5.29.11 Sermon: “Looking for the unknown God”

Text: Acts 17:22-33

As many of you know, I spent a year living in Scotland. Now Scotland isn’t all that different from the United States compared to many other countries, but there are some definite difference in culture. I experienced some culture shock when I first moved over there. First thing I noticed (which reveals a little something about me): I couldn’t get regular bacon! If I asked for bacon, I got something more like country ham. It was so sad! Second thing I discovered out was that if I happened to mention in the company of any British folks that I needed to change my pants, they would likely assume that meant that I had soiled my underwear rather than understanding me to mean that I wanted to change into a different pair of jeans. Let’s just say that moment of discovery was embarrassing. Then of course there were the other differences in vocabulary and slang. We all spoke English, but we weren’t always speaking the same language! If someone said, let’s go get some tatties they were not talking about tattoos but about eating potatoes. If someone mentioned a kirk, they weren’t talking about Star Trek, they were talking about the church. If, in a conversation, someone said to me, “yer ma!”, they were not, in fact, making a comment about my mother, but telling me that they couldn’t believe what I was saying. Not only was vocabulary different, but there were different social cues and expectations, different ettiquette. There were other things that were different as well, like traffic patterns. They drive on the opposite side of the road and the driver’s side of the car is on the right side. I only tried driving over there a couple of times and then decided that was enough if I wanted to, you know, not wreck. Towns were more defined and lacked the suburban sprawl that we live in. It was very apparent when you reached the edge of the town. The largest grocery store in St. Andrews was about the size of Fas Check, and offered a much slimmer variety than our grocery stores. Coming back home I had to get used to everything super-sized again from Wal-mart, to restaurant meals, to cars. I had to get used to having to drive everywhere again, rather than being able to walk, ride my bike, or take the train.

Needless to say, I underwent something of a culture shock when I moved to Scotland, but also when I moved back home. I had to learn how to understand and navigate in a culture different from the one that I was accustomed to, and today’s story in Acts that follows Paul’s work in Athens underscores this idea. Paul was in the midst of his second missionary journey when he went to Athens, and when he was there, he was likely experiencing a bit of culture shock. Athens was much more cosmopolitan than his home, and it was also a center for religious worship and philosophy. I can only imagine what Paul was thinking as he walked around Athens, as he saw the Parthenon up on the Acropolis, all of the temples, and all of the buildings of learning and philosophy. Athens is often called the seat of Western Civilization. It was here that the great philosophers of Socrates and Aristotle established their schools of learning, it was here that the roots of democracy was born. There really was no place quite like Athens in the ancient world, and even though its prominence had lessened some by the time Paul got there, Athens was still a fairly central city in the ancient world. Paul may have been used to the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem, but nothing could have prepared him for Athens. So I imagine that as Paul looked around this city that he had just arrived in that he might have felt a little uncomfortable, a little out of place, a little unsure of everything and everyone that he was seeing.

Have you ever been somewhere where you felt a little out of place? A little unsure of the people there? Wondering how you can talk to people? Many of you who may have grown up in and lived most of your life in the church can feel this sort of discomfort and uncertainty with people who are not a part of the church. You might feel unsure about how to talk or interact with people, especially about the Gospel. For some of you, spending time with people outside of the church might make you feel just as uncomfortable or as uncertain as Paul probably felt when he went to Athens the first time. But Paul was an astute learner and reader of culture, and he wasn’t afraid to engage a culture that was different than his own. Paul wasn’t afraid of this new situation, and he also didn’t try to speak the language and vocabulary of his own culture, knowing that he first needed to find a point of connection with the culture of Athens.

So what did Paul do when he got to Athens? First he went to the synagogue to preach, like he was in the habit of doing. It was a more familiar place, and a place where he could speak using words and terms that he was used to. Paul was a Jew and he knew Jewish customs, practices, and beliefs. There was much less of a cultural barrier at the synagogue. However, soon Paul actually caught the ear of some of the philosophers of Athens who were intrigued by what he had to say on an intellectual and philosophical level, so they invited him to come to the Areopagus to speak and debate with them.

How Paul responds here shows us how he is a good student of culture. He goes to the Areopagus, and as he looks around and sees all of the religious monuments and altars, rather than speaking the language of condemnation and judgment, he looks instead for a point of connection, a way that he can begin to build a platform of good will from the Athenians in order to share the good news. As Paul goes to the Areopagus, he notices one altar in particular: the altar to the unknown god. This altar was present because the Athenians worshipped many gods, and the created this altar to make sure that they weren’t missing anyone. They were trying to cover all of their bases. So as Paul notices this altar and he also notices the importance of religion in Athens, he begins his speech at the Areopagus in this way: ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Paul, even though he is rightly disturbed by the worship of many false gods, recognizes the opportunity to appeal to the religious and philosophical culture of Athens. He recognizes where God may already be working, and he speaks in a way that already makes sense to the Athenians. Paul can see that the Athenians are already in tuned to the worship and reverence of what they consider to be sacred. While it may be the wrong thing, at least Paul sees that they are at least trying to be on the right track. Knowing this, Paul appeals to these questions of spirituality and he looks for the good that is already there and attempts to build upon it. As he sees the altar to the unknown God, he knows that this is the place to communicate. He has come to tell them about this unknown God that is already recognized, but unknown by the Athenians. Paul has come to help them understand who this unknown God is.

We live in a time and a place that is, in some ways, similar to Athens. Here, in America, while we may not be surrounded by literal altars to multiple gods, but there are two observations that I would make about the larger, dominant culture of America. First: we do have many gods or idols: money, fame, country, youth, beauty, sex, . Second, regardless of what we once may have been, we are not a Christian nation now, but spirituality is still something that many are very open to and seek in less conventional ways. In fact, I want to say a little bit more about this second observation, of people willing to define themselves as spiritual, but not religious. The word “religion” for many has come to be equated not with God, but with institutionalized organizations of faith, like the church. For many, God is not the issue, but the people who claim God through the church. Today, there are many people who are setting up altars to an unknown God. Let me cite a couple of pop culture references:

First, George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. He said this in an interview in Time Magazine: “I put the Force in the movie (Star Wars) in order to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people—more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, ‘Is there a God or is there not a God?’—this is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, ‘I’m looking. I’m very curious about this and am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can’t find an answer then I’ll die trying.’ I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have a faith.”

Second, I want to mention Oprah. She is the most recognized spiritual leader of the 21st century in America. (You might questions this, but the reality is, the city of New York asked her to lead the prayer service after 9/11) Oprah Winfrey has said that Jesus can’t possibly be the only way to the truth. When audience members expressed their convictions in Christ, Oprah said that she couldn’t get into a religious argument.

These are just two examples of a culture that affirms “spirituality”, but is wary of “religion.” These are two examples of a culture that is seeking something akin to the Athenians who put up an altar to the unknown god.

Before we give in to the temptation to say “these people just don’t get it”, a more important thing to do is to ask the question: if there are many people in this country on a quest for spiritual fulfillment, why doesn’t anyone seem to want to include the church? Why would George Lucas want to encourage young people to have a faith in God, but not be a part of a religious system? Why would Oprah be considered a spiritual leader to many but not want to talk about religion? Why is there an increasing interest in spirituality but a decline in mainstream church attendance and membership?

I think the biggest answer to these questions is that the church is not viewed as a place of mystery or as a place where one can ask questions and seek truth. Instead, it is often viewed as a stodgy, judgmental, and exclusive institution. And why is this the case? Well, for starters, sometimes the church does actually behave like a stodgy, judgmental, and exclusive institution. But not always. Many churches, including ours, are full of well-intentioned people who seek after God and want others to do the same. So we now come full-circle back to the question of culture and how we engage (or more often, dis-engage) in the world around us. As the church, we so often isolate ourselves from the world. We want to seclude ourselves in order to protect ourselves from false idols, from sin and temptation. The problem is, in doing so, we neglect the great commission, and we end up only paying lip service to wanting to see God’s salvation play out in our communities.

This past Tuesday at Adventures in Missing the Point, which is the new group for young adults to have conversation and study, we talked some about how many Christians seem to be afraid of the world. Brian McLaren wrote in the chapter we read this week, “We want to protect folks from alcoholism and drunkenness, so we tell them not to drink any alcoholic beverage. To protect them from alcohol, we recommend they avoid establishments that serve it. To be on the safe side, we tell them to avoid people who drink alcohol… and to avoid excessive laughter as you’d hear from tipsy people…and in fact to avoid parties in general except boring ones. We want to protect folks from following the crowd and succumbing to peer pressure, so we imply or outright assert that good Christians don’t go to R-rated movies, don’t listen to rap music, or any popular music at all. We discourage them from making non-Christian friends. We approve of them spending all their time in church services, church meetings, church activities—safe rabbit holes, a protective Christian ghetto. We want to protect folks from losing their faith, so we warn them against reading philosophy, from participating in culture and the arts, from dealing with tough questions and controversial issues.” Don’t mishear what I am saying, thinking, “Cindy told me that it was ok to go get drunk!” Or “Cindy told me it doesn’t matter if I listen to music that talks about sex and violence.” That is not what I am saying at all. What I am saying is that we, as the church, have become so afraid of becoming like the world that we simply retreat from it. We isolate ourselves and pronounce judgment on those outside of the church. No wonder many people do not want to include the church in their quest for spiritual fulfillment!

But what if, for instance, some of us chose to go hang out in bars? Not because we want to get drunk, but because we just hang out with and get to know the people who are already there? Personally speaking, I have had some of the best conversations about God hanging out with people in bars. Why? Because it is one of the few natural social settings where it is accepted and expected that you talk with people you might have only just met, and it is a natural place to hang out with friends. I can’t help but imagine that if Jesus were here today, we would frequently find him hanging out in bars just talking with people.

My question today is, why are we so afraid of the world sometimes? Why do we retreat to our Christian ghetto, as Brian McLaren calls it? I think for many of us, we can just feel a little lost and confused if we get too far outside of our comfort zone, out of the church culture that most of us have known for most of our lives. But today, we need to take a lesson from Paul in Athens. Paul didn’t stay where he was comfortable, or where he felt safe.

How many of you have close friends who are not Christian? How many of you spend time and build relationships regularly with people outside of the church? If you already do this, this is great. But if you only see other Christian friends and stay away from places where people outside of the church are, then you are falling short of the Great Commission. I’m not saying that we, as Christians need to become like the world. In fact, as Christians, we are supposed to stand out. We are supposed to be different. But that doesn’t mean we are supposed to avoid the world. Jesus tells us that we are to be in the world, but not of the world. As Brian McLaren points out, “There are of course, two ways that we can go wrong. Living within our culture as we do, we can accommodate it, be infected with it’s evil, forget our unique identity, and thus become of it as well as in it. That’s obviously tragic. Or we can slide into the opposite and more subtle tragedy: we isolate ourselves. Rather than being servants in our culture, doctors healing sickness, seekers after lost sheep, coins, and sons, we instead become an elitist clique, angry critics, snobs standing above culture, a frightened minority cringing outside of it.” We don’t want to do either of those things. Instead, Jesus wants us to remember our identity as Christians, but also our mission to the world, and he wants us to join him in entering the world to celebrate everything that is good, and to work to transform everything that is not. We can’t do that if we keep ourselves isolated, if we fail to become students of culture.

So how do we follow the command of Jesus and the example of Paul as he engaged the Athenians at the Areopagus? How do we navigate a culture that might be a little different and frightening? How do we deal with the culture shock? There are a couple of ways that we can stay on track. First, we need to live missionally. We need to stay focused on Jesus’ Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations. We need to see every place in our community as the mission field and as a place where people can encounter God. Second, we need to live in community with our brothers and sisters in Christ as we encourage one another on. We also need to ask ourselves the question, am I setting a bad example to them either by my isolation from or conformity to the world? Am I listening to their warnings when I get closer to danger? Third, we need to live without judgment. Is it possible for us to believe the best about others without getting preachy or inquisitory? Can we learn to engage others based upon our common ground and look for the places where God is already working? And finally, we need to live carefully. Sin can be tricky. We need to be aware of our own weaknesses. If you struggle with alcohol, a bar is clearly not a good place to hang out.

As Christians, we walk a path that Jesus said is narrow. When he said this, he was not legitimizing narrow-mindedness: the reality is quite the opposite. To take one more image from Brian McLaren, “If we try to avoid the rattlesnake that is beside the path on the left, we’d better be careful not to edge too far over to the right either, because there’s a crocodile in the bushes there.” Narrow minds can only see dangers on one side of the narrow path. Broad minds can see both. There are people out there who looking for spiritual fulfillment. Let us be like Paul, people who are not afraid leave the comfort of our own familiar Christian culture to proclaim the truth of the unknown God.

4.10.11 Sermon: “Out of the Tomb”

Text: John 11:33-44

When Darick and I went on our honeymoon back in February, we drove up much of the northeast and part of our time was spent on the road in New Jersey. I don’t know if you have ever been to New Jersey, but they have a law that all of their gas stations must be full-service stations. When we had to stop for gas, all we had to do was pull into the station, roll down our window and let the gas station attendant take care of the rest. Then we would roll up the window and be on our merry way. We didn’t even have to get out of the car. Full service operation!

Tonight I am talking about the sin of sloth, or what we might call apathy, and we are going to focus in on spiritual apathy, the great immobilizer of the church. We have become conditioned to view the church and its worship gatherings as something akin to the full-service gas station. We just roll in, stay and our seats and wait to be filled up with whatever: with music, preaching, programs. We, in a sense, come expecting to be serviced. We wait to be filled up by these things, often expecting others to do them: we expect the band to fill us up with good music, the preacher to fill us up with the word of God. We expect to come away from worship with our spiritual needs met. If we do come away from worship with those spiritual needs met, then that is great. But that is not why we are here. A worship service is not about each of us being served, and if we come with the expectation that this worship service is for us, then we are following down the road that leads to spiritual death.

How many of you have ever broken a bone or injured yourself in a way that prevents you from using the muscles in that particular limb? What did you find after you had the cast or brace removed? What did you have to do?

When I was in high school, I dislocated my knee. Sadly, I don’t even have a good story of how I dislocated it. All I did was get out of my car and my knee somehow managed to pop out of joint. I had to wear an immobilizer on my leg for a while as my knee healed, and then when I had to go through physical therapy to get my knee back up to strength again. When you have a cast on your arm or leg and you can’t use the muscles for an extended period, they get weak. They lose muscle mass. They atrophy.

When we come here, expecting to have our needs met met by others, seeing a worship service as being about us, then we, in a sense, are letting our spiritual muscles atrophy, leading us to become immobilized. When this happens, we also become increasingly self-absorbed in what we want so that we can’t even really see that we have become apathetic to God’s call on our lives. Have you ever had a time where you have actually slept too much? I know that I have. And when I sleep too long, I don’t feel alive or invigorated. Instead I just feel like I want to sleep even more. We are reaching a point in the church where we have been sleeping too long. We have come, in large part, to see the church as being about us. Its our place, where we worship God. Sure, in part, the church is a gathering of the people of God in worship. But truly I tell you, the Church with a capital “C” is the body of Christ, broken and redeemed for the world. The church is not here just for the benefit of Christians. It is for the benefit of everyone. I challenge you with this question: how is Jesus Christ good news not just for those who will come to faith in Christ, but for those who may never believe? How can the church be an instrument of good news to all people, regardless of where they are now in their lives or where they may be down the road?

But that question makes things much more difficult and it challenges the church’s sin of apathy. We can no longer just sit on our butts in worship and hope other people show up. We all actually have to get up and do something. Not just pastors, not just the current leaders of the church. In fact, I would say pastors, myself included, have done a great disservice to the church by thinking that we need to have our hands in every project and program a church does. We have done a great disservice in letting people believe that we just need more or better programs to be a better church. We have done a great disservice in not empowering more people in our congregations to lead in worship and to lead in ministry. All of this lends itself to the idea that the church is a place of goods and services that we just come to consume instead of understanding it as a group of people, united in service to the world in the name of and for the sake of Jesus Christ. But now is the time for all of that to change!

Today, we hear the story of Lazarus, dearly loved by Jesus, who has died of an illness. His sisters have laid him to rest in the tomb, as they grieve over his loss. Lazarus has been in there for four days, and his decaying body is really starting to smell the place up. Then Jesus shows up and calls Lazarus forth out of the tomb.

I want to imagine this story now as if Lazarus represents the church. The church, dearly loved by Jesus has been ill for a long time with the disease of spiritual apathy. For many years its muscles have been atrophying as it has been getting weaker and weaker. Finally the church is just so sick and feeble and weak that it dies. The church building has become a tomb, trapped within itself, trapped within its own walls. As the lifeless corpse of the church stays inside the building, things really start to smell. They really start to stink. But then one day, Jesus comes and he weeps that his dearly beloved church has died and is stuck within the tomb of its walls. He knows of the wasting disease that crippled and finally killed the church, and he decides that it is time to call the church forth, out of its tomb so that all can see the glory of God. So Jesus goes up to the church, laying lifeless, stuck inside of its walls and he shouts “People of God! Get up! Get out! You are alive! Get out of your tomb!” So come with me now. It’s time for us to get out of our tomb.

::At this point in the message, we all got up out of our seats and went outside by the wooden cross on the lawn in front of the Grosscup Ave. building::

We are so fortunate to have these buildings that we have. We are so fortunate to come together and worship each week. We are so fortunate to have a church home. But if we think that the church is here for us, then we are missing the point. If we are a part of the church to be served, to be filled up, then we are missing the point. The son of God came not to be served, but to serve. Sometimes, in our worship services, and in the life of our congregation, it is really easy for us to get stuck in the tomb. It is really easy to think that the church is here to serve us. But look around you now. Look at Dunbar. This is what the church exists for. We are the church, and the church exists for the sake of the world, not our own sakes! Each of us here has been created with a purpose: to love God and to love our neighbor. This is our neighborhood. We can’t serve our neighbors if we never leave our house. This is not just a job for pastors. This is not just a job for church musicians. This is the responsibility of all Christians.

When Jesus went around preaching, his most common preaching was that “the kingdom of God has come among you! It has come near to you!” How are we proclaiming this good news? How are we a living church for the sake of the world? We may have a building where we gather for worship, but we need to live like a church without a building. We need to get up and wake up to the world around us. We need to look with fresh eyes at the people we meet on a daily basis. We are standing with the cross here in front of us, with houses as the backdrop. This cross needs to become the lens through which we view the whole world. We need to view Dunbar through the lens of this cross.

It’s easy for us to sit in our seats at church and participate in programs that fill us up, but if we are looking only to fill ourselves, then we, as a church, will die from spiritual atrophy and apathy because we will only be focused inwards. We will die, no questions asked. We will die and we will be buried in the tomb of our own walls.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the church to die. I don’t want it to just merely survive either. I want the people of God to live and be a blessing to its communities. I want the church to live and be a bearer of good news to those who may one day believe and to those who might never believe, but one thing is for sure. We must start thinking beyond ourselves and beyond our walls if we want this to happen. Over the coming weeks and months, lets ask God continually to open our eyes our ears and our hearts so that we can hear him as he calls us up out of the tomb and into our community.

1.30.11 Sermon: “The Kingdom Dream”

Texts: Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12

I have recently gotten into the TV show Mad Men. This is a current drama set in the early 1960′s in Manhattan and is based around the life of a man working for a prominent advertising agency. Don Draper lives in a high-powered world where he is always forging a way ahead in business. He seeks after wealth and influence and fulfillment of lust. At the same time, the series paints him as the ultimate success story of realizing the American dream. He has pulled himself out of his poor and shady past to rise to prominence and influence. Don Draper has also gotten a beautiful wife, a nice house in the suburbs, and two kids. But Mad Men also captures the darker side of Don Draper’s “success.” One day, Don Draper’s younger brother reappears in his life. Don has done absolutely everything that he can to leave his poor and shady past behind and will go to all costs to keep it that way. He wants absolutely nothing to do with his little brother, fearing that his reappearance in his life will drag Don down and destroy the life that he has created for himself. When Don is confronted with his brother for the first time, the first words out of Don’s mouth are, “What do you want?” as if his little brother would want nothing more than money or power (since that is what Don himself wants in life). His little brother is taken aback by Don’s question and replies, “I just wanted to see my brother.” All he wanted was a relationship with the brother that he had lost for years. But Don refuses. Instead of welcoming his little brother into his life, or even begrudgingly allowing for his existence, he gets together $3,000, which would be more like $50,000 dollars today, gives it to his brother and tells him to stay out of his life forever. Here’s a spoiler alert: the little brother is dumbfounded and extremely hurt by this response and he kills himself. In this drama, we see a darker side to success, to wealth, to power, and it asks significant questions: To what extent are we willing to go to for these things? What does it cost us to preserve these things once they are “attained”? How much are we willing to do to get what we want? Mad Men paints a picture of the American dream, but it doesn’t sugar-coat it. Today we are going to explore a picture of an alternate dream, and the Scripture doesn’t sugar-coat it either.

What is this alternate dream that Scripture paints for us? Today we heard three different passages from Micah, 1 Corinthians, and Matthew and each of them help us to see not the American dream, but what I would call the “Kingdom dream.” Today, we’ll be looking primarily at the Old Testament passage from Micah. The verses from the prophet Micah provides the framework for us to explore the nature of this kingdom dream. Micah was one of the twelve minor prophets in the Old Testament: pretty much, he was a short-winded prophet. His book is only seven chapters long. Micah was preaching at what I would call at the end of the good times and just before his nation fell apart. There had been years of peace and prosperity. During times of prolonged prosperity and peace, people often forget to worship God, and instead begin to worship the things that peace and prosperity might bring about. In Micah’s day, people were getting caught up in keeping up religion for show or duty, but forgetting the heart of what God wanted of them. When Micah preached, it was just before the end of the good times, just before the fall of Israel and Judah. In today’s lesson from Micah, he is playing the role of accuser before Israel, putting them on trial before God for forgetting what God really wants (and not only wants, but requires) from his people. Listen to v. 6-8 again: “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?” Micah is accusing Israel before God of forgetting the most basic things that God commands: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Today, these three things will provide us the framework for the kingdom dream.

The first of the requirements is to do justice. What is justice? The word, mishpat, means judgment. It means God’s wisdom, God’s law, God’s justice…that there would be fairness, fair play and equity within the human family. Justice, in God’s world, is not penalty-based. It is not retributive. It is ultimately and fundamentally restorative. God created human beings and all of creation to be in harmonious relationship with him and with one another. God’s justice is delivered so that this restoration can be made possible.

In our country, we often hear the phrase, justice is blind. That is the ideal (even if not reality) for our own justice system. It is intended that everyone be judged fairly and equally, regardless of who they are, without taking sides. Justice being blind. That sounds like a nice idea. But throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we find that God does take sides. Who does God champion? God consistently chooses to side with the poor, the widow, the orphan. God consistently opts to seek justice for those who are on the margins of society. We call this God’s preferential option for the poor. Does this mean that God does not care about the rich? No, of course it doesn’t. God cares for all of his creatures. But God knows that there are inequalities in the world, which are often at the hands of the rich and powerful, whether they are the ones actively and intentionally inflicting injustice upon those without the power, or if they are simply the ones who allow the current structures to remain in place by not advocating on behalf of those who are vulnerable. What God desires is restoration for all people: for both those who are oppressed, and those who do the oppressing.

Do justice. What does it mean that God requires us to do justice? God calls us to side with those God sides with, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to work towards restoring a right relationship between all of God’s people. Sometimes this means speaking up when we see an injustice taking place. Sometimes it means helping someone who is down and out find a job. Sometimes it is empowering someone through the gift of validation and worth. Sometimes it means lobbying for laws to be passed that look to the interests of the marginalized. Sometimes it means becoming aware of how our own wealth or power might be negatively affecting others and being willing to change our own behaviors to correct this. There is no formula for what it means to do justice, and no simple fixes. If justice is about restoration, it often takes complex solutions and a lengthy search for the best course of action. It is not always easy, but it is what God calls us to do if we say that we are his people.

Many of you know that the Bible contains an overarching story that contains a few basic plot points: God creates the world, human beings rebel, God chooses the people of Israel and makes a covenant with them, the people stick to the covenant for a while, people turn away, God pronounces punishment, then God offers grace. Perhaps you also know that in most cases where the people turn away and God pronounces judgment, it is due to the people worshiping false idols. What you may not realize is that almost always a failure to seek justice on behalf of the oppressed is the other accusation paired with worshiping false idols. When we forget who God is, we also forget who our neighbors are. When we forget the restorative justice that God offers to each of us, we forget about seeking justice for those around us. This seeking after justice is the first characteristic of the kingdom dream.

The second characteristic of the kingdom dream is to love kindness, or as some Bible translations put it, to love mercy. Again, like the concept of justice, this takes on a social dimension. Certainly, it can be understood on an individual level, but the sort of mercy that Micah is talking about again is mercy to those who are vulnerable and in greater need. In the Law in the Old Testament, there were specific laws given to the Israelites from God that would help them demonstrate mercy to those who needed it. Two such examples are the Sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee. The Sabbatical Year had to do with agricultural practices. The early Israelite community was an agrarian community. People planted crops and tended animals. They were farmers as most people were then. God gave a law that said every seventh year, they had to let the land rest. This was in part to help the land stay healthy, and today we have practices like crop rotation that do the same thing. But there was more to it than that. In that seventh year, as the land lay resting, orphans, widows, foreigners, and others who were unable to provide for themselves were to be allowed to glean leftover crops from the resting land. Farmers were not to over-harvest their land so that there would be produce that the poor could glean. This was one example of an act of mercy on the social level. During this same year, there would also be a release of all debts that were owed to prevent those who were already struggling financially from going from bad to worse. Now if that is not a merciful act, then I don’t know what is! Can you even imagine what something like that would look like today? I know that I can’t even fathom it!.The other example that I mentioned was the Year of Jubilee. The Year of Jubilee was to occur every fiftieth year, and in this year, all landholdings were to be restored to the original owners. Say a family who was in a bind decided to sell their land to a wealthier neighbor. While this wealthier neighbor would own the land for a time, upon the Year of Jubilee, the ownership of the land would revert to the original family. This helped to maintain a relatively balanced social and class structure. So much poverty today is generational. It is inherited. The Year of Jubilee sought to prevent that sort of thing from happening. This law too, was a law demonstrating mercy. These things sound foreign to our ears, but these are examples of what Micah was talking about when he said that God requires his people to love kindness. God’s people are to seek out ways of demonstrating mercy. We need to begin to imagine ways of demonstrating this kind of mercy in today’s world.

The third characteristic of the kingdom dream is to walk humbly with God. There are two main points from this phrase: we walk first, with humility, and second, with God. In fact, we cannot walk with God unless it is with humility. But let’s look first at the characteristic of humility. A word that is similar to humility is humiliation. Everyone here has probably had a moment in life where they felt totally humiliated. Where they have felt very lowly, where they have wanted to just disappear our of embarrassment. While humility does not take on the connotation of embarrassment, it does take on the quality of lowliness. This does not mean that humility means a self-deprecatory attitude or a low sense of self-worth. All that kind of attitude is is sort of an inverted version of the sin of pride. Instead, the lowliness of humility means a refusal to think of ourselves more highly than we should. It means we are not self-congratulatory. It means we don’t outwardly demonstrate a sense of self-entitlement or inwardly think that we are superior are more deserving than anyone else. God himself exhibits humility, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds us in Philippians 2, Christ, though he was God, did not hold onto that power or consider it something to be exploited. Instead, he humbled himself to become a human being, and not just any human being: a poor, homeless man on the fringe of the powerful Roman empire, who wandered the countryside, and came to face death, even death on a cross. If we look at Christ’s life, we see the humility of God. And if we are to walk with God, we must follow in those same footsteps. So let’s recap: the three characteristics of the kingdom dream, in contrast with the American dream, are to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. This is no small calling, and it is what God requires of us.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear one of the most famous passages of the New Testament: the beatitudes, which make for a hard-hitting start to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Listen to them again: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” These are the words of Jesus himself, the one who exemplified justice, mercy, and humility. We could spend weeks looking at the beatitudes (and we will be looking at them in more detail tonight at The Well worship service if you want more), but they can be summed up in this way: the kingdom of God does not look like the kingdoms of this world. Or to keep continuity with what I have been saying today, the kingdom dream does not look like the American dream. In the kingdom dream, it is those who are weak, vulnerable, lowly, and those who extend hands in compassion towards those who are weak, vulnerable, and lowly who find themselves at the “top.”

So what does this all mean for us today? I have been talking rather abstractly about the concepts of justice, mercy, and humbly walking with God but I haven’t really talked much about us here. What impact does today’s message from the prophet Micah and from Jesus mean for our congregation? What it means is that we need to take a good, hard, look at ourselves as individuals and as a congregation and ask ourselves which dream we are struggling to achieve. It means we need to assess our priorities and compare them to the priorities that God has placed before us in Micah 6:8. It means that we need to look for better ways of pursuing justice and mercy in our community. It means that we need to be walking daily with God so we can be cultivating true humility in our lives rather than false senses of modesty. So I ask you now, which dream are you striving for today?