Sermon preached by the Reverend Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – January 30, 2011
As you may know, I attended seminary at Chicago Theological Seminary, which is located right in the heart of the University of Chicago campus. The main entrance to the seminary is a large two-story arch that looks out across the main quad of the U of C and carved into the archway are today’s words from the Prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” My fellow seminarians and I would pass through this archway daily going to and from class, and due to the presence of a bookstore in our basement that served the majority of the undergrads at the university, so did thousands of other people.
I would occasionally sit outside on the grass and watch the stream of people passing underneath these words. You know what? Not once in the three years that I was there did I see someone stop and consider these words, written for all to see. Now, maybe everyone had become so used to seeing this entrance to our seminary and its prophetic inscription that it had simply become mundane and didn’t register. Or, perhaps these words were too uncomfortable and it was easier just to pretend that they weren’t there. I could certainly understand that sentiment. I would often feel troubled when I paused to reflect on these words, soaring high above me. They would make me feel squirmy on the inside as I was forced to evaluate my actions, my life, and my self and confront how far I had missed the mark.
I am not the only one who has trouble with these words of God—this same excerpt from Micah tells us of God’s frustration with the ancient Israelite people who keep “forgetting” or otherwise ignoring God’s expectations of them. 700 years later, God evidently still felt that this message wasn’t getting through and repeated it in a new way on a mountain, as we read in today’s gospel. Nor does the message seem to be sinking in any deeper some 2,000 years later as we watch Egypt erupt in protest and violence over long-standing injustice, as our own country even debates the necessity of providing health care for its own people, and as we make the arguments for and against war based on economics.
God says, “do justice,” we ask, “how much will it cost and will you take a check?” God says, “love kindness,” but we prefer war. God says, “walk humbly with me,” but we are too busy building monuments to our own greatness. And I think of those times when I have been presented with an opportunity to do justice but have chosen the easier route instead, of those times when I have struggled to recognize basic human dignity in another, of how easily I forget humility.
When we allow ourselves to be confronted by today’s scripture readings, it is hard not to despair our collective and individual failings.
Perhaps it is no surprise that those carven words are so readily ignored.
Yet, God keeps calling us back, the prophetic words echoing across the millennia, “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
It seems odd that God would keep after us about this when we seem so self-evidently incapable of fulfilling these requirements. With all of human history as precedence, you would think that God would simply say, “to hell with it.” But I am still standing here drawing breath, the sun still rises over us, and we are still gathered here worshipping a God who still beckons us.
After my first year of seminary, I began my Clinical Pastoral Education working as a chaplain in a local hospital. I developed fairly quickly my method for talking with patients and their family members, listening for pastoral issues that they may raise, and offering a prayer at the end based on our conversation. It maybe wasn’t the best method, but it got me over the fear of constantly diving into the personal lives of complete strangers, and it was comfortable.
Then one day, I walked into the room of a new patient on my unit and found myself face-to-face with an elderly woman, intubated and with more machines and tubes hooked up to her than I could make sense of, still conscious, but of course completely unable to speak. I stared at her and she stared back at me. I had no idea what to do; my method wasn’t going to work here! I started nervously making one-sided small talk about the weather while my inner monologue went nuts about how stupid I sounded.
The woman continued to hold my gaze while I sounded increasingly pathetic, and then she reached up and grabbed a hold of my hand. I stopped talking, and the two of us sat there in silence, holding hands. Now maybe she was tired of listening to me prattle on and was only trying to get me to shut up, but I learned that day that the spirit works through us, and occasionally in spite of us. It is by grace that God’s work is done and that we are able to participate in it.
And ultimately, that is what these prophetic words from Micah are calling us to do—participate in God’s work in creation. God knows that we are not perfect, that we are frail and prone to violence, self-interest, and hubris, but God promises to work with us, through us, and even in spite of our best efforts, to carry out God’s work in the world. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” This bend toward justice assures us that God is active in history and that by God’s grace, our efforts will help bring about a vision of God’s salvation.
What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God? It is God who gazes up at us through this text, ready to reach out and take our hand.