“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?”
8 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?
Last month one of my friends recommended an app that she had been using on her phone for a while, and she found it very helpful for enhancing and committing to her meditation routine. It is an app that has a bunch of recorded guided meditations, some for sleep, some for anxiety, some for dealing with difficult emotions or unhelpful thoughts. Occasionally through the app they offer courses, which is just a daily teaching and meditation, so for the first two weeks in January I did their “getting unstuck” challenge. The host of the challenge and actually the cofounder of the app as well is Dan Harris, former ABC News Anchor, who left journalism to focus on his meditation company. One of the teaching sessions talked about how so many of us have inherited from our very individualistic society, the feeling that it is noble to struggle alone. The session suggested that it is critical for us to first get in touch with the fact that we are struggling. Sometimes this is a difficult thing – to admit or to slow down enough to accept that we are struggling. We sometimes want to put on a brave face and pretend that everything is ok. And sometimes, even if we might appreciate help and connection with others when things are difficult, it is a challenge to reach out.
The session I was listening to suggested that one of the ways that we can learn to connect with and reach out to others even in the midst of struggles, is to start by becoming the person who helps others in their struggles or with challenges that they face.
And then, as soon as we start to have the internal experience that it feels good to help people, to feel generous, to know that we are benefitting others, all of a sudden an aha moment can go off.
If it feels good to help someone, then that means that anytime that we ask for help, we are actually giving someone that opportunity to feel generous, to feel connected to us, to feel like they are benefitting us. Remembering that feeling and experience that we have when helping others can encourage us to feel okay about reaching out to other people when we have a need, or even when we feel lonely. This practice of generosity of helping others can be learned and practiced. It is one of the parts of Micah’s call to the people in today’s reading of how to live in God’s way.
In this reading, the prophet speaks to a context where there is no shortage of religious people. In fact, these people are making a public show of how religious they are. In this reading, God reviews the relationship with the people, and points out God’s faithfulness to them.
The people are reminded of who this God is. This is the God who hears the cries of the people and brings them out of slavery. This is the God who will use even the outsider to bring blessings. This is the God who shows compassion and mercy when the people fall. Even the people’s idolatry and injustice cannot prevent this God from acting. This is the God who is faithful no matter what.
So then the people respond – and they ask ok, well then what can we do to show our faithfulness? What burnt offerings or animal sacrifices can we offer. Maybe our firstborn?
The go-to response here is to appease God through a form of score-keeping that tries to put a price tag on God’s mercy. What payment will it take to get God off our backs? Burnt offerings? Thousands of rams? How can we even the scoreboard?
But Micah isn’t buying it.
God does not want a specific type of offering. God wants a specific type of person.
Micah would expect such leaders to think that the problem is the need to appease God rather than the need to change their own behaviour. But Micah makes it clear that there will be no more business-as-usual in the religion department without a change of heart and life.
To enact justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, are not single acts that can be checked off the list and left behind, like a sacrifice on the altar would have been in the past. On an individual and social scale, in ways large and small, what Micah is suggesting, is a way of life.
Occasional nods to equity do not make a faithful life, Micah tells us. We cannot only observe racial membership quotas on committees in place of seeking racial justice. We can’t say and hear the welcome and land acknowledgement each and every Sunday without examining the ways that we interact with people as soon as we step outside of the church. We cannot do hunger walks and refuse to change our consumerist lifestyles.
Rather than offer God thousands of rams, Micah calls us to offer a thousand daily acts of love for each other and the world God loves. We cannot “play church” or frame our religious life as a game where we keep God in check by performing prescribed duties. The life of faith is indeed a walk that reorients heart and life.
The orientation toward both neighbor and God is clear. Give yourself on behalf of others, particularly those who are needy, by doing justice and loving kindness. At the same time, walk humbly with your God, be attentive to God’s presence. During this season of Epiphany, the way we might express this is to share the light of Christ in the world.
I recently read a story by the author Elizabeth Gilbert. She is the author of the book Eat, Pray, Love. I thought it was a lovely example of someone practicing kindness, and bringing the light to the people around them. She says:
“Some years ago, I was stuck on a crosstown bus in New York City during rush hour. Traffic was barely moving. The bus was filled with cold, tired people who were deeply irritated with one another, and with the world itself. Two men barked at each other about a shove that may or may not have been intentional. A pregnant woman got on, and nobody offered her a seat. Rage was in the air; no mercy would be found here.
But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom. “Folks,” he said, “I know you have had a rough day and you are frustrated. I can’t do anything about the weather or traffic, but here is what I can do. As each one of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don’t take your problems home to your families tonight, just leave them with me. My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I will open the window and throw your troubles in the water.”
It was as if a spell had lifted. The whole grumpy lot of us burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who had been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other’s existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, is this guy serious?
Oh, he was serious.
At the next stop, just as promised, the driver reached out his hand, palm up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm. Some people laughed as they did this, some teared up but everyone did it and most left the bus with a smile on their face. The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop, too. And the next. All the way to the river.
We live in a hard world. Sometimes it is extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you have a bad day that lasts for several years. You struggle and fail. You lose jobs, money, friends, faith, and love. You witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and you become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. You long for the light but don’t know where to find it.
But what if you are the light? What if you are the very agent of illumination that a dark situation begs for?. That’s what this bus driver has taught us, that anyone can be the light, at any moment. This guy wasn’t some big power player. He wasn’t a spiritual leader. He wasn’t some media-savvy influencer. He was a bus driver, one of society’s most invisible workers. But he possessed real power, and he used it beautifully for our benefit.
When life feels especially grim, or when I feel particularly powerless in the face of the world’s troubles, I think of this man and ask myself, What can I do, right now, to bring the light? Of course, I can’t personally end all wars, or solve global warming, or control the traffic, or end the pandemic. But I do have some influence on everyone I brush up against, even if we never speak or learn each other’s name. I can put my hand out to receive someone else’s troubles.
“No matter who we are, or where we are, or how mundane or tough our situation may seem, each one of us can illuminate our world. In fact, I believe this is the only way the world will ever be illuminated, one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.”
And the thing about sharing the light of Christ with others in big or small ways, sometimes that makes things a little brighter for yourself too.
So how might you share the light of Christ this week? Throughout this series we will be inviting you to participate in a different spiritual practice each week. This week the practice is to try to do a random act of kindness each day.
We have little cards on the way out the door at the back this morning that have some suggestions – but beware, they are not all Covid friendly, like visiting a sick friend… we don’t recommend that right now! But you can call a friend who might be sick, or lonely, or deliver a meal, or write someone a card or hold the door open for someone.
Like the bus driver who threw people’s troubles into the river, each of us can share some light – even in the smallest of ways – in this time of difficulty, and this is one small way that we can answer Micah’s call to a changed life – to live in God’s way by seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. Thanks be to God. Amen.