Sermon Series: Just Courage

The Surprising Path to Courage

January 11, 2018 - January 14, 2018

Micah 6:6-8

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Elizabeth Shen O'Connor

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I know what you’re thinking: “Didn’t we ‘send her off” last week?” Yep, I’m still here. Someone thought it would be good for me to “have the last word.” Seriously, though, I am glad to be with you one more week, to share with you a few more thoughts on God’s Word and your ministry here at Brunswick Church. Our ministry, really, as the Church. For, we’ll spend some time reflecting on our sermon series today based upon Gary Haugen’s book “Just Courage,” reflecting on the ways in which we need to be challenged as the Body of Christ, and a few personal reflections on my time with you as pastor. Let’s begin with God’s Word to us today.

 

[READ Micah 6:6-8]

 

"What more?" is the question behind this passage. The people have gone back and forth with this prophet Micah and yet they keep coming back to this idea that God is laying burden after burden upon them. What more? What more does God want from us? What more can we do to be accepted by God? We’re following all of the “rules.” Sacrificing and making offerings to the letter of the law.

 

 

When Micah asks these questions about offerings and sacrifices, he’s being sarcastic. He’s exaggerating to make a point. What’s acceptable to the Lord? Burnt offerings? Year old calves? Thousands of rams? Ten thousand rivers of olive oil? His firstborn? The questions become more and more ridiculous.

 

Micah prophesied in a time when the security of God’s people was uncertain. The northern kingdom of Israel had fallen after rebelling against Assyria. Because of this, those remaining made the decision to become a dependent territory of Assyria, rather than face destruction. Of course that kind of relationship had consequences – high tributes, loss of complete independence, and the corruption of its traditions, as more and more outside religious practices crept into the Jewish culture. So there was political uncertainty, but with that, also uncertainty about where they stood with God.

 

The people of God had lost their way. Uncertainty influenced even their interpersonal relationships. Micah calls them out on how the rich intentionally work to become richer and so the poor become more and more poor. In this prophecy, Micah is most concerned with the vulnerable. He gives witness to how the wealthy use their influence to exploit them and to create even greater inequalities.

 

Going back to Micah’s questions about sacrifice, we understand then where some of his sarcasm originates. He’s seeing God’s people make every excuse and abuse when it comes to caring for their own and all the while going through the motions of offering themselves to God. The ones he contends with – the wealthy, the leaders – are preoccupied with pleasing God through their religious practices and not through their relationship with God or even one another.

 

Think of the rich young ruler who approaches Jesus in Luke, asking “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “Obey all the commandments.” The ruler says, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus says, “Sell everything that you have, give the money to the poor, and then follow me.” The ruler doesn’t say anything, but walks away, sad, because he was very wealthy.

 

It is a disconnect between our heart and our religious practice that Micah calls into question. And it can happen to any of us religious people. Now, Micah wasn’t saying that the people of God at that time should stop going through the rituals. He isn’t saying that we should stop gathering on Sunday, participating in communion and the like, and just generally worshipping together. Religious practices are important. God commanded them to Israel and God asks them of us. What he’s saying here is these things that we do as God’s people – these “churchy” things – are useless if we ignore our relationship to God and our relationship to one another. This is a cautionary tale that should always be with us.

 

Micah goes on to give the people the true answer to their question of “what more?” He tells them that God is more interested in their everyday lives. More interested in the state of our hearts and how they line up with God’s will for us through our everyday conduct. Act justly and love mercy. Walk humbly with God. 

 

These three things are basic, but essential. To help us go deeper, let’s break it down.

 

Acting justly is not a “one-time,” “only when necessary” practice. It is something we do that’s ongoing. We must be always on the lookout for those who are most vulnerable in this world. Always working in ways to bring people back to a place of dignity, to be able to live out their lives before God fully and freely.

 

The mercy Micah speaks of here is a kind of kindness that’s wrapped up in love, loyalty, faithfulness. Our inner life has great influence on our outward conduct. True mercy toward others comes from a heart that is kind and loving and loyal to God’s purposes.

 

Walking humbly with God may sound easy, but it’s the hardest thing. It’s also fundamental for everything that comes before. Acting justly and loving mercy are characteristics of the God we choose to follow, the God who invites us walk with him. Our faith is a journey with God. To say we are to walk “humbly” with him is to say that we must walk carefully – even wisely – with God. This image is often romanticized. But it’s not a casual walk on the beach. We are to be attentive to God’s footfalls, his stride, his pace. The key word here is actually “walk.” Our life is meant to be a journey with God as our companion. A God who is to direct our path. We are to try and “keep up with” this justice-doing, mercy-loving God.

 

That’s Micah’s response to the people, the people who are more truly trying – like the rich young ruler – to figure out the one thing they need to do to “seal the deal” with God. As Micah says, though, there isn’t ONE THING we can do to make things right with God. Not one. Rather, because of what Jesus has done for us, being in relationship with God demands everything of us. Not one thing. Everything.

 

In spite of their limited perspective, God’s people asked a question that is still an essential question: “What more?” What more is there in ministry? What more can we be doing? What more should we be doing? Asking “what more?” helps by way of challenging us not to remain in a place of ministry that doesn’t hold, as Henry said last week, adventure in the journey. A place of ministry that does everything BUT transform us.

 

Gary Haugen in his book “Just Courage” poses a thought-provoking challenge to Christians today. He believes that most Christians yearn to engage in ministry that ignites their faith and results in transformation. But he also believes that most Christians today become stuck in ministry that is more defensive than offensive for reasons of fear and the trappings of boredom. It’s his conviction that the struggle for justice in this world is the surprising pathway to courageous Christianity.

 

In the church today, we’ve heard the term “justice” used. But it still remains, I would guess, vague for many of us. When God asks us to “act justly,” what exactly does that mean? Does it mean I shouldn’t steal or I shouldn’t bully or I shouldn’t take short cuts? Haugen applies a legal term “void for vagueness” when talking about God’s call to act justly. We don’t know what exactly God is asking of us and so it becomes difficult for us to act on it. So we don’t.

 

Now, we may know what injustice out in the world looks like. But it often feels distant from our day-to-day reality. Injustice is something we see in the movies or we read about in news articles. For example, slavery in the world today may be news to you. Or, you may be aware that it’s happening, but that’s somewhere in some far off place. Many of us don’t have a direct connection to or experience of it. So the challenge for us is to make the practice of injustice – which is real, which happens every moment of every day – real to us in such a way that we can’t help but respond to it. That may very well be the surprising path to “acting justly” as God prescribes it. How we do so is still to be determined and so demands prayerful reflection – personally and as the church.

 

The many ministries that you sustain right now are the first steps on this journey. But they’re not the end point. You have and are continuing to respond to apparent needs in this community. Keep doing so. But as you do so, ask the question: “What more?” One thing that has challenged me is Haugen’s point that Christians today often spend time, energy, and resources addressing the symptoms of injustice – poverty, homelessness, hunger – in disproportion to addressing the causes of these social challenges. What Haugen names as violence. He sees violence as the root cause of all these ills and the work against violence as God’s specific call to justice.

 

What then does this mean for those of us who have been working hard in ministries that address poverty, homelessness, and hunger? I don’t think Haugen’s point or our takeaway is to stop. This is good ministry. God’s ministry. And, maybe for many of us, it took all our courage to take that first step to volunteer. What we must do as we do ministry, though, is to ask: “What more?” How do we not just meet needs, but work to resolve these needs in our community and beyond? What would it look like, what would it feel like, to not just feed a person but see God work through us such that he or she no longer needs supplement support? What would it look and feel like to not just watch a movie about standing up to bullies who enslave and abuse God’s children, but actually be part of that work ourselves? It may mean leaving the comfort of our couches, our churches, our lifestyle, or even leaving the comfort of our life as it is. To push against that boredom and that fear that enslaves us so easily.

 

That’s quite the challenge. It’s stirring, confronting. And yes, uncomfortable.

 

But if you will now allow me a moment of personal privilege. I have nothing but confidence that your ministries will deepen and grow. I have every excitement that you will live out your God-given potential for this season of ministry. This confidence and excitement in you is not rash or superficial. I have known you under fire and seen how you’ve proven yourselves faithful. Over the years, you have inspired me, encouraged me, and challenged me in my faith. The gifts and talents you exercise have made and will continue to make impact on this community for God’s kingdom.

 

And so, continue to challenge yourselves and deepen your call as if the kingdom of God depends on you…because it does. Meet that challenge for all it’s worth…because it is the only thing worthwhile. Who knows what more God will do with you?

 

I’ll end with the words of Paul and Timothy to the church in Philippi (Phil 1:3-6, 9-11):

 

“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus…And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.”

 

Amen.

To contact Elizabeth Shen O'Connor about this sermon, please email or write to: Brunswick Presbyterian Church, 42 White Church Lane, Troy, NY 12180