PNCUCC Annual Meeting Sermon
April 29th, 2018
I'd first like to show my respect and acknowledge the Host Nations of this land, their elders past and present, on which this gathering takes place.
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?
Micah 6:8 is no stranger to us. There are few verses that seem as clear and encompass so much of what calls many of us to be people of faith. It's the favorite verse of many and is one of those “go to” verses for those of us involved in advocacy or organizing work. Within our own conference - after Courtney listened and reflected back what she heard from of many of you - the ideas in this verse became such a persistent theme in conversations about vitality that the conference board has adopted deepening relationships, doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God as our conference intentions for the last two years.
It has been a helpful as well as challenging tool in both broadening and narrowing our work together. The advantage of focus is that it gives you clarity of vision in the way time, finances and energy are used. The challenge, of course, has been recognizing how much does not fall within this area of focus and figuring out ways to let some of those other things go. The last few years have been challenging ones.
Personally, this verse has been an important one to me for a long time. I’ve used it as a part of almost every benediction I’ve given for almost 20 years. When asked my own favorite verse, this is probably the one I’d quote.
But I have to be honest with you. Although I could recite to you the whole verse from several different translations, the most important translation - and most faulty - is probably the one I made in my head that went something like this: “Do justice.. and that other stuff.” I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. I chose to become part of the UCC specifically because of our commitment to and leadership in the realms of justice work. Recently, on the denominational level, what used to be two separate offices - Local Church Ministries and Justice and Witness Ministries - were merged because for so many of our many of our churches these areas are intertwined and inseparable.
Yesterday, in my report, I mentioned that last winter, I found myself struggling in my own ministry and my sense of purpose in life. I have been effected by the general state of what frequently seems to be a world in decay; the weight of church leadership in a time of loss and relinquishment; self-doubt of my own sense of worth; and the reality of turning 50. I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions most years but, this year, I needed to do something differently. Somewhere along the way, I began to wonder: if building relationship and living into the elements of Micah 6:8 could point towards vitality in the conference, could re-committing and refocusing on these same things help me discover vitality in my life and ministry, too? So, I let go to these elements becoming a frame for my own life and work. Its made a difference. I started studying this text in more depth than I had previously and the richness in this text has been life changing.
Micah was a country boy living in a time of invasion by the Assyrians and displacement of the Jewish people. He spoke strongly against these and called for a just peace to be established. He was also - maybe primarily - deeply upset with what he saw festering in the growing centrality of larger, non-agricultural communities. He saw these hypocritical religious and economic centers as the places that used people for their own means as opposed to being in a more equitable, mutual relationship. Income inequality was emerging as an increasingly significant problem. He saw these as places where the poor within the cities were made poorer and from where policies that stole from the poor were blessed by those in power. He frequently spoke for the destruction of the city and its return to farmland.
This wasn’t opposition for opposition’s sake. The ideas and theology he was speaking for were ran deep than and Micah 6:8 is a small text with a large window into what was important to him.
This is a corporate call to a new offering. Just before this text, he rejects the idea that we need riches to get closer to God and live in to God’s will. Using the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible he says that God “has told us what is good; and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God?”
When I was learning about this text, I came across a few references to one of the most important words in this text. As a good UCC person, I generally bristle a bit at the finger shaking sense of the word “require.” However, I have to admit that I’ve liked the cover it provides for doing justice work. I’ve used it as cover for the closest I’ve gotten to fire and brimstone-ish sermon a few times. I’ve used it as cover when folks have questioned my use of time, energy or resources to this purpose with almost a shrug of my shoulders and the sense of “What can I do? Its required?”
But, over the last couple of months I’ve started to understand how wrong I got this. I had the shallowest understanding of this word possible. I read the most concise, deeper explanation of the word “require” in an United Methodist Reporter interview of a The Rev. James C. Howell, senior pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, N.C. who wrote the book, “What Does the Lord Require?.” In that interview, he said:
“The subtle nuances of the very strong (Hebrew) verb darash are just fascinating. ‘Require’ misses the heart of it, I think, for we resort to notions of rules or grading, as in ‘the teacher requires you turn in a three-page paper by Friday.’ The verb darash has undertones of affection, or the healthiest sort of dependency, as in ‘the child requires his mother’s love,’ or ‘the flower requires rain and sunshine.’ There is a mood of seeking in darash; lovers seek each other out, and a shepherd seeks his lost sheep—and in the Old Testament, both situations use darash. So when the Lord “requires” justice, kindness and mercy, it isn’t that the Lord “insists on” or “demands” these things. God seeks them, yearns for them, and frankly needs them from us as intimate partners in God’s adventure down here.”
So, in its essence as I understand it, God is not calling us in to simply our doing with this texts but into our being. We’re not being called to these requirements as part of some cosmic to do list. We’re being reminded of neglected ingredients for living. We’re not being disciplined by God. This is God seeking a relationship with us through our interactions with each other. This changes the face of the entire rest of the text as not just a call for “right acts” but “right relationships.”
In this light, “to do justice” is an invitation to those right relationships. It is a deeply personal call connected to deep relationships. Yesterday, one of our presenters - Joe Chrastil (of IAF NW) - spoke to the idea that within the organizing model that seeks to define self-interest is the intent to discover mutual interest. Chrastil, Bishop Dwayne Royster (PICO) and our own Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear all helped make clear the dangers within the relational position of power over; the advocacy danger of power for; and the call of establishing power with each other. When - in relationship to this nuanced understanding of “requires” - we hear the invitation to “do justice,” it is about a mutually liberative work that makes our relationships right. It is not the blandness of the lowest common denominator but the joy and hope that comes from arms and purposes interlinked.
I’d never had a really deep understanding of “love kindness” before. I really took it at face value. Something more like “you should think that kindness is really, really great.” Nope. First of all, this is another place the understanding of the Hebrew helps a bit. The word used here is chesed and it describes the acts of “loving-kindness” that someone might do. Over the weekend, you may have heard me refer to this part of the text not simply as “love kindness” but to “doing acts of loving kindness.” I think it helps better explain the intent of the scripture. This idea is also deeply wrapped up in the idea of mutuality and relationship. There is a website called Torah.com that I’ve found to be a good launching point for some Hebrew study and an article by Prof. Elinoar Bareket reflects a good part of what I’ve read in other writings about this phrase. Forgive another quote, here:
“As already noted by the American archaeologist and rabbi, Nelson Glueck, chesed in the Bible generally refers to good deeds performed where mutual relations exist, i.e., the substance of a covenant between two partners. Similarly, Walther Eichrodt defines chesed in the Bible as ‘the brotherly comradeship and loyalty which one party to a covenant must render to another.”It is, therefore, marked by mutuality, friendship, fraternity, loyalty, and love.”
We help each other to help correct a what is hoped-to-be temporary situation in which our sibling is in need of help; knowing that this both helps the health of the community we are part of overall as well as reflects the reality that we are also the person that needs to be helped. It is not doing an act of loving kindness based simply on donating the extra time or resources we might have but an intent to correct the fact that anyone has more than what they need and anyone else has less than they need. Again, this is that mutuality that is deeply intertwined with the deeper understanding of “requires” and “to do justice.”
I’m still studying the “walking humbly with God” part but I will share two things I’ve been sitting with. In the past, I’d imagined this walking as a quiet, prayerful conversation with God or as sitting with God as almost a holy spiritual director. I still do but another image has come to mind, too. You may have noticed that we have a son who is super fast and more adept and weaving and spinning than any player in the NFL. The most effective frame of mind I’ve found to have when trying to keep up is humility because, let’s be honest, I can’t keep up but he really invites me to. If, as pop theology has suggested, a lifetime to us is like a second for God can you imagine God walking? I know this might seem trite or simplistic in some ways but the invitation to relationship means not only that God meets us where we are but that we are also invited to try and keep up with God.
Secondly, this yearning of God as expressed through our relationships with each other is, in and of itself, humbling. There have been days when I’ve had to confess that I have become a person I did not want to become; where I have fallen into patterns that are so focused on my own pain that I have not seen the pain of others or - just as dangerous - have only seen the pain of other and minimized sharing my own. Neither is right, helpful, fair or just. Both are a denial of mutuality. Yes, there are different roles we are asked by our communities to fulfill for the sake of our communities and - for the sake of our communities - we are freed to live in to those roles by boundaries. And, those roles don’t mean that within our relationships with each other we aren’t called to find ways to balance out the rights and responsibilities that are entrusted to people in those roles.
Micah 6:8 is, in and of itself, not a call to personal piety but an invitation to deepen relationships of mutuality with one another. This is revolutionary in a time when loneliness is increasingly used as a weapon for manipulation and control. Loneliness and isolation have become constructed and enforced by the powers and principalities to build dependency on them and get in the way of us being in relationship with each other. At the root of oppression is enforced loneliness and isolation. At the root of justice work is refusing to be isolated or to comply with the systems that isolate others. Therefore, in this time and place one of the most important calls to the church is to fight isolation and loneliness. Potlucks are revolutionary acts. We are called to insist that we are not the property of any corporation, institution or government but the we belong to God and each other.
In its essence, this is becoming the underlying theology of our conference. Vitality is a healthy, liberative mutuality. When we’re working at our best, it is at the heart of every church, conference committee, staff intent, offering and expression. When some of you ask the question, “Why can’t church be more like camp?,” I’m convinced that some of this sort of spirit is some of what we’re seeking. When we take an offering today for our Communities of Practice and Casa Hogar, it is with the understanding that this offering is a part of our work of mutuality and creativity that diminishes loneliness and isolation. When we are entering this work, we are answering God’s invitation with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
My Siblings in Christ, what does God invite us to but to deepen our relationships through doing justice, doing acts of loving kindness and walking humbly with God? Would you like to be part of a Church as expressed through all our settings that makes its purpose to accept this invitation?