Rev. Richard Clewell
September 4, 2011
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Scriptures: Micah 2: 1-5, 6: 6-8; James 1: 22-25, 2: 14-18

On this Labor Day weekend we pause to reflect on the situation that exists in American culture. We would all like to live “the American dream,” to be well-off and comfortable, to see our investments grow and to be able to do what we please. Yet, for thousands the opportunities for sustaining and meaningful employment have faded largely from view. Young adult college graduates are deprived of a viable job market, and high school graduates and drop-outs have no skills and little chance to acquire even minimum wage employment.

Individual debt has soared as people try to maintain their life-style on credit. Unsustainable mortgages and thousands of foreclosures produce despair and hopelessness for great numbers of our citizens.

Economic inequality, the most important measure of social health, has accelerated dramatically in our country since the early 1980’s. One percent of the U.S. population now holds between 34 and 39 percent of the nation’s wealth; the top 5 percent of that number hold between 66 and 72 percent of that wealth; and the bottom 50 percent of the population hold 2 percent of the wealth. The share of America’s income held by the top 1 percent of the population has more than doubled since 1980, while the bottom 90 percent has, since 1975, coped with flat wages and mounting debt.

How did this happen? There are many reasons that could be explored in response. But I feel there is certainly a basic factor which is age-old and seen in the history of humanity which is based in the nature of humankinds’ striving to be the best and to be better than anyone else. Such behavior separates us from others and leads to manipulation and the using of people for our own profit and the accumulation of resources at the expense of others. American “individualism” has eclipsed our moral and spiritual imagination and become our idol. Our country’s economic system stands condemned most profoundly, not only by its misdistribution of wealth or its ecological despoliation, but also by its systematic cultivation of people inclined toward injustice and predatory greed. This is the basic nature of what the Scriptures define as “sin” which separates us from God and others and creates the poor and dispossessed.

Hear the words of the prophet Micah who speaks out to the people of Israel and Judah whose leaders and officials had led their nations to worship other gods and to cheat and rob the poor. (Read Micah 2: 1-5, Contemporary English Version). In the tradition of agricultural Israel, land and land ownership was special. Land had been divided among the tribes, but God remained its true owner. It was handed down through the generations as a sacred trust and laws were established to prohibit seizure of another’s property. Other ideals such as justice, mutual love, fidelity, and a close-knit family depended on the achievement of this sort of economic security. If the family land was lost, little other economic opportunity remained.

As land was bought by the powerful or acquired by devious means, families came to be disenfranchised and there was greater divergence between the rich and the poor.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Have this nation’s gods become “Power,”

“Money,” “Success”? Such idols lead to expanding corruption and a downward spiral which the history of the rise and fall of world powers clearly documents. Is there any hope for turning around the inevitable destruction which is the consequence of such self-serving actions and behavior? If God is not working for justice, then we are all at risk in a culture where nothing makes sense except the selfish whims and greed of those with power and the determination to turn their desires into reality. It was the prophet’s unwanted and risky task to interpret terrible events and to see the hand of God even in what is unpleasant. God is the hope in the innocents’ suffering.

When those ancient land grabbers, whom Micah condemns, seized the property of the weak and the vulnerable, they were robbing people of their life, their soul, and their identity. Divine criticism and condemnation of leaders who abuse their power and authority has not changed today. The question is who will speak out for the Lord’s way in “outing” this country’s dominant and decadent culture of “me first” and “the heck with the rest?”

It is time for the church to respond strongly in obedience to God’s call and to be active in fulfilling the divine dream for all creation. We have been passive and silent for far too long. Perhaps we are too comfortable and have forgotten our first priority as Christians. God’s activity in the world today is a call to us to become the kind of Christians whose witness and discipline are relevant to the Divine One’s way in transforming this world.

Theologian, Harvey Cox in his book, God’s Revolution and Man’s Responsibility, declares, “We are called to love this world and “stay with it,” to take upon our shoulders the responsibility for its reconstruction and renewal. This is the assignment God has given us,

and he will provide us the strength to fulfill it.” In the sixth

chapter of Micah, the people finally ask what God really wants after they recall anew what God has done faithfully for them. The prophet answers their question in a way which applies to us as well. (Read Micah 6: 6-8) God is not interested primarily in religious ritual or ceremony unless they are accompanied by lives dedicated to justice, concern for others, and knowing what God wants us to be.

“Justice” is something that God’s people do. It is not enough to wish for justice or to complain because it is lacking. This is a dynamic concept that calls on God’s people to work for fairness and equality for all, particularly for the weak and powerless who are exploited by the powerful. It may well mean that we as individuals and the church community need to “stick our necks out,” to speak up and out to those in power, to join together in protest of unjust laws and actions, and to demand the equitable treatment of all our citizens.

“Kindness” has to do with love, loyalty, and faithfulness. It is the key in relationships (i.e. marriages, friendships, or between the Lord and humanity). It is not enough to maintain covenant faithfulness out of duty or fear of punishment – it is rather love without resentment and in faithfulness to its Covenant partner.

Israel (and we by extension in the New Covenant) are to “love” God as the Lord loves us. The relation of faithfulness to God is motivated by reciprocating love, and that love does God’s will and reaches out to all people, not just those like us.

The word “humbly” is understood as “carefully” or “circumspectly.”

Therefore, we “walk” with our Lord, careful to put God and the Divine Way first, living in obedience as we travel with God as our constant companion. This eighth verse is about one’s lifestyle, total outlook on life, and one’s ethical values. We, as people of the New Covenant by God’s initiative in Christ, are expected to live accordingly, particularly with regard to justice, love and faithfulness to God and to others. When we fail to do so it does not mean that God stops loving us, but negative results are inevitable when people live apart from conformity to the way the Holy One has constituted his transforming way for this world.

What does this mean for us as Christians in twenty-first century America? We live in a time of invalidation of the Christian gospel by Christians themselves. We have managed to prove to most of the world’s people that we don’t really mean what we say. We are reflections of our epistle passage from James – lots of talk about faith with little accompanying actions. We form committees and commissions to study problems and then do nothing. God’s Word is not talk; God’s Word is action. When God talks, something happens. The Lord does something. God sent his Son to demonstrate the divine way of transformation.

We are called as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ to God’s way of “shalom” introduced in the Hebrew Scriptures, revealed and demonstrated by Christ, and lived by the Church in its calling to the world. First, this “shalom” of God means “reconciliation” and the breaking down of all barriers between peoples. Jesus initiated the regime of Shalom, and we are charged to participate in representing this transforming way in our culture and the world.

Shalom also is “freedom,” not for independence but for mature responsibility. It is our liberation from bondage to sin and the dominant culture and for service to all our fellow citizens. To answer God’s call today is to respond in freedom and responsibility to the tumultuous events of our times. We are called to act and can no longer blame anyone else for what goes wrong.

The final intrinsic meaning in the “Shalom” which is God’s Word for human kind is “hope.” It is the hope that the prophet Micah describes (chs. 3-5) in his picture of the kingdom of Shalom. It is the expectant hope which Martin Luther King, Jr. describes in his dream. The object of our hope gives clearer indication of our relationship to biblical faith than what we do here on Sunday morning, or what we say we believe. What do we hope for, for ourselves, and for our fellow human beings, for our country, for our world? Is it for God’s “Shalom?” God is working divine reconciliation in the world despite perceived contrary evidence. Our call is to the responsibility of carrying out that charge in our active participation in that process of transformation and renewal.

The church is a people who live their lives in this world with everyone else. As a part of the world we are in the sphere of God’s activity as participating agents of Shalom. We are aware of what God is doing in and for the world. As Christians we are called to both declare and to demonstrate the divine Word of Shalom. We should be the society of the impending future, a demonstration of what is to come.

So, as responsible partners in Christ’s Word, we find in Jesus’

words our ministry as well – “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to be blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4). This ministry belongs to Christ, and he challenges all his people to share in it.

What then shall we say on this Labor Day weekend? When we say, “Jesus is Lord,” we are stating that he is the one to whom we owe our obedience – not the United States of America, not the idol of “success” and material acquisition, not my personal whims, not my state, not my political party, race nor clan, none of these things can claim our highest allegiance, for Jesus alone is Lord. Our ministry will be effective when we follow the teachings and actions of Jesus who declared, “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; I was naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me.” (Mtt. 25: 35,36,40) Our commitment to the renewal of the world means we are willing to stand with the world in which God has placed us – loving it when it despises us, serving it when it doesn’t appreciate us, being available to it when it turns its back on us. (H. Cox, op. cit.) Our calling is to love the world that God loves and to be there as active and faithful representatives of the “Shalom” which God is making possible for all people. May God’s Spirit give us the courage to responsibly live out our calling. Amen

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