Scripture - Micah 6:6-8; John 1:9-14
Micah 6:6-8 (New Revised Standard Version)
“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?
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?”
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?
John 1:9-14 (The Message)
The Life-Light was the real thing:
Every person entering Life
he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
the world was there through him,
and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
“and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
As many of you know, these past few days, Lola and I attended the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church - a gathering of clergy and laity from across our region. We gather as an Annual Conference each year to make decisions about our life together as United Methodists in our area, to network and resource each other, to organize the life of the institutional church together with conference budgets and policies...but also to study and to worship together.
This passage from Micah 6:8 was the “theme” for our time together - and it’s a verse that seems so simple on the surface. What does God require of us - easy - doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. And yet, as with many passages of Scripture, it is easy in principle and so, so hard to live out as a community.
When Micah first spoke these words, he was doing so to a divided people. Literally the people of God had split into two kingdoms - Israel in the north with its capital of Samaria, and Judah in the south with its capital of Jerusalem. In addition to this, there was an economic divide - the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. Lands once belonging to farmers and sheepherders were being acquired by wealthy landowners and those who once depended on the land for their livelihoods became unable to sustain themselves or their families and were essentially forgotten. To add to this, the worshipping community seemed not to notice what was happening -- they continued to bring their offerings before God, continued to make the religious observances, continued to go through the motions of faith without concern for or awareness of the exploitation and oppression happening to the poor and suffering.
So when the people finally woke up to this reality, they naturally turned to ask God what they could do to make up for their sin - to atone for neglecting their neighbors - what sacrifices could they bring, what offerings would make up for their failure, what tangible gifts could they bring in worship to make God pleased with them.
Would a thousand rams? Ten thousand jugs of oil? Burnt offering upon burnt offering? The finest calves? The choicest grain? A check for twenty thousand dollars? Expensive new paraments for the altar?
(Interestingly enough….they do not ask for forgiveness or admit guilt -- Israel just wants a way out).
God, instead, asks them to do justice….to love kindness...and to walk humbly with God.
Justice -- to do right by those who have been harmed and exploited and oppressed. To ask the hard questions of why systems hurt and exclude or why cycles of violence and harm continue to cause suffering to the most vulnerable among us.
Kindness -- the Hebrew word is hesed and is hard to translate, but is better understood as “steadfast love” and is largely about that unbreakable connection God has with God’s people. To love hesed - to love that steadfast, covenant love God has with the people - means that Israel must also have that kind of connection with their neighbors….bringing it back to doing justice.
Walking humbly with God -- not humble in the lowly or meek sense, but in the sense of giving careful and considered attentiveness to what is before you -- walking attentively with God. The invitation to be always aware of God’s call for justice, for God’s steadfast love of all people.
What strikes me in this passage is that God’s challenge to the people - which was really a challenge to the wealthy worshipping community - isn’t about tangible offerings or gifts, isn’t about right worship or rituals, but is about the extent to which God’s people are willing to give of themselves to others and to God’s priorities in the world, that their worship and offerings mean nothing if it is done while ignoring the plight of the poor, the oppressed, and the exploited in their midst.
The situation in our world - between the haves and have nots, between the powerful and oppressed, between the majority and the forgotten, between the comfortable and the suffering - has not significantly changed between Micah’s time and our day. The poor are getting poorer, and the rich are getting richer. Exploitation and oppression is woven into the fabric of our society and is part of the very air that we breathe, the clothes that we buy, the food we consume, the products we purchase. To bring it closer to home, one in ten families in the US will go hungry at some point this year. Or asylum seekers fleeing violence in their home countries who want to work but can’t because of our regulations. Children who fear going to school. Those without homes. Those who have the wrong skin color or the wrong ethnic background.
These cycles of oppression have played out in so many ways for generations in our own country and around the world - kept in perpetual motion by those who have power over others - be it financial, political, religious, or otherwise. And before we count ourselves exempt from guilt, remember that in the world economy, those who make even just $15,000 per year are among the richest 12% of people in the world.
So when God calls us to do justice, to love hesed, and to walk attentively with God, it’s not just another religious platitude or some kind of feel-good quote that we can put on a bumper sticker. It’s because there are important consequences - life or death consequences - for those who are waiting for justice and kindness.
Elaine Heath, who led morning Bible study at conference, and who has written about being church in this day and age - in addition to being a professor and practitioner of new forms of spiritual community, shared a bit about her life in relation to this passage. She described herself as a newly-graduated seminary student with a three point charge...and the house she lived in was a parsonage that was old and a bit decrepit and in a bad part of town -- literally drugs on every side...the house abutting the backyard was an active drughouse. And she remembered thinking - with Micah 6:8 on her mind - what a great opportunity to practice this verse. Need and suffering was everywhere - how great it would be to bring God to these people. And what her time in that neighborhood brought to her attention, through the relationships and through the ways Jesus met her there - that it wasn’t that she had God and they didn’t….or even that she had things or skills that they needed from her….she discovered that God was already there, among the people - whether they knew it or not. To truly do justice, to love steadfast love, to walk attentively with God, required understanding that God as the Word made Flesh had already moved into the neighborhood. It was a story that I really resonated with as someone who also, fresh from seminary, held similar ideas about coming in to help save the people of the neighborhood from their poverty and their pain - and who also had to grapple with the notion that it’s not me who does any of the saving, that’s Jesus’s job - and Jesus is already out there doing that work - God’s already in the neighborhood - and we will meet Jesus if we engage in what God’s about in the world.
That’s a hard shift to make - that it’s not we who somehow have God, we who have all the answers, we who are doing good works to serve our community to bring God to our friends and neighbors - but that God is already in and among the people and our job is to pay attention to the places where we can practice God’s justice, where we can participate in God’s radical steadfast love of God’s people, where we can join in with what God hopes and dreams for the world around us.
It means taking action - it’s not about what we say we believe, or about the statements we make or about our hopes for the future - it’s about participating in the creation of the kingdom, it’s about active presence within our community, it’s about actions because being in relationship with people - doing justice and being in connection with others in the way that mirrors God’s steadfast love - requires more than just our words and hopes and dreams. It requires us to do the hard work of prayer...of engaging others right where they are...and seeing where Jesus is already there ahead of us.
What might that look like for us here on Chebeague? What might it look like if we believed that the Word made flesh was already here among us - among our community - had already moved into our neighborhood - and was already active and working and inviting us to come along to do justice - love others with God’s steadfast love - and to walk attentively with God? What does it look like for us to engage of acts of justice? Who are the people we need to stand alongside with God’s radical, persistent, steadfast love? How can we give ourselves over so fully to what God is doing out in the world?
We may not be surrounded by drughouses here at the church building, but addiction and substance abuse is no less of a problem in our community. What does doing justice and loving kindness look like with those who are in the midst of addiction, those on the recovery journey and their families?
Our children and teens - the burdens they carry on behalf of their peers, even if they themselves don’t have suicidal ideations or engage in self-harming behaviors - what would it look like for our church to do justice and loving kindness with our kids?
Those who are lonely on this island - who suffer in silence or act out of pain - what would it mean for this church to bear witness to the radical love of God? Those who struggle with mental illness, those who live with cycles of abuse - the list can go on and on - how can this church become the Word made Flesh for and with those in this community so that we can more fully do justice, love kindness, and walk attentively with God together with our friends and neighbors?
Last week we celebrated Pentecost - the Sunday we remember the Holy Spirit suffusing the first disciples with power and authority and boldness - so much so they couldn’t help but respond in a way that dramatically altered the relationships between them and the new followers in a way that changed how they engaged with each other economically by holding everything in common - talk about justice...no poverty among them…, it changed how they ate together -- becoming one family, a radical move that bound people of different cultures and languages together at the same table….loving one another with that steadfast love of God….and worshipping and praying and studying together -- being attentive to God’s movement within and around them so that they could be about this new thing God was doing out in the world.
In this time of the church year we particularly remember the mission of the church - the church that was birthed on Pentecost - the church that continues to follow and rely upon the movement and power of the Holy Spirit to live that radical commitment to love and enact Micah 6:8 for our neighbors.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has this quote - “The church is only the church when it exists for others.”
And so my prayer for us as we move into this next season is that we may exist for others. That we might follow the Holy Spirit to see the ways that Jesus is already in our neighborhood, already at work around us...among us….and in us. And that we might join in the work that God requires us to do -- to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Amen.
*Hymn - Spirit of God, v. 1 and 2 (FWS 2117)
Scripture - Acts 2:1-21
Acts 2:1-21 (New Revised Standard Version)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
One: The Word of Life. All: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - Spirit of God, v. 3-5 (FWS 2117)
The first time I had ever been out of the United States (aside from Canada) was during my freshman year in college. We had, at Colby, what were called “Jan Plans” where in between fall and spring semester, you were encouraged to take a three week course in a discipline outside your field of study. It was an opportunity for enrichment, to try new things in a low pressure environment, and broaden your educational horizons.
The French department was offering a second level course in Guadeloupe. Guadeloupe is technically a part of France - you go through French customs, your passport gets stamped with a French stamp, everyone speaks French...but it’s geographically located in the Carribean. So when my professor put the opportunity out there that there was some room for Freshman students to take the class, I jumped at the chance. I mean, who wouldn’t want to get out of Mid-Maine in the middle of winter and bask for three weeks in the warmth of the Carribean sun?
Even though I had been studying French for six years, nothing could have prepared me for the disorientation of being in a different cultural and linguistic environment. Everything was a translation - from hearing conversations around the table with my host family and having to mentally shift their words to English...to the arduous work of figuring out how to respond in French….not to mention the cultural translation of being an American student in a foreign country in the aftermath of 9/11 and how different the world’s perspective of our current events was.
It was a rewarding experience, but challenging being in an environment where it was so difficult to (1) understand fully what was going on around me and (2) make myself understood to others. Differences around language - culture - ethnicity - nationality...it was the first time where my identity and how I understood the world was not the norm, where everything was in translation. So those rare moments where I’d be out at the grocery store or walking through town and hear someone speaking American English to me was like a breath of fresh air. Beyond being just familiar words and sounds - it was a signal of hospitality, that I didn’t have to work so hard to communicate or be understood.
So I wonder what it must have felt like for the crowd of Jews gathered in Jerusalem on the feast of Pentecost - a festival celebrating the spring harvest and the giving of the law at Mount Sinai - to hear the disciples speaking in their own native languages - Jews from Egypt and Lybia and Rome and Crete and Mesopotamia - speaking the Good News of Jesus not in the language of the Roman Empire, not in the dominant tongue of Aramaic, but in each person’s birth language - the language spoken among family and close friends - the language of home.
We can get caught up in the spectacle of this day - the wind and the fire, the accusations of drunkenness, Peter’s stirring sermon, the thousands of converts and baptisms in response to the message. We celebrate this “birthday of the Church” when the circle of Jesus followers that was relatively small and intimate - about 120 people - expanded 25 times over. But what I also find remarkable is that even though all the people who responded to this message of Jesus’ resurrection and the new day of God’s kingdom were Jews - they represented different cultures, different languages, different worldviews. Diversity and inclusivity woven into our very origin story as a church -- that’s God’s people are both One and Many...and we see throughout Acts, and indeed throughout the history of faith, the ways that God drew the circle wider and wider still, pouring the Holy Spirit out in unexpected ways on unexpected people - the Gentiles, political leaders and emperors, slaves and women, young and old alike...throughout the ages to this very day.
The crowds on that Pentecost day - they weren’t confused about the message - they were astounded and perplexed by being able to understand what was being said. That there was no translation required - that there was nothing extra demanded of them to be included into the body of Christ, no cultural navigations, no wordy and awkward translations of Peter’s message, no feeling like they were on the outside looking in because of their differences. They Holy Spirit came and spoke in the language of their hearts and homes, drawing them in to relationship with Jesus - God incarnate - God who for the sake of love took on language and culture and human skin to experience life and death as one of us, God who comes and makes a home in us.
The Holy Spirit empowered those first few followers of Jesus to stop huddling in safety, to throw open the doors wide, and to speak across the things that divide us - race, culture, language, ethnicity, gender, orientation, worldview, political affiliation, economic status, and age. To take the risk of encountering difference and to be vulnerable in sharing from the heart because they couldn’t help themselves they were so much on fire with the power of the Holy Spirit.
It was risky business for those early believers; they had to move out of their comfort zones to encounter others….they had to trust that something important was happening within them, sharing things and words and sounds they didn’t understand, they had to trust that they were a part of something bigger and more powerful - no matter how silly it looked, no matter how derisive some in the crowd were - claiming they were drunk, no matter the social cost.
Even the crowds who heard these words - words spoken in familiar phrases - had to take the risk of trust...to believe that God was drawing them in...and drawing one another in. They, too, had to widen their circles to include the other, the stranger, those who were different.
And into this glorious mess of wind and fire and language and culture - of risk and vulnerability, trust and transformation, - God breathed life anew.
And I believe God wants to do the same with us today.
We took a step forward as a congregation together, trusting God’s call to affirm and include all people into the full life and participation of the church. As we heard in our opening hymn - there is a place at the table for everyone here - young and old, gay and straight, woman and man, just and unjust - God meets us here, folds us into one body, there is room for everyone. We celebrate that as we seek to live and embody our welcoming statement and as we join the Reconciling Ministries Network.
That is Holy Spirit work - that work that cuts across the things that can divide us to say to those who are marginalized in our society - particularly those who are LGBTQ - that you are welcome here...that you are wanted here...that you are safe here.
But I believe it is just one step. Inclusion isn’t enough. Feeling like everyone can belong isn’t enough. What’s next is to take the Holy Spirit risk of becoming one even though we are many - of crossing the barriers that divide to offer love and hope to all, to engage and listen with open hearts to those who understand the world completely differently than we do - who might figuratively speak different languages.
As author Debie Thomas wrote on this Acts passage - she writes: “Something happens when we speak each other's languages — be they cultural, political, racial or liturgical. We experience the limits of our own perspectives. We learn curiosity. We discover that God's "great deeds" are far too nuanced for a single tongue, a single fluency...It is no small thing that the Holy Spirit loosened tongues on the birthday of the Church. In the face of difference, God compelled his people to engage. From Day One, the call was to press in, linger, listen, and listen some more.”
When that happens - when we truly engage with the other - when we listen and learn from their stories, their experiences, learn their language, their identities - we see Jesus in one another, true inclusion happens. True inclusion isn’t just about appreciation of where others come from, or being glad that they feel like they belong or attend our gatherings...it’s about celebrating the gift they are to us...the gift they are to this church...the gift they are to the body of Christ….and empowering others to use those gifts for building up the body of Christ.
We read later on in this chapter of Acts that the result of this new diverse, inclusive body of Christ was this radical community that devoted themselves to fellowship and study together, to breaking bread together and praying together, to holding possessions in common together, eliminating economic inequality among themselves, sharing and eating together with glad and generous hearts. And what was going on among them was so powerful, so compelling, so fascinating, that others couldn’t help but be drawn in and God continued to draw the circle wider.
And so I can’t help but wonder - what would that look like on this island? What if the Holy Spirit blew through this congregation with fresh fire? What if each person here, from the kids in our Sunday School class to our seasonal friends to those sitting in the choir and those who have lived here their whole lives and everyone in between - was so tapped in to the Holy Spirit...so compelled to engage and speak words of love and hope in the language and stories of the people around us - what couldn’t God do through us?
It takes risk...it takes vulnerability…it takes trust in the one who promised to be with us always...it takes a willingness to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to full engagement with one another and with our community….and so my prayer for us this Pentecost is that we call upon the Holy Spirit for the work ahead of us -- to let ourselves be moved beyond these four walls with a message of hope and peace for all people….to speak love in the languages of those we meet...to become a church where all are truly welcome and included. May we call upon that Spirit so that we may be on fire for the healing of all those around us...for our community...and for our world. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son and 6 month old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.