Sunday, November 13, 2022

Phil Kniss: It takes a village to walk humbly

Roots & Tendrils: God Grows A People
Justice and Community
Micah 5:2-5a; 6:6-8; Matthew 9:9-13

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As usual,
    when we gather around the Hebrew Bible in worship or study,
    God’s love of righteousness and justice
        will come out front and center in the conversation.
    It was there a few weeks ago,
        when we looked at the story of the Exodus.
    And it’s there nearly every time we get into the prophets.

I’ve already made a case in several sermons this year,
    that God has a bias toward the poor and marginalized,
    that God’s anger is directed toward people who oppress others.

I could almost repeat one of those sermons today,
    and be true to this text.
Instead, I’m going to come at it from another angle—
    the role of the community in living out
    God’s vision of justice, peace, shalom.

Micah 6:8 may be the most well-loved verse from the Hebrew prophets,
    at least for Mennonite readers.
    Even in the Mennonite church of my childhood,
        which didn’t spend much time talking about social justice,
        this verse was memorized and made to shine,
        in King James’ English, of course:
        “He hath shewed thee”—with “shew” spelled with an “E,”
            which always confused me as a kid—
        “He hath shewed thee O man, what is good;
            and what doth the Lord require of thee,
            but to do justly, and to love mercy,
            and to walk humbly with thy God?”

From then, until today,
    that verse has inspired and challenged us as individuals,
        to live a life that pleases God,
        one in which our personal behavior is fair and just to others,
        shows mercy in our interpersonal relationships,
        and exhibits humility in our walk with God.

This is an altogether good and appropriate way to read the text,
    to let it inspire us as we navigate our own daily lives in this world.

But . . . in this worship series this fall,
    we’ve been talking about our roots—
        the part of the plant that grounds us and nourishes us,
    and our tendrils—
        the part that keeps us attached to those around us.

God is all about growing a people, a deeply-connected people,
    who will demonstrate to a watching world
    what God’s love and justice and shalom look like
        in human community.

So let’s put that lens on as we look at the prophet Micah.

First, we go back a few verses before this famous one.
This morning, we read part of chapter 5,
    then hopped over the first part of chapter 6,
    so we could land on that golden verse I just quoted.

But the first part of six makes clear the source of Micah’s concern.
    The speaker is not always identified in the text,
        but it’s clear this is constructed as a three-way conversation
        between God, God’s people, and God’s prophet Micah.

First the prophet talks to the people in v.2.
    “Yahweh is bringing a lawsuit against you, Israel,” Micah says,
        “Listen to his argument.”

Then God, the plaintiff, says,
    “My people, what did I ever do to you?
        How have I wearied you? Answer me!
    I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;
        I redeemed you from the house of slavery.
        I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.”

Yahweh is laying the groundwork for his court case,
    and the defendant is the whole people of Israel.
    Not one person. The entire community.

And I suspect the community has an idea what’s coming.
    They know they have not lined up well
        against God’s standards of justice and righteousness.

So their anonymous spokesperson jumps in, their attorney,
    and asks Yahweh, in the part we read today,
    “What would you like me to do?
        Shall I bow?
            Maybe lie prostrate before you?
        Would you like a burnt offering?
            Like a yearling calf, completely burnt to ashes?
        Or maybe a ram. Maybe thousands of rams?
        Or some oil. Not a little trickle, a flood!
            Ten thousand rivers of oil!
        Or how about I give up my first-born—
            the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

This is the people’s attorney, speaking on behalf of his own community,
    engaging in some desperate plea bargaining.
    In this trial, he’s an attorney who is also a defendant.
        He’s part of the group on trial.

The prophet Micah speaks next.
    Micah is God’s attorney.

“Why are you asking God about such things?
    Yahweh has already told you . . . mortal . . .
        what is good, and what God requires of you.
        Do justice.
        Embrace loving-kindness.
        Walk humbly with God.”

It’s safe to say these are words for the whole class of defendants.
    First, people, do justice.
        Structure your way of living in this world according to my laws
            that protect the poor, the widow, the orphan,
            that prevent human oppression of all kinds.
    Second, embrace loving-kindness.
        The Hebrew word here is “chesed”—steadfast love,
            love that never fails,
            love that survives against all odds,
            showing kindness even to those who don’t deserve it.
    Third, walk humbly with God.
        Walk humbly, together,
            as a community who knows who they are before God,
                and serving a cause greater than themselves.

I find this idea compelling,
    that a whole community of God’s people
    are invited, together,
        not only to do justice and practice stubborn love,
        but they are asked to walk, together, humbly
            with God in this world.

I find it especially compelling in our present political climate.
And worthwhile reflecting on as we come out of mid-term elections,
    where the whole focus is on winners and losers,
        or to be more precise,
        winning parties and losing parties.

Micah is preaching collective, corporate, communal humility.
    The phrase “group humility” is an oxymoron today.
        The two words don’t go together.
        I can’t think of anywhere to point,
            to find an example of such a thing.
    We live in a world where one country after another
        elects extreme nationalists who are popular precisely because
            they refuse to show group humility toward other nations,
            and blatantly promote an us-first agenda.
    And back home in the USA,
        is there any room at all for group humility?
    We are led by a Congress where lawmakers are pressured
        to vote in lock-step with their party,
        and demonize their political opponents,
        or face the consequences of their disloyalty.
    And in our churches we are experiencing a resurgence
        of Christian nationalism,
            where Christians think it’s their calling to “take back”
            their country by controlling our institutions,
            from the national government down to local authorities.

What would it mean for the church of Jesus
    to exhibit public humility in our walk with God in society,
    instead of what has become the new normal for churches—
        to go on the offensive,
        trying to prove our significance and stature,
        fighting against people we are called to love,
        trying to stave off the inevitable decline in numbers,
            and decline in social relevance,
            by practicing muscular Christianity.

For that matter, groups of any kind in our culture
    don’t have much practice in being purposely, authentically humble.

As I think about our own congregation here,
    seems like we have ample reason for some group pride.
    We’re not perfect, by any means,
        but we’re strong, we’re healthy, we’re resilient.
    Some congregations have been thoroughly beaten up
        by years of pandemic and polarization
        and economic woes and culture wars.
        We haven’t.
    Some churches can’t even think about pivoting toward a new future,
        because they are hanging on by a thread.
        We aren’t.
        We have a dream team whose job it is
            to help us dream of new ways to form faith.

But as soon as I put words to thoughts like that,
    I hear God’s attorney, the prophet Micah, asking,
    “Who do you think you are? God’s gift to the Christian faith?
        Do justice.
        Be steadfast in your love of others.
        Walk humbly with God in your neighborhood.

    Do more listening than preaching.
        Love the unlovable, as a church.
        Make a home for the stranger.
        Be humble, as a community,
            about what you have and what you can do.
    Give yourselves away to those with less, with conditions attached,
        and without calling attention to how generous your church is.

We are in challenging times, for any institution,
    especially religious institutions.
    The institutional church has lost the public’s trust,
        for the most part.
    We are in an environment where every group
        jockeys for position,
        where they gather together their tribe
            and circle the wagons,
            look for strength in numbers,
            look for more influence and a louder voice,
            try to gain the tactical advantage.

Let’s model a different way of being God’s people,
    shall we, and demonstrate humble, steadfast, love and mercy.
    It won’t change all the corrupt power structures overnight.
    But it might start a small movement,
        it might spark the imagination of other groups,
        and it might be just what the prophet Micah is calling for.

It takes a village to walk humbly with God.

Join me in an act of group humility right now,
    by reading with me our corporate confession,
    printed in your bulletin, and shown on the screens.

one    God, we confess we are tempted by tribalism,
          showing solidarity with people like us,
          who share our faith, our family ties,
          our social and political loyalties.
all      Forgive us, God of all tribes and nations.
one    We also confess we are tempted by individualism,
          failing to see our need of others
          to form and shape us in your way.
all      Forgive us, God of all.
one    Where individualism creates distance from neighbors I need,
          Where tribalism creates distance between our people,
          and the large and diverse communities we need,
all      Forgive us.
one    The God of justice whose heart is for all tribes and nations
          forgives and loves us without condition,
          and invites us to join our lives with others,
          together doing justice, loving kindness,
          and walking humbly with God.

And now, let’s join our voices in song, Voices Together 392.
    Before we sing it, I’d like to just read the stanzas aloud,
        another wonderful hymn text by Adam Tice,
        inspired by some famous words of Menno Simons,
        “True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant.”

        The Church of Christ cannot be bound
        by walls of wood or stone.
        Where charity and love are found,
        there can the church be known.

        True faith will open up the door
        and step into the street.
        True service will seek out the poor
        and ask to wash their feet.

        True love will not sit idly by
        when justice is denied.
        True mercy hears the homeless cry
        and welcomes them inside.

        If what we have, we freely share
        to meet our neighbor’s need,
        then we extend the Spirit’s care
        through ev’ry selfless deed.

—Phil Kniss, November 13, 2022

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