John Pauls —
Micah 6:1-8 —
1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
What God Requires
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?
June 26, 2016
I would like to thank you for allowing me to speak to you today. I should warn those of you who don’t know me well up front that I am not a minister, nor do I pretend to be a minister. In fact, three of the words that describe me would probably lead you to believe that you should get up right now and leave right now: Banker, Attorney and Baptist.
As most of you probably know, I currently serve as the moderator of this congregation. When Pastor Matt told me that he would be gone for four weeks in the summer, I asked him whether I could speak on one Sunday. We thought that it would be appropriate for me to speak on the week of the church’s 161st birthday so I could share some my thoughts about the church in general, and to share a part of my vision for our congregation. As a former member of the Central Seminary Board of Trustees and as moderator of our congregation, I have become very interested in is looking at what is happening in the Church, not just in our congregation but in Christianity in general. I should warn you up front that I feel similar to blogger and author, Rachel Held Evans, when she says that, “talking about the church in front of a bunch of Christians means approaching the microphone and attempting to explain the most important, complicated, beautiful, and heart-wrenching relationship of my life . . . . without yelling or crying or saying a cuss word.”
Studies show that young people are turning away from the organized church in large numbers. One study found that 59 percent of young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine with a Christian background have dropped out of the Church. Another study shows that the number of people that identify themselves as either atheist or agnostic has almost doubled since 2007. That same study shows that the number of people that are unaffiliated with the organized church is up substantially. Why is it that so many people are rejecting the organized church? I believe that a large part of this departure is because we have lost our focus on what God truly requires from us.
The scripture that I have chosen from Micah 6 is one of my favorite passages, and I think it holds the key to determining what it is that God wants from the church. If we look at verses 6 and 7, the people are asking “What do you want from us God? What does it take for us to please you?” They then offer up a list of ever increasing sacrifices: burnt offerings, year-old calves, thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, and ultimately their firstborn. But Micah responds that these sacrifices are not the answer. I think that churches still try to answer the question of “what do you want from us, God” by offering up material sacrifices. Now the answers are to create new programs, increase the budget, add more pastoral staff and build bigger buildings. If we do all of these things surely God will bless us. While sacrifices are good (I’m not telling you to stop contributing to the offering plate), God ultimately desires something that is more difficult.
So what does it take to please God? Micah tells us in verse 8 that we know the answer, but I don’t think that we like the answer because it calls on us to be an active participant. God calls us to action and obedience before calling us to sacrifice.
First, we are told to DO justice. Doing Justice means that we protect the weak rather than taking advantage of them. Doing justice means that we replace coldness and indifference with compassion and caring. Doing justice means that we should speak up when we see inequities. I find it very interesting that young people seem to be drawn to a political candidate that speaks about justice, but are turning from the Church which is called to DO justice. I am proud to be a member of a congregation that has chosen to actively participate in doing justice in our community.
Loving mercy means that we should approach others with a spirit of compassion, forgiveness, kindness, and loving kindness rather than a spirit of revenge, envy or hatred. We need to recognize that each person is a child of God and treat them that way. Henri Nouwen writes, “When we walk around as if we have to make up our minds about people and tell them what is wrong with them and how they should change, we only create more division. In a world that constantly asks us to make up our minds about people, a nonjudgmental presence seems nearly impossible. But it is one of the most beautiful fruits of a deep spiritual life and will be easily recognized by those who long for reconciliation.” As we enter the election season, we see that these can be divisive times. It is easier to paint people with labels and assume the worst, than to treat people with kindness and compassion and get to know them. Now, more than ever, we need to practice loving mercy.
Walking humbly with God first calls us to walk with God. This implies that we have to be willing to let God be in charge of the walk and we are along for the ride. So often we want to be the one that decides on the direction and then we say, “Come on God, let’s go.” In the same way, Churches have a tendency to make decisions and then ask God to bless what the church decided. Walking humbly with God also means admitting that you don’t have all of the answers. We have to be open to what God is going to say to us or call us to do. Sometimes that will require that we put aside our plans, sometimes it will require us to do something we don’t want to do, other times it may mean that we have to admit that we don’t have all the answers.
The requirements that we see in the Micah passage can be tied directly into what Jesus calls the greatest commandment. When we walk humbly with our God, we are loving the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, with all of our mind and all of our strength. And when we do justice and love mercy, we are loving our neighbor as our self.
If we can do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God, we can demonstrate true Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes that “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. Similarly, Diana Butler Bass writes, “For Christians, spiritual community, a living, renewed church, begins with being in Christ, the first and primary relationship of a vibrant faith life. The church is, therefore, not an institution, an organization, or a building but a community of relationships where people’s selves are with God and with one another, bound by love.”
I believe that as a Christian community, First Baptist Church of Lawrence needs to be a safe place where people can come “just as they are”, with all of their doubts, their race, their gender, their sexuality, their past, their addictions, their questions, their money problems, their family problems, and their sins. This needs to be a place where people can ask tough questions and we respond with grace, understanding and love. This needs to be a place where we can have tough conversations about biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, racial reconciliation, and other social issues without predetermined conclusions and simple answers. And throughout all of these tough conversations, we need to practice what the Sojourners Sunday school class refers to as “graceful engagement” which means living together in relationship and compassion, valuing other people and their beliefs even though they differ from our own, listening more than speaking, and meeting people where they are and not where we want them to be. We need to realize that we are never all going to agree on every subject, but together we can seek the answers through Christ. As the great First Baptist Lawrence theologian Mark Robinson once said, “Why don’t we just try to be like Jesus, and see what happens.”
28 years ago this summer, I entered this building for the first time as a young law student, and I thought that I had all of the answers. But over the years, this church has challenged me and forced me look outside of myself and move out of my comfort zone. Over the years, I have worked with the youth, helped with LINK and family promise, traveled to Haiti, and, now, even preached. This Church has allowed me to ask tough questions about my faith and has given me room to wrestle with my faith. I have a Sunday school class that has frank and honest conversations about Christ, faith, parenthood, and the church. Even though we don’t agree all of the time, we still love and support each other as a small group within this congregation. Most of all, this church has loved and supported me and my family. You were there when Susan and I were first married and I was trying to get through school, you were there as we dealt with loss, you were there when our children were born and you have continued to be there as we have raised our children. I have spent over half of my life as a member of this community known as First Baptist Church of Lawrence, and I consider you all to be my family. I am a different person that I was 28 years ago, and that is a good thing. I realize now that I don’t have all the answers, and I am glad that I have this community beside me as we walk humbly with Christ on the journey.