Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Heart of the Matter: a sermon (Micah 6:6-8, Psalm 15, 1st Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12)

Familiar words: 

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?

Like many familiar words, they sometimes lose their radical edge.  For some people, to “love kindness” may be pretty much what they used to call a “motherhood” statement.  We all love kindness, don’t we?

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?

Like many familiar words, sometimes they even get twisted around.  The bit about “walk[ing] humbly with your God” can be used to promote a destructive low self-esteem in some people, a low self-esteen that’s particularly hard for some religious people to get rid of, because they can point to this verse (or the verse about the “poor in spirit” in our gospel lesson) and try to make the case that such low self-esteem is a spiritual virtue of sorts.    

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?

Familiar words.  And, in the midst of the familiar words, there are three questions that the prophet Micah puts to us:
  • What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?
  • What does the Lord require of you but to love kindness?
  • What does the Lord require of you but to walk humbly with your God?

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?

This would be a very different passage if all we were asked was “what does the Lord require of you but to approve of justice”, ... or “to believe in justice”, or even “to advocate justice”.

But here, it’s not just our beliefs or our attitudes that are being called into service.  It’s our actions.  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?”  We are called here to live out our sense of social justice, and to put this justice into practice in our daily lives, so that it becomes part of us, almost second nature.

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice?

What does the Lord require of you but to love kindness?

We often use the word, “kindness” in a passive way, to speak of the absence of cruelty.  It’s a bit like the way we often use the word “peace” to speak of the absence of war.

In the Bible, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures, both words are more active and more dynamic.

Shalom, the word for peace, not only means the absence of war or violence.  Shalom also speaks of a dynamic wholeness, a profound sense of well-being.

Similarly, the word used for “kindness” in this passage is hesed.  Hesed means more than just the absence of cruelty.  Hesed speaks of the profound compassion that is found deep in the very being of God, yet even so it is a compassion in which we can participate.  AgapĂ©, the Greek word for “love” found in the New Testament, the profound, self-sacrificing love of God, is almost an exact equivalent of hesed. 

So, when Micah speaks of God requiring humanity to “love kindness”, it’s not just a passive absence of cruelty.  (Of course, though, we must avoid cruelty, both physical and emotional, in all we do.)  It’s also a call to participate in the profound compassion of the living God.

What does the Lord require of you but to love kindness?

What does the Lord require of you but to walk humbly with your God?

This isn’t about low self-esteem and breast-beating.  “I’m no good .... I’m no good ... I’m no good!”  Neither is the reference to the “poor in spirit” in our gospel lesson.

“Walking humbly with ... [our] God” is, I believe, a reference for our need to admit that, in matters of faith, we do not know all the truth. 

In a passage which was read in many churches last Sunday, Paul mentioned the faction in the Corinthian church who declared about themselves: “We belong to Christ!”, with the implication being “And the rest of you do not!”  This is an example of those who believe they know all the truth, of those who walk arrogantly with their God.

And so, among religious people of many faiths and traditions today,
  • Some believe that people of faiths other than their own are beyond the scope of God’s love.
  • Others believe that people of whose lifestyles they disapprove are beyond the scope of God’s love.
  • Still others believe that God’s love is limited to those whose faith is of a certain emotional intensity.
  • Some others believe that God's love is withheld from those who get their beliefs wrong.
  • Yet others hold in contempt those whose faith has not reached a certain intellectual standard.
All of these try to walk arrogantly with their God.

In contrast, God calls us to journey in faith with generosity toward those whose convictions differ from ours.

What does the Lord require of you but to walk humbly with your 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?
 
The other lessons we’ve heard today are, at least in part, an extension of this passage.

  • In our Psalm, we celebrate the individuals of integrity; the women and the men who “speak the truth from their heart”, who “do no evil to their friends”, and “who stand by their oath even to their hurt”.
  • In our gospel lesson, we hear Jesus pronounce his blessing upon those who live such a life of integrity: peacemakers and others who “do justice”, ... the merciful and others who “love kindness”, ... the meek and others who “walk humbly with ... [their] God.”
  • In our lesson from First Corinthians, Paul proclaimed the wisdom of God in the statement that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom”.  Many of the people whom our culture regards as movers-and-shakers would regard much of the statements we’ve heard in today’s lessons as foolishness.
But whether the movers-and-shakers like it or not, God’s call remains, nevertheless:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice (even if you’re called a “bleeding heart”),
and to love kindness (even if you’re called a “do-gooder”),
and to walk humbly with your God? (even if you’re called “politically correct”).

God’s foolishness remains much wiser than human wisdom. 

The peacemakers remain blessed.

The meek shall still inherit the earth.

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?

No comments:

Post a comment

Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.