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Sunday, January 29, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Justice, Kindness, Humility

Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 15
Matthew 5:1–12
Micah 6:1–8

Micah 6:8 is a blow against any religion that is “so heavenly minded that it is no earthly good.” The love of God must be meshed with how we treat our human companions. We cannot isolate faith from ethics or politics.

Bruce D. Prewer

Sermons are sometimes described as having three points plus a poem. Well, today’s sermon will make three points and include a song! During the sermon, the choir will sing verses from a hymn based on Micah 6:8, the scripture lesson I just read. After the sermon all of us will sing this hymn. Let’s begin with the choir:

What does the Lord require of you?
What does the Lord require of you?

(Jim Strathdee, “What Does the Lord Require of You?” v. 1)

What does the Lord require of you? This is one of those big questions about life itself. The Bible poses several of them:

What must I do to inherit eternal life?
What must I do to be saved?
What is the key to abundant life?
What does the Lord require of you? What should you do? How can you be in right relationship with God?

The prophet Micah answers it succinctly. It could fit in a tweet: Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. The way to be in right relationship with God is to be in right relationship with our neighbors.

Let’s explore each part. First:

Do justice.

Walter Brueggemann wrote, “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them” (Walter Brueggemann, Sharon Parks, and Thomas H.Grooms, To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly, p. 3). Abraham Lincoln didn’t give freedom to the slaves; he returned to them the freedom of which they never should have been deprived. Great Britain in 1948 didn’t grant independence to India; it returned to India the independence that always belonged to them to enjoy. If the federal court stops the U.S. Army Corps from building a pipeline in North Dakota, it won’t be granting new rights to the Standing Rock and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribes. It will return to them what should never have been taken away—protection of their only water source, protection of their sacred sites and burial grounds, protection of their rights under the Clean Water Act, the National Historic Protection Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, and sovereignty over land that was theirs to begin with.

To do justice means to “be actively engaged in the redistribution of power in the world,” according to Brueggemann, “and to correct the systemic inequalities that marginalize some for the excessive enhancement of others.”

In compassion, Fourth Church provides food, warm clothing, and showers for persons who are homeless. Justice also calls us to address the systemic reasons for why there is the existence of a permanent underclass of people sick and unemployed.

In service, Chicago Lights tutors young people. Justice also requires us to work for equitable funding of public schools, regardless of income levels or race in their neighborhoods.

In mercy, we pray for victims of gun violence. Justice also demands that we enact legislation that bans civilians and police from possessing and using military assault weapons.

In obedience to the biblical mandate (Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:16–19), Fourth Church has provided sanctuary for those fleeing oppression. During World War II, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were forced into incarceration in internment camps, even though they had committed no crime and most were U.S. citizens. Regulations were also put in place that prohibited gatherings of Japanese Americans. That created hardship for a Japanese American congregation in Chicago. The pastor of Fourth Church at the time, Harrison Ray Anderson, and the Session, decided to literally provide that congregation sanctuary so they could worship in Stone Chapel on Sunday afternoons. Dr. Anderson often kept guard outside the chapel as they arrived for their services.

Last year Fourth Church sponsored and supported a Muslim refugee family from Syria. We were just gearing up to do so again this year, working with the agency RefugeeOne. Over the next three weeks, RefugeeOne had arranged with cosponsors to welcome to Chicago fifteen families, including fourteen children. Now, tragically, none of them can come, because the Trump administration on Friday banned from coming into the U.S. refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. For thousands fleeing their war-torn homelands, dreams and plans for a safe future have been shattered. Justice calls us to fight against government policies that increase suffering instead of ameliorate it.

Justice calls us to speak truth to power. In faith we are to resist regulations based on fear and falsehoods, which until recently were called lies. It is a lie that all Muslims are potential terrorists. The truth is that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are not extremists. It is a lie that terrorists are coming into this country as refugees. The truth is that since 9/11, the U.S. has established—already—the most rigorous and drawn-out process of vetting for immigrants and refugees in the world, a process that involves five different government agencies and usually takes two years. It is a lie that our security increases if we build a wall against Mexico and banish people as whole groups and nations. The truth is that this divides families, destabilizes international relations, hurts our economic interests, alienates allies in the Islamic world, and fuels reactions of extremists and their supporters. It is a lie that scapegoating, demonizing, and abusing power against people based on racism and religious discrimination is acceptable. The truth is this violates the values of our nation and is abhorrent in the eyes of God. Justice speaks truth to power.

As people of faith we are called to get involved in politics and economics, to intervene in the social order, just as our ancestors of faith did. The Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah engaged in civil disobedience when they refused to kill the newborn Hebrew boys as Pharaoh had commanded (Exodus 1:15). Moses confronted Pharaoh in his court, insisting on freedom for the Hebrew slaves. The prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah indicted people in power for coveting and seizing others’ land and homes and for doing violence against the poor. They protested against political leaders taking bribes and religious leaders selling out for money.

God judges nations by how they use their power and how well they treat their most vulnerable people. We Christians must live our faith in the arenas of ethics, economics, and politics. Those arenas are where we don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk. Do justice.

What does the Lord require of you?
What does the Lord require of you?

Justice, kindness,
walk humbly with your God.

(Jim Strathdee, “What Does the Lord Require of You?” v. 1-2)

Love kindness.

Some biblical translations say “love mercy” or “love tenderly.” Love kindness means more than be nice, though in the current season of meanness and intolerance, being nice is a blessing. To love kindness involves both affection and ethical love for our neighbor. We respond to God’s love by showing love to others.

Kindness may sound small. Kindness—showing concern and care for others—can often be expressed in small gestures of thoughtfulness and affirmation. Yet we all know there are times when being kind is not easy. Think of those moments, Eugene Bay invites us, when you are behind schedule and get interrupted. Or when another insults you or accuses you falsely. A spouse demonstrates some frailty or imperfection. A parent doesn’t fulfill a promise. A child disappoints. The preacher says something that offends (Eugene Bay, sermon, “What Does God Want?”16May 2004). Someone holds opposing values. Being kind is not always easy.

In his book Road to Character, David Brooks explores the life of Dorothy Day, a devout Catholic servant and activist for the poor. Dorothy Day fell in love with a man named Forster Batterham, but they never married. Forster lived for many years with another woman named Nanette. Thirty years after Forster left Dorothy Day, Nanette was struck with cancer. Forster called on Dorothy again, who ministered to Nanette as she died. While Forster was absent, for several months Dorothy spent much of each day with Nanette, who often cried out in pain. Brooks described Dorothy’s kindness:

Day did what sensitive people do when others are in trauma. . . . In the first place, they just show up. They provide a ministry of presence. Next, they don’t compare. The sensitive person understands that each person’s ordeal is unique and should not be compared to anyone else’s. Next they do the practical things—making lunch, dusting the room, washing the towels. Finally, they don’t try to minimize what’s going on. They don’t attempt to reassure with false, saccharine sentiments. They don’t say that the pain is all for the best. They don’t search for silver linings. They do what wise souls do in the presence of tragedy and trauma. They practice a passive activism. They don’t bustle about trying to solve something that cannot be solved. The sensitive person grants the sufferer the dignity of her own process. She lets the sufferer define the meaning of what is going on. She just sits simply through the nights of pain and darkness, being practical, human, simple, and direct. (David Brooks, Road to Character, pp. 100–101)

Love kindness.

What does the Lord require of you?
What does the Lord require of you?

Justice, kindness,
walk humbly with your God.

To seek justice and love kindness
and walk humbly with your God.

(Jim Strathdee, “What Does the Lord Require of You?” v. 1-3)

Walk humbly with your God.

To walk with God means to be God’s companion in the journey of life. Humility means knowing who you are and are not. You are not God. You are not in charge. You do not have all the answers. You probably don’t know what’s best for others. You cannot navigate life alone. You cannot make change by yourself. To walk humbly with God means allowing God to take the lead and allowing yourself to be a servant, dependent upon God and others for guidance, for strength, for community and forgiveness.

Humbly is how God has chosen to walk with us, in the person of Jesus Christ. In his time on earth Jesus stood tall but not by making others cringe. He had power but used it solely to empower others. He healed but with no strings attached. He competed with none, loved all, even when we were least lovable, even to the point of dying for us on the cross.

Walking humbly involves listening for and submitting to God’s voice wherever God may be heard. It involves listening to others, leaving space for them to influence and change us. Humility acknowledges that there is a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong.

David Brooks wrote,

The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature . . . that we are flawed creatures. [Many of us] have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence. . . . We resolve to do one thing but end up doing another. We know what is deep and important in life, but we still pursue the things that are shallow and vain. . . . We imagine that spiritual and moral needs can be solved through status and material things. . . .

We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin. . . .

In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos. Humility is the awareness that you are an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness. Humility is an awareness that your individual talents are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order. (Road to Character, pp. 262–263)

Years ago the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, Joan Konner, compared two autobiographies written by prominent journalists. One was by Al Neuharth, editor, publisher and owner of USA Today. The other was by John Johnson, founder and editor of Ebony magazine.

The two had much in common. Both were born into poverty; both lost their fathers at an early age; both were raised by strong, competent mothers; both established media empires; both became extraordinarily rich and successful. But that is where the similarities end. Among their differences were their philosophies of life. John Johnson, of Ebony magazine, said, “We’ve got to get back in America to seeing that being an adult requires a total commitment to the community and every child in it.” Al Neuharth said, “Life is a game. To enjoy life to the utmost you must play every game to win. Your won-lost record is the most important thing to measure how you have lived your life” (Mark Trotter, sermon,“An Antidote for Football,” 28 January 1990).

Well, Al Neuharth was wrong, according to what God desires. Life is not about measuring yourself and winning the most. God calls us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. We need to do all three. If we only seek justice without kindness and humility, we may merely express self-righteous anger toward others. If we only love kindness without justice or humility, our charitable acts may be condescending and disempowering. If we only walk humbly with God, we will fail to love our neighbors and work with them for justice. Each of God’s requirements is intertwined with the other two.

Shortly you will sing with the choir the hymn “What Does the Lord Require of You?” I invite you to sing either one or all the verses as a canon, intertwining our voices together. And I urge you boldly to intertwine these requirements in your life so you may be in right relationship with God and we may be in right relationship with one another. Amen.