Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 30th January 2011, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Holy Communion Sunday
Whenever I have to take a long train journey on my own, I don’t know about you, but I always rejoice when I see a near-empty train. Then I know I can take a seat by the window, and sit on my own with a nice book or magazine. And I don’t know why this happens, but almost every time a new person walks in the train, they always seem to choose to sit either across from me, restricting my leg-room, or next to me restricting my arm-room. There are hundreds of other seats on the train, but this person decides to sit within inches of what I had decided was my ‘personal’ space. So what do you do? Do you point out that there are other seats available? Do you lie when they ask if the seats are taken? Do you get up and take another seat? No, you don’t; because you’re British, and you’re nice…
At this point, a good technique is to take the earphones out of the bag and stick them as deep in your ears as possible. But you have to be quick, otherwise your new travel companion will start talking to you. Again, I don’t know about you, but I’m never fast enough with my ear phones. And just when I’m desperately trying to untangle the wires, my companion breaks the silence and strikes up a conversation. The fact that I had previously taken out a theological book from my bag and placed it strategically on the table did not deter this person. Quite on the contrary. I soon discover that they find faith to be an interesting topic. I know this sounds a little bit far-fetched, but bear with me…
Now try to imagine yourself in that situation. I don’t think it’s that hard – most of us travel by train at least occasionally. Most of us come across chatty people at least once in our lives. What if this person suddenly asks you why you are a Christian and what life lessons have you learned from your faith? To make it even more focused, what if they ask you: what is the one Bible verse that captures your life motto? – a Bible verse that you could put in a frame on your wall. What would you answer? We’re not talking about your favourite verse about God necessarily, but a verse which could be used as a life motto. If you don’t like mottos, then something that captures your life philosophy in a few words. What would it be?
I think I am safe in guessing that most of us would probably think of a New Testament passage: Perhaps John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Or perhaps John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” There are many verses like that we could probably quote. I think we can all have a different one according to our life experience.
But if I were pushed to pick one verse which would capture my life philosophy it would have to be Micah 6:8, which is such a good motto material: “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” Isn’t that a wonderful verse? I believe that everything we do in our everyday lives has to fit into those three criteria in order to be a godly life. Whatever I do, I need to ask myself: Is it just or fair, is it kind to other people, is it done in humility and awareness of God’s presence?
It is tempting, I find, to think that being believers in God is about doing religious things. I’m not going to mention them, you know them well. This verse is a protest against this idea. Prophets often had to deal with a nation which misunderstood what faith was about. They were doing all the religious stuff, they were offering sacrifices, but they forgot justice and kindness.
The prophet Amos shows God’s wrath and judgement on this kind of religiousness: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
The need for justice extends beyond our religious life. We are challenged to always ask ourselves: When we deal with family members – our spouse or children – are we just? When we deal with employees, clients or neighbours, are we fair? When we decide which products to put in our baskets in the supermarket, do we think about the justice implications towards producers and farmers? Is fair trade just a fashion or does it spring from a deep desire, as we hunger and thirst for justice in the world? Whatever we do, this must be a constant question in the back of our minds: Is it just?
Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God… Another question we must ask ourselves constantly is this: Am I acting in kindness towards others? Justice and kindness go together. One of my favourite theologians, Paul Tillich, said in an interview that “Justice is the backbone of love.” We cannot say we love someone unless we act in justice and kindness towards them. This is often very challenging, especially if you are a passionate kind of person. Relationships are not easy.
Perhaps this is a good place where you could stop me and say that it all sounds just a bit too demanding; that this is typical of preachers to put burdens on people, and project an image of a God who makes impossible demands in order to show his favour to us.
Allow me to unpack this a little bit by giving you a wee illustration. It always amazes me how often British people complain about unkind and thoughtless customer service in the UK. It is not perfect, of course, but believe me when I say that it is miles better than what you will experience towards the Eastern end of Europe.
In many countries in Europe the general population did not discover yet that being kind and thoughtful is actually quite profitable economically. Many companies have kindness and thoughtfulness as an official customer care policy. But people are also discovering that it is a profitable general practice in life.
If you act in kindness and justice towards people, you are more likely to get a good job. If you are kind and thoughtful, you are more likely to have lots of friends who want to be in your presence.
This is not about demandingness. We are not talking about what God requires of us so that he would love us. He loves us despite our lack of kindness. But he loves us enough to show us the best way to live. That is why I believe that this motto is so valuable: because it helps us to live better, more fulfilling lives.
And finally, doing justice and being kind to people is done in the context of a journey. We are all on a journey with God. We are all in different stages on our journey. That is why humility is important. It is not just or kind to criticise and look down on others who are perhaps on another stage in their journey than we are. Recognizing that we are on different stages on the way, giving each other the consideration and freedom to find our own way is what gives US the freedom and confidence to do the same.
The Lord’s Supper is such a wonderful way of coming together from all our individual journeys to sit around a table – just as Jesus sat around a table with his disciples – and celebrate all that Jesus did for us. We are not here because we got everything right, or even most things right. We are here because God calls us here in his mercy and grace, and invites us to look at Jesus, to remember him, and to follow on his footsteps in justice, kindness and humility. To him be glory and praise forever. Amen.