Simple and Difficult and Uplifting

Sermon: Simple and Difficult and Uplifting

Texts: Micah 1:2-5; 5:2-5; 6:6-8

Date: November 25, 2018

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

Our biblical texts today offer us a little sampler platter from the words of the farmer prophet Micah. The three brief passages are suggested for a Sunday’s scripture portion by the creators of the “Narrative Lectionary,” an alternative to the regular lectionary that tends to focus on longer selections from one biblical source rather than having four readings from different parts of the Bible that might be related thematically. I’m telling you that not because it’s fascinating, but just in case you were wondering why these readings—I accepted the assignment from the folks who designed our stewardship theme materials, intrigued at the preaching challenge of beginning with such a stern word on such a joyful Thanksgiving weekend Sunday.

The first chapter of Micah announces God’s judgment. Eighth century B.C.E. Hebrew prophets were apt to do that. It was a time of great upheaval in Israel, with invaders from the north breathing down the people’s necks, poised to attack. The prophets’ theological worldviews placed the blame for the impending doom on the people, citing lack of faithfulness to God and social injustice that was against God’s will. All the people were held responsible; but the rulers, judges and priests were particularly strongly criticized by the prophets, including Micah.

When Micah speaks of God coming down to earth from the place where God dwells it ain’t to make a social call. As I read this I couldn’t help thinking of the bumper sticker that I’ve seen here and there: “God is coming, and boy is she pissed!” That would be a fair summary of the first chapter of Micah if you wanted to compress it into one sentence. God is portrayed as being so mad that the mountains melt like wax under the divine feet. (Those of us who live in volcano country find this frighteningly easier to picture than the middle easterners to whom this word was first addressed.)

Whether or not one takes the prophetic poetry about what happens to the landscape under the stomping footsteps of a furious God literally, it’s healthy to reflect on God’s displeasure with human wickedness from time to time. Yes, we can compare God to a loving parent, but truly loving parents get angry when the children hurt or endanger themselves and each other. I sometimes find the language of the prophets perplexing, and perhaps you do too. There is a contemporary poem that I think speaks in our lingo with the spirit of a prophet that I find revealing—“Inventing Sin” by George Ella Lyon.

God signs to us

we cannot read

She shouts

we take cover

She shrugs

and trains leave

the tracks

Our schedules! We moan

Our loved ones

God is fed up

All the oceans she gave us

All the fields

All the acres of steep seedful forests

And we did what

Invented the Great Chain

of Being and

the chain saw

Invented sin

God sees us now

gorging ourselves &

starving our neighbors

starving ourselves &

storing our grain

& She says

I’ve had it

you cast your trash

upon the waters—

it’s rolling in

You stuck your fine fine finger

into the mystery of life

to find death

& you did

you learned how to end

the world

in nothing flat

Now you come crying

to your mommy

Send us a miracle

Prove that you exist

Look at your hand, I say

Listen to your scared heart

Do you have to haul the tide in

sweeten the berries on the vine

I set you down

a miracle among miracles

You want more

It’s your turn

You show me[1]

Are you feeling it? The fed-upness of God? Reminding us of God’s frustration, God’s disappointment in her children is one of the gifts of the prophets. Micah and the other prophets make it quite clear that nobody should feel too comfortable about being protected from the consequences of sin just because they think they are God’s favorite child. God’s pretty serious about holding the people to ethical standards that require care for the vulnerable, the stranger, the neighbor. Don’t assume that just because you’re chosen or beloved that you can get away with murder.

Our selected texts skip over some of the more colorful language Micah uses when describing the leaders of this corrupt people: “You who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people and the flesh off their bones; who…flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces…” and so on, comparing covetous and corrupt leaders to cannibals consuming God’s children. He’s hard on the prophets who speak sweet words to those who pay them well and declare war on those who contribute nothing to their purses. He rails against the judges who pervert equity, building the holy city on a foundation of blood. He scorns their confidence in the protection of the Lord because they think they’re special and immune, and announces more judgment.

But enough said, for the moment, about God’s rage and burning desire for justice. Let’s move on to consider the promise we hear in Micah 5. Though the situation is dire and the leaders are horrible, this will not be the end of the story. The current state of failed leadership will not stand forever. Out of one of the littlest clans will come a different type of ruler than the corrupt power players of the current day. This ruler emerging from the boonies of Bethlehem (a small village removed from the centers of power) will stand and feed the flock in the strength of the Lord. This ruler will be one of peace. Out with the old and in with the new! Well, that’s not quite right. It’s actually a ruler who will be rooted in the old tradition of the Davidic kingship, an ancient model of a ruler who governed yet submitted to God as the real sovereign. The people will live secure under this promised reign of the one of peace.

Christians connect this promise to Jesus, that man born in Bethlehem, the prince of peace, well known now to the ends of the earth. The prophet Micah was probably not looking so far ahead, but was likely voicing hopes for just leaders who would arise after the time of travail his people were going through, the experience of invasion and exile. Whether we interpret the text as about a leader in 8th Century B.C.E. Israel or we believe it was about Jesus Christ, we might notice that having a wonderful leader to replace the corrupt leaders did not solve all the people’s problems. The people did not “live secure” for any length of time. The One of Peace—either more faithful rulers of Israel or Jesus of Nazareth—did not succeed in bringing peace on earth. Not in any permanent sense, anyway.

I’m sure Micah’s critique of the corrupt leaders of his day was justified, and his hopes for a faithful ruler were genuine. Prophetic critiques of corrupt leaders are needed frequently, in every era, in every land. People long for wise and faithful leaders, and in democracies we do our best to choose people to lead who will use their power for good and not for evil and selfish purposes. But we can’t help noticing that even excellent leaders don’t automatically create heaven on earth. It makes a difference to have great leaders, but it doesn’t solve all our problems. Even the one we call Savior didn’t save everyone from the kinds of wickedness Micah described, vulnerable people being chewed up by the greed of the powerful.

The only thing that is going to remake the world is more and more folks doing what the Lord requires, as Micah expresses it so elegantly in the third text we heard this morning. “God 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 God?” Oh, is that all?

We can understand why the people who are asking the question of what they can bring to please the Lord focused on material things. As one commentator I read noted, the people in Micah’s day (and in Jesus’s, for that matter) were used to an offering system that had been ritualized to help people feel they could restore their right relationship with God. It’s an old habit to “resort to the well-worn form of score-keeping to appease God: ‘What payment will it take to get God off our backs? Burnt offerings? Thousands of rams? My firstborn? How can we even the scoreboard?’”[2] But Micah’s answer to the question of “What can we bring?” is not easily quantifiable, not the sort of thing you can put on a checklist or shopping list and check off with your red pen. The part of me that likes putting things on a list and checking them off with a red pen sighs heavily.

I can put the three items on the list, of course, but can’t anticipate I will ever get them done. The list is simple, but it’s difficult. I’m indebted to an old speech by Dow Edgerton for spelling this out so clearly: “What is asked of you is simple, and therefore, what is asked of you is difficult. What is most simple is most difficult. Gather the people, break the bread, tell the story. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. Ask, seek, knock. Most simple; most difficult….As simple as closing your hand to hold what has been given, and as simple as opening your hand to give it away.”[3] Deeply simple. Deeply difficult.

If you have ever wondered why a church like ours doesn’t just divide up the cost of running a church and send all the constituents an invoice during this period of pledge raising for another year of institutional life, here’s one reason: Such a tactic would fall far short of what the Lord requires. To divide up a budget into fair shares, however that would be accomplished, wouldn’t be nearly simple and difficult enough to satisfy God’s requirements or to goad us to spiritual growth. It might give us a bill we could pay and check off our list, but it’s not scorekeeping and bill paying that God’s interested in. God asks for the whole enchilada of our lives, not just a little financial slice. John Westerhoff says it well: “God’s will is that we be fruitful trustees of God’s gifts and graces…Stewardship is nothing less than a complete lifestyle, a total accountability and responsibility before God. Stewardship is what we do after we say we believe, that is, after we give our love, loyalty and trust to God, from whom each and every aspect of our lives comes as a gift.”[4] Our pledging financial support to our beloved church—important as it is, needed as it is—is just one expression of the way we demonstrate our love, loyalty and trust to God. It’s a practice, one of many practices, which reveals our intention to walk humbly with God.

In the poem I shared with you a while ago voicing a fed-up God in the style of a prophet, you might recall the last stanza:

I set you down

a miracle among miracles

You want more

It’s your turn

You show me[5]

One way you might hear such a word is as a kind of peevish God, sick of the demands of people who only want to be served and never want to serve. Yet we know that there is a genius in asking human beings to engage in simple, difficult practices that are actually going to lead to abundant, joyful life. Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God are the very endeavors that are going to bring us the maximum amount of joy in a meaningful life. One of the news stories that stuck with me this week was of some of the firefighters who have been working so hard in California these past few weeks going to a community Thanksgiving meal and serving the displaced residents their food before they enjoyed their own meals. What an amazing revelation of the meaning of service—to heap additional service onto the service they had been performing. Do you suppose they did this grudgingly, grouchily? No way! I reckon the firefighters serving Thanksgiving dinner to folks whose homes they hadn’t been able to save were among the most uplifted people in the whole country as they shared the food that had been donated by other servants of humanity. I’m sure it was a complicated joy and a complex gratitude that emerged from a meal like that one; and yet simple in a way as well, people giving thanks for breath and food and fellowship.

I believe the God who loves us wants this for us: that we would learn not just to do random acts of kindness but that we would learn to LOVE kindness as God loves it. That’s why God requires it of us, so that we can enter into the joy of the Kin-dom of God on this earth, without waiting for heaven, without waiting for the perfect president, or waiting for the Messiah to come and fix everything for us. The frustrated and angry God the prophets portray so often wants nothing more than for the love and justice God wills for humanity to be practiced by humanity, embodied by his children.

The image of the mountains melting like wax under the feet of God in Micah 1 reminded me of a story told by Terry Tempest Williams of a day she visited a church in Spain that stood next to the wetlands where Terry and her companion were birdwatching. As they came to the door of the adobe church, an old woman handed each person a large candle. She said, “Light this candle with your desire in mind, let your desire pierce your heart, and take it home with you.” The people lighted their candles with their desires in mind, then moved into an alcove to put their candle onto a huge iron rack. In this white-tiled room with a statue of the Mother of Dew, each person stood next to their candle and tended to their desire, watching while the wax melted. When the wax had melted sufficiently to make a ball of it, each person took the wax home as a talisman.

The room, Terry says, was searing—there had to be hundreds, even thousands of candles, all burning at the same time, with people attending to their own individual desires. It was wonderful. Terry’s companion Brooke said to her, “My desire is melting into everyone else’s.” Terry writes, “And that was precisely the point. When you’re in that collective space in a ritualistic way, there is no way your desire won’t merge with everyone else’s desire. They are the desires of our highest selves.”[6]

We can and should certainly attend to the face of God that is frustrated and angry with human corruption, the God hot with fury enough to melt the mountains under his feet. But don’t get stuck in fear and guilt. What God wants, what God requires is for us to let our individual desires melt and merge into God’s desires for the world, to melt into other people’s desires for abundant life. That merging as more and more people learn to do justice, love kindness (actually LOVE kindness) and walk humbly is more the kind of melting God desires. The answer to the question we’ve been asking this month in our worship, the question “What shall we bring?” Bring yourself. Difficult, yes. Simple, yes. Uplifting, yes.

——————————————————————————–

[1] Lyon, George Ella Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women’s Spirituality Marilyn Sewell, ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991, p. 245-47

[2] From

[3] Edgerton, Dow “Most Simple, Most Difficult” Connections Fall 1998, Number 6, p. 23

[4] Westerhoff III, John H. “Baptized to be Stewards” Alive Now November December 1992, p. 18

[5] Lyon, George Ella Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women’s Spirituality Marilyn Sewell, ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991, p. 245-47

[6] Williams, Terry Tempest quoted in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, ed. New York: Touchstone, 1996, p. 486

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