Words to Live By

Words to Live By
Pam Strader
January 12, 2020

Scripture: Micah 6: 2-8

It is wonderful to be back at College Park Baptist.  It is especially nice to preach at the Tessera service in the chapel space that you renovated.  A group from CPB came over to West Market Church to see how we had renovated our chapel in order to get ideas for your renovation.  And what a wonderful space it is!  It has been a while.  Too long. 

You are my adopted congregation in Greensboro.  My family’s friendship with Michael and Ann Usey goes back to when Michael coached our daughter Mary Helen and their Hannah in soccer when they were little girls.  When our son Brian became ill with a strange condition called POTS that prevented him from attending school, Michael became his chaplain who would pick up lunch, bring it to the house and talk football with Brian – even during baseball season, because Michael only likes football and soccer.  I would get a call to come preach here on occasions such as when Michael would receive tickets to take his kids to a Panthers game, and you would welcome me and my clan.  I also loved being part of a People of Faith Against Amendment One rally here where I got to speak and introduce The Reverend Dr. William Barber. And what a convergence of spirits when Lin Bunce, who is also from Lexington, and whose grandfather was a longtime friend of my father came onto your staff.  In our hometown, kids attended their friends’ youth groups, as a cluster of churches were of like mind, such as the churches, such as my home church First UMC and First Baptist, the church home of your Adam Team and Saundra Westervelt.  It was on a middle school ski trip with First Baptist where I began to develop character with a ski accident and a facial laceration that required 48 stitches.  I that that awakened me to what kind of person I wanted to be — because I determined that no one was going to like me because of my looks after that. 

All of us are on a journey where we begin to ponder life and seek meaning.  Do you remember a moment or moments in your life when you had a light bulb go off where you realized that Jesus Christ is real and God’s love for you is a reality?  It is the season of epiphany so that light bulb metaphor fits into this season of the Christian year.  That is what got me thinking about that.  What are some of the epiphanies in my life where I realized that I am not alone, that God created me, forgives me, and wants to be in a life-giving relationship with me?

One of my earliest epiphanies came in worship.  I remember in our sanctuary at First United Methodist Church in Lexington, with a design much like this one, staring up at the chancel with the communion elements on the altar draped with a big white cloth.  For me as a child, it was like a pall laid over a body.  As I listened to the words of the liturgy, that the act of Christ dying on the cross in an act of love for people such as me was reenacted in my mind, and I felt as if I was attending Jesus’ funeral each time we took communion.  It may be a sobering memory, but it gave those words, “In remembrance of me, eat this bread.  In remembrance of me, drink this cup,” powerful meaning. As a child, I had an incredible feeling of awe and thanksgiving at the sacrifice of love and life that Jesus gave for me. 

It was a few years later in middle school, as I stood at the front of the church and professed my faith in Christ as my Lord and Savior and received baptism, that I carried that gratitude into my covenantal words promising, “according to the grace given to me to keep God’s holy will and commandments and walk in the same all the days of my life [sic].”

I remember taking those words very seriously and realizing that I was making a vow to God and to my church to walk in the ways of God for the rest of my life. It was a holy moment.  You, as Baptists, may be wondering why I, a Methodist, was receiving baptism as a 12 year-old.  So, in my 6th grade confirmation class, we were given the assignment to go home and ask our parents about our infant baptism.  My mother, looking embarrassed, said, “I was so overwhelmed with two little boys and a newborn girl in a new town that we never got around to it.”  I kind of liked it because my Baptist friends were getting baptized around that time too, so we could trade stories of our experience. 

I found it striking to look back at that liturgy and read that walking with God, in God’s will and according to God’s commandments is the very image that is used to describe the life of a Christian going forward.  The other language that I took very seriously was the prayer of preparation as one comes to baptism for the person receive remission of their sins and be filled with the Holy Spirit. 

So walking with God also embodied to me that I was walking with Emmanuel, God with me, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  I took to heart those words from Jesus in the gospel of John that he would send an advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would teach his followers all things.  If I walk with God, I would not walk alone.  I would walk with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit from Jesus, would be my source of wisdom for navigating life. 

God has certainly put people in my path who have been and continue to be  instruments of God’s grace and have taught me and guided me.  There was Susan, my counselor at Camp Cheerio who gave me an epiphany one night with the use of a candle in the grass to see the light of Christ shining on the world. There were youth pastors who helped me see that being a disciple of Christ can make life more fun and more meaningful than I had imagined.  There were the mentor upperclasswomen in college, atheists, who introduced me to human rights and Amnesty International in the height of the apartheid upheaval in South Africa.  The Amnesty International candle surrounded by barbed wire enlightened me to the idea that my voice and my actions could bring light to the darkness of human oppression, if even for one person. 

In my journey to discover how I was to walk with God, those college and graduate school years gave me several epiphanies about the role of justice that was to be part of my walking with God.  Watching the documentary “Last Grave at Dimbaza” where I saw bodies of South Africans dumped into massive graves forever changed me and moved me to write letters as part of the mission of Amnesty International to shed light on the abuses.  I remember a friend who was from an evangelical background who found me confusing.  I did not go to campus ministry events, but instead led efforts to educate the campus about human rights. I was the first Christian he had met whose discipleship was grounded in acts of social justice.  I was just responding to the world around me with my faith.  I am not sure that I had a true sense of how my Amnesty work and my Christian faith connected until I took a class in college on the Old Testament Prophets.  Professor Max Polley brought the message of the prophets to life and I remember being glad to hear about the female prophet Huldah, who was approached by royal priests and officials to give a word to King Josiah about the Book of Law found in Solomon’s Temple.   She affirmed the authenticity of the scrolls and their message that led to Josiah’s reform and a return to God’s ways. 

Just as the people of Judah sought what it was that God wanted of them, I think we, as followers of Christ ask these same questions. Somewhere down the line, in our journey of faith, after we have the epiphany that Christ offers us life and offers it abundantly if we but admit our need for his grace, we are still left with what to do with the gift of forgiveness and a love that is eternal and will not let us go. 

I have received God’s saving grace in Christ.  Now what? What does the Lord require of us? What does God want / expect of us?

The context of today’s Micah passage is one in which God is finding the people at fault, and they are stumped as to why.  They are, after all, church-going folks. They limit what God expects of them to temple worship, based on what kind of sacrifices they are to bring. It goes from sublime to ridiculous as they offer a standard sacrifice of burnt offering of a calf to the offer of thousands of rams or rivers of oil, to a horrifying suggestion of human sacrifice.  It makes you wonder if they even know this God who brought them out of Egypt, who fed them in the desert, who provided them with leaders like Moses, Aaron and Miriam to guide them with God’s vision of what it means to be God’s covenant people.  The God who gave them the Ten Commandments to live in relationship with the Lord and with one another seems to have been abdicated to a temple god like what the Canaanites might worship.  God says to them “remember” and “know.”  Remember what I have done for you and you will know me. But we don’t remember what God has done, and we lose sense of what is important to God.  We get distracted and tempted by our culture.  We are lured into the same mindset of those who would rather be religious than in relationship.  We, like the misguided Israelites think we can make offerings of abiding by rules and regulations to excess in order to please God. We not only pride ourselves on following the rules but we also decide who is not following the rules and we judge one another as not being religious enough or not practicing the right religion.  Notice that in verse 8, God does not answer the question as posed.  Instead, God turns the conversation into a different direction.  As to what God requires, God is not concerned with the quality or quantity of sacrifice.  The prophet rebukes, “He has told you mortal what is good.”  In other words, weren’t you listening?  While you are preoccupied with acts of piety in order to please God, God is wondering what happened to the covenant he established with you.. Religious acts that are unaccompanied by acts of love, kindness and justice demonstrate that this people is not walking with the one God of Israel.  

 As with much of scripture, it can be helpful to slow down and look at the meaning of the words in their original language.  The Hebrew word used here for “require” is darash, which is not like a judge requiring punishment or a teacher requiring homework, but instead is: the way a child requires its mother’s love, the manner in which a flower requires sunshine, or a lover requires the beloved’s presence. (James Howell’s Weekly Preaching Notions: Posted: 29 Oct 2019 05:36 AM )

So it is not so much what is required as we might understand it, but rather what is necessary for fullness of life and growth and love. What does God darash?

God darashes three things.

  1. Do justice.  Not think about it, believe in it or hope for it. DO IT.  The word justice is the Hebrew mishpat.  In the Hebrew Bible there is mishpat when the poorest are cared for.  Because God sees. God cares.  We are to care and act on the needs of those around us. 
  2. Practice kindness. Hesed is the Hebrew.  We often translate it lovingkindness.  It is also tied to covenant and can be translated covenant loyalty.  In our translations we often say “Love mercy.”  We are called to be merciful, to love in God’s timeless and unconditional way, true to our covenant relationship.
  3. Walk humbly.  To walk humbly is to acknowledge the truth about ourselves, that we are vulnerable and needy, dependent upon God.  To walk humbly is to follow the sovereign God in the ways of justice and mercy. 

God’s answer to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God shifts the attention of the worshiper in one writer’s words from “cultic paraphernalia to the contours of correct character, from the handling of external, sacrificial objects to the managing of one’s life . . . what the worshiper is required to bring is a transformed self, one who is committed to an unwavering life of justice based on mercy (“kindness”) and humble devotion to God.” (William Brown, WJKP, Westminster Bible Companion, “Obadiah through Malachi”, p. 59)

Do you remember when you had an epiphany about what it is that God expects of you, a Christ follower, a member of a covenant community inspired by the Holy Spirit?  Was it on a mission trip when you realized that serving your neighbor in need is equally important as coming to worship to hear a sermon and inspiring music?  Was it when you helped a refugee who had come to a foreign land or you packed a backpack full of food for an elementary student to have for the weekend that you realized that you were doing justice?  Was it when you welcomed into your church a family who had been looking for a welcoming community that you realized that you were acting with lovingkindness and in covenant with God?  When was it that you had an epiphany, “Oh!  Maybe, just maybe this is what God wants of me!”

And you know what?  If it fills your cup, if you do it with passion, if it gives you joy, then you are exercising your spiritual gifts for the upbuilding of the kingdom.  It is only in recent years that I have put together that my spiritual gifts are advocacy and care-giving.  I am passionate about giving voice to those needs that might go unheard if I do not speak up, or standing up to be an ally alongside brothers and sisters experiencing prejudice.  I am passionate about caring for people, especially children, especially if their parents are new to navigating American medical and educational systems.   

Where is my joy? Accompanying a refugee mom to a maternity appointment or being extra hands to hold a baby at the six month check-up at the pediatrician’s office. 

In this season of epiphany, a season of light breaking upon the darkness with the birth of Christ, we can ask ourselves the question asked in Micah.  What does God require of us, expect of us, in response to his saving grace in Christ Jesus?  I wish you an epiphany of insight in your journey with God, that will point you to the ways God may be calling you to a life of engagement with others to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. May the Holy Spirit accompany each of us and this community of faith to expand God’s light and truth as we walk in God’s ways.