Sunday, February 2, 2020

Sermon: “My House, My Rules”, Psalm 15/Micah 6:1-8 (February 2, 2020)


By invoking the image of a courtroom, today’s reading from Micah seems to be implying that we’re criminals. I mean, why else would God have brought us to court? There’s no way that God would wrongly accuse us. Besides, as good Calvinists, we believe in total depravity; we already know that we’re as guilty as guilty can be. So it’s natural that we, the readers, would identify our role in this metaphor as the corrupt defendants facing the righteous plaintiff, submitting to the rage and punishment of a God who’s been unapologetically wronged. It’s just a matter of time before they lock us up and throw away the key.

But you know, that interpretation of this passage only makes sense for those who are reading it through the lens of the American legal system. A system where, consciously or not, most of us assume that the defendant must have done SOMETHING wrong to wind up in court. A system where the goal is to exact punishment for wrongdoing, where “justice” is usually understood as “retribution”. A system where Hammurabi’s Code still seems like the golden standard. A frankly broken system. And that’s not the system that God operates under. God’s justice is different than ours; it stands to reason that God’s courtroom would operate differently than ours, too.

So in our context, this metaphor isn’t particularly illuminating, at least in a way that helps us understand God’s nature. Imagining ourselves on trial does give our situation the gravity it deserves, but our relationship with God shouldn’t be as antagonistic as the relationship between plaintiff and defendant. God invites us into an intimacy that’s impossible in an American courtroom. So I think it’d be helpful for us to view this interaction between God and humanity through a different lens. Let’s reimagine this passage in a way that honors our relationship with God: as an argument between a teenager (which, presumably, most of us have been at one point or another) and parent trying to enforce the rules of the house.

Instead of a courtroom where you’re sitting at the defendant’s table, hands in cuffs and waiting for the hammer of justice to fall on your sinful head, imagine yourself in your teenage bedroom. Imagine yourself playing video games, or writing in your diary, or listening to rock ‘n’ roll, or whatever it is you crazy kids did when you were teenagers. God knocks on the door and comes in, saying, “Beloved, we need to talk.”

Now, remember, you’re a teenager, so you roll your eyes, put down whatever you were doing, and flop onto your bed dramatically. God sits down next to you and takes your hand, gently but firmly. “I know you don’t want to talk about this, but we need to have this conversation. Sweetheart, we have a big problem. You’re not following the house rules. I’ve always given you everything that you need: safety, food, a place to live. I brought you up out of slavery in the land of Egypt. I gave you guidance through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. I protected you when King Balak wanted to destroy you. I taught you everything you needed to know. So why do you refuse to do what I ask of you?”

Your teenage exasperation boiling over, you rip your hand out of God’s and shout, “Well, what do you WANT from me, anyway? Huh? Want me to give you burnt offerings? To pay rent? Offer you my firstborn child? Wait on you hand and foot until I’m 100 years old? Huh? HUH? WHAT DO YOU EXPECT FROM ME???”

In spite of your emotional outburst, God remains calm (if still frustrated). “I’ve never asked you for any of that, certainly nothing as extreme as your firstborn child or your abject subjugation.” God sighs. “See, this is exactly why this is a problem. You KNOW what I require from you. I’ve told you again and again and again: do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with me. That’s it. Those are the rules. And yet, you refuse to even acknowledge these principles, which I’ve been teaching you from the beginning. You rant and rave about how unreasonable I am, when really I’m just asking you to abide by the values that we’ve always held in this house. That’s why I’ve brought you here, to hold you accountable to these family standards. May all of your stuffed animals and favorite things serve as witnesses: they know the truth of how you’ve been behaving.”

You shuffle your feet and look uncomfortably at your hands in your lap. Suddenly, you feel less sure of yourself. God continues, “It’s not about you owing me payment in exchange for everything I’ve done for you. I did all that because I wanted to, because I love you. It’s just that I’d hoped I’d raised you better than this. I’d hoped that you’d want to honor all that I’ve given you by living according to the rules that I taught you…the rules that make life better for all of us.”

In your shame, your teenage indignation flares up again. You jump to your feet. “Okay, fine, but what about what *I* want? What if I don’t like your stupid rules? What if I don’t WANT to live under a dictatorship? Maybe I’ll just MOVE OUT, so that I can make up my OWN rules!”

God stands up and goes to the door. “Well, that’s up to you. I love you, and I want you to stay with me, but if you want to live in my tent and on my holy hill, you need to live by my rules. If you need a refresher, I’ve posted a copy of Psalm 15 on the fridge. Let me know what you decide to do.” And with that, God leaves you alone with your thoughts.

Kinda puts a different spin on these scripture readings, huh?

We often hear people talk about the “vengeful Old Testament God”, and the original courtroom metaphor in Micah 6 seems to affirm this perspective at first glance. But are justice, kindness, and humility values championed by someone characterized by vengeance? Does someone bent on revenge desire truth, honor, and blamelessness in others? Not usually. And since these are all values preached by Jesus in the New Testament, we find that God’s personality isn’t as inconsistent as we may have previously thought. The inconsistency, it seems, lies within us.

Søren Kierkegaard puts it like this: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”[1] How many of us insist that we want to live in God’s house, that we want to be a part of God’s family, yet pretend not to understand God’s rules? How many of us ignore the standards set by God in favor of pretending that WE know what’s best? How many of us recklessly pursue our desires at the expense of these values? How many of us are still acting like immature children when it comes to our faith, desiring the protection of God’s grace yet demanding complete immunity from any and all expectations of us in return? It’s easy to point fingers at others behaving this way: politicians putting profit before morality, clergy preaching God’s love for themselves while refusing it to those who are different, businesses claiming “eco-consciousness” while actively destroying God’s creation behind closed doors, neighbors identifying as “Good Christians” while prioritizing comfort and convenience over compassion. But we’re not innocent ourselves.

In what ways are we, too, guilty of ignoring the house rules? In what ways are we—you and I—complicit in these very same sins? We gather here each week, patting ourselves on the back for seeking to follow God’s will while we leave the work of systemic reform to others. We celebrate our personal piety while ignoring the needs of those who are out of sight and out of mind. We sing, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” while walking a path of our own making, because the one God has set before us is just a little bit too difficult. I’m certainly not excluding myself from this indictment. If this were the courtroom that Micah describes, my hands and feet would be shackled along with the rest of humanity’s.

But the good news is that we AREN’T in an unfeeling courtroom. We’re still at home, in our own bedroom, sitting next to our heavenly parent as God explains why we need to follow the rules for our own good. And no matter how badly we mess it up, God wants relationship, not revenge. So we need to stop living so defensively. We need to realize that God is on OUR team, OUR side, part of OUR family…and we’re the ones who aren’t playing by the rules.

When we do that, when we recognize that God isn’t accusing us to punish us, but to help us, we begin to see the possibilities that still lie before us. The end of the road isn’t a cold, dark jail cell, but a new maturity that brings us closer than ever to the divine. When we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, we aren’t being oppressed or exploited…we’re just being asked to act like a member of the family. And given the abundance of blessings in our lives, that’s certainly not too much to ask.

So are we ready to “grow up”? To take responsibility for our role in this family? Are we ready to follow the rules that God’s given us for our own good? Are we ready to put our own priorities, our own comfort, our own independence aside so that we can be not prisoners, but God’s beloved children in God’s own house? Because every house has its rules. I, for one, am grateful that God’s rules are so clearly in our best interest. So let’s do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord, even when we don’t particularly want to, even when it’s “too hard”. Let’s do our part to make this a household that works for ALL its members, ALL of our siblings in Christ. Because this is a household that’s worth belonging to. Amen.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

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