Sermon for Sunday, June 23, 2013

Micah 6:6-8

“The Church: How To Please God”

Today’s sermon is part of a series “The State Of The Church/The Fate Of The Church” in conjunction with the work of the New Visioning Team.

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

To watch a video of this sermon, go to:

Blog: ~ Twitter: @FranklinCircle

As young children, don’t we spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out what pleases our parents or caregivers?  Do you remember carefully mQUVL_rjgv-lK9c5CvQaydgdrawing a picture on the cover of your handmade mother, father, or grandparent’s day card?  Or learning the “turkey song” for the Thanksgiving school play?  Or building the marble pyramid paperweight, and then offering it to your parent, grandparent, or other adult then intently watching their face for their reaction?  Many of us spent – and perhaps still spend – far too much time trying to please other people and then interpreting their reactions to our words, gifts, and actions.

Similarly, don’t we spend our lives in some way trying to figure out what pleases God, then offering that which we’ve figure out in our own imperfectly human way up to God, and, finally, waiting, watching, wondering if the Divine was pleased with us?  It’s hard enough trying to please an earthbound being who we can observe for nonverbal cues or from whom we can receive immediate feedback, even if all-too-convoluted.  It’s harder trying to gratify one who has no form, doesn’t respond quickly nor clearly, and is omnipotent, omnipresent, and eternal!

sr-nancys-words1The nice thing is, we are, in fact, told exactly what we should be doing to please God!  In the words and vision of the 8th Century B.C.E. Hebrew prophet, Micah, that which delights the divine is spelled out: Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God.

Furthermore, it is spelled out what God is not interested in: bowing before God, giving extravagant offerings, and sacrificing that which is most precious to us.  Psalm 40, verses 6-8 say this in a different way:

  Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,

   but you have given me an open ear.

  Burnt-offering and sin-offering

   you have not required.

  Then I said, ‘Here I am;

   in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

  I delight to do your will, O my God;

   your law is within my heart.’

We should be thrilled that there are such clear and unequivocal instructions for faithful living in scripture!  And yet, we aren’t.  Why not?  Well, perhaps it is because each of these things urged by Micah are open for discussion and interpretation… Perhaps it is because the things that we are told not to do seem to be exactly what we are doing – in this very moment – and that seems hard to give up… But most likely it is because we understand and treat God chiefly like we understand and treat humans around us, as one with the same likes and dislikes, personality quirks, prejudices, and desires that we all have as human beings.  This last one gets us in trouble again and again.

So what does it mean for us to “do justice,” “love kindness,” and “walk humbly with God?”  And, since this sermon series is looking at the state of the church and not just our personal spiritual lives, how does an institution like Franklin Circle Christian Church translate this into our corporate life?

Franklin Circle Christian Church at worship.

Franklin Circle Christian Church at worship.

First, let’s acknowledge the paradoxical elephant in the room.  On the one hand scripture makes it clear that we should never get caught up in the rituals and rites of worship, what Micah and the writer of the Psalms calls “burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  But on the other hand we do need to worship God all the more authentically and sacrificially!  These ancient practices highlighted were symbolic of the tendency to condense our reverence for God into a few rote actions and words.  Does it mean ending communal worship and stop giving offerings?  No, of course not!  (Good try, though!)  What it surely signifies is that we ought not to equate our entire devotion to the divine with going to church on Sunday morning!  And, by extension, we should resist equating “the Church” with “the church building!”  What Micah protests is worship that is perfunctory, distant, obligatory, and empty.

Members of Parents, Friends, and Family of Lesbians And Gays Cleveland lobby in Washington, DC for stronger anti-bullying legislation, and Employment & Housing Non-Discrimination legislation.

Members of Parents, Friends, and Family of Lesbians And Gays Cleveland lobby in Washington, DC for stronger anti-bullying legislation, and Employment & Housing Non-Discrimination legislation.

Second, let’s look at each of these directives.  “Do justice,” Micah tells us.  The word “do” is an action verb, and is also used in the Hebrew scriptures to mean “make or manufacture,” “work for,” “deal in.”  I just love the fact that the first item Micah names as an authentic way to please God is to actively work for justice!  Justice, or “mishpat,” is to bring reconciliation, restore right relationship, and, in keeping with the vast propensity of scripture, to align oneself with the cause of the weakest, the most vulnerable, and the marginalized amongst us.

Phillip, who was in hospice, receives a birthday cake from Virginia and her family.  True kindness.

Phillip, who was in hospice, receives a birthday cake from Virginia and her family. True kindness.

+ Our church would do well to explore more ways to translate our commitment to the marginalized into real action: doing justice, making reconciliation a reality, working for the rights of the least, the last, and the lost.

“Love kindness,” comes next.  Love is the very same word for all the other loves, a passionate and heart-felt adoration and commitment to a person or a cause.  In this case, a love for “chesed” also translated as mercy, lovingkindness, and goodness.  What a wonderful balance for the monarch-confronting, table-turning, in-your-face nature of doing justice of the likes of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jesus, with the abounding warmth of loving kindness and mercy.

+ Our church would do well to meld our righteous indignation with the injustices of the world with a more humane and tender appreciation for the people involved in the institutions, policies, and processes.  Likewise we should light a fire under our all-too-easy and frequently undemanding words of welcome and inclusion.

Norma, a Third Sunday Meal regular volunteer, is literally "walking the walk" with two Cleveland State University student volunteers, Thomas & Anthony.

Norma, a Third Sunday Meal regular volunteer, is literally “walking the walk” with two Cleveland State University student volunteers, Thomas & Anthony.

And finally, “walk humbly with our God.”  Walk, or “yalak” means both go and come, which is to say our entire manner of life, our very being.  Like the line in Psalm 40, “Here I am,” echoing Isaiah in the temple and the response of the disciples to Jesus’s call to “Come, follow me,” God asks nothing less of us than our all.  Everything.  To “walk humbly with our God” is to understand, yes, that God is with us.  Our ceremonies of Baptism and Holy Communion remind us of this truth.  But knowing that the Creator of the Universe, the Redeemer of Life, and the Spirit of Power are with us always is not a cause for egotism nor arrogance.  In fact, knowing that there is not place we go that God is not with us should subdue our pride.  Christ has no hands nor feet, no ears nor mouth nor shoulder, no heart but ours.  We’s it folks!

+ Our church would do well to equip disciples with both the power and the humility needed to “care for the spiritual needs of a culturally diverse community, encourage creativity, and awaken people to the joys of life with Jesus Christ.”  All the time.  Everywhere we come and go.

Is it easy trying to please God?  Well, yes, and no.  Easy in that scripture has moments that crystalize the divine imperative: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.  The difficult part is to make these ways of being faithful the entirety of our lives, as individuals and as a community.  But try we can, and try we must.  Amen.