s037o02 3/2/2002 Sunday 4
"Walk humbly with your God". Micah 6.8
Micah was a prophet of the eighth century BC (722-701), so the words we read today are very ancient indeed. The final verse about doing justice and loving kindness are described by William Neil as words which "concentrates the message of all the prophets É this quintessence of the prophetic protest against mere formalism in religion É" (One Volume commentary p 296-7) So they are important words indeed, yet I find it interesting that they reverse the order that Jesus uses. Micah talks about the importance of our relationships with one another first, and then about our relationship with God. Jesus speaks about loving God first and then our neighbour.
So, the first message, is to say that two people can look at our faith and come to a somewhat different set of priorities, even when, or perhaps more accurately, most importantly when trying to articulate the fundamentals of our faith. Inevitably we all look at what is important to us in slightly different ways. We use different words to describe the same and unalterable reality of God's love. And Micah is not wrong and Jesus right, or vice versa. Jesus cannot be accused of failing to stress the importance of our human relationships, when he was most likely crucified precisely because he associated with people other than the religious authorities. And no one could accuse Micah of neglecting God.
So my second message is an extension of the first, to respect the fact that other people experience the same God to us, yet they will describe their experience differently to us, they will have different priorities formed by that experience, and they will most likely worship God differently to us.
For Micah tells us that the God we worship is, in some ways always "our" God, a God who will be different, inevitably slightly but equally as likely quite radically, different from someone else's God. Indeed in this sense we all build our own idols - the trouble is that the idols we build are never dumb. If our heart is in the right place, even any idol we make comes alive and speaks to us. The trick is to be listening, to hear, and to accept the message.
The message of the prophet Micah is that the huge infrastructure of the religion of Israel was wonderful, but that God would send prophets to speak. God would not be silenced, set in stone and ritual.
And this is the essence of walking humbly with our God, that we allow that God will not be silent. We need to hear that God is not just a willing ear for all our troubles and frustrations, not just a powerful but sometimes reluctant "Fix-It" person in our lives. The call of God is always and ever that we have a part to play in the conduct of our affairs. God calls us to do something. If we are not walking humbly with our God we will be too preoccupied telling God what God can do for us and not listening for what God would have us do.
The Christian religion is not that we are called to believe in God and in response God is so grateful that God blesses us with an absence of difficulties in life. God calls us to do something, and that "something" is ever to consider the other.
For if we do build a monument and neglect those around us, we will find that this will have consequences in the short or the long term. Inevitably conflicts will arise, and when one prays to this monument only to find help in the conflict isn't forthcoming, we are "hearing" the answer God is giving through the monument. Reality strikes.
This is to fill out the phrase that William Neil uses, quoted above. When I have heard the words "mere formalism in religion" used, they have sometimes been equated with a particular style of worship. The sort of reserved English, structured, undemonstrative, Book of Common Prayer, style of worship &endash; in comparison to a more free and joyful atmosphere. Now I want to say that whatever William Neil conceives as "mere formalism", I would want to say that the prophet is directing us not to a particular style of worship but with our relationships with others. Justice and kindness are not properties of a particular style of worship, they involve our relationships in our day to day lives. They probably do not refer to those with whom we worship, with whom we so often agree to disagree, but how promptly we pay our bills, how we treat the person on the "checkout", how we relate to those who are different to ourselves.
Indeed the phrase "your God" implies others have their God, different to our own and they are still to be treated with justice and kindness. We are particularly called to consider the plight of people of other faiths.
The other word I have often heard used is that our religion or our faith ought to be "sincere". Now I must immediately say that I would not want to be thought of as commending insincerity, yet people can hurt other people sincerely thinking that they are doing the right thing.
Perhaps it is instructive to think about who, in the Bible, didn't walk humbly with his God, and, again, I suppose the classic example is Paul. There can be no doubt about Paul's sincerity. We are left in no doubt about how diligently he practised his religion prior to his experience on the road to Damascus. Giving his defence in Acts chapter 22 he says: ""I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. "While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?'"
If we treat others harshly, it doesn't matter who they are, we are treating Christ harshly. If we treat others with respect, and again it doesn't matter who they are, we treat Christ with respect.
St Paul speaks about the congregation of Corinth being composed of "others" - they were not wise or powerful or noble. They were foolish, weak, the despised.
As we look at those blessings in our gospel story for today, that Jesus pronounces, we find that the first three describe people as they really are, quite irrespective of the faith they hold - the poor, those who mourn and the meek. The next five describe those whose actions towards their neighbours are right - those who hunger and are persecuted for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. The final blessing is for those who are persecuted for following Christ. Ah! Perhaps we may think that it is here that we can point the finger at those who don't worship God. Yet it is surely the rich and the powerful who so often crucify Christ by looking down on others, not the apathetic. It was the rich and powerful religious people who crucified Jesus for considering others. So when we do things "on ... account" of Jesus and are reviled for it, it is most likely those who revile us will be the rich and powerful who will wish us to defer to them ...
So here Jesus calls us to put others before God. Jesus calls us, not to worship God but to consider the other, and this will get us into enough hot water, rest assured. Indeed it can be fairly assumed that some people who don't come to Church will be accepted because they considered others. So the priorities of Jesus are in fact here more closely aligned with those of Micah, blessing those who live their lives doing justice and loving kindness. Jesus certainly does not call us to get everyone else to worship God in our particular manner.
Again, I am happy to be reviled, provided only that I am being reviled for doing what Jesus wants. I would hate to be reviled for some cause about which Jesus was and is essentially agnostic.
We are fulfilling our commission as a parish, not when we become a loving close knit community, but when we allow that others who are different from us are equally loved by God. And I actually think that we are doing quite well here :-)
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