Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
In the name of Jesus, who calls us to walk with Him. Amen.
Sometimes I think about this passage from Micah when I pass by the ACP bathrooms. You know, the ones at the base of the stairs in the church house.
Because extraordinary things happen in those bathrooms. One morning I opened the door to the women’s room to find a gentleman wearing a mardi gras mask and shaving half of his head. Another time, I found that a woman had set up a sort of mini kitchen with a tea kettle and a cutting board and was doing some cooking. People sing in there. I have had amazing conversations while in line for the bathroom. People have shared wonderful news while standing there in line, and they have shared about divorces, deaths, deep hurts. Someone once had a psychotic break of sorts in the downstairs ACP bathroom. That was memorable.
And it continues all week - every day people walk through the doors of this church seeking help. Sometimes they know exactly what they want, what they are hoping for - a word of prayer, food, a place to sleep. Sometimes they just know that things aren’t right and that this might be a good place to come.
In today’s text, the Lord is frustrated with the people of Israel for how they are treating the weakest and most vulnerable people in their society, for how they are treating the guy shaving his head in the bathroom, the person who comes to the church because she is worried about losing her apartment, the homeless woman making tea in the church basement. The Lord is angry because the people of Israel have failed to do justice.
Micah puts it this way in chapter 2: “they covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away. They oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance...You rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war. The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses; from my young children you take away my glory forever.” This should sound a bit familiar to us.
This is what the failure to do justice looks like. Because the Bible uses the word “justice” in a particular way. In the Old Testament, justice is not just equality; it’s not just treating everyone equally, making sure everyone gets exactly the same size piece of the pie. Justice is certainly fairness, but it is fairness plus - fairness plus special care and concern for the weak and the vulnerable: the poor, the sick, widows, orphans, the people that Jesus spent his time with, the people you meet in the church bathroom.
In the human sense, justice might be dividing the pie perfectly so that everyone gets exactly what they deserve in proportion to how hard they worked to make the pie. In the Biblical sense, justice is giving a big piece of pie with whipped cream to the widow and the orphan and then after you’re sure that they’ve had enough, splitting up what is left.
In the human sense, justice is the job of government - courts, police, lawmakers. In the Biblical sense, justice is something that each one of us is called to DO, to act out.
Justice about equality and fairness, but mostly it’s about how we treat those who are especially vulnerable. It’s about how we care for people who don’t have enough money. The mentally ill. Orphans, prostitutes, the homeless, the sick and grieving.
And in the book of Micah, God is accusing the people of Israel of failing to do justice.
And so I wonder, how are we doing?
Can we grow in our ability to do justice within this church? Are we caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are vulnerable and in need of special attention? Are we caring for those who are unemployed or without a place to live or without papers? Are we caring for those who are hurting and afraid?
Can we grow in our ability to do justice in this city? Are we doing enough to care for the broken, the hungry, the sick, the people we meet in the bathroom?
I ask those questions not as an accusation and not to suggest that we aren’t doing enough. Quite the opposite - I am amazed by how this congregation cares for one another and for the world. You pray for one another, take in those who lose their apartments, share money, food, time. You volunteer through Mission and outreach throughout this city and the world.
I ask those questions because I have a sense that God could take us beyond the wonderful things that we are already doing. This congregation is moving to a new stage in its life. I think that we are moving to a place where we could do justice in new, creative, amazing ways. I look at this congregation, at the creativity and energy and spiritual strength in these pews, and I think that God could use us to turn the world upside down. We could become an even brighter beacon on the Seine - a sign to this city that Christianity is alive and that the kingdom of God is real. People could look at us and say what they said about the early Christians: See how they love one another.
Did you notice how Israel responded to the call to do justice in the text? God tells the people that they have fallen short, and their first reaction seems to be a kind of panicked guilt. And out of that guilt, they try frantically to appease God: It’s almost like they start bargaining - “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?” And when there isn’t an immediate response, the people offer something bigger “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams?” And then they go over the top: “how about ten thousand rivers of oil? How about my firstborn child?
I think that this is a great illustration of how we often respond when God puts a new challenge before us. Basically, God gives us a challenge, a sense that something should change. And instead of feeling excited about a new start, we feel guilty and frustrated we aren’t doing this already. And so we frantically start doing things. We try to give more and more in the hope that it will make God happy.
I think that we especially tend to fall into this pattern in church. We have a sense that God is calling us to do a new thing - maybe to start a new Bible study, maybe to welcome people more effectively, maybe to do justice in a new way. And we just start working really hard at it and pray that this will please God.
But the reality is that working hard at things isn’t enough. Doing justice is not pretty. When a friend or a family member is in a difficult place and asks for a loan or to sleep on your couch, it is not easy to know what the right answer is, whether agreeing will help or hurt. Sometimes we just don’t have enough to give. How do we support someone who is mentally ill or addicted and not particularly willing to get help? What do we do when we feel that helping might not be safe? What do we do when we are trying to care for someone who is really difficult, maybe even unlikeable?
So we often end up feeling distracted and worn out. And the reality is that most people in Paris today are already too busy and too overcommitted. We don’t have enough room in our lives for God to speak - for friends, family, sabbath.
If we really want to be a sign of the kingdom, a beacon on the Seine, the last thing we want to do is suggest to the stressed out people of this city is that they should “do more.” The world has plenty of that already. This church needs to be an alternative to the frantic stress and guilt that most modern people experience. The church needs to challenge rather than reinforce the idea that we have to work to earn love and salvation. We want to be a witness to grace and abundance and time enough, not just another organization that helps people to earn salvation through busyness.
So how do we do justice without falling into this trap?
I love how the prophet Micah seems to interrupt the people of Israel - They are frantically trying to appease God: “We’ll give you the biggest offering ever, and if that’s not enough we’ll give you a bigger one, and if that’s not enough we’ll do more...and more...”
And Micah just steps in and says gently, lovingly, simply - “He has shown you what you need to do. Just do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” This should be the mantra of the overcommitted.
That phrase, “walk humbly with your God” moves us immediately out of a space where we are trying to impress God with our activity and into a space where we walking calmly next to the God who loves us.
The image reminds me of a couple that I often see taking walks around the neighborhood. They are probably in their 80s. She always has on a lovely dress and perfectly coiffed hair. He always has a nicely pressed suit and a scarf for cold weather, and they just walk along arm in arm. I don’t think they talk much. Sometimes one of them will point to something and the other will nod, but mainly they just walk along, and every once in a while she will look up at him or he will look down at her, and just smile.
That’s the image I have of walking humbly with God. Going out into the world arm in arm. Enjoying being together. Looking when God points something out. Going along when God changes direction. Walking humbly with God. There is nothing hurried about this walk, nothing stressful. God sets the agenda and God knows where we need to be when. The walk is leisurely, and it allows time for conversation, for getting to know one another deeply.
That humble, gentle walk with God has to be the basis of any work of outreach or social justice that we do as a community. That relationship, that rest in the presence of God has to be the center of things. Anything we do has to come out of that center, out of that relationship. And there are no shortcuts to building that kind of relationship with God. This is the hard work of discipleship, of the spiritual disciplines of worship, fellowship, Bible study, prayer, accountability. Walking with God demands a total reorientation of our lives, a walk in a new direction.
But if we focus on that humble walk with God, the work of justice falls into place in a more natural way. We’re freed from this sense that we have to earn God’s affection or God’s presence by taking on everything and doing everything right - because we know that we are already walking in the presence of the living God. We’re freed from this sense that we have to fix every problem because we know that God, who stands right next to us, is the one who is doing the healing and transforming. We don’t have to stress about what project to take on, whether homelessness in Paris is more important than hunger in Africa or trafficking in Europe. Whether this church should focus more on this program or that one. We don’t have to worry that we feel drawn to help one person but not another. We just walk along next to God, and when God points at something we look. When God starts walking in a particular direction, we go along.
Granted, this isn’t easy either. It takes a lot of time, a lot of prayer and conversation to get used to walking with God. And it means that we don’t get to go where we want to go when we want to go there. And because God doesn’t often grab us by the arm and pull us somewhere, we have to learn to listen for God’s voice, and learn what it feels like when God nudges us in a particular direction.
But if we stop trying to do justice on our own strength and through our own power, God can do amazing things. Because our work of justice comes out of a deep place of communion with God, we get beyond our stressed-out, reflexive responses. We get beyond blame and frustration. If we really seek God’s presence in our work of justice, we can respond to suffering in a way that’s thoughtful and creative and new.
Every time I walk past the ACP bathrooms and see something completely bizarre, which is often, I am reminded that we live in a world that needs God’s justice. This world needs people who love and serve those who are hurting and vulnerable, the poor and sick. Many of us in this congregation need that special care today. Many people in Paris need God’s justice, the loving care of God’s people. So many places in the world are in desperate need of God’s justice.
So how are we going to respond to that challenge? We have a choice. We can do nothing. We can keep trying to do more and work harder.
Or we can do something much more difficult and much less predictable.
We as a congregation can get even more serious about discipleship. We can get even more serious about communal and individual prayer, worship, and study. We can get serious about trying to walk humbly with our God. And we can see what God points out to us, where God leads us. Who knows what kind of justice God might chose to do through us!
Imagine if we had a cold weather shelter in the gym on winter nights, so that a homeless person who camped out in the ACP bathroom could be invited to have a good meal, a place to sleep, and someone to pray for them...
Imagine if someone with a mental illness who wandered into the church had a chance to meet with a trained church member who could walk with them to a place where they could get help and support.
Imagine if someone going through a rough divorce could be paired with a church member who committed to pray for them, who was there with coffee and kleenex, who stood by them during lawyers meetings and court hearings.
These are just imaginings, ideas. They might not be where God leads.
But I challenge you to pray about how God might be calling you, how God might be calling this congregation to do justice in a new way. Who knows what will happen?
Thanks be to God. Amen.