Together in Newness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASometimes, the questions are clearer than the answers. Let me begin with a disclaimer: there will be no math in today’s sermon. You all have put up with me talking fairly frankly about money a couple of times over the past few weeks, and so I will not be doing so today. Instead, as we continue moving toward Stewardship Dedication Sunday, I want to pull back to build a bigger picture of Stewardship – in other words, what it means to take care of the things and the people whom God has entrusted to us; what it means to welcome folks into our community and what it means to be a part of this particular community of faith.

And as we do that, let’s jump right in to the lesson we just read from the prophet Micah.

We don’t know much about Micah. Even his name is a question. It translates to, “Who is like the Lord?” and is about the clearest thing we know about the prophet.

We know that he came from humble origins, called from life as a shepherd, into the prophecy game. We also know roughly the time that he preached, largely during the reign of King Hezekiah. And we know what he preached about, which is where we find our way into the text.

Micah comes into his new profession as an outsider. He comes from a small town outside of Jerusalem, not Jerusalem itself. He has spent little, if any, time mingling with those who hold religious authority. He finds the idea that you would put ritual and religious observance above faithfulness and commitment to fairness both new and repellent. And he has seen what the building up of religious authority has done to those outside of its sway.

This hopefully gives some context to the words we read today, that it is not from the seat of power that God’s ruler will come, but rather from quiet little Bethlehem. And it is not with bigger and better burnt offerings that God is pleased, but with concepts like justice, mercy, humility.

Micah is within a strand of the Hebrew Bible that helps prepare the fertile soil in which Jesus’ message will take root. Born in backwater Bethlehem, preaching and teaching among society’s despised and rejected, Jesus seems to be just the kind of leader that Micah anticipated. For those who are steeped in the stories and lessons of the New Testament, the prophetic tradition rings extremely familiar. The authors of the gospels returned to the preaching of Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, among others, to highlight the connection between their Christ and the faith out of which he sprang.

For a moment, though, let’s step back into Micah’s time: his preaching claims that God is more intimate with those on the margins of culture than with those in the halls of power. In a time when political rulers and theological scholars were entwined, this is quite the threatening notion. The very status quo is at stake. And that’s what is so striking: the same ones whose job was the maintenance of religious tradition are the same ones who saw fit to preserve the prophet’s words, ones which seem to cut to the very heart of their own authority.

In other words, within the community of faith, the true community of faith, there is always a healthy dose of honesty and self-awareness. The tradition has its place. No doubt about it. And so do those who question that tradition for the sake of faithfulness. The goal in all of this is truth. And that truth is beyond ours – a truth that, in fullness, can only belong to God.

That’s the challenge, isn’t it, the ever-elusive notion of truth? I’m sure that has always been the case, but in a world of sound bytes and spin the 24-hour news cycle, truth with a capital “T” seems always just beyond our grasp. And if we move beyond the current moment and reflect back on our lives, what each of us has known as true has changed and evolved with life experiences as we are exposed to new ideas, events, people.

This is not only true for us as individuals, but for us as a congregation. One of the things that I have come to appreciate about Presbyterians is our continual desire to ask questions and look beyond the face value of things. When we elect leaders within the congregation, we give them support and trust while also holding them accountable. When our denomination makes decisions, we do so through a deliberate process that always acknowledges we might be wrong – or, at the very least, we know we are not completely right. The way we often talk about it as being a “reformed church, always reforming.” We are not, by any stretch, perfect; and so we hope that our movement is a forward one, ever closer to God’s glory.

For years, the Presbyterian Church believed that women should not be in leadership. Then provision was made for women to serve as deacons; later, the office of elder was opened to women; and finally, a little over 50 years ago, women were ordained as pastors. The capital “T” truth as I see it is that, for many years, we neglected the gifts of ministry that women brought to the table. And the church was poorer for that. It is not that we are now dwelling in full richness, but we have made important strides.

There are many denominations, even Presbyterian ones, who do not agree. In a time when women are CEOs and heads of state, I admit that I don’t understand churches who continue to be led by men only. My hope is that they, too, will see they have kept God’s gifts from fully serving the Church.

But before we wrench our arms from their sockets patting ourselves on the back, let’s keep ourselves honest here: we don’t have it all figured out. We most likely won’t ever have it all figured out – at least, not in this lifetime. And if we are ever convinced of purity of our rightness, well…that’s the moment to beware of.

This, I believe, is a healthy tension. The knowledge that we won’t get it completely right should keep us properly humble. And yet, it should not paralyze us into inaction. Instead, we act, trusting God to make it right when we get it wrong.

That’s the community of faith, I believe, into which we are baptized. And when we welcome Hattie Pierce in baptism later on in our service, we do just that: we welcome her into this imperfect, grace-noted, hope-striving community. When she is here, we remind her that we are always made new, over and over again, in the presence of Christ. Baptism is a once in a lifetime event. And yet, every time we celebrate the sacrament, each of us is called to that renewal within our lives and relationships.

Last month, I invited us to reach out to those whom we know some but want to know more. The invitation was to go beyond our church community and to extend the possibility of friendship with someone we don’t know well, to find out what makes them tick. Several of you have shared your experiences with me about that, and I hope that more of you will do so.

Here’s what I learned: one time is not nearly enough to go deep. Learning what makes someone tick is unlikely to happen in one conversation. And yet, we are also more likely to grow in empathy when we meet someone face to face and hear their story, what shapes them, what moves them, what motivates and inspires them.

And that’s the point that Micah stirs up for me: tradition has its place. It is important. But by itself, it is insufficient. If the church ends up being an echo chamber for those who agree with us, then it has become like Jerusalem: interested in the status quo, maintaining its power and influence, even when its circles are ever-shrinking. If the church and its members are more like Micah, if we grow into prophets of the marketplace, engaged with a multitude of voices and experiences, then tradition is held in tension with faithfulness and the dynamic of an ever-changing world. God does not change. Instead, we grow in our understanding of God.

So my invitation to you is to continue those conversations. Nurture and grow those relationships. Always, always, break down the walls of your own private and public echo chambers. Open them up so that we collectively hear the voices of those who come from the outskirts, the villages, the margins. Keep it flowing so that our identities themselves become wrapped up in questions about God and God’s desires. After all, sometimes the questions are clearer than the answers.

We began today by talking about this mysterious figure named Micah: what we knew about him, what we could guess, and what we could learn. And since the prophet’s name translates as a question, there is no better way than to let his own question ring out: What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God? What else, indeed, is there?

Justice. Mercy. Humility. Let these be our watchwords today and always.