This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, March 15, 2020, the Third Lord’s Day of Lent at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s the third in a series of sermons exploring the marks of membership in United Methodist Churches: prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. It interacts with Pastor Adam Hamilton’s The Walk: Five Essential Practices of the Christian Life (Abingdon Press, 2019).
Today’s sermon is based on Micah 6:1-8 and Ephesians 2:4-10.
A number of years ago, I served on the Transition Team that guided the process of creating the Great Plains Annual Conference from what was once the Nebraska, Kansas East, and Kansas West United Methodist Annual Conferences. We were called to discern who God was calling us to be as an Annual Conference – a connection of churches divided into districts across our states – and how to organize ourselves for this calling. We learned that the Kansas conferences employed a disaster response coordinator, whose leadership and ministries were deeply valued. At the time, I wasn’t convinced that it was the Annual Conference’s role to employ a disaster response coordinator leading such a conference-wide ministry.
But, almost exactly a year ago, I learned that I had been wrong. You likely don’t need me to remind you, but last year at this time, we here, and a huge portion of eastern Nebraska, experienced catastrophic flooding. Before the waters receded, the Rev. Hollie Tapley, our Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, was making plans with local church and community leaders, and district disaster response coordinators, to help families and communities begin the long process of cleaning up and rebuilding. Soon afterward, Cathy Earl, the director of disaster response for UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief) toured affected areas and met with the Rev. Tapley. Earl praised Tapley and her team’s work and assured them that UMCOR funding was already on the way to help in the huge response effort.
So, here’s the thing I learned from this. When I was on the Transition Team, I could see the value in churches and individual Christians responding to the needs of others with Christ-like love, support, and care. But, I had a hard time thinking about devoting significant financial and leadership resources to an organized response to “what-if” disasters. In The Walk, Pastor Adam Hamilton spoke to me when he said, “I’ve known people who criticize ‘organized religion.’ But when I look at organized religion, I find it to be much more impactful than disorganized religion or solitary religion” (Kindle loc 761). On the other side of a disaster, I stand corrected: being organized has great power and potential to convey God’s love and care, especially in times of need. We can see the same thing happening in our local community in the way the churches work together to support the Food Pantry and the Ministerial Association’s Emergency Relief Fund. Out of love for Christ, we seek to love and support others.
But here’s the thing. I’ll often hear people say of helping others – whether it’s through the Food Pantry, our work with Willow, or countless individual efforts – that helping and serving others is “just what we do; it’s the right thing.” To some degree, we might be right when we say this, and yet, this also misses the mark. Helping and serving others isn’t just “something we do” because we’re good people and that’s what good people do. Helping and serving others is God’s calling and an essential practice of the Christian life, because helping and serving others is a means of grace – a way to make God’s grace real for others.
Our passage from the Prophet Micah is likely so familiar as to be at risk of seeming commonplace, but for Micah’s first hearers, it was a shockingly concise challenge to remember and live into who they were called to be. Speaking to the people of Judah in the late 8th Century BCE, Micah repeatedly calls out the people on ways they’ve allowed or intentionally hurt others. In chapter 2, Micah calls out financial practices through which wealthy and powerful people, “covet fields, and see seize them…[and] oppress the householder and the house, people and their inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2). In chapter 3, Micah takes on their morals saying they “hate the good and love the evil,” they “tear the skin off [God’s] people, and the flesh off their bones” (Micah 3:1-3, NRSV).
Then, in today’s passage, Micah criticizes their religious practices in light of their other, deplorable actions. He’s saying, “You think you can just come to worship at the Temple, make some sacrifices, and then go on your merry way without care for how your actions make life harder for others?” Instead, God tells the people, and us, through Micah, “I don’t want any of those sacrifices or your worship. This is what the Lord requires: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NRSV). In this passage, God reminds the people that God’s foremost call for them is to serve others.
But there’s one more important thing in this passage, which will lead us into our second reading: embedded in this familiar text is a Hebrew word that reveals why serving others is so essential for faithfully walking with God. In Hebrew, the word we translate here as “kindness” is the word hesed. Hesed can also be translated as mercy, steadfast love, and lovingkindness. Hesed is used frequently in the Old Tesatement, especially in the Psalms, but it’s mostly used to describe God – God’s mercy, God’s steadfast love, and God’s kindness. God is mercy. God is steadfast love. God is kindness. So, when God, through Micah, calls us to love hesed, to love kindness and mercy, God is calling us to reveal the very character and presence of God. And this leads us to our passage from Ephesians.
Paul is clear in this passage that, in Christ, we are “saved by God’s grace because of (or through) our faith” (v. 8) and that salvation is “God’s gift.” This is the same language we use at baptisms, in which we proclaim that inclusion in the body of Christ, incorporation into God’s mighty acts of salvation, and experiencing new birth are “God’s gifts, offered to us without price.” But the response to the gift of salvation, the response of all who have been baptized, is doing, as Paul calls them, “good things.” He says we are “God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to go good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives (Eph 2:10, CEB).” In Ephesians, Paul reveals and reiterates the message of Micah: we walk with God by doing good for others, by showing mercy and kindness to each other. God calls us to lives of kindness and goodness for others, so that others will see God in us. At our best, being kind and serving is “just what we do,” precisely because serving and showing kindness reveals God’s presence and character for others.
This leads us to our hands for this week. The last two weeks we’ve talked about our hands as reminders of how we can walk with God faithfully. First, we focused on how we talk to God through worship and prayer, as a congregation and in our five-times-a-day prayers. Then, last week, we emphasized listening to God especially by studying scripture: five verses a day, or five chapters a week, alone and with others. And today, our hands can remind us of the practice of showing kindness to others out of love for God, and as a way to reveal God to others.
As in the previous weeks, we have both a closed hand and an open, fingers-extended hand. Our closed hand can remind us of God’s call to serve others together, specifically as acts of the church. Part of serving together might be the ways we serve in ministries of the church – like Sunday School and CRC, funeral meals, or caring ministries. It might also mean joining in our highway pick up this spring, organizing a small group of people for a short-term mission trip, or helping at the Food Pantry. God reveals Godself for others, and we experience God’s presence, when we serve others together in ministry.
But we also have these five fingers, that remind and challenge us to do five acts of kindness and service each week – or, for the overachievers, five a day. This could be as small as taking time to open a door or share a smile or word of encouragement. With concerns about COVID-19, this week could be a great week to make some phone calls to those who are staying at home, to write them letters, or to offer to pick up and deliver some essential groceries. We are a people who ask for help too infrequently, so our challenge is to listen to the Spirit’s leading and offer kindness and help first. God reveals Godself through the kindness of people like us, so that we can all experience God’s grace more fully in our lives. And in this, by mobilizing as a people of lovingkindness, the impact could be huge.
Just think, how might our community, and the world, be different if we each took up the challenge to extend five acts of kindness for others a week, or more, five acts of kindness each day? Let’s do the math. There are, on average 180 people in worship here each week: 180 people x 5 acts of kindness = 900 people whose lives are brightened by God’s love through us in a week; and nearly 50,000 acts of kindness a year. If we spread our kindness out to every person in town, we’d bless each person with kindness something like thirteen times a year! And, this isn’t just kindness because that’s what good people do. It’s 50,000 acts of revealing that God’s steadfast faithfulness, mercy, kindness, and love is all around them and for them. God reveals Godself as we walk with kindness. May it be so.