Words to Build a Life On:
Seek Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly
Michael Lindvall once shared a story about
an emperor in China, centuries ago,
Who gathered the greatest scholars in the kingdom.
He charged them to collect the wisdom of the world,
To write it all down, so that he could read it, and become wise himself.
They worked for ten years,
And came back to him with a library of 10 volumes:
All the wisdom of the world, at that time.
The Emperor was aghast at the prospect of reading so many books;
He told his experts to, you know, condense it. Make it more manageable.
So they did. They went back to work
And came back five years later with a single volume.
All the wisdom of the world! The Readers Digest Version.
Still too long, the Emperor Objected.
So the scholars disappeared for a few months,
And came back with a single page: 500 words!
The testy Emperor was still not satisfied, however
and sent them back to whittle it down yet more.
So they left, and they came back with just ONE sentence.
He smiled. That’s more like it.
He took their paper, looked down at the page, and saw that it read:
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
There you go: for someone who wanted to glean all the wisdom of the world
In one sentence: sorry, no free lunch for you.
People always want something for nothing.
And, apparently, that’s not how life works, at least not in the so called real-world.
Though, while that may, or may not, be true on Wall Street,
Or at school, or in the world of conventional wisdom.
I have to tell you that, at a spiritual level, it’s absolutely NOT true.
With all my being, I trust that God loves me,
That God loves you,
That God loves this ragged old world simply because God loves,
Indeed, as we stressed last Sunday, God IS love.
We don’t earn it; we can’t deserve it; it’s a gift, it is free.
But there’s a broader point:
This business of condensing things,
summing wisdom up in just a few words,
the radical digesting of truth,
it is both IMPORTANT, and DANGEROUS, at the same time.
It’s IMPORTANT because people really do want and need the short version of it.
People ache for the bottom line;
they want to know the core truth, thank you very much.
That’s always been the case, and it might be more true today
With instant news alerts and the end of long-form journalism
Where we like the 90 second video on Facebook
More than the full length piece in the new york times.
But, on the other hand, condensation is dangerous
because as soon as you condense, you run the risk of reductionism.
You’re in danger of oversimplifying something that is inherently complex.
How do you describe what it means to love in a pithy phrase?
When you look into the eyes of a newborn
When you hold the hand of a loved one at their deathbed
When you say goodbye to your kid when they head off to college
How can you possibly say anything that conveys the depth of what you feel?
When you squeeze the truth down too small, it can become just that – too small.
We’re constantly going back and forth with this tendency
Between wanting things quickly and easily tied up in a nice little bow for us
And realizing that this just isn’t how it works.
That’s kind of why it’s all a process,
How life is about growth, about change, about deepening our understanding
Of what we are about and how we can live it more beautifully, more truly.
This sermon series is an effort to do that
To take a few basic ideas simply expressed that form the heart of the Gospel
the good news of how we can live
Lives of meaning and purpose and joy
And to commend them to you for your deeper reflection,
Over a lifetime.
What are the Words that we can build a LIFE on
Fundamental ideas that are God’s ideas for us
Simple enough to remember,
That hint at a deeper, more flourishing sort of life
A life that is good and beautiful and true?
Last week we looked at a well known phrase from the Apostle Paul:
The Greatest of These is Love,
And we found that the Rule of Love is the basis for every good interpretation
Of the bible:
does the reading help you develop a love for God and a love for your neighbor?
Does it help you trust more truly
Choose more faithfully
Give more sacrificially
Find comfort during tumultuous times?
Those are Words you can build a LIFE on.
They are true, and they are impactful: if you let them be.
The same is the case for these words that we are pondering this morning
In this reading from the Old Testament book of the prophet Micah.
You have heard, O Mortal, what is good:
And what is it that the LORD requires of you?
But to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
To Do Justice
And to Love Kindness
And to Walk Humbly.
Often we skip the context of this passage,
where we are told twice that the God of Israel
has a “controversy” with His people.
Then we are told, God “will contend with Israel.”
Then having said that, the Lord begins to speak through the prophet.
The God of Israel speaks with intimate, loving, parental tones.
The “controversy” regards God’s beloved people,
who have forgotten their own story,
and because they had forgotten their story,
they had forgotten their God.
So God, pleading with them,
“I brought you up out from Egypt,
I redeemed you from the house of slavery,
I sent you Moses and Aaron and Miriam,
I took you from Shittim to Gilgal,”
which is to say,
I took you across the Jordan River into the Promised Land.
“O my people, remember,”
pleads Yahweh through the prophet Micah to the people Israel.
Having heard that word,
because the prophet stands in both worlds,
the prophet asks,
“With what shall I come before the Lord?”
You know what he is asking;
it is an eternally relevant question.
“What is it that God wants?”
Micah concludes that God does not want empty worship,
God does not want even extravagantly generous cultic sacrifice,
A thousand rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil, my very first born!
God does not want even extravagantly generous cultic sacrifice,
if it is fails to recognize what a life following God is all about.
That’s when Micah says,
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you?”
I have been thinking for weeks about that word, “require.”
In this passage we learn that God has given so much,
and done so much for the people of Israel,
and we love to think of God as a God of grace and of infinite mercy.
So wouldn’t we want to soften it a little bit?
What does the Lord “desire”?
Or what does God “want”?
Or what would God “prefer” from us?
The prophet, though, is very specific, “What does the Lord require?”
Require is a strong word.
But it is not a word void of love or warmth.
Parents require things of their children, if they are good parents at all.
Children thrive with structure, with clear boundaries, do they not
and good parents provide that structure,
Good teachers communicate early and clearly what is required in a course,
upfront at the very beginning.
It helps to know what you are going to be up against,
what is expected of you.
A parent or a teacher who offered no requirements
would not be much of a parent, or much of a teacher.
I still remember my seventh grade English teacher
Oh, she was something else.
She was the first teacher to give us a beginning of the year piece of paper
With her plan for the year:
We’re going to read this book this week
And that book that week
And papers will be due here and here and here.
Papers? We were new seventh graders? Come on now, Mrs. Hunkins!
She had a box, near the front door for shoes.
No, we didn’t take our shoes off when we got to class.
It was for the shoe you gave her when you borrowed a pen
Because you lost or forgot or misplaced yours.
It was a rule. You brought the things you needed to class.
It was required.
And if you forgot, she’d hook you up with a replacement pen
But the cost would be that you’d take off your shoe and march to the front door
And put it in the box: in front of everyone.
She was also warm, and smart, and she had a quick smile.
But these rules: she meant it.
I loved Mrs. Hunkins, but nobody demanded more from me,
required more of me, than Mrs. Hunkins did.
So what is it that God requires of us?
First, “to do justice.”
The word “justice” in Hebrew is the word, “misphat,”
and the word is littered across the pages of the Hebrew scriptures.
It is not incidental to Israel’s story.
God is forever a God on the side of justice.
God is most interested in justice, not simply in fair play,
but in society’s determination to deal compassionately and justly with the poor,
the marginalized, the hurting.
Justice is God’s commitment to rightness, to equity,
not just for some people, but for all people.
This is the idea of “shalom”: where everyone is treated rightly
And where everyone gets what they need and gives what they can.
Martin Luther King Jr.,
paraphrasing a nineteenth century transcendentalist
by the name of Theodore Parker,
“The moral arc of the universe is long,
but it bends towards justice.”
King loved to quote the words from another Hebrew prophet, the prophet Amos
Words that are now inscribed upon his tombstone
at the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia,
“Let justice roll down like the waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
God loves justice
because the universe God has created is a moral universe
that bends inevitably, inexorably in the direction of justice.
God wants that justice not just for some, but for all.
Some of the best stories we have to tell are justice stories.
You might remember, last year, the heralded movie Hidden Figures,
which is a justice story from our nation’s recent past
sharing the lives of three incredible black women, mathematicians,
who literally provided the computations
that enabled John Glenn to be the first person to orbit the globe.
A Justice story because of how hard some people have to work
To claim their rightful place as equals in our land.
Justice may be “hidden” from our view,
but never does God cease to call us to work for it.
You work for justice in this world with the one life that God has given you to live,
or you work against the very purposes of God.
So God “requires” us “to do justice, to love kindness.”
The Hebrew word here is, “hesed,”
the word that appears over and over again to describe God’s love for us.
It is translated, “steadfast love,” or “loving kindness.”
This word that everywhere else in the Bible deals with how God loves us,
here is used by the prophet Micah for how we are required to love others.
We are to love others with the same steadfast,
the same tenderness and generosity of spirit
with which God loves us.
Todd Jones tells about his mourning
In the years following the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech University
Where thirty people were murdered with an assault weapon.
After Columbine, it was maybe the next major incident
In what has become a steady stream of heartache and national paralysis
That characterizes gun related violence in the United States.
Jones shared with me news about a retired guy named Bob Votruba
Who was so moved by that experience, at Virginia Tech,
That he cashed in all of his assets
And bought a large van and started driving around the nation
To different college campuses
Decorating that van over time with all kinds of sayings that call us to
What he ultimately called, “One Million Acts of Kindness.”
You can read more about him there, at OneMillionActsofKindness dot com.
Votruba wants that to be every person’s mission who dwells in the United States,
so he travels to these campuses
in his van
with his Boston Terrier named Bogart,
and his message is endless and singular. Remember to be Kind.
Bob and Bogart’s quest is so crazy
that it touches me as possibly redemptive,
because kindness is powerful,
and kindness is always in season,
and it is ever and always good for the human soul.
Walk Humbly with your God.
This one may be the hardest of the three, for some of us
Perhaps it is for me.
There’s a certain MODE to all of this
To struggling after justice
To seeking after hesed: steadfast love.
A mode is a WAY that you do things.
It is the ethos that underlies your actions
The tone you embody,
the unspoken language the accompanies the things you say or do.
Micah argues that its not enough to do justice or to seek steadfast love and kindness
But we need to be humble when we do it.
Am I the only one who hears that line, and sings the lyrics
of the Mac Davis testimonial in his head:
O Lord, Its hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way?
I’m the only one? Oh, ok.
Unfortunately, that’s not that far off for so many of us.
Humility requires that we open ourselves to criticism, to correction, to responsibility.
That we admit when we’re wrong and that we constantly seek what is better
Not just in those people over there, who are doing those
Unjust and unkind things
But in our own lives, in our own home, in our own business.
Humility means that we are always open to growth
To deepening our understanding
It means that we don’t just settle for the oversimplified explanations of life
But instead turn to God in trust that God can help us discern
How we can pursue Justice AND Kindness
in deeply complex moral and political situations.
And it means that we’re not doing it for credit
To get ahead
To have other people look at you and say: hey, that guy is a righteous dude.
But you do it because it is the right thing,
The Godly thing
To seek justice, and to love kindness.
That’s what a life of humility is all about.
You have heard, o mortal
What the Lord requires of you:
Six words. Words you can remember.
Words you can write down on a post-it note
And put it anywhere:
On your fridge
Next to your TV remote
On your computer monitor
On the back of your cell phone
To remind you that God has a mission for God’s people
A mission centered around God’s justice for all people
God’s love shared in kindness by all people
And a particular MODE of doing these things
That doesn’t think too highly of ourselves
But gives, instead, all thanks and glory to God alone.
My friends: these are words to build a life on.
May we, this day, find ourselves reflecting on the different ways
We can put these basic ideas into practice
May we be a justice seeking people, spreading God’s love and kindness
With humble but active hearts.
That might just help us find, in a simple way,
all the wisdom of the world.
May it be so.
 Shared in a sermon entitled “Christianity 101,” preached to The Brick Presbyterian Church of New York.
 Shared in a sermon entitled “What God Requires,” preached to First Presbyterian Church of Nashville. This sermon draws in other places from Jones’ sermon.
 Lyrics available at Google, here:
Image: Ty Koehn hugging his childhood friend, Jack Kacon, after striking him out in a big high school baseball game last month. More available here: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/after-winning-big-game-minnesota-hight-school-baseball-player-ty-koehn-hugs-friend-on-losing-team/