Micah 5.2-5a, 6.6-8

Just Kind of Humble

Reformation Sunday

            Have I shared with you my Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Theory of Preaching?  I don’t think I have…  I listen fairly regularly to public radio, mostly classical music.  And as every listener to public radio knows, classical or otherwise, there are times during the year that the station interrupts its regular programming to raise the funds that it takes to support and maintain public radio.  They call it pledge week.  During pledge week most classical music stations will trot out all the old familiar chestnuts of the classical repertoire to appeal to the widest number of listeners:  they’ll play pieces like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Ravel’s Bolero and other fan favorites.  But this often comes with a corollary, in the department of unintended consequences:  those fan favorites played so regularly during pledge week are often largely ignored the rest of the year, on the assumption that they are played so much everyone already knows them.  Pretty much the only time you’re going to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is during Pledge Week.

            And so it is with the old familiar chestnuts of the Bible.  What passages tend to be the fan favorites?  The 23rd Psalm.  The Beatitudes.  Our passage from Micah this morning about doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God.  Most congregations hear these scripture readings at least once a year, if not more often.  But I find that I am guilty of the Beethoven’s Fifth Theory of Preaching with these passages:  because they are so familiar, and we know them so well we can likely recite a good chunk of them from memory, I tend to avoid them.  In my 38 + years of preaching, I have used Psalm 23 a grand total of six times, or less than once every six years; this morning’s passage from Micah and next week’s reading from the Beatitudes five times apiece, or almost once every eight years.  We know those scriptures so well, do we really need to hear them any more frequently than this?  I’m not entirely convinced we do.  So why am I trotting them out this week and next?  Easy:  it’s Pledge Week – or as we call it in churchly circles, it is Stewardship Season!

            And one of the first questions most of us ask ourselves as we consider our stewardship to support and maintain our mission and ministry, is the question Marie asked as she began to read this morning:  “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?”  What shall I bring to God?  What kind of offering will I make?  What will my pledge look like this year?  In fact the verse from Micah and the question we ask is the theme of our Stewardship season as we can read on this morning’s bulletin insert:  “What shall we bring?”  What shall we bring? 

            As I mentioned during the first reading from Micah, this is a question that stands in the shadow of the advent of the messiah, the One who is destined to come from Bethlehem, the bringer of peace.  It is a question that is featured prominently in a beloved poem, set to music and sung at Advent time, Christina Rosetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter:”

            In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

              snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago…

            What can I give him poor as I am?  If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

  if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him:  give my heart.

“What can I give him?”  “What shall we bring?”  “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?”  The questions are the same.  And so Micah begins to imagine what the answer might be.  The early pages of the Old Testament are filled with stories of sacrifice and libation, so Micah wonders, “Shall I come with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?”  Or maybe God desires something more grandiose; how about thousands of rams, or ten thousands of rivers of oil?

            To help us see what Micah is doing with this, let’s return to the idea of musical metaphor we began with this morning, and listen again to these verses as a kind of musical crescendo, maybe like Ravel’s Bolero, which begins quietly and keeps getting louder and louder and more insistent.  Micah’s litany about what kind of offering to bring starts small, no more than a pianissimo, but in the end winds up in a swirl of swell and hyperbole worthy of a triple forte

“Shall I come before [God] with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Where will it end, Micah wonders.  If God is asking us for physical offerings, for material sacrifice, where will it end?  He begins with something simple and traditional, a burnt offering, and follows the logic to its unthinkable conclusion of human sacrifice.  Is this the kind or manner of offering God is seeking?

            I asked Marie to pause briefly at this point in her reading, between the question and the answer, because I wanted us all to be able to hear in that silence, God’s whispered, “No.”  “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  “No!”  This is not the kind of offering God will ever request nor accept.  God wants something categorically different.

            I wrote on Friday about a journal article I read during my study week about the ethics of stewardship; it had the tantalizing title, “Is Stewardship Ethical?”  David King, a professor at Indiana Unicversity, writes,

“The development of stewardship always emerged out of what was happening within church and culture at the time, but nonetheless the practice of stewardship often seemed siloed from the pressing issues of the day… Beyond simply thinking about what is needed to ‘keep the doors open,’ Christians need to think very carefully about… the things God has given us.”

I think that the writer wants us to remember that our stewardship, our what shall we bring, must be wrapped around “the pressing issues of the day;” it cannot be separated from all those other things we preach and pray about the during the rest of the year. 

            What this means is that our stewardship, what we bring to support and maintain our church, cannot be separated from the need to stand steadfast with our transgender siblings and neighbors against the faithless attempts to marginalize them.  Our stewardship is categorically connected to our response to a dozen pipe bombs mailed to politicians and celebrities.  That which we bring of ourselves before the Lord is inextricably intertwined with the victims of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Congregation shooting, a racist and hate-filled attack against the sisters and brothers of our very heritage.  These are the people and places ethical stewardship leads us.

            “God has told you, O mortals, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God?”  Margie Warner is fond of telling our church school kids that the three most important lessons are “be kind, be kind & be kind.”  For us this morning they are “Be just; be kind; be humble.”  Or as Christina Rosetti wrote, “What can I give him, poor as I am?  What can I give him?  Give [him] my heart.”  All I want is you, we hear God saying through Micah.  God wants us, our truest, most authentic, most completely loving selves.

            Now I understand that telling a congregation, during stewardship season, that God would rather have the immaterial and intangible rather than dollars and cents just might get me permanently disinvited from future Trustees meetings. This is a risk I am willing to take, because I think David King is correct:  our stewardship cannot be sequestered from the needs and issues of our day.  And the only way that the gifts you and I bring to God, our offerings, our pledges, our commitment will fulfill our faithfulness is when they are made and sustained in justice, in kindness and in humility.  Or as we read in this morning’s bulletin insert, “The message is not that God doesn’t want extravagant offerings.  Instead the message is that a life of relationship with God inevitably results in constant and intentional (not random) acts of justice and love of mercy.”  This is the message of Micah.

            And speaking of the Message, you may have read that Eugene Peterson died earlier this week at the age of 85.  We talked about Peterson just a few weeks ago when we read several passages from his paraphrase of the Bible, called The Message.  I thought that maybe in Peterson’s memory we could hear God’s reply in Micah as Peterson interpreted it: 

“[God has] already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.  It’s quite simple:  Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.”

As you and I consider together the ways we will support God’s mission and ministry here in our United Church, let’s remember that good stewardship is more than just our material support and maintenance of this particular community of faith; it is necessarily tethered to our commitment to God’s justice, God’s kindness, God’s mercy, presented to God and committed to the world with thankful and humble hearts.

            Amen.

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