Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Sermon: “God Requires”, Micah 6:3-8/1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (January 20, 2019)

(Second of four in a series of sermons during Stewardship Season)

Some of you may have noticed that the last two sermons I preached were described in the bulletin as part of a sermon series. If you’re particularly astute, you may have also observed that this one is, too. You may have thought that, at first glance, none of these sermons seem to be connected to each other in any clear way, aside from being about God (which is generally understood to be a baseline requirement of a sermon). You’re not entirely wrong; part of this is practical: I certainly don’t want anyone to show up to church for the first time in a month and feel like they’ve missed a significant piece of a puzzle that I’ve been carefully constructing for weeks. But it’s also because I’ve been trying to set up a progression of ideas (you can let me know later whether or not I’ve been remotely successful). First, I preached about how God speaks to us in all sorts of different ways and how we need to get better at listening to what we might be called to. Then, I preached about how God has claimed us, and how this claim leaves us with a choice about how to respond to it. Now this week is where the rubber finally hits the road: today, we’re going to hear about God’s requirements for us as God’s children. In other words, if we believe that God has a claim on our lives and are genuinely listening for God’s voice, then we’ll inevitably find that we have some obligations we need to fulfill. This week, it’s time for us to nail down exactly what those obligations are.

As I reflected on how best to explore this topic this week, I decided to find out what the Church has to say about requirements by taking a little stroll through our Book of Confessions. As a reminder, the Book of Confessions is a historical document that compiles faith statements written at different points in our denomination’s history, from the time of the Apostles to the present. The idea is that, as a people who believe in community discernment, there’s wisdom to be found in the ways our predecessors understood God and the Church. Because our community has shifted, split, merged, and grown over the centuries, it’s not necessarily a cohesive document—there are plenty of conflicts and disagreements among the 12 different confessions currently included. But that’s okay; part of faith is holding important ideas in tension and finding the truth that dwells within the tension.

Given this reality, I was prepared to find a few different versions of what counts as a requirement for God’s people. What I was NOT prepared for was 117 unique instances of the word “require” in one form or another throughout the book. In case you were wondering what sort of things the Book of Confessions says are required of us, here’s an incomplete list: obedience to God’s law, prayer, thankfulness, the ten commandments, adoration and worship of God, spiritual regeneration, faith, study, visiting the sick, service, obedience, self-examination, repentance, unity in confession and mission, guarding the keys to the kingdom of heaven, a decent meeting place, and, of course…reformation. In short, there are so many requirements that even the most obedient of Christians can’t possibly hope to fulfill all of their duties—at least, that’s what the Westminster Confession says.[1]

Of course, this is THE CHURCH’S interpretation of what’s required of us, not God’s. God knows that if the historical Church is good at one thing, it’s setting burdensome obligations on the people who just want to follow Jesus. You may have noticed that the list of requirements that I read sounded an awful lot like a “to do” list full of nitpicky, specific tasks; we’d need a dayplanner just to fit them all into our schedule. To be fair, our Church forebearers probably meant this list as a mercy: they wanted to make sure that we aren’t neglecting our faith, and that we fully understand how much we owe to God. And in that respect, they’re right—we owe God A LOT.

Does God DESERVE every ounce of our energy, time, and focus? Does God DESERVE a miles-long list of actions demonstrating our devotion? Of course. Scripture recounts for us, again and again, all the wonderful, miraculous, and redemptive things that God has done for us. Micah in particular recalls the Hebrew people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt and reminds them—and us—of the faithful leaders that God has sent and the salvation that God offers. And yet, in spite of all that God has done for us, Micah insists that God doesn’t want excessive offerings, with exorbitant amounts of attention and riches and sacrifices going to a God who, frankly, deserves but doesn’t need it. No, God doesn’t want proof of our righteousness. What God wants—what God requires—is simple, but priceless: for us to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

God isn’t a micromanaging taskmaster who wants an itemized account of our daily schedule to make sure that we’re performing our duties adequately. God doesn’t want busywork for the sake of proving our worth or love. Every requirement that God places upon us is for the purpose of making the world better and bringing about God’s Kingdom. And although that’s a pretty tall order, it doesn’t require a miles-long laundry list of specific tasks to accomplish it.

In some ways, this is a relief; in others, it’s a bit terrifying. It’s definitely helpful to have a list of requirements that’s short enough to remember off the top of your head. It’s also important to know definitively what’s expect of us so that we know we’re on the same page with God. But on the other hand, this is…a pretty tall order, to say the least. Justice, goodness, and humility aren’t necessarily virtues that are known to come naturally to humanity. And yet, it’s what God requires, so we’ve got to figure it out somehow.

But I believe that there’s good news about these requirements, in contrast to the Westminster Confession’s assertion that we’re flat out of luck. As intimidating as the task might seem, we’re not approaching it with an empty toolbox. God has perfectly equipped the body of Christ to do exactly what’s required of us. The Holy Spirit has given us every gift that we need to accomplish our duties as God’s people. Paul tells us that these gifts aren’t given as rewards or for our own benefit, but “for the common good”[2]—for such things, I imagine, as doing justice, embracing loving kindness, and walking in humility with God. Alone, each of our gifts can’t accomplish the daunting tasks set before us, but together, we can combine the resources with which we’ve each been entrusted to do big things in God’s name. We CAN bring God’s kingdom to the world, here and now…but only if we share what we’ve been given, and only if we use those things collaboratively.

At the end of the day, this is all that stewardship really is. It’s giving back that which God has so graciously given to us so that we might joyfully do the things that are required of us: follow God in justice, goodness, and humility, and bring God’s kingdom into the world. Simple and straightforward. When it’s put that way, it actually sounds pretty easy; warm and fuzzy stuff. But it’s important to remember that simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Stewardship, while uncomplicated, is hard work. It’s challenging, and sometimes, it requires sacrifice.

When we give of ourselves for a holy cause, it can make people uncomfortable—both ourselves and others. People sometimes get angry when they’re asked to change the way they’re used to doing things, and God’s way is rarely the way the world is used to operating. This is true whether we’re talking about using our valuable time to help others, giving our hard-earned income to support communities, or offering our unique gifts on behalf of something beyond ourselves. And yet, if we want to be faithful disciples of Christ, we need to confront this discomfort in ourselves and in others, even if it might come at a personal cost.

This weekend, we remember a man of faith who was an obedient steward of the gifts that God had given him: Martin Luther King, Jr. He knew that God required justice, goodness, and humility from humankind, and he further knew that humanity was appallingly negligent in this duty; indeed, we were—we still are, in far too many ways—actively obstructing these values. And worst of all, society was completely unrepentant of this sin. So King leveraged the gifts that God had given him for the common good: his intelligence, his determination, his own life experiences, his leadership ability, and his faith, to name a few.

He offered up these gifts so that he might change hearts and minds, to confront the egregious societal sin of racism in pursuit of God’s kingdom. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he demands that we do better, quoting the prophet Amos when he says, “…we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” Although it’s taken longer than it should have for the world to really listen to him, he and his gifts have been instrumental in helping us to see where we’re going wrong and what we still need to do to in order to change. But because he insisted that we confront the uncomfortable truth of our sin and refused to let us off easy, his stewardship came at a great personal cost. He was harassed, discredited, imprisoned, and ultimately killed for his discipleship.

Of course, few of us will be asked to make the same sacrifices that Martin Luther King, Jr. made. Few of us will ever find ourselves in a situation that we’ll be asked to give our lives for God’s kingdom. But that doesn’t mean that what you do have to offer isn’t important. On the contrary; your gifts, your resources, your time and talent and treasure are vital. The Church can’t be whole without them. God gave you your particular gifts because they’re exactly what the Church needs to answer God’s call. We can’t do it without you. So, think about what you’re offering back to God, and what you’re holding back. Think about why we’re still falling short of God’s requirements. Think about what kind of impact we could have if each of us was willing to give of ourselves until we felt just, kind, and humble, instead of just comfortable. Think about what it means to challenge ourselves to live lives oriented not around ourselves, but around God’s hope for the world. Think…and then act. Amen.

[1] Book of Confessions, 6.090.
[2] 1 Corinthians 12:7.

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