Micah 6.1-8 Acts 3.1-16 Luke 10.25-37
The movie The King’s Speech is well worth your going to see. It tells the story of a man who is struggling to reclaim something that has been taken away from him by circumstances against which he was powerless to defend himself. He is struggling to reclaim something that is intrinsically his because he is a living human being. That something is his voice, his ability to speak without stammering. His voice was taken away unjustly. He wants it back.
This is not just any man who is struggling to reclaim the ability to speak a single sentence without choking up. This man is George VI, King of the British Empire. The ability of King George VI to speak by radio to his empire at the time Great Britain alone held off the Nazi take-over of Europe had enormous consequences. The outcome of the struggle of this one man to be able to speak, to use the power of words, was extremely critical to preserving a democratic way of life for the entire world. His words kept that island nation united in bearing the sacrifices to preserve their freedom and the hope of freedom for countless thousands around the world. The radio addresses of George VI, as well as Winston Churchill and others, unleashed the power of the spoken word to transform and focus a country to meet an extreme crisis. The king’s fight to reclaim something as natural to his being as his voice symbolized the fight that the Allies were in to preserve what everyone is entitled to simply because we exist. Words are very powerful shapers and energizers of actions.
When God’s Spirit takes the words off the pages of the Bible and burns them into your hearts, you become a different person. You see things differently. You act differently. Listen again to God’s words from the prophet Micah.
O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of bondage;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember…
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.
O my people, what hardship have I put on you? O my people, what requirement did you have to fulfill, what test did I require you to pass, in order to be eligible? How many merits did you have to earn? Answer me! And of course, our answer to God is None! Nothing! It is all God, God, God. God brings out. God liberates. God nurtures and shapes. A life of freedom begins with a gift of freedom. And woe betides the person who forgets the gift part of their freedom. The word from the Bible is that life with God starts with a gift that you could not have gotten by yourself. Remembering that you live from a gift always must be the place from which you start as you plan on how you are to live. Micah now talks about the “how” of the living.
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 first-born for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
We want to do the right thing, don’t we? How should we respond to such a gift? Even before we are conscious of it, we trying to answer that question with a dollar figure. What amount would God be satisfied with as a thank-you? Are we doing just enough to be proper? To these questions the answer is No. No. No. Nothing.
Step back and look at his. Here God comes at us with a gift, and we come back at God with a price. Do you see the disconnect? We have a great deal of trouble thinking of anything about our life as a gift. Everything has to be matched to a dollar figure; everything has to be turned into money for us to be able to understand and control it; everything has to be converted into a commodity that can be monetized. We have a hard time thinking of anything that is valuable just because it exists.
We don’t stop to ask the question: Why should the one who gifted to us life itself be satisfied with money? To me that’s evidence enough for our belief that life is money. It would be a lot less complicated for us if God could be satisfied with money. I’m sure we would feel right at home with God, for we do know how to find a person’s price point. What is the lowest cost to us that God could be satisfied with? We could find that out in a short time. We could put a dollar value on God. If that were possible, we could negotiate with God.
When God lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth, the worth of the Son of God was negotiated to arrive at 30 pieces of silver. On his journey to the cross, God let a price be settled on him. When Jesus died on the cross, it was a 30 dollar piece of flesh hanging on a pole whose clothes soldiers gambled for and at whom bystanders hurled insults. The cross of Jesus demonstrates that when God can be bought, God dies. This is why the answers to the questions of how much money will satisfy God are No. No. No. Nothing.
Someone gave, free of charge, a tomb to this 30 dollar broken body to lie in. Inside a tomb that he didn’t pay for Jesus receives the gift of new life. Jesus rises to put to death the wildly mistaken idea that we can put a dollar value on how much we think God is worth. He was buried as a 30 dollar piece of dead meat. He arose to live as a new man whom death itself cannot lay a glove on. How could you put a dollar value on that? Out of a gifted tomb emerged the Author of New Life who is ready to give his life for free to any person listening today. My question to you is: Are you ready to accept life for free from the God who is beyond negotiation, and are you ready to imagine how your life could be lived on the conviction that life is for free?
He has shown 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?
How would you function differently in this world if you began each day reminding yourself that you entered this life as a helpless baby who received, without your making it happen, all that you needed to thrive; that the way you grew up was modest in scope and setting; that you wouldn’t be where you are today without things that money cannot buy from family, friends, teachers, colleagues? How would you function differently in this world if you began each day reminding yourself that God has destined you to enjoy the blessings of freedom from oppression ; that you are not a self-made person; that your freedom has been bought with a price; that you are God’s son or daughter because Jesus calls you his brother or sister; that you have intrinsic value that death cannot abolish because Jesus went the distance for you?
Well, you would see that Micah’s phrase “to love kindness” comes loaded with power to bring forth new life. A recent story from Australia makes my point. When Kate and David, a young Australian couple, had twins last year, the babies were born nearly three months early. Emily survived and was whisked away to the neo-natal unit, but after twenty minutes of trying to resuscitate Jamie, the doctors gave up and pronounced him dead. The nurses placed the baby’s tiny body across Kate’s chest so she and David could have time to say good-bye.
“We wanted him to know we loved him,” explained Kate. But no, there was no question about his death. Even when the tiny body jerked in their arms, David and Kate readily accepted the doctors’ explanation—a reflex action, they said. The young parents focused again on their good-byes, stroking the tiny body. David took his shirt off and they took turns settling the baby against their bare skin—kangaroo care, they called it.
When there were a few more sharp movements from the baby’s body, the young couple called for the doctor. But he didn’t come. “Reflexes,” the nurses reassured them, and Kate and David continued the cuddling. Time passed. After nearly two hours of stroking, tender murmurings, and cradling, something made Kate wonder. She put a dab of milk on the tip of her finger and Jamie took it. A moment later, his fingers reached up and curled around hers. Soon thereafter he opened his eyes. “He is doing things dead babies don’t do!” Kate sent word to the doctors. Still they did not come. Finally David contrived to get their attention. “Tell them we’ve accepted the death,” he told the nurse. When the doctor finally appeared he went straight over and put his stethoscope on the baby’s chest. “I don’t believe it,” he said, “I don’t believe it.”i
Looking at the world when life is for free, you pay attention to the power of tenderness. Looking at the world when life is for free, you also pay attention to the requirement for justice. For when life is for free, there are things people are entitled to simply because Jesus Christ is the Author of Life for everyone. Justice helps us reclaim that to which we are entitled simply because God invests value in each of us. Because God backstops each of us, there are certain entitlements that cannot be mocked. I know that entitlements are a hot topic in the political world, and the pulpit is not the place to make social policy. But the pulpit can be a place to underscore the fact that we may have become so used to thinking about life as money that we have to be reminded that there are parts to our living that social policy needs to make available simply because God gives each of us intrinsic value. This thought may come as a shock to those who believe that you should only get what you can pay for. However, the Bible says that what you think may be legally yours may actually be what someone else is rightfully entitled to. Perhaps this story will illustrate what I mean.
A very proper lady went to a tea shop. She sat at a table for two, ordered a pot of tea, and prepared to eat some cookies which she had in her purse. Because the tea shop was crowded, a man took the other chair and also ordered tea. As it happened, he was a Jamaican black, though that is not essential to the story. The woman was prepared for a leisurely time, so she began to read her paper. As she did so, she took a cookie from the package. As she read, she noticed that the man across also took a cookie from the package. This upset her greatly, but she ignored it and kept reading. After a while she took another cookie. And so did he. This unnerved her and she glared at the man. While she glared, he reached for the fifth and last cookie, smiled and offered her half of it. She was indignant. She paid her money and left in a great hurry, enraged at such a presumptuous man. She hurried to her bus stop just outside. She opened her purse to get a coin for her bus ticket. And then she saw, much to her distress, that in her purse was her package of cookies unopened.ii
The lady is not different than all of us. We can think of ourselves as pretty swell people because of what we have achieved by our merits. And our high self-regard can be compounded when we choose to surround ourselves with people who are just like us. This can lead to being oblivious and indifferent to the suffering of others.iii Sometimes, by the mercy of God, we have the chance to see what the world looks like from the gift side of life. People of faith believe that the gift side of life is the reality that will last on and on and into eternity. That the power of tenderness can bring life out of death. That the requirement of do justice is the way God invites us to walk humbly with God.
iAs told by Jana Childers, “The Power of Tender,” Presbyterian Outlook, January 24, 2011, 31.
ii As told my Walter Brueggemann, “Voices of the Night—Against Justice,” in To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly, An Agenda for Ministers (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 6.
iii See Chrystia Freeland, “The Rise of the New Global Elite,” The Atlantic, January/February 2011, 44-55.