What Does God Want?February 3, 2002, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
What does God want? What is God's will for my life? How am I to be using God's gifts in my life, the gift of my life, the gift that I am from God to life, here and now in this time and place? What does God want?
Perhaps I should begin by asking if you think of yourself that way? Our fundamental frame of reference has a way of defining who we understand ourselves to be. Who are you? Just a biological entity who consumes, reproduces, wears out and dies? During the World Economic Forum, are you simply an economic unit, a consumer in an ever expanding economy? Are you a center of power designed to conquer or be conquered, control or be controlled in the history of the rise and fall of civilizations? Do you think of yourself as a creator of beauty, or a teller of truth? What is your fundamental frame of reference?
Scripture says you are a creature?mortal is how Micah names us?from whom God has unique expectations because of our unique identity. We have been made in God's image. We alone are God's stewards, God's co-creators, those fashioned for intimate, interpersonal relationship with God. That defines who we are and whose we are. That defines what we are for and what we can be when we live out of that relationship. Each of us is unique?not another in the world like us, even if we have a so-called identical twin?each of us is God's gift to the world in which we live. You are a gift to the time you are given, a gift to make a difference in the world for God's sake. Now listen to the question again; What does God want?
The question, "With what shall I come before the Lord?" as proverbial as it might be, begs the question, and reveals how long humans have been clueless about the implications and consequences of our unique relationship with God. The prophet quickly names, in ascending order, a list of those things Israel's neighbors brought into its worship centers in an attempt to appease God?everything from the precious commodities of oil and livestock in outlandish proportion, to the most precious and outlandish gift of all, one's firstborn child. The question on Micah's lips is rhetorical. The notion behind it so absurd he does not even reject the suggestions.1 Relationship with God is not established by trade or re-established by sacrifice. It is a given. There is nothing you and I can give to establish what God has already given. Here, writes Micah, is what God wants: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.2 This is what God wants to do with the gift of your life.
Do justice. But, what is justice? It's a pretty slippery word. Freud identified it as the first requisite of civilization.3 Fine, but what is it that makes civilization civil? Cicero said it consisted in doing injury to no man.4 Two thousand years later, a more modern vision of justice compels us to understand that translation to leave out half of the human race! Which is to say, the notion of justice can shift over time according to the shifting norms of those who are in power and who is being served by that power. It is what makes the Calvinist in me very suspect of the notion of just war, and this nation's notions that our motives are pure in the pursuit of our national agenda. My time in South East Asia taught me otherwise. We humans have the capacity to justify anything that serves our purposes, and believe those purposes just because our hearts are true. I am sure the leadership at Enron and Andersen Consultants had a rationale that justified their behavior. Justice, as has been observed, in the hands of the powerful is merely a governing system that can as easily and likely be called injustice.5 It was that kind of unjust justice in this country that led James Baldwin to write that if you wanted to know if justice exists in a place, do not ask the police, the lawyers, judges or any of the members of the protected middle class. Rather, go to those who are unprotected?"those, precisely, who need the law's protection most!?and listen to their testimony."6
Baldwin has grasped the biblical vision of justice God wants from us. Biblical justice has less to do with keeping laws correctly than to seeing that things are right for everyone, most especially those unable to assert that right for themselves. Biblical justice is about more than fairness and equality for everyone, for those words are as slippery as "justice." Biblical justice is about giving to and preserving for each person what is necessary to live and be God's unique gift to the world.
One other thing: we are not to love justice?that in most of us is simply the fear of suffering injustice,7? we are to do justice! This is the first thing God requires of each of us as God's gifts in this world.
We are to love kindness, in Hebrew the word is hesed. In the English language "kindness" means to do good, to be benevolent, indulgent, considerate, helpful, gracious, and humane.8 To love kindness, means to love living this way. Though one Biblical scholar has declared this translation "disastrously weak,"9 it occurs to me that our world would be a much better place if the restitution of kindness were more commonplace. Isn't that what we experienced among ourselves in this city in the immediate wake of September 11th? Suddenly, we were a kinder, gentler place, a bit more considerate, indulgent, gracious and helpful people, extraordinarily benevolent. In spite of the grit and determination, courage and loyalty that were being shown, especially by our public servants, this was a place we not only loved, but loved being. We took pride in how we as New Yorkers were treating one another; we loved it! The love of being kind is what God wants.
Yet, that scholar is correct, "kindness" only gets at one dimension of hesed. It has a much deeper, richer and more profound meaning than simply kindness. When hesed is used to describe God's attitude, relationship and behavior toward us it is translated "steadfast love," "covenant love," or "mercy," which is why older versions of this text render this phrase "to love mercy...." But the mercy of which this speaks is more than compassion or pity. Professor Katherine Sakenfeld has traced the etymology of this word to the quickening that takes place in a mother's womb when one of her children is in trouble. It is that bond between a mother and her child that cannot be severed, no matter how hard a child might try. When speaking of God it says that as a healthy mother cannot abandon her child, so God can never give us up.
This is what God has shown us and what is good?we are to give others what they need and to maintain this bond of commitment to and for them as a mother remains committed to her child?for this is precisely how God gives God's self to us and maintains the bond of divine commitment with us.
To recognize this is to walk humbly with God. Humble is a word pretty much out of fashion in our world, even more so than kindness, primarily because it has taken on the connotation of being a wimp, a door mat, or someone lacking self-worth. But how can someone who humbly walks with God knowing herself to be God's unique creation and special gift to the world for her time, ever sense herself lacking worth? How can one who knows himself to be placed here to do unique, restoring and saving work through his humble walk with God, ever think himself inconsequential? On the contrary, to recognize this is to rise to the measure of one's vocation and embrace one's value as God given. To walk humbly with God, means passing on to others what God has already given to you?justice and mercy. This is not a third expectation at all. It is simply the context out of which God's justice and mercy can emerge in the world in and through us.
What does God want? Our humble companionship was we walk out life's path. For without God's steadfast love and mercy at the center of our own lives we will manipulate justice and leverage mercy for our own ends and fail to be the gift in and to the world God has designed us to be. So, come, let us sit down at this table, to this covenant meal, to dine with the one who here gives us the gift of himself so that you and I can rise and go forth to be his gifts in and to the world on his behalf.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
- Gene M. Tucker, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year?A, (Philadelphia: Trinity International Press, 1992), p. 96
- Micah 6:8
- Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, ch. 3, 1930.
- Cicero, De Officiis, bk 1, ch. 28, sct. 99.b
- Georges Bernarnos, The Diary of a Country Priest, ch. 7, 1936.
- James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket, "No Name in the Street," 1972
- Francois, Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Sentences et Maximes Morales, no. 78 (1678).
- Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, (Barnes and Noble Books, 1996), p. 1056.
- Walter Brueggemann, et. al. Texts for Preaching, A Lectionary Commentary
Based on the NRSV?Year A, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox
Press, 1995), p. 120.
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