Preached at First Church in Sterling, MA
March 6, 2016
Listen to sermon here
READING FROM THE HEBREW BIBLE (Micah 6: 1-8)
Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “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 slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
“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?” 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?
The word “require”, used in this famous text from Micah in the Hebrew Bible is translated imperfectly into English from the Hebrew word “darash”, which means “to seek” or “to seek after.” What does the Lord “seek after” in us? To do justice, to love kindness (and mercy), and to walk humbly with your God, the text answers. This translation of darash matters, I think, when we are attempting to fully understand this text. God requires nothing from us; God seeks after us instead.
The Hebrew people, like us, are always pleading with God, “what shall I give? How shall I worship you?” And God responds with what God seeks after in us—not what God demands. God is our God. There are no requirements for membership in God’s family. We’re already in. Everybody’s in. Loved beyond belief.
This is stewardship Sunday, and it is the day our newest among us will come to one of our Path to Membership classes, and if this time’s like every other time, the students will ask: “what is required of me? What must I do to be a member of this church?”
The answer is nothing. There is no “demand”, no “must”, no “requirement.” Everything here is free.
Last week I told you that everything here is quite expensive, and I asked you to raise your pledge by $20 a week. This week I’m telling you that everything here is free. Yes, I know that’s a hilarious contradiction, and a ridiculous thing to preach on stewardship Sunday to boot, but I have a pulpit and a microphone, and I get to contradict myself whenever I want.
The truth is, if there is nothing left you have to give, it doesn’t matter. You’re still welcome, just as you are, as God welcomes you. As a beloved child.
Everything here is free.
And that’s ‘cause Love can’t be bought—when you give love, it’s freely given, or it isn’t love.
I try not to talk about my kids too much, because it’s hard enough being a preacher’s kid without being made into a sermon illustration to boot. And let’s face it, there are only so many episodes of “kids say the darndest things” that you and I can handle.
So you’ll forgive me for using my kid as a sermon illustration today.
My middle child’s name is Eloisa. Some of you know her. She’s the one who comes up here sometimes and tries to lead you all in confessional prayer with me, as if it makes any sense to confess to someone like her. She’s five, and my irreverent kid. (Once she was leading us in grace before dinner. Trying to be a good pastor and mother I said, “Eloisa, what do you think God is like?” And she shrugged and said, “Imaginary.”)
Like I said, it’s hard being a preacher’s kid.
So this week, my husband, Andy, and I were arguing--regrettably within ear shot of all three of our kids--when he left to go to Appletown market to get some milk.
Eloisa said to Cecilia, “Where’s Andy?”
And Cecilia said, “he went to the store.”
And Eloisa said, (eye roll) “for what? A new wife?”
When Andy came back I told him the story, and he said to Eloisa, “they were fresh out of new wives, so I’m going to stick with this one.”
And I said to him, because I didn’t have anything left to give but this: “I’m sorry for what I did.”
And he said, “I’m sorry for what I said.”
And then he forgave me, and I forgave him. Forgiveness is essentially what love looks like in practice, and it can’t be bought or sold like milk. Just like new wives can’t.
God’s love can’t be bought or sold either.
I say at weddings that love freely given and freely received has no giver and it has no receiver. That love is from God. And that Love looks like forgiveness, and it looks like grace—the kind that is extended to us even though we are constantly fumbling clumsily in our relationships with each other and with God.
We don’t pay for love, and we don’t owe anything in return. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done, or how much we have been given, how much we have to give, or whether or not we are worthy.
At this church, we attempt with our human best to embody that kind of love. Everything here is free.
There are churches that are stingier than ours with their love. I know that some of you have been in churches like that before. There are churches where certain people aren’t made to feel welcome, or where certain people aren’t welcome to take part in the rituals, or where people are made to feel wrong or bad for the way God made them.
I was raised in an off-beat, post-Christian, pro-gay, Unitarian Universalist hippie church full of liberals and atheists and intellectual science-worshipping types in New Hampshire. I was dedicated as a baby and not baptized. We didn’t serve communion at all, because that might offend the non-Christians among us. In fact, we kept our historic Emerson communion silver behind glass. “In emergency, break glass.”
So the first time I took communion, I was in fourth grade. I was ten years old, and I had slept over at my friend Debbie’s house. She took me to her Catholic Church in the morning, and I sat with her for the whole service. It was the first time I had been to Catholic church. We sat in the balcony. Though I was fascinated and I thought it was beautiful, I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer then. When it was time to take communion, Debbie hissed, “COME ON!” and made me come up to the front with her, and take the small wafer cracker from the priest onto my tongue where it dissolved. It was tasteless, and felt funny in my mouth. I had no idea why we did this strange ritual. That’s how clueless I was having been raised in my weird atheist hippie church.
I told my mom about this experience when I came home, and she was horrified and a little amused. ‘Robin! You are not allowed to do that! That ritual is not for you....it’s only for Catholics! If they knew you weren’t Baptized and Catholic, you’d be in huge trouble.”
I was like, “Whoops.” And I was a little bit proud that I’d done something rebellious without even knowing it.
And then I thought about it for awhile, and was more than a little offended. “Well, fine. I guess if they don’t want me, I don’t want to eat that tasteless cracker anyway.” Looking back on it, I think that church was probably doing something right since my friend Debbie was pretty convinced that Jesus would totally let her non-Catholic friend eat at the Lord’s table.
The second time I took communion was as an adult, it was at an open table, where all were welcome to partake. I was told this:
“You may come to this table if you believe a little or a lot, if you are baptized or not baptized, if you desire community or solace, refuge or strength. At this table, you are enough and there is enough: enough food, enough to drink. Enough for EVERYONE. Everything here is free.”
I inexplicably cried as the delicious, aromatic bread was placed in my hand, “Robin, this is the bread of life for you,” and, as the wine touched my lips. “This is the cup of hope.” I had no idea I needed it. I couldn’t believe it was “for me.” I had no idea what that even meant, and yet, I was shocked at the familiarity of it; the gift of it. I wondered what I could give back in return for that gift. I knew it couldn’t be repaid.
I have similar feelings when I look at my three children, especially when they are sleeping, or at this congregation right now (hopefully not sleeping), or at my house and my husband, my brother, my nieces, or my four parents, still very much alive. I wonder what I can give back in return for these gifts. I know they can’t be repaid.
In our passage this morning from one of the Prophets: Micah 6: 1-8, we have the people of Israel on trial with God. And there is this moment of realization for the Hebrew people that they have been given so much by God, and that they must owe something in return. In the text, God is reminding God’s people what God has done for them. “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam…….that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
And the people say back to God: I remember, I know! WHAT CAN WE GIVE? “What can we do for you? How can we worship you best? Should we give you burnt offerings? Sacrifice animals? TEN THOUSANDS OF RIVERS OF OIL???! WHAT?!” And somewhat hyperbolically perhaps, but to illustrate how serious and grateful they truly are, they say “shall I give you my firstborn child, the fruit of my body for THE SIN OF MY SOUL?”
I get that kind of desperate gratitude, especially when given the gift of forgiveness of great sin—love that feels almost comically undeserved. I have felt that kind of love, and I haven’t felt worthy of it. And so I get it.
But God answers the people, “O mortal, what does the Lord seek from you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
I think that’s God’s way of saying, “pay it forward.”
Like me being served at a communion table I didn’t think I belonged at; like my husband offering me forgiveness after an argument, like the grace of just waking up again this morning…we want to know what we can offer in the face of that much love; of that kind of grace. And God answers with simply this: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. Which are all ways of saying, “go out and LOVE the way that I love you. Pay it forward.”
It is in that Love, that we will parade forward our financial gifts—our pledges-- to this church for the purpose of helping God to usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth, here in our little corner of it. We don’t offer these gifts because they are required. We offer them simply because we are grateful that everything here is free.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.