Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sermon for Sunday, February 10

The Life of Justice
Micah 6:6-8

Requirements? What are requirements? Requirements are absolute necessities. There is no way around them. You might as well get used to them because requirements are part of everyday life. For example, one of the most important rituals of American life is getting your driver’s license. Do you remember when you got your driver’s license for the first time? Or when you taught your children so they could get their first license? That was a great day in my life – Freedom . . .Movement . . . A sign of finally growing up. There are requirements to get that first driver’s license here in the State of CT. You must be 16 years old. You must have a learner’s permit for a minimum of 120 days. You need to pass the vision exam, and the written exam, and the road test. Those are the rules of the game. No arguments. No discussion. No wiggle room. These are the requirements if you want to get a driver’s license in the state of CT.

If you want to travel internationally to most countries, you must have a passport and visa. Even if you want to travel to Canada, you need a passport to get back into the US. If you travel to France, England or Germany; to New Zealand or Fiji, to China, Japan or Taiwan, you MUST have a valid passport and a valid visa. Don’t argue. Don’t fuss. Don’t wiggle. Don’t try to get around them. These are the requirements.

Life is full of requirements. The Bible even mentions some in today’s reading from Micah. Micah 6:8 is one of those highlight verses, one of those verses that stands apart from all the rest. What does the Lord require of you. Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with your God.
Would you say these words after me:
Do justice. (all repeat)
Love kindness. (all repeat)
Walk humbly with your God. (all repeat)
Let us all say those words together:
Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with your God.

Micah preached the end of the good times just before his nation fell apart. There had been forty years of prosperity and peace in Israel. During times of prolonged prosperity and peace, people often forget God, ignore God, drift away from God. In our scripture passage, God and the people of Israel are in the middle of a lawsuit. They have come to court to see who is at fault in their fractured relationship. The charge? Israel has ignored her God. The people have forgotten how God saved them from the land of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. In choosing not to remember their own exodus and the struggles leading up to liberation, the people grow indifferent. On the stand, Israel comes up with a clever defense. The people ask, “What can we bring before the Lord to make up for what we’ve done? Maybe God would be happy if we took a valuable yearling calf and sacrificed it. No, God will want more. Maybe we should raise the value by sacrificing not one, but a thousand rams, and then smother it with rivers of precious olive oil. Then would God be pleased? What if we sacrificed our firstborn children to pay for the sins of our souls? Then would God forgive? Tell us the cost, and we will pay.”

The urgent cries of Israel don’t sound very different than our own laments today. We sin, and we have an urgent compulsion to atone. We cry, “God, what do you want from me. What can I do to make up for what I’ve done? Will you be happy if I promise to go to church every Sunday for a month? How about a year? What if I make good on my stewardship pledge? I’ll even put a little extra in? Then would you be pleased, God? How much do I need to give in order to secure forgiveness? Do I need to find the people and things that are most valuable to me and offer them to you, Lord? Then would you forgive? Tell me the cost, and I will pay.” WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE?

If we think we can buy God’s forgiveness, then we have missed the point. God doesn’t want stuff. God wants you. Do what the Lord requires. These words of Micah 6:8 are so simple. What does the Lord require of you? Say them with me . . .
Do justice.
Love kindness.
And walk humbly with your God.”

Now take those words home. Stuff them in your pant pockets with your keys. Slip those words into your purse or wallet along with your credit cards and have them available all the time. Put those words into your heart and mind and carry them within. Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with your God.

Think about these words with me for a few moments.

To do justice.
There are nine words that are associated with the word, “justice,” in the Bible. Widow, fatherless, orphans, poor, hungry, stranger, needy, weak and oppressed. In this list of words, you did not find the word, “rich.” Rich is often associated with injustice. You don’t have to worry about the rich, because the rich will be able to afford justice. Worry about the widows, the fatherless, the orphans, the poor, the hungry, the strangers, the needy, the weak and the oppressed. We are to work for fairness for the little people of our world. To do justice is not a romantic ideal nor an abstract concept. Rather, justice means hard work. A life of justice asks us to work together, to truthfully critique the present unjust system and to find ways to change the system. Justice is able to disrupt, dismantle, break down, disarm, and transform the world when we dare to see what is really happening without growing cynical. Living a life of justice means being willing to risk seeing another person’s suffering as our own.

Charlie understood this. Charlie was one of those kids who the Sunday School teachers just could not get a hold on. When it came time for the Christmas pageant, the teachers thought it wise to give Charlie a simple part. Charlie would be the innkeeper. This would mean saying, “No room” three times. The night of the pageant two of the children dressed as Joseph and Mary came to the inn. “No room,” said Charlie. The couple knocked on the door a second time. “NO ROOM!” Charlie repeated. Banging on the door even harder, desperately seeking space for themselves and their new baby, Joseph and Mary pleaded with the innkeeper, “Please, is there any room in the inn?” Moved with compassion, Charlie forgot his line. “OK,” he said, “why don’t you take my room tonight?” The pageant came to a complete halt. Some parents were upset that the tradition had been changed. But for many who had come in the spirit seeking the presence of God, Charlie’s words of kindness had taught them something about justice and compassion.

Love kindness.
We all know what kindness is. Compassion, sympathy, gentleness, benevolence, helpfulness. We see it every day and we are grateful. I remember a story about theological students at Harvard who were preparing for the ministry. These theological students were taking their final examination on the topic: Kant’s Moral Imperative. Kant was a French moral philosopher. The final examination for this class gave the students two hours to write their philosophy with a ten-minute break in the middle. The students wrote furiously for fifty-five minutes. Then the students all took a break and went out into the hallway. There in the hallway was another student, not part of their class, sitting humped up on the floor, disheveled, looking like a mess. The theological students were busy in conversation with each other, getting water, taking a bathroom break. After 10 minutes, they returned for the second hour of writing their philosophy of what it meant to be a moral human being. Weeks later, the theological students received their test results: they had all failed. That is, all the students thought that their test was what they wrote for two hours in the classroom. The professor meanwhile was standing out in the hallway during the ten-minute break and grading them on who approached the man humped down on the floor and spoke a kind word. Nobody did.

Kindness. Mercy. Gentleness. The ingredient that God requires from his disciples is fundamental human kindness…to family, friends, work associates, classmates, and strangers in the hallway.

Finally, Walk humbly with your God.
Focus on the word, “walk.” Walk implies a step that is slow and measured. Walking is the opposite of running. Walking is a deliberate pace. Focus on the word, humbly. Humility is sacrificing a part of yourself to listen to the needs of others and the desires of God. The key to worshiping God is to sacrifice your own thoughts, your own conversations with others, your own agendas and desires. To walk humbly with God is to ignore your rush and busyness of life and to focus on someone other than your self and your pleasures.

Justice. Kindness. Humility. Honestly, it would be a lot easier to buy God off. But new life in Christ means living in ways that make life better for others. It’s risky and uncomfortable. When I think of Justice, I think about a Chilean singer who was imprisoned in the National stadium in Santiago when the government was overthrown by Augusto Pinochte in 1973. The singer’s name was Victor Jara. While imprisoned, he wrote a poem about the conditions in the stadium. Let me read part of it.
We are 5,000 — here in this little part of the city
We are 5,000 — how many more will there be?
In the whole city, and in the country 10,000 hands
Which could seed the fields, make run the factories.
How much humanity — now with hunger, pain, panic and terror?

There are six of us — lost in space among the stars,
One dead, one beaten like I never believed a human could be so beaten.
The other four wanting to leave all the terror,
One leaping into space, other beating their heads against the wall
All with gazes fixed on death.
As the days went on, the singer stood among the frightened and demoralized prisoners, who had been rounded up for unknown reasons, and he began a solitary song of freedom. A guitar was passed to him. The spirit began to blow. Soon thousands were singing a song of peace with him. As usual, the authorities were threatened by the power of the spirit moving so freely. They seized the young man and took him away. When the authorities returned Jara, they dumped him in the crowd and threw a smashed guitar at his feet. Not only had the guitar been destroyed, but the bones in his hands and ribs were broken. Everyone watched as his captors mockingly suggested that he play guitar for them as he lay on the ground. For a while the singer lay motionless, then he stood up and began to sing. Defiantly, Jara struggled to his feet and began to sing a popular song of freedom. Jara was taken out of the stadium. Days later, his bullet-ridden body was on a roadside on the outskirts of Santiago.

I'm not asking you to be a political dissident to do justice. Just look around you. See the world as it is. Listen to the cries of those aching for justice. You won;t have to look for long or listen very hard. The needs are all around is. The life of justice is a response to God’s goodness. It refuses to back down in the face of evil. It never relents shining the light of grace into the dark place sin the world. Do you want to experience God’s presence? Do you seek tangible evidence of the New Life? Then Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with your God.

Angela L. Ying, “God Requires What?”(August 8, 1999), www.sermoncentral.com.

James Bryan Smith, A Spiritual Formation Workbook (New York: Harper, 1991), 54-55.

William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville: WMJK, 2004), 146-149.
James L. Mays, Micah (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 142.

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