Christian author Os Guinness tells this story about a furniture factory in communist Russia. It seemed that the stealing was so bad that guards were posted at every exit. One day a worker exited the factory with a wheelbarrow full of sawdust and shavings. The guard stopped him and said, "What do you have in that wheelbarrow, comrade?" to which the worker replied, "There's nothing in here but sawdust and shavings."
"OK," he said, "dump it out." Sure enough, there was nothing in there but sawdust and shavings. Well, this went on day after day with the same routine, the same questions and answers, the same dumping out of sawdust on the floor. Finally, the guard became frustrated and could stand it no more. He said to the worker, "Look, I know you're stealing. And you know you're stealing. If you tell me what you're stealing, I promise I won't arrest you." The worker smiled and said, "Wheelbarrows, comrade. Wheelbarrows." He was stealing right before his eyes.
There is a great concern across our land about the problems of our society and our nation, and our churches. Right before our eyes, a kind of deceptive shift has taken place. Right before our eyes, the church has lost its influence on a greedy, materialistic, self-centered culture because we have become so much like that culture. We have forgotten what God has required of us.
Today our texts call us to rediscover what is expected from us. Our text from Micah and the beatitudes form the foundation of biblical faith: The prophet Micah asked the question, "With what shall I come before the Lord?" What is it God really wants of us? The answer is that God requires of us is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Following these guidelines then brings us a blessed life.
Let’s break this down. To do justice. It means embracing God’s wisdom, God’s law, God’s judgment in such a way that in our living there is fairness and equity within the human family. There are nine words that are frequently associated with the word, “justice,” in the Bible. Widow, fatherless, orphans, poor, hungry, stranger, needy, weak and oppressed. Justice applies God’s biblical laws of sharing and caring to those in need, so the resources of the world and of our actions do not live anyone out. God’s justice is the expression of God’s love throughout society, it is following God’s commandments to build a fair world.
Do you remember that story from Charles Dicken’s England? At that time, many twelve-year-old boys were working below in the coal mines. Their life was miserable. The church would offer presents at Christmas time to the little boys working away in the coal mines. The church would offer charity and tom turkeys for the poor families at holiday time. The church would offer prayers for the little boys working away in the coal mines. One day, the law was changed so that little boys could no longer work in the coal mines and the law insisted that they go to school instead of go to the coal mines to work. Charity is giving Christmas presents at Christmas for the disadvantaged boys in the coal mines. Justice is working to change the laws so that it was illegal for little boys to work in the coal mines. So, it is the same for us –justice is working to change the laws and social circumstances that make the world a fair place to live for everyone. That creates a blessed world.
Now Micah tells us to love kindness or often translated mercy. It’s another cornerstone of biblical religion, kindness, which means being big-hearted, tenderhearted, generous, giving, and forgiving. You've may have heard the story of the woman who went to a photographer, and after her pictures, she said to the photographer, "These pictures don't do me justice." "Madam," the photographer said, "you don't need justice; you need mercy." (or kindness).
Well, we all need mercy, or kindness. Kindness, mercy, means getting and giving not what we deserve but what we need. Kindness is probably best illustrated in that parable of Jesus where the Good Samaritan stopped on the side of the road to Jericho to help a man who had fallen among thieves. Jesus said of him, "He showed mercy." The beatitudes are all examples of acts of kindness: blessing for those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted – when we care for others based on what they need, not on how we want to judge them, we display kindness, mercy. We all make mistakes. So God demonstrates kindness and mercy to us so we can stand up again, and love kindness as we show it to each other and we learn to forgive, extend mercy and forbearance. We all need this and need to do this.
Biblical religion is doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. To walk humbly with God is to step out of our busy and self-centered self and focus on someone other than ourselves and to focus on God. We learn not to think of ourselves as greater than another. Humility opens us up to other points of view, and new perspectives. Humility calls us to walk, not run or strut. Walk implies slowing down. Walking implies measured steps. Walking is a slow deliberate pace that helps us stay in communion, side by side, with God.
So humbly means we are not full of or preoccupied with ourselves. Instead humility is to put the needs of others and the desires of God first. Humility opens the space where we actually listen to what God is saying. This following prayer leads us to a life of humility
The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.
This sums up the state of being Blessed. It states in other terms what God requires of us, justice, kindness, and humility. If justice, kindness, and humility are to become the fruit of our lives, our minds must be changed.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians fled to the Syrian and Egyptian deserts to learn and practice what God requires. They're often called the desert fathers and mothers. They talk to us a lot about those patterns of behavior that keep us from loving God and loving neighbor. They describe them as the passions. For them, the passions are those actions and attitudes that are the result of choices and demonic influences that take hold of our lives and control our lives. What the desert fathers and mothers teach us even today it's going to take more than our own will or the power of positive thinking to change them our behavior. It's going to take the grace of Jesus Christ.
If justice and kindness and walking humbly with God are to become a way of life, our hearts must change. Our minds must change. Our behavior must change. Only Jesus can do that for us.
I began this message with a story by Os Guinness. I want to close it with another one.
It seems that the queen of the Belgians was visiting Poland while Poland was still under communist rule. Everywhere she went she was accompanied by a guard of the secret police. Since she was a Catholic, she often attended mass. On one occasion while she was kneeling in prayer, she noticed that the guard standing beside her was moving his lips and saying the prayers. She was surprised and asked him, "Oh, are you a Catholic?" to which he responded, "I believe but I don't practice." She asked, "Then are you a Communist?" to which he answered, "I practice, but I don't believe."
God's desire for each one of us is to be so changed that we become blessings of justice and mercy out of which life and joy floods to others. God's desire for the church and for us individually is to be so changed that we become a people who discover how to walk humbly with God. That is biblical faith. That is faithful living. If we do so then we will become truly blessed. Amen