Requirements

In Christ we see that to do justice is not to get what you deserve. To do justice is to give until it hurts and all things are set right. To love kindness is not to let anything and everything go. To love kindness is to value the person above the rule; to aim for the new life that is possible rather than settle for the way things have always been. To walk humbly with your God is not to hide from every confrontation or keep quiet about your faith. To walk humbly is to give up control and stop thinking that any of us could come up with a perfect list of the fundamentals of anything meaningful.

1/29/17

Micah 6.1-8

6Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, 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! 4For 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. 5O 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? 7Will 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?” 8He 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?

The best and worst moment in a college class is on that first day when the professor hands out a syllabus that lists all the important dates and topics for the class. Not always, but quite often, the syllabus tell you every requirement you need to know in order to make your way through the semester. It’s the best moment because as soon as you have the syllabus in hand you know exactly what you need to worry about and how much work will be required to make it through. It’s the worst moment because in that instant, you know exactly what you need to worry about and how much work will be required to make it through.

There was a running joke that wasn’t really all that funny when I got to Duke. It was said that Church history 13 was a rite of passage for Duke Divinity school students – and they weren’t wrong. CH 13 is one of the first semester courses taken by every student in the program and it covers the time of Christ up to the Reformation. And on that first day we got the syllabus; sure enough, we knew exactly what we needed to worry about and how much work would be required. Within the syllabus were the exact prompts and due dates for papers and every question that might be asked on the final. No surprises. No changes. No doubt what was expected. Page after page after page of questions and essays to think through. And I’ve never been more nervous or studied harder for a class than that one.

In college, I had a very different experience with a professor by the name of Dr. Austin. He had a PhD in philosophy and taught several of the basic Philosophy courses at A&M where I got my undergrad degree. There was an online tool at the time where you could go and check out the historical grade distribution for each professor. His was something like 97% A’s. Frankly, I’m not sure what the other 3% could have done to not get an A. Every class had three papers required. And as long as you turned in all three by the time grades were due, I’m not sure he ever gave anything less than an A. I’ve never felt more relaxed or self assured than when I took a class with Dr. Austin.

Subject matter aside, if you had the choice, which kind of class would you take? The mountain of requirements in front of you from day one? Or a guaranteed A as long as you did just about anything? I doubt I need to hear your answer to know what most of you are thinking. Take the A. If you want the challenge with Dr. Austin, you can make yourself study harder, but if you get behind in CH 13 there is no hope.

The choice seems easy in theory; but people don’t actually work that way much of the time. In many ways the tension between these extremes is the same kind of tension we feel in how people ought to live faithfully. On the one side, you have the hard line, legalistic, Pharisee-like sticklers for every rule. The requirements are clear and laid out. Everyone knows. Everyone has to follow. And the mountain of rules and regulations seems and in fact is insurmountable for anyone trying to live up to the vast set of requirements.

On the other side, you have the laid back, take life as it comes, hedonistic anything goes hippies. The requirements are…..love?? Jesus got you. Don’t worry, be happy. It’s about Jesus more than you anyway and when the time comes to get the grade, there’s nothing you can do to separate yourself from the right side of the non existent line. Just submit anything, and forgiveness is yours.

The weird thing we find is that there are just as many if not more people who choose the more restrictive option. Fundamentalism is the name we give to the more extreme examples of the mentality. There are varieties of fundamentalism out there – the more obvious tend to come from religious traditions like evangelicalism. That form of religion makes a list, sometimes so explicit you can even find it in bullet points on a church website – these are the fundamentals we believe, and if you disagree you cannot be one of us.

It varies a bit, but in this kind of Christian fundamentalism, you’ll tend to find things like 6 day literal creation as the only valid belief, inerrancy and/or infallibility of scripture, women can’t lead men, Jesus is the only ticket out of eternal conscious torment of hell, probably a concrete statement on human sexuality, and any number of other things might make the list.

I suspect you’re familiar with that kind of fundamentalism, whether or not you agree with it. But there are plenty of other forms out there. Scientific fundamentals are rarely so overtly listed out, but it would include points like – if you can’t prove an idea empirically it’s not worth considering; God is not a valid consideration for any theory; what you believe is irrelevant to what is true; evidence, evidence, evidence! – and the list could go on.

I don’t have the time or energy to express all the dangers of the political fundamentalism we keep seeing in the news. Black or white; with us or against us; America or the world; every talking point is an either or proposition that you love or hate and there is no in between. Healthcare, immigration, sexuality, states vs nation vs globalism, trade, safety, regulation – on and on and on the list could go. Whether you celebrate or fear the movement, you cannot deny that almost every day this nation is becoming more and more entrenched in various kinds of fundamentalism.

It may seem strange, but people love it. Someone is out there adding page after page after page to the syllabus – if you’re with us, you have to believe this and this and this; our kind of people do and support these 3-5000 things. Are you with us or not? And people eat it up – even in spite of ourselves, we love to have that kind of clarity. People would rather accept requirements they hate than wander aimlessly without rules or expectations. It’s not a new problem either.

In the days of Jesus, it was the Pharisees who most clearly represented that sort of fundamentalist thinking. They were a particular party within Judaism that was all about the laws of Moses. The Pharisees named and tried to follow every conceivable law in the Old Testament. The absurd consequences of that desire can be shown in two very brief encounters in the gospel of Matthew. Both involve the concept of work on the Sabbath. If you remember back in Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth in 6 days and rested on the sabbath, the 7th day. Because God rested, the Israelites were commanded to also rest on the Sabbath day.

This was a sacred command to the Pharisees, and they would bring serious charges against any Jew that failed to meet their definition of rest. In one encounter, the disciples were hungry on the Sabbath. But to do so much as pick heads of grain was considered work. So when the disciples chose to eat rather than starve, the Pharisees pointed out their law breaking ways. That same day, Jesus went into the synagogue, their house of worship, and there he healed a man with a shriveled hand – awful! Terrible choice! Also work, also illegal on the Sabbath.

In each case, as in so many others, Jesus pointed out their hypocrisy and absurdity. The law was made to give life; not to take it away. But the choice to value law and order over any and every other consideration had taken the Pharisees completely off course. And yet, the Pharisees would not have made it into scripture were it not for the influence they had over the children of God. The choice to value a concrete, structured list of rules over all else is not a new thing.

Even further back, we find the same appeal of fundamentalism at play in our reading from the prophet Micah. Micah speaks first in the voice of the Lord and then offers the only appropriate response. On behalf of God, Micah complains to the Israelites – what have I done to you! How have I worn you out! All I did was save you from slavery in Egypt. I sent leaders to redeem you. I protected you all along the way. Why are you deserting me!

Micah offers the response – 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?

The whole system of sacrifice and offering was never the point of the law. And yet those black and white rules, the clarity of a system were so enticing that Israel time and again abandoned God in the process of embracing the fundamentals. In Micah, God is calling them out on it. I saved you, why do you go astray? God says. And the response – should I sacrifice again? Should I return to the letter of the law and give up thousands of rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil? NO! That’s the clear implication. God has told you what is good. Not legalistic fundamentally sound sacrifice. The lord requires of you to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. That’s it.

But to accept that simplicity wasn’t easy back then and it’s no easier now. People still love the challenge and the rules and the clarity of all kinds of fundamentalism. There’s something deeply and inherently human about wanting to define our identity in the terms of a larger community. No matter how self destructive or problematic that community might be, we long to take part in something clear and will overlook a multitude of sins if we get to be on the inside.

The failure of the global Christian church to embody the grace of God doesn’t come from a lack of effort or a rejection of the gospel. The failure comes from our inability to embrace and embody the more compelling story of love and redemption found throughout scripture and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. People don’t latch on to fundamentalism because it answers all their questions and fits perfectly – we latch on when there is not a safe place to be embraced just as we are and transformed into the people God desires that we become.

When the only alternative to a regimented, clear, strict CH 13 kind of life, is a free to be and do anything Dr. Austin kind of life – I can totally understand why someone would choose clarity and purpose over obscurity and aimlessness. But when it comes to a life of faith, these are not the only two choices. In reality, each is it’s own kind of mirror image fundamentalism.

The more compelling, more basic, more transformational story is the life of faith that God makes possible through Jesus Christ. Micah points us toward this reality fulfilled in Christ by sharing these few simple words – 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 Christ we see that to do justice is not to get what you deserve. To do justice is to give until it hurts and all things are set right. To love kindness is not to let anything and everything go. To love kindness is to value the person above the rule; to aim for the new life that is possible rather than settle for the way things have always been. To walk humbly with your God is not to hide from every confrontation or keep quiet about your faith. To walk humbly is to give up control and stop thinking that any of us could come up with a perfect list of the fundamentals of anything meaningful.

The new life made possible in Christ is our identity. It is the greater story in which we find our lives and our choices and our future. It is not us against the world, nor is it a refusal to pick sides. The story of Jesus Christ is us for the sake of the world. It is the invitation to take part in God’s mission to make justice, kindness, and humility permeate all creation. That is a story worthy of our lives. That is an identity worthy of the sacrifice; a life ready to make a difference. Do what is required of us. Submit to the love of God, and be ready to change the world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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