6 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?
7 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?”
8 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?
Today’s scripture reading is from the book of Micah. Not many people are aware that this ancient book of the bible was actually written by one of our very own distinguished El Pasoans–the prophet Micah, who was a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso. In fact, there are twelve books of the Old Testament that were written by various prophets, all of them UTEP alumni. Collectively, they are referred to as the books of the “Miner” prophets.
November, for us here at First Presbyterian Church, marks the beginning of our annual pledge drive, where our members remember the pledge we made when we joined the church to support its ministries with our generous giving. And this year, I thought of the perfect bumper sticker that we could give to everyone who increases their pledge beyond what they contributed last year. The bumper sticker would read: “I Upped My Pledge. Up Yours!” (Just kidding, of course!).
November, in our American culture, is also the time when our thoughts, our preparations, our commercials, and our wallets begin to turn to the holiday season, with all its business, anxiety, and over-the-top, frantic consumerism.
So I thought that this year, combining those two things–our annual pledge drive and the build-up to the holidays–it would be good to preach a sermon series on tranquility and contentment: How to cultivate the art of simplicity in our lives, our faith, and in our giving. Simple gifts–those we have received from God and others, and those that we give back to God and others.
This is another “back to basics” series, focusing on the idea of minimalism. If we strip away all the flashy, gaudy, bells and whistles that make us say “ooh” and “ahh” but end up leaving us empty in the end; if we peel back the layers of excess, to only those things that truly matter most…what will we find? And how will that change us for the better?
Today, we’ll talk about what God requires of us, minimally. Next Sunday we’ll talk about what WE require from God, minimally. And the final Sunday, we’ll talk about the biblical “secret” of well-being, which really isn’t much of a secret, but rather something we often forget in the hustle and bustle of our busy lives.
In the midst of all this, I hope I can convince you that simple gifts–generously given and graciously received–are at the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ, a member of a faithful community, and a thoughtful, balanced, life.
Our scripture passage from Micah begins with an ancient question: With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Other, modern versions of this question include, “Am I good enough? Am I doing enough? What is expected of me?” And the answer to those questions depends entirely upon whom is doing the evaluating.
If you’re trying to meet the expectations of other people–your parents, your spouse, your boss, your friends, society in general–chances are you’ll be pulled in many different directions, never really making anyone completely happy. Or maybe you’re just trying to meet your own expectations for yourself, which can sometimes be the most difficult thing of all. In any case, human expectations are constantly changing, shifting, often contradicting themselves, and always difficult to meet.
How much more so, we might imagine, are the expectations that God, our creator, the maker of heaven and earth, has for us. This is reflected in verses 6 and 7 of our scripture passage: “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings? With calves a year old?” These are valuable things to the author, the best of what he has to give, and yet he still has the sense it’s not enough. He goes on…
“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” These are things clearly beyond the reach of the author. These are the, “well, if I win the lottery or inherit a bunch of money” kinds of things. And still, he has the sense that all the material possessions in the world aren’t enough to make God happy, to fill that empty sense of what is missing, what is owed. And so he goes on…
“Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Now we’re over-the-top, in the realm of those things that truly matter most to us. Our children, our very selves, our deepest hopes and fears, things we don’t really want or intend to give up…but we still want to know, “Would it be enough? If I give this up, will God love me, will God accept me?”
Surprisingly, the answer is, “No.” None of those things are what God requires. In fact the answer is much more simple–and yet more profound–than we might imagine. What does God require of us? Just three simple things at the end of verse 8: Do justice; love kindness; and walk humbly with your God. That’s it. That’s all God asks of us, according to Micah.
So let’s consider these three simple things–they are the simple gifts that we give to God, and like so many gifts, when we offer these things to God, truly and sincerely, we are really offering something to the people around us.
1. Do justice — This is the baseline. The Hebrew word for justice here is מִשְׁפָט (mishpat) which implies balance, fairness, or an even exchange. In some ways, the entire Old Testament law is summed up in this concept — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That sometimes sounds harsh to modern ears, but it’s intended to prevent an overreach of power. If you knock out my tooth and I’m stronger than you, I’m going to knock out ALL of your teeth. If someone from your family killed someone from my family, I’m going to kill everyone from your family. This is still a tactic used today by drug cartels, bullies, predatory lenders, and unfortunately, even corporations and governments. Overwhelming, disproportionate force, or total dominance. And the scriptures teach that it’s completely wrong.
If you are in a position of power, you have to exercise justice, which means restraint. At the very least, we are to do what is right, not what is possible. When it comes to your relationship with other people, it means you don’t take advantage of others in their weakness, you don’t take what you don’t pay for, you don’t consume what you don’t really need. And when it comes to your relationship with the church, it means that if you come to this place, if you benefit in some way from your presence here, that you contribute something in return, whether its through service, through financial support, or through active engagement in the work of the church.
“Do justice” means striving for balance in all you do: in giving and taking, in loving and hating, in building up and tearing down. Be fair.
2. Love kindness — this is the next higher step. Go beyond what is fair, beyond what you are entitled to, and beyond what is “right.” Of course, this is harder. Notice the change in verbs. DO justice, but LOVE kindness. Even when you can’t DO kindness, you can still cultivate a LOVE of it, which eventually (though not always immediately) leads to doing it. If the Old Testament law can be summed up in “Do Justice” then all that Jesus teaches in the New Testament is summed up in this second directive, to “Love kindness.”
When it comes to your relationship with other people, loving kindness means putting the needs of others ahead of your own needs–and not just for the people you already love. Especially this applies to the stranger, to the foreigner, to the ones you are not particularly inclined to be kind to. This is not balance. This is intentional IMbalance, or sacrifice for the sake of something greater than you. When it comes to your relationship with the church, this is moving beyond merely contributing, to giving generously, to making a financial sacrifice because you believe in this place, because you believe in the power and the potential that this church has to make a difference in our community and in the lives of all those we come in contact with.
“Love kindness” means going beyond what is right and fair, beyond what you think you are capable of, and loving others with generous, self-sacrificing love.
3. Walk humbly with your God — This last one is because you’ve probably already realized how hard, how darned near impossible it is to “Do Justice” and to “Love kindness” on your own. We want to be just and fair. On our better days, we want to be loving and kind. But some days, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we just aren’t. We are broken and flawed human beings, overly concerned with ourselves and our own narrow interests. Recognizing and admitting our imperfections is the first step, or “walking humbly.” The next step is recognizing and admitting that we need help, direction, guidance, inspiration from something or someone larger than ourselves. That’s “walking humbly WITH your God.”
When it comes to your relationship with other people, walking humbly with your God means letting go of the presumption that your understanding of God is “right” and everyone else’s is “wrong.” For that matter, it means letting go of the idea that YOU (and your idea of justice and kindness) are right and everyone else is wrong. Let God be God. Walk with God as best as you can, and let your life (not your rules, your condemnation, or your judgment) inspire others to do the same as best as they can.
When it comes to your relationship with the church, walking humbly with your God means walking humbly with God’s people, with your faith community, with the church. It means being faithful and consistent in your support of the church, even when you think you are right and all those miserable, rotten sinners who make up the church (especially the pastor) are wrong. It also means walking. Forward. With the people of God…not digging in your heels or sitting passively in a pew, or waiting for someone to carry you forward in your relationship with God. You have to walk. You have to move. You have to keep up as best as you can.
So DO justice. LOVE kindness. And WALK humbly with your God. It’s really that simple, and that profound all at once.
I want to conclude with a story that I think sums up all of these principles. I’ve shared it with you many times before, but one more time won’t hurt.
A man was praying one day, and asked the Lord to explain to him the difference between heaven and hell. The Lord said to the man, “Come, and I will show you hell.” Together, they entered a room where a group of people sat around a giant, mouth-watering plate of food. Everyone was famished, desperate and starving. Each held a fork that reached the plate, but all of the forks had handles so much longer than their arms that none of the forks could be used to get the food into their mouths. The suffering was terrible. After awhile, the Lord said to the man, “Come, now I will show you heaven.” Together, they entered another room. It was almost identical with the first room – the same giant plate of food, the same long-handled forks, but a different group of people. Only here, everyone was happy and well-fed.
“I don’t understand,” said the man. “Why are they so happy here when they were so miserable in the other room…and everything is pretty much exactly the same?”
The Lord smiled, “Ah, it is simple,” he said. “Here they use their forks to feed each other.”
People of First Presbyterian Church, as you consider the gifts you have been given, and the gifts that you give in this season of giving, may you hold in your heart three simple things the Lord asks of you: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.