan Brehm.  Light for the World (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2014

[iii]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 4. Pg. 43.

[iv] Common English Study Bible. (Lowe Publishing: 2013) Gen. Ed. Joel Green – Commentary on Matthew 13 & 14. pg. 13NT.

[v] Quote found at (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2020