The first passage I chose, Micah 6:8, is such a foundational reading, one of my favorites and a guiding scripture for many – as my Bible notes say, “[it is] the punch line, the epitome of the entire Israelite prophetic tradition.” And the second passage, too, is a famous story, one we read together during our Kerygma studies this spring, one that evokes memories of a Sunday School song from my childhood – a once “lame” man cheerfully walking and leaping and praising God!
What could I possibly say about these verses that hasn’t been said before? But that, of course, is not the point of lay sermons – it is simply to speak your truth as best you can. And for me, these verses in combination articulate some of the most deeply held truths that I know, ones that continuously prod me along on my journey.
Join me as I start with Micah. Verse 8 is the famous one, but let’s put it in context with verses 6 & 7. The speaker is asking, essentially, what does God want of us, what should our offering to God be as humans living in this complicated, broken, beautiful world?
The Old Testament is filled with detailed descriptions of sacrifices that were an expected response at the time. The book of Leviticus, for example, spells out very specific rituals for a grain offering, a sin offering, a fellowship offering, a guilt offering – sometimes a goat, sometimes a bull or a ram or a lamb, sometimes the finest flour mixed with olive oil.
The speaker in Micah builds from more simple to extravagant suggestions of what might be the appropriate offering to God – a year-old calf to thousands of rams to ten thousands of rivers of oil. But the response to this question about God’s expectations is surprising: No, my friend, it’s not rituals and things that I am seeking, says God. It is instead you, your actions in this world, how you live out your relationship with me that matters -those are what I want as an offering, says God. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.
Just that simple and just that hard, especially given that biblical mercy and kindness are radically extravagant and biblical justice isn’t comfortable-it always starts with the care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the strangers – those who society keeps on the margins.
Several years ago, my husband Kevin and I spent the summer on the coast of Kenya, Kevin was working on malaria research and I was hanging out with young people at a local youth center. There I saw firsthand the pain of deep poverty and so acutely felt my own privilege.
By day, I would eat bowls of beans and bread with my new friends at the youth center, we played Scrabble together and I learned about life there on the coast of Kenya, a place where-while there is certainly much to be hopeful about-poverty, scarcity, and hunger are so common. By night, Kevin and I would head back to the villa where Case students stayed when working there, a place with a pool and window air conditioners and a full dinner cooked for us every night… while my young Kenyan friends, I’m quite sure, didn’t always even have another meal to eat in the evening.
What does the Lord require of us in the face of injustice such as this, of a world where some struggle so much just to meet their basic needs? I think he calls us to make an offering of some sort. When we left Kenya that summer, we were sent off with words of “Don’t forget us,” and I have tried not to. Often I let anxiety or fear or fatigue or busyness take the lead instead of compassion in my actions, and my offering is not radical but routine or absent. But, for me, remembering the hunger so present in Kenya did lead me to help start Abundance Acres, our church vegetable garden, here at home-and we as a church joined together to dig up our front lawn as an offering of justice & mercy so that more people will have good food to eat. It’s a start, and God’s vision pushes us on to more.
So fast forward a few hundred years from Micah to the days of the apostles in Acts. Peter and John are on their way to the temple, the time is 3 o’clock – incidentally the time of prayer and, you guessed it, sacrifice. The religious folks of the day, perhaps today we would call them church members, routinely walked past this lame man on a stretcher on their way to the temple – sometimes giving alms, sometimes not. He would sit just outside the Beautiful gate – just close enough to see and hear the community, but not close enough to truly be a part of it. And among the temple-goers that day are Peter and John. They too could walk past like the others, perhaps drop a few coins, and keep going on to the place where “real church” was happening. But instead they choose to stop and consider that perhaps “real church” is right there too, outside the gates, in their encounter with someone judged unworthy. Perhaps choosing to respond to this man at the gate with dignity and grace -that might be what God was really requiring of them.
You see, Peter & John had just spent a lot of time wandering around with Jesus -the one who blew the lid off of traditional notions of who was in and who was out, the one who taught us to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, the one who over and over and over again ate with people and touched them and looked them in the eye. And so, perhaps out of gratefulness for this example, Peter and John thought the least they could do was to stop and talk to the man who was calling to them. It seems especially important that they fixed their attention on each other, really saw each other. And then the miracle happens – hard to believe, with almost comical antics that follow – leaping & amazement, then clinging & astonishment!
I work as a social worker with children with disabilities and their families so when I read this story, I cannot help but think of them. I watch daily as parents bring their children with cerebral palsy or autism or other disabilities to our center- these are families who know what it’s like to sit just outside the Beautiful gate-to have others pass on by with a glance of pity, to struggle mightily so their beloved children are accepted in this world. They come to our centers ready to try another therapy, another hope for some small progress-maybe after this session her muscles will be strong enough to hold her head up, maybe today will be a day when he calls me “mom.” But, believe me, all of us there know there will be no easy cheerful leaping, no victorious declarations of praise on most days. Sometimes, in a therapy session, a 4 year old or a 14 year old finally stands and takes a step – but instead of leaping next, what usually happens is they lose their balance and tip backwards or sideways and the therapist or mom catches them and-after some laughing or crying or worrying-they try again.
Perhaps, in those therapy sessions, we all pray for the leaping to happen sometimes, but mostly, when we are at our best, we all just try to really look at each other, offering what we have to each other, risking that-with God’s help-what we may be doing in the offering is all helping each other to stand up and walk. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the children take more steps, or the parents feel like they have been welcomed into the temple or we – the professionals – learn to listen more deeply. But sometimes the kids stay with their crutches, sometimes the parents just stop coming, sometimes we let our anxiety or fatigue get the best of us. Either way, though, the clinging continues – children cling to therapists’ hands and beg for more reward stickers, parents cling to the belief that a difference can be made, and memories cling in my mind long after work hours. And while these encounters aren’t so dramatic as Peter & John’s, I think they are perhaps no less astonishing, no less a sign of God’s presence – here we are, all clinging to each other in this mysterious life, trying to figure out what God requires of us. Maybe this is the sacrifice God wants- just to look at each other and those who are outside the gates and make an offering of justice, mercy, and humility.
So – are you grateful that you have enough to eat each day? Do not simply pray a prayer of thanks or make a sacrifice in an offering plate. Live out your gratefulness by finding someone who needs food and giving them a bowl of soup or some tomatoes. Whenever possible, look them in the eyes when you do, and allow that encounter to change you.
Do you thank God that you were forgiven by a friend or spouse or parent when you hurt them terribly? Live out your thanks by welcoming others who daily experience shame and guilt because of stigma or poor decisions. Trust, radically, that there is enough for all of us-enough food, enough mercy, enough love-if we who have privilege and choice choose not to take too much and to offer what we have, to remember those outside the gates, and as Father Greg Boyle puts it, to “move ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased…we situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”
So what else might this look like in tangible action? This week, for example, the garden outside is overflowing with flowers – they are literally spilling out onto the sidewalk. After church or whenever you get a chance, go cut some – yes, you’re allowed, even encouraged to do so. But on one condition: just like we do not keep the vegetables for ourselves, you must give away the flowers, an offering, to someone who could use some beauty in their days. Make vases for the folks who come to get food here on Monday mornings, or think of others who might appreciate a bloom or two.
Here’s another idea: in November, the Ministry of Justice and Mission will be organizing a hands-on day of service and community-building outside our gates with people experiencing homelessness. Plan to participate, and let’s see where it takes us-more details will be coming soon. And throughout your days, allow God to lead you to new ways to meet people outside the gates and put love in action there – when we each do this more and more, we will be living into the vision that God has for us.
So who are we, as individuals and as a church, walking past? Who do we need to look at, who is sitting just outside our gates today asking us – really – to look at them? What might be our offering to them and to God? If you are grateful that you can walk, reach out your hand to someone who can’t and see where that leads you both.
Somehow our redemption is tied up together, and you might be surprised at who ends up clinging to whom.
Do not be paralyzed by guilt or by fear or by thinking that whatever you do will not be enough. Remember we read in Micah that God has done away with the expectation of thousands of rivers of oil and, in fact, we read in Acts that God even did away with paralysis. True, we may rarely perform the dramatic miracles like this story describes. But when we really look at each other and at those outside our gates, I imagine we as individuals and families and as Forest Hill Church will be moved to action, and we will help each other to stand and even leap. When our offerings are not prescribed burnt sacrifices, but dynamic, intimate dances of seeing and holding hands with, and yes – even clinging – we may find that God’s dreams are being lived out here on earth.