Tag: justice

Sermon: What Does the Lord Require of You?

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow based on Micah 6:1-8. In light of current events, and the divisions within our culture, God’s people need to hear again the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. I hope your Sunday is glorious!

What Does The Lord Require of You?
Micah 6:1-8 NRSV

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

6 “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?
7 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?”

8 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?

Called To Testify

We lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia when I was subpoenaed to testify in a murder trial. I did not know the defendant, but I knew his parents. They were calling every witness they could to try to prevent their son, who had killed his wife, from being sent to prison. I was called to testify that I would be available to counsel and guide the young man should the judge sentence him to probation. It seemed like a long shot to me, and in the end it was. The judge sentenced the husband to life in prison. His family wept, while on the other side of the courtroom, the slain woman’s family celebrated.

What we encounter today in this passage from Micah 6, is no less dramatic than my courtroom experience years ago.

In verses 1-2, the prophet Micah says to God’s people —

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

So, God calls on the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth to be witnesses to the great case against Israel. (And, probably Israel here means both Israel and Judah because the prophet Micah preached about the judgment on both kingdoms.)

In verse 3 God asks rhetorically —

“O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

Then, in verses 3-5, God recalls three major events in the life of His people when God saved them from certain disaster and destruction. The first was when God used Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead Israel from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The second was when Balak, king of Moab, tried to hire Balaam, a prophet who listened to God, to curse Israel as they made their way to the Promised Land.

And, the third event was when Joshua led the nation of Israel from Shittim, crossing the Jordan, and finally stopping in Gilgal in the Land of Promise.

While we might lump all those stories together as part of the Exodus/Promised Land narrative, God breaks down the narrative into its component parts to remind Israel that every step along the way God had intervened and saved them.

But now it’s Israel’s turn to testify. And in verses 6-7, Israel asks indignantly —

6 “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?
7 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?”

Micah is probably representing what he has heard from his countrymen a hundred times over. They don’t get why God has an issue with them. And, of course, they jump right to how they do worship, because they think they’ve been doing worship quite well, thank you!

So, they begin reasonably — “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?

These are, of course, the standard and typical offerings presented to God. Yearling calves, offered on the altar.

But then, they get snarky —  “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” they ask sarcastically.

Rams and oil are offered to God in Temple worship, but not by the thousands and ten thousands. No, these are people who are put out that God dares to question how they do worship, because, of course, they’ve been doing worship at the Temple since Solomon was king — over 200 years at this point.

But then, they go too far. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

While the firstborn was dedicated to God, the firstborn (or any child or person) was expressly forbidden to be used as a sacrifice. Other nations around them offered child-sacrifices, often to Moloch, but Israel was prohibited from doing so. Some scholars think this sentence indicates they might have (and we know they did at one time), but others think this is the ultimate outrageous rebuttal to God’s criticism of them.

But now it’s Micah’s turn. In verse 8, Micah stops speaking the very words of God, and rather plainly observes —

8 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?

In other words, “You know what to do, and it has little to do with what happens inside the Temple and everything to do with how you live your lives.” My paraphrase.

So, let’s look at what God requires, then and now.

First, there are three verbs in the second part of verse 8: Do, love, and walk. All action verbs. All with objects or modifiers. All indicating real life actions, not ritual affectations.

So, let’s break them down.

Do Justice

I’m not using my favorite translation, the New International Version, because I think the NIV misses the translation here. In the NIV the text reads “live justly.” But, Micah says God requires that we “do justice.”

Of course, theologians have often been accused of “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” (I think Jesus said something like that), but here I believe the distinction is critical to understanding what God is saying.

There is a difference in “living justly” and being required to “do justice.” Here’s what I think the distinction is: “living justly” implies that while I go about my individual life, I’m to do things correctly. Now, that certainly is true, but “doing justice” shifts the emphasis from my individual everyday life to an intentional assignment to make sure justice gets done.

As in our day, life in Israel 700 or so years before Christ contained not only individual injustice, but systemic injustice. Their injustice was like ours — the powerful abused those least able to stand up for themselves.

In Chapter 3, Micah notes:

“Listen, you rulers of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel! For you ought to know what is right, but you hate good and love evil. You have devoured My people’s flesh; you have flayed the skin off them, and the flesh off their bones.”

In 3:9, Micah continues:

“Hear this, you rulers of the House of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with crime, Jerusalem with iniquity! Her rulers judge for gifts, her priests give rulings for a fee, and her prophets divine for pay…”

The poor were exploited, those with cases to be heard had to bribe the judge to get a favorable ruling, and even in the Temple priests and prophets demanded more than their normal support to do their jobs.

Micah rails against this type of injustice which is built into the Temple, the courts, and society in general. Remember, the prophets generally brought three charges against God’s people regardless of when they prophesied: 1) they worshiped idols; 2) they worshiped insincerely; and, 3) they did not care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the stranger. Here Micah speaks of all three transgressions and failures.

To do justice means to ensure that everyone — rich, poor, powerful, or humble — has an equal place at God’s table. Old Testament law provided numerous ways for the poor to be fed, the widows to be cared for, the orphans to be nurtured, and the stranger to be welcomed. But, over and over, Israel’s spiritual and civic leaders bend the rules for their own benefit, while at the same time pretending to be righteous and upright. Jesus will condemn this same hypocrisy in the first century, 700 years later.

God’s requirement to “do justice” is not directed at our modern political parties, civic leaders, or social trendsetters. This is a requirement of God’s people. This is our duty, our job, our responsibility.

In LaGrange, Georgia last week, the chief of police, Louis Dekmar, apologized to the African American citizens of LaGrange on behalf of the city and the police department. He apologized that his department did nothing to protect a black teenager named Austin Callaway in 1940. Callaway had been charged with offending a white woman, and had been placed in the LaGrange city jail. That night, 6 white men with one gun, held the jailer at gunpoint, forcing him to open the jail and release Callaway to them. Later Callaway was found shot several times. He was transported to the hospital where he died of gunshot wounds. Chief Dekmar found there were no case notes, no investigation, and no one was ever arrested for the murder of Austin Callaway. That is an example of systemic injustice. But the courageous apology of a white police chief brought some justice to that community 77 years later.

But if we are not in positions of authority to see that justice is done in our social settings and systems, still we are required to be working to bring about changes in our society so that justice is done, and so that all share God’s blessings, all feed at God’s table, and so that all — not just some — flourish in God’s creation.

Of course, justice also means that good is valued and evil is judged. That’s a part of justice, too. That aspect of justice keeps our society ordered, and our social corrections proportional.

Justice then, is both systemic and personal.

Which brings us to the second requirement —

Love Kindness (Mercy)

No translation is perfect, and here the New Revised Standard Version lets me down. The Hebrew word translated “kindness” here is the word “hesed” which means “lovingkindness.” But, I guess it sounded awkward to say, “Love lovingkindness.” But lovingkindness also means mercy, so the good old King James Version gets it right when it translates this phrase to “Love mercy.”

And, loving mercy goes hand in hand with doing justice, obviously. If you just do justice — especially that which judges and sorts out good from evil — with no allowance for mercy, kindness, and forgiveness — then you have missed the example of God’s own lovingkindness and mercy.

That’s the point here — we do what God does. We “do justice,” but we “love mercy.” That sounds to me like mercy might be as important, if not more so, than doing justice. Justice always has to be tempered with mercy or we become a society with no heart, no compassion, no empathy.

Dr. Richard Hayes of Duke University writes of mercy — “Mercy precedes everything: that, and only that, is why the announcement of the kingdom of heaven is good news.” — (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pg. 103.)

The story is told of two ancient rabbis who were walking together one day. One bemoaned the fact that they no longer had the Temple in which to worship God. “But,” the other reassured his colleague, “we still have hesed.” His point was, that even if there was no Temple in which to worship, they could still perform acts of mercy and lovingkindness.

Do justice. Love mercy. Do we love mercy, or do we extend mercy as a last, begrudging resort, just because sometimes we have to?

Walk Humbly with Your God

Then Micah adds the final requirement — to walk humbly with your God. “Walk” of course is an analogy for the way in which we live our lives. We speak of people who are hypocritical because they “talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”

The idea of walking with God has its origins in the Garden of Eden where God walked with Adam and Eve each evening. Our walk with God is not only our conduct before him, but our fellowship with Him.

There are, I suppose, any number of ways we could walk with God. Certainly we could walk regularly with God. Adam and Eve did so until they sinned, and then they hid from God.

We could walk gratefully with God. Scripture in both Old and New Testaments is filled with exhortations to give thanks, and prayers and songs that give voice to thankfulness.

We could also walk confidently with God. John writes in 1 John 1:5-6 — “This is how we know we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.” So our walk with God gives us confidence in our relationship to God.

But while we might walk regularly, or gratefully, or confidently, Micah reminds us that what is required of us is that we walk humbly with our God.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the virtue of humility may be defined as: “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.” St. Bernard defines it: “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.” These definitions coincide with that given by St. Thomas: “The virtue of humility”, he says, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior”   — (Devine, A. (1910). Humility. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 28, 2017 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm)

And there it is: humility is knowing our limitations, especially in light of God’s limitless love, grace, and mercy.

To walk humbly with God is to fellowship with God knowing that our relationship is not between peers, but of Creator to created, and of Redeemer to redeemed.

Walking humbly with God also reminds us that God has acted justly and shown mercy on our behalf.

One ancient rabbi said that Micah had taken the 613 laws of Moses and reduced them to their essence when he observed —

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?

When you watch the news this week, ask yourself, “Are we as a nation doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?” And if the answer is “no” or even “maybe not” then we must remind ourselves that God has shown us what is good. And that good means that we must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That is what the Lord requires of us.

Sermon: The Wisdom of Justice and Mercy

This summer I’m preaching a series of sermons titled “The Wisdom of …..” and today’s sermon was “The Wisdom of Justice and Mercy.”  Each of the 8 sermons is based on a text from the revised common lectionary for that day.  Here’s today’s sermon:

The Wisdom of Justice and Mercy

Genesis 18:20-32

20 Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the LORD.  23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge [c] of all the earth do right?”

26 The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

The Story Before Our Story

This story of Abraham comes right after the visit of three men, often thought to be angels.  However, the dialogue in the chapter switches back and forth from the visitors speaking to God speaking, which leads theologians to describe the visit of these men to Abraham and Sarah as a theophany — an appearance of God in another form.

Whether they were angels, or the presence of God, the message is that when they return in a year, Sarah will have a son.  Abraham will have a son, too, which is what they both had been hoping against hope for.  But both Abraham and Sarah are well up in years (approximately 100  and 90 respectively), and so this news comes as both a surprise, and an uncertainty.  So uncertain is Sarah that she laughs at the prospect, and God catches her in her doubting laughter.

Abraham Bargains With God

But that’s not the point of our story today.  As the visitors are departing, the narrator switches to the voice of God who says, “I’m going down to check on Sodom and Gomorrah, because I’ve been hearing bad things about them.”  God continues, “I’m going to see if they are really that bad, and if they are, I’m going to destroy both cities.”

This gives Abraham some concern.  Primarily, I imagine, because his nephew Lot and his family live in Sodom.  So, Abraham begins this rather indirect dialogue with God.

“Okay, but if there are 50 righteous people there, you won’t destroy it, will you?  After all, you wouldn’t destroy the good with the bad.  Can’t we depend upon the Judge of the earth to do right?”

And you know how this goes.  Abraham and God go back and forth, as Abraham negotiates the lowest possible number for God to spare Sodom.  From 50, Abraham asks God to spare the cities if 45 are there.  God agrees.

From 45, Abraham asks for 40.  God agrees.  Then 30, and again God agrees.  Then 20, and once more God says yes.  Then 10, and God says, “Okay, if there are 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah I won’t destroy them.  I think Abraham is counting Lot’s family — his wife and two daughters, and some of Lot’s servants which he hopes are righteous.  So, maybe Lot’s immediate household will be enough to spare the city from God’s judgment and wrath.

The Incident at Sodom and The Destruction of the Cities

The visitors, which now number two instead of three, arrive at Sodom, and meet Lot, who insists they come to his house for dinner and a place to stay. While they are inside Lot’s house, men from the town gather in front of Lot’s home.

“Who are the good looking strangers that have come to visit you?” they ask.  “Send them out so we can have a big party with them (this is my paraphrase to keep this G-rated).  Lot protests and instead offers his daughters, which is a terrible thing to do by any account and even in that day.

But the men of Sodom demand that the handsome strangers come out.  In their desparate attempt to get at Lot’s guests, they try to crash the front door of Lot’s house.  The angels pull Lot back inside, and strike all of the mob blind so that they can’t find the door.

With that problem solved, and with the evidence mounting that Sodom is indeed a wicked place, the angels tell Lot to get his family together and leave immediately.  “Flee for the hills” is their actual advice.  But Lot says, “We’ll never make it to the hills before disaster falls on us, too.  How about I stop off at Zoar instead?”  Reluctantly the angels agree, but warn Lot’s family not to look back on the destruction that is to befall Sodom and Gomorrah.

You know the rest of the story.  Lot’s family leaves, fire and brimstone rain down from the heavens, and Sodom and Gomorrah are piles of smoldering ruins.  But, unfortunately, Lot’s wife cannot help herself, and looks back.  She is turned into a pillar of salt for doing so, while Lot and his two daughters trudge ahead to Zoar.  There the story turns even uglier for Lot and his daughters, but we’ll stop there because we’ve had enough salacious material for one day.

The Back Story

Okay, so what do we know about all of this and the justice of God.  Plus, God’s mercy, too.  Both are in this story, and both are important to the nation of Israel.

First, let’s look at the cities themselves.  Sodom and Gomorrah were part of a group of five cities called the Pentapolis.  The cities were Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim, and Bela — also known as Zoar.  So, when Lot flees Sodom, he’s really not going very far, and he stays within the Cities of the Plain, as these were also known.

Secondly, what was the problem there?  Well, it’s obvious that some inappropriate activity was taking place in both of those cities, as we can tell from the visit of the two angels.  And, most of us would say that is why God destroyed them.

But in Jewish literature, these cities were not only places of immorality, which are not even mentioned in the Jewish writings, but were known as places that were inhospitable to strangers, and had disregard for the poor, and disadvantaged among them.  Among their crimes it is reported that in Sodom, wealthy merchants would give beggars a bar of gold with their name on it.  But in a cruel conspiracy, they would refuse to sell the beggar any food, and he would eventually starve to death.  When that happened, they simply retrieved the bar of gold, and waited for their next victim.

They were also guilty of violence and bloodshed, and Abraham had saved the King of Sodom and his army from defeat, and rescued his nephew Lot in the process. So, these were not nice people if you were a stranger in their town.

Interestingly, Sodom and Gomorrah are also mentioned in Islamic writings, and there in addition to the sins of immorality, their other sins are listed as: gambling by playing backgammon, racing pigeons, holding fights between dogs, rams or roosters; immodesty and showing off by not covering their private parts in front of other people of the same sex, entering bathhouses naked, and opening the shirt to show the chest; wearing long pants which drag on the ground out of pride or arrogance; cheating with regard to weights and measures; and whistling with the fingers.  Apparently, whistling with the fingers is a bad thing to do.

Our Role in  God’s Justice and Mercy

But, back to our story.  This Sodom and Gomorrah story is a great example of God’s justice and mercy.  Let’s look at justice first.

We often confuse the idea of justice with punishment.  As in “I’ll be glad when justice is finally done, and he gets what’s coming to him.”  But justice is not punishment.

Punishment is just that, punishment.  Punishment is also called “retribution.”  And the system of justice that administers punishment is called a system of “retributive justice.”  That’s pretty much what we have in our criminal justice system here in the United States.  Les could put the fine point on that general statement, because there are instances of mercy, leniency, compassion, and so forth exhibited in the criminal justice system, but generally, if you do the crime, you expect to do the time (or some equivalent thereof).

But the idea of justice isn’t about punishment, it’s about fairness.  A just society is a society that treats all of its citizens alike.  That’s why the civil rights movement was a struggle for justice — African Americans were denied the right to vote, the right to eat in public restaurants, the right to stay in public accommodations, and the right to attend public schools.  We in the United States treated one segment of our population differently than the majority, and that was a social injustice.

So, a just society is a society that treats all of its members with the same degree of fairness.

God’s justice is also a fair treatment of all his creation.  Violate God’s laws and there is a price to pay.  Even natural law applies fairly and across the board.  Take gravity for instance.  Gravity works for all of us.  Jump out one of these windows and you will fall down, not up.  Regardless of your race, creed, religion, or national origin.  Gravity applies to all.

Jesus pointed out that God sends the rain on the “just and the unjust.”  Aren’t we glad rainfall, which we need desparately, isn’t reserved just for the righteous?  Our yards might look worse than they do now!  God is a just God in the administration of his Creation and natural law.

Okay, so why is God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah?  First, this is before the Law given to Moses, so it’s not because they’re breaking the Ten Commandments.  But, there is still a law, a standard, that God expects to uphold.  The story of Noah and the flood is an account of God’s judgment and punishment of a world gone wild.

But what makes this story interesting is not that God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, but that God almost doesn’t.  If there are 50 righteous people living in a city of at least thousands, then God will spare the city.  Or if there are 45, or 40, or 30, or 20, or 10.  Ten righteous people (probably meaning men, and later the number required to start a synagogue), then God will spare the city.

God’s mercy is greater than God’s wrath.  Why, because God’s mercy is also part of God’s justice.  Justice demands that all be treated the same, that all be held to the same standard.

Judgment determines if the standard has been met.  If not, the person, community, or nation is deemed to have violated the law of God, and there is punishment for that.

The late Ray Anderson, brilliant professor of theology at Fuller Seminary, says that the wrongdoer cannot escape judgment.  Judgment says, “What you have done is wrong.”  God’s judgment is based on his even-handedness with his creation.  The Bible says, “God is no respecter of persons.”  Which means it doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have, how smart you are, how much you’ve achieved, who your daddy was, or any of those things by which we measure people and show favoritism.

“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Paul says in Romans 3:23.  And he also adds, “The wages of sin is death” in Romans 6:23.  So, there’s the judgment, and the punishment, both part of God’s justice.

But, Paul also adds, “But the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  (Romans 6:23)  There’s the mercy.  There is no doubt we are sinners.  There is no doubt that the penalty for sin, the wages (which means what we have earned for our sin) is death.  We can’t change either of those facts.  So, we have been judged and sentenced.  But, that’s where mercy comes in.  God desires mercy.  God provides a way.  God sends Jesus.  Jesus lives, dies, rises again, all to demonstrate that the words of Hosea the prophet are true:

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice….” — Hosea 6:6

But, God’s mercy also includes us.  In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God’s being willing to save the cities if there were as few as 10 righteous people there, God’s mercy is made available by the presence of God’s people.

It’s the New Testament idea of being salt and light.  Of the Kingdom of God as the mustard seed that starts small, but grows to be a huge tree.  It’s the idea of a little leaven leavens the whole loaf.  There is a quality to the community of faith that carries with it access to the mercy of God on behalf of others.

You and I, this church, we are vital to this community.  We are the salt and light, we are the leaven in the lump of dough, we are the mustard seed, we are the preservers of humankind.  And, not just us, but all others in all other communities like ours.  We are God’s people and we preserve this Creation of God’s.  Our presence makes possible God’s mercy to those who rebel against him.

But we cannot be salt that has lost its flavor, or lights that have gone dark. We cannot be dead yeast, for the bread will not be affected.  Our action, our activity in this community lived as God’s representatives has a preserving, merciful effect on all around us.

If God can find 50, or 45, or 40, or 30, or 20, or even 10 people who love him and live in right relationship with him and with others, then God’s mercy is still available.  Hope for the future still prevails, the message of salvation still goes out, and God still stays his punishment.

That’s something for us to think about in our world gone wild.  God desires mercy, not sacrifice.  And we can help make that mercy a reality for our community, our state, our nation, our world.

Sermon: The Ministry of Reconciliation

God has called us to the ministry of reconciliation, of inviting others into a renewed friendship with God and each other.

The Ministry of Reconciliation
2 Corinthians 5:16-21

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The Nigerian Massacre

Last Friday morning, on the last day of the doctoral seminar I was in at Fuller Seminary, Dr. David Augsburger commented as the class began, “This is a sad and difficult day.”

He then read an email he had received from a former colleague of his in Nigeria.  Early in the week we had heard of the horrific violence perpetrated against Christians by Muslims in Nigeria.  But the email confirmed the worst fears many had.

The writer, whom I will not identify for his own safety, reported that rumor of an impending attack near the village of Jos last Saturday night circulated through the area.

The acting president of Nigeria had requested that the Muslim minister of security send Nigerian security forces to the area to protect the Christian population.

Some time after midnight the Muslim tribesmen attacked.  They fired rifles and as the Christian villagers tried to escape, those running for their lives were trapped by giant nets that had been erected by the attackers around the village.

Trapped with no place to run, the villagers were then hacked to death by their attackers.  The death toll ranges from 150 to over 500, depending on whose count you accept.

Continue reading “Sermon: The Ministry of Reconciliation”

Prayer for the Opening of Court on October 19, 2009

I have been asked to offer the prayer for a new session of court, which opens Monday, October 19.  The courtroom and anterooms of our 156-year old courthouse have also been renovated, and this is the first day court sessions will be held in the refreshed space.  Here’s the prayer I will offer:

Almighty God and Heavenly Father,

We invite your presence here in this room today, but not because this is a place of worship.  These antique pews could hold an assembled congregation, but those who gather in this room regularly do not gather here for devotions.  We invite your presence today, even though this is not a place of religious practice, because the proceedings of this court require Divine wisdom and guidance.

For this is the place where the accused and their accusers meet, not for revenge or retribution, but for an impartial hearing and rightly-delivered verdict.
This is the place where the law of this land, and of this community, stands as the arbiter of disputes both great and small.
This is the place where the common good is preserved, and the conscience of a community challenged.

And so our prayer today is first a prayer of gratitude.
We are thankful we live in a nation where laws govern our actions and interactions.
We are thankful for a heritage of freedom, tempered with responsibility and mutuality.
We are thankful for those engaged in the calling of the law, and those who serve this court in particular —
— for judges past and present, officers of this court, and the attorneys who stand at this bar to plead their causes before this bench.
May they sense Your hand in their endeavors, and seek Your guidance in their lives.

Our prayer today is also a prayer of dedication.
This historic building, a constant presence on Main Street generation-after-generation, bears powerful witness to our hope for order and decency.
This sanctuary of struggle-and-tears has seen families united and torn asunder; lives redeemed and destroyed; and dreams realized or denied.

For this is the place where truth and mercy meet.
This is the place where justice is done.

And even though the appearance of this court room has changed, let there be more than an appearance that justice is being done here.

Lord, we hear again the words of the prophet Micah —

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

May this court and this courtroom be filled with the confidence of Your wisdom, the generosity of Your mercy, and the power of Your love.

Bless this nation we love so dearly, and those whom we have chosen to guide her path.  May peace come in our lifetime, and may Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is our prayer today, and we make it in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.


Paying Attention to the Outrageous

Hitler_w_youngmenSomebody did it again.  They compared one of our political leaders to Hitler.  It really doesn’t matter who did it because this is becoming a regular tactic for the extremists.  The frustrating thing is they get what they want — publicity.

The media pounce on their pronouncements as though the words they uttered were the first like them.  Bloggers and political sites pick up the refrain — “How dare they invoke the name of Hitler!” The outrage is palpable, and then the next day it starts all over again.

Frankly, I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of pop media personalities cheapening the tragedy of the Holocaust with their self-serving tirades.  If this is what passes for discourse and dialogue in America, we are at a new low.

But I also tell myself we must be on the cusp of change because so many are so afraid right now.  In times of turbulent change, the dividers voices are often the loudest.  It was that way during the Civil Rights struggle, it was that way during the Viet Nam war protests, and it’s that way again.

But I also know that the nascent signs of change in churches are encouraging.   Multi-ethnic congregations are blossoming, and new expressions of church are springing up in unlikely places.  Multi-culturalism is becoming almost as popular a topic among church conference planners as multi-site strategies.  More and more congregations are moving out into their communities, connecting with new groups of people who are helped, and who in turn change the helpers. Just as some courageous churches led the way in seeking justice for African-Americans, and later in seeking peace, these churches are the bellwether for change in our society.

That’s what we should be paying attention to — this new consciousness that I have not seen before in so many churches.  A consciousness of need, but of more than need.  An awareness of our responsibility as followers of Jesus to make a difference in the lives of people around us.  Next week I’m speaking to Duke Divinity School students about rural church ministry.  I’m going to talk about this new thing I see happening because it is unprecedented.

Examples emerge in unlikely places.  A church heals its community by planting a community garden in the wake of a local murder.  Another church reaches out to bikers and blue collar workers, not just for worship, but to help create jobs for them.  Churches feed people now in towns where before that need went unmet.  Kids are given school supplies, and encouraged to come after school for tutoring to an urban church that provides a safe haven until their working-class parents get home.

Change must be on the way because the voices of fear are growing louder and more shrill each day.  That’s the reason I pay attention to the outrageous statements of those publicity seekers.  I pay attention because I believe their outrageous statements carry with them a harbinger of hope, an indicator of impending change.   Let’s hope so, and let’s find a place to bring about that change.

Faithful Prayer for Justice

Faithful Prayer for Justice (mp3)

Text: Luke 18:1-8

The Parable of the Persistent Widow

1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

Continue reading “Faithful Prayer for Justice”