Sermon for Epiphany 4A
You know what? I’m a grown man. I’m not afraid of the dark, anymore. I can walk confidently through most days. It’s good to be a grown up. Yet, while I’m a grown up, there is one phrase that strikes fear deep into my heart.
“We need to talk.”
Have you ever noticed that the phrase, “We need to talk,” is not an invitation to light-hearted conversation? “We need to talk,” means that we need to have a foundational, likely overdue, conversation. For example, my wife has never said, “We need to talk,” and then we chatted about a t.v. show or a weekend away. “We need to talk,” is always serious and about clearing out a block in the relationship.
Whenever I hear those words I also get a little nervous, what did I do? I imagine my wife feels a little nervous when I say the same thing. Even though I’m nervous I know that what lies on the other side of that conversation is a stronger, truer version of us as a unit. Sometimes I’ve had to sit down with some of you and talk, and some of you have emailed and called and said effectively: “Josh, we need to talk.”
How about you, what’s your experience with that phrase, “We need to talk,”? It’s almost never good when your boss has that conversation, or if you are the boss and call that conversation, it may not go well. But, if the relationship is equal then that conversation is about clarity. But then again almost no relationship is equal, or equal across all domains. But if love and respect is present then the need for talk can be healing and offer a window to strengthen the relationship.
In today’s Old Testament reading we hear from the prophet Micah. It’s an awfully famous passage, indeed I’d wager that it’s probably the only bit from Micah that any of us have heard, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s a pretty good and pithy statement of what life ought to be in response to God. In fact, I’ve even seen that some churches have this passage as a sort of mission statement. But most of us might not know that what brought about this whole statement in the first place was that God saying to the people: “We need to talk.”
So what brought about this serious talk? If you look at the passage, you will see that God says, through the mouth of the prophet Micah: Hear what the Lord says: “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.” This is actually a funny play on words because the word, or rather, the name Israel means “to contend with God.” It was the name given to Jacob after wrestling with the angel after which he received a crippling wound and a new name: Contending with God, Israel. So the people of God have this relationship with God but let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is a contentious relationship, an in this passage God brings up a controversy that he has with the people who have been contending with him for a long time.
Not only does God have a controversy, have a problem to discuss, but God is making it public, he wants the mountains and the hills to hear what’s going on. The created order is invited to hear this controversy. God says, ““O my people, what have I done to you? In what ways have I wearied you? Answer me! We need to talk. Here the controversy is laid bare: the people of God, both them and us, have treated God as if we are weary of him.
We’ve all be here haven’t we? We grow weary of those closest to us. We get . . . I don’t know, too comfortable, too familiar and we forget basic kindnesses and respect. We need to reset ourselves, we need to talk. That’s what’s going on here: the people of God are weary of God.
So God decides to remind them of their history with him, he recounts their emancipation from slavery under the Egyptians, about the leaders he gave them, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. God goes on to reference other wonderful acts of his presence among them.
Now, if I were counseling a couple I might ask one side of the couple to not bring up the past so strongly, that it sets the other in a defensive posture and that they should instead move forward from the present in mutuality and co-equal respect. But in this instance, the couple is not equal. God is God, and they are not. God is not our buddy, God is not our Jiminy Cricket conscience, God is God: the one who gives us life, breath, and being, from whom all our works are begun, continued, and ended. So I think we can give God a little leeway here.
It’s actually interesting how God reminds them of the history that they share because throughout a great deal of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is the people who are reminding God to remember the covenant they have made. But he reminds them and then the voice changes, now the people respond: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” They have had the talk, there is clarity: God is God and you are not. Now what? “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” The people are wondering how to respond to the gracious gifts that God has brought. How to respond? How to pay back a never failing avalanche of graces? Let’s try, they say, “How about burnt offerings, how about 10,000 rams, how about tens of thousands of rivers of oil, how about my child?” They get it now, they’ve had the talk, they want to respond to God’s love and grace, and they are getting crazy with it. But in their craziness they realize the extremes of grace that God has gone to, so they want to match that extreme.
What comes next is, to me, like God taking the people and saying, “Shh…shh,…you know what I want? I don’t need all these gifts, here is what I want: I want you to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Can you do that? That’s all I want, I don’t need the sacrifice, I want you to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with me.”
It’s so simple. But difficult. I daresay that most of us would much rather get the rivers of oil and sacrifice the rams than do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.
You’ll note here a few things. Most importantly the prophet doesn’t say, “What does the Lord request?” It says, “require.” Relationship with God has certain requirements that are necessary for the deepening and strengthening of that relationship.
Next we see that God wants us to do justice. Do justice. Not dream of justice. Not wish for justice, not think about justice, but do justice. This is one area where I actually disagree with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He said that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’m not so sure. There is nothing natural about justice, justice doesn’t just spring up or evolve on its own. Justice has to be done, justice has to be done by individuals in ways both small and large.
If you are not sure where to start I have two suggestions. The first is to simply, and perhaps most difficult, be keenly aware of how you might be allowing unjustice exist in your tiny realm of influence. Once the subtle racisms and sexisms are found you can begin to undermine them, to do justice. My other suggestion for doing justice is to think big but act small. For example, there is a the Refugee Support Services group that meets at the Galilee Ministries of East Charlotte that meets close to here on central Avenue. Go, take the Refugee 101 course, it’s free and takes less than an hour. There you will learn about the long plight of a refugee who, by the way, God demands our care of consistently in the Scriptures. Then, of you want, through the Refugee Support Services you can choose to befriend a refugee family. Not to fix, not to convert, not to make like you, but to befriend, to be with.
If that’s too much involvement for you then do justice with advocacy. Did you know that North Carolina and only one other state try 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the court system. What kinds of decisions were you making at 16, were they adult decisions? Friends, we need to stop thinking about justice and do justice. If you want to know more about do justice in this area search Raise the Age NC and you can find a petition and other resources.
God wants us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with him. Loving kindness is interesting. We are to be attracted to kindness, to love it. To be kind, not nice, there is a difference.
Finally, to walk humbly with our God. This gets to the core of our existence. To walk humbly with God is to know that there is a God that has graced us with everything. That God is God and that we are not. The humble bit here doesn’t get as much press in the church as the walk humbly bit, including in this sermon. But to know God, is to know that we are properly humble before God’s holiness and that there is no good in us, except through God.
All of this started because God said, “We need to talk.” And I’m glad that God did have that talk. Whenever these hard talks occur however, when love and commitment are present, which they always are with God, on the other side of these talks there is deeper love and commitment as well as a renewed understanding of what the relationship is. Our relationship with God is first and foremost a relationship, we must never be scared away by God’s holy otherness, but that God has requirements to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him.