That You May Know

My random and highly unscientific poll about New Years’ resolutions revealed that. . . you don’t make them!

Over the past month I’ve asked people of all ages, family members, friends, Central folk, others:  What are your resolutions for this new year? And more often than not, people responded that they hadn’t made any, that the practice wasn’t meaningful, and by the way, Louise, did you know the Broncos still don’t have a head coach, Casa Bonita is reopening in May, and the Doomsday clock was moved forward two more seconds?

Well. It’s the end of January already, and there is unfinished business to complete, lots to look forward to, as well as a sense of urgency hovering just out of sight. Who has time for New Years’ resolutions?! I didn’t make any either; well actually I did, but I didn’t write them down and now I don’t remember a single one (except to live more mindfully. . . and see how well that worked!).

The morning Scripture text could stand in for our new years’ resolutions. Its punch line is easy to memorize and often quoted as the Church’s mission statement:

Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.

And how can you top that? We probably can’t. But. It seems good near the beginning of a new year to go a little deeper into the implications of that mission statement for us as individuals and as part of the Beloved Community and this congregation.

So let’s read it in context.

Do you like courtroom dramas? Law and Order. . . To Kill a Mockingbird. . . uh, Better Call Saul. . .

The text is written as a classic trial, and to “hear” it that way, I’m going to read it in three parts:  God’s challenge; the people’s defense; and the surprising sentence. A reading from the prophet Micah, in the sixth chapter, verses one through eight.

Listen for God’s Word to carry us faithfully, purposefully, and joyously into the new year. First the prophet proclaims God’s interest in the matter:

“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 the people and will contend with them.

“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 God.”

I have a friend–a trial attorney–who once advised me about children’s sermons based on his experience in questioning witnesses on the stand. Never, no never, ask a question to which you don’t know the answer. God should have listened to my friend. The way God is portrayed in these opening verses would have Jack McCoy cringing. God doesn’t take the offensive, citing all the good things done for the people and how dare they act so faithlessly.

Instead, he asks some questions that he appears not to know the answer to. What have I done to you? How have I wearied you? This isn’t the God our Puritan forebears described as angry and offended by human behavior. Instead, God leaves it all on the courtroom floor, vulnerable and even a bit hurt that liberation from slavery in Egypt and a clever rescue from the machinations of an evil king hadn’t moved them to respond with gratitude and loyalty. Even though God raises the questions as a controversy, God genuinely seems to want to repair the broken relationship. This is not a capital case.

Then we have the people’s response and it would be comic if it weren’t so tragic. Rather than answer the questions God puts to them, they deflect; shifting the focus instead on God’s ridiculously unreasonable requirements for relationship. Continuing to read:

“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?”

I guess they thought if they could show how unreasonable God’s demands were–how utterly impossible to please–they were off the hook. But it completely misses the point God set forth in oral argument. God is seeking a relationship with the people and wondering how it had gone so awry.

And in response to the people’s exaggerated claims, the voice of the prophet counters very simply, not with condemnation, but with a vision of the good; a better way of life, not bound up with religious obligation but renewed relationship with God and one another, founded on justice and kindness. The final verses of the text:

“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 of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

What the Lord requires of us: that we remember God’s actions on our behalf. That we remember God’s love and grace so that we may know how to live well, with purpose and joy. The new year has tested us so far. The footage released Friday night of the beating death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis at the hands of police officers (which I couldn’t watch) speaks to police culture beyond racism to a failure of basic humanity. “All my son was trying to do was get home,” his mother noted, “and he was only two minutes away when they caught him.” She went on to plead with protestors to keep the peace. The bright, clean pages of the January 2023 calendar have been stained with the blood shed from 40 mass shooting incidents in the U.S. resulting in 73 deaths and many injured and traumatized. I can’t believe that even the most ardent second amendment supporter is not shaken by these statistics and the suffering they represent.

In the face of this, what does it mean to resolve to do justice? Surely more than wringing our hands in anguish.

I’m grateful for the witness of one of our elders, Cheryl Fleetwood, who has refused to accept the culture of violence and has immersed herself in actions addressing it. With her urging the Session voted last year to affiliate with an organization–Colorado Faith Communities United Against Gun Violence–that engages in advocacy and action to address the violence as a public health issue, and one that we can take steps to change. One of the actions is the “Guns to Gardens” initiative that sponsors events in which people turn in guns that are chopped and smelted into garden tools (reminiscent of the biblical vision of peace in which swords are transformed into plowshares). More information about participating in a February 25 event, as well as other actions, is available in the narthex lobby or from Central’s coordinating team, chaired by Judy Heagstedt.

By now you’ve learned of the decision by the New Genesis board to dissolve the nonprofit housed here at Central, due to pandemic debt and other factors. Though Central has not been involved in the management of New Genesis for many years, there was never any doubt that we wouldn’t step up to continue this vital ministry to our unhoused neighbors. You’ll hear more about these plans at the annual meeting, but know assuredly that not one night will pass without providing shelter from the icy winter’s blast.

And what of your own life’s dreams and goals and conundrums and weariness?

From where does your help come?

Whether or not you make resolutions, remember this: the God who created the mountains and enduring foundations of the earth has cared for you from the beginning.

That God continuously, persistently, and without weariness reaches out to you. . .

. . . To walk with you. . .

. . . To guide your paths. . .

. . . To bring forth goodness. . .

. . . So that you may know the love that holds you forever.

The late great giant of Reformed theology, former Yale chaplain, and social justice advocate William Sloan Coffin wrote a blessing for a past new year. It’s significant, I think because it reconnects God’s requirement of us with the very power and grace to accomplish it.

The world now is too dangerous and too beautiful for anything but love.

May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone; your ears, so you hear the cry of the poor.

May your hands be so blessed that everything you touch is a sacrament.

Your lips, so you speak nothing but the truth with love.

May your feet be so blessed you run to those who need you.

And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire, that your love. . . your love. . . changes everything.  

[from Coffin, Credo, p. 51]

May it be so. For you, for me, and for Central.