Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, "Requirements"

Sermon 1/30/11
Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12

Requirements
           
Requirements. When I was in high-school, I knew I had really arrived, I was really becoming grown-up when I got to the time in school where I could start choosing some of my classes. By the time I was a junior, I no longer took math and science – I had taken the required courses for graduation already. And instead, during my senior year, I was taking a full load of five periods of music courses, ranging from choir and orchestra to theory and history. It was great. I loved it. Then, in college, my choices were even more wide-ranging. You got to choose an entire course of study. I got to choose a major and a minor. There were some core requirements of course – Ohio Wesleyan sadly required three sciences, much to my dismay. But I got to choose classes like Ancient Greek, Stage Make-up and Costuming, Shakespeare, and Adolescent Psychology. And then, I went to seminary. Instead of getting more choices, I had less than in college, it seemed – I had seminary requirements and requirements that were specific to the United Methodist denomination. I had requirements that our annual conference set all its own. And during my last year, the school was already moving to add one or two more classes to the list. I can’t say I didn’t have some choice in my courses, but it seems a seminary can’t let you go off to become a pastor without having classes in Old and New Testament, or courses on Preaching. And now that I’m working on my Doctor of Ministry degree, it seems things have come full circle. I don’t have a single elective class in my program. Every class I take is prescribed. I just take what I’m told to take. Zero wiggle room. The requirements are the requirements. And if you want to get out of high-school, you’ve got to take English. And if you want to get out of seminary, you have to complete the requirements necessary for ministry. And if I want my Doctoral degree, I have to take every single one of those classes. We might wish it worked differently, but ultimately, we know we must pay our dues if we want to get credit and move on.
Sometimes, I think we treat things similarly in our faith lives. We’re interested in knowing what our requirements are, and what part of faith is elective. We’re interested in knowing how much we need to believe and how much of our faith we need to practice to do what is necessary for us to reap the benefits. For example, how many times a month do you need to attend worship? Your answer and my answer to this question might be a little different! But we wonder – do we have to attend every week? Once a month? Three weeks on one week off? Or we wonder, how much do we need to give? What can we get by with? If we go to church, do we have to go to Sunday School too, or vise versa? What’s required for us to be good Christians? We wonder what we must believe too: did Jesus really mean we had to drop everything and follow him, like the disciples did in our reading last week, or is that just an elective part of faith, only for the really devout? When Jesus taught us to love our enemies, did he mean all of them, or just some? When we read about our neighbors and how we are to treat them, are we required to love every last one, make amends in every relationship, or does Jesus just expect us to give it a good try and then say, “Enough is enough!?” We want to know. Of course, I’m teasing a little bit – but I’m serious too – we really want to know what’s required of us. We love God – I’m guessing that’s why most of you are here. We want to serve God. We want to live rightly. We want to be disciples. But we know our limitations too – we’re not perfect. We’ve failed so many times before. How can we live up to the standards set by the disciples, who dropped everything to follow Jesus, or the Israelites, who wandered for years in the desert to follow God’s commands, or those like Paul, who were even imprisoned for preaching the gospel? We doubt we can live as they did – and so we want to know: what’s required of us? What must we do to please God?
We are constantly trying to figure out what it is we need to do to please God. We think of the heavens opening up at Jesus’ baptism, and Jesus hearing God’s voice saying, “with you I am well pleased,” and we want so much that same assurance of God’s love, even as we feel so much less deserving of it than was Christ. We are not alone in our wondering. We read in Micah today, the questioning Israel brings before God: “with what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Perhaps these suggested gifts don’t sound very meaningful to us, but the offerings, the calves, the rams, even the firstborn – these represent all that was important and of value to the Ancient Israelites – the offerings would represent the finest that a person possessed, the best of the best one had to give, or even one’s own child – the firstborn, who held all sorts of high positions in Hebrew society. We’re not much different when it comes to trying to please God. We know that we are sinful – we know that we’re often not doing what God wants – but instead of trying to change our behavior, to transform our lives, we wait until after we’ve made bad decisions, and then scramble to make bargains with God. “God, I swear I’ll never do X again if you’ll just do X for me.” “God, I promise I’ll do X all the time God, if you just forgive me for X.” We hope that our offerings will appease and please God, as Israel wonders if its guilt offerings are what God desires.
But Micah, the prophet, has some clarity to offer, and I can almost hear the “you know the answer” tone-of-voice he must have been using with the people. Micah answers, “God has told you, people, 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?” We already know, Micah reminds us, what we are to do. God has told us. Maybe we haven’t been listening, or perhaps we haven’t believed what we’ve heard. But we know the requirement of faithful living: to walk humbly, to love kindness, or mercy as some texts read, and to do justice. These are the requirements – not the electives – but the requirements of faithful living, good living.
What does it mean, though? How do we do these things? What is justice, and mercy or kindness, and humility? To me, it can be overwhelming if we think about the nouns instead of the verbs. The nouns – justice, mercy, humility – those are some big broad concepts. What is justice? Well, we could spend a lot of time talking about that, and end up spending little time actually doing what Micah talks about. But if we focus on the verbs in Micah’s response to our question, I think we find a way to move forward. We have to walk humbly with God. We have to love mercy. And we have to do just or act justly. Walk, love, do/act. That gives us something to get our head around. What does God require of us? We have to walk with God. When we are figuring out our path in life, we’re to figure out where God is going, and go that same way. We’re to try to be where God is every day. It’s like going on a walk with a friend – you’re side by side, and where they go, you go. We walk with God. And we’re to love. That’s easy, right? We know how to love. We can get better at it. We can include more people in who we love. We can remove some of the conditions that we put on how we love. But what’s required is something we already know, that’s as essential to living as breathing. We’re to love. And finally, we’re to do, to act. We talked about this last Sunday – how being disciples involves reflection and action. It’s easy to see where God’s love is needed in this world, where grace is needed, where peace is needed. All we have to do is act in faith. That doesn’t mean we have to solve everything. But what’s required is that we don’t just do nothing! Taking action in the small ways we can is infinitely more effective than doing nothing because we can’t do everything.
Today we celebrate people who are engaging in the journey of faith Micah describes. As we install new leaders and we receive new members, we lift up those who are taking a particular step in their walk with God. We affirm our love for them as we welcome new folks into this part of the Body of Christ and as we encourage our leaders to work with love in guiding the congregation. And these celebrations are certainly actions, taking an active role in discipleship. As we celebrate, we also reflect on our own journeys, and seek to take steps in faith together.
What does God require of us? Just three things. Walk humbly. Love mercy. Act justly. We have a whole lifetime to complete the course. Amen.

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