30 January 2008

ten thousand goats

Micah 6:1-8, "With what do I come before the Lord . . ."

We’d be lying if we ever said that we’ve never had this kind of conversation with God.

“What will it take God?” “I’ll do this if you do that.” “I’ll go to church every Sunday if you just let me get that job, make my baby well, heal my mother, my father . . .” sometimes those cries are anguished cries. Sometimes those questions are because we know we don’t really have much to bargain with in the first place.

There we are, feeling small, weak, possibly ashamed, in front of God, one who is so large, so immense, so frightening sometimes. How is it that we make it up to God? Should we bring a young calf for an offering? Or if that won’t do, how about a thousand rams, or ten thousand rivers of oil? Would that do it? Because when we stand before God sometimes, we know what we have done wrong, we feel that itchiness in our guts, that worry, that waiting for the other shoe to drop so to speak. We know it.

I knew that something was up the minute I got home this one night when I was just sixteen years old.

My mother was sitting in a chair that she didn’t normally sit in. Something wasn’t right. And that’s when I started to feel it in my gut. She just watched me as I came in. I acted very nonchalant, saying hello, trying my best to head to my room before she had a chance to say it . . ., to say, “Jason, come here. I need to talk to you about something.”

I knew what had happened.

Earlier that week I had bought cigarettes from a man at a convenience store who also worked with my mother at JCPenney’s. This guy was known as the mouth of that JCPenney’s store. He was a shoe salesman there and was the type that would just stand there when he wasn’t busy, place a hand on his hip and talk about whatever gossip he had heard in the last day or two.

When I asked for the cigarettes . . . and Kenneth turned around, I knew I was busted. But I told him some kind of story anyway, not really believing that it would stick, but hoping I guess. So when my mother was sitting in that particular chair, when she stopped me before I could make it back to my room, when she said, “Jason come here. I want to talk to you about something,” I knew. I knew it in my gut. I felt my heartbeat grow faster. I knew.

It was sort of like having to go in front of the court, in front of the judge. Some of you have to go to court all the time for your jobs. And maybe you get used to it, but the rest of us get a bit nervous when we do, for whatever the reason. And this passage we have in front of us, Micah the prophet is describing a court scene.

It is as if the bailiff has just said “All rise” and the people of Israel are there, standing before God. The mountains are there. The hills are there as witnesses to the trial that is about to take place. “For God has a controversy with the people.”

God sitting in that chair saying that you need to talk about something. And the people had to feel it in their gut, the way you know when you come before God that you have done something wrong, have walked in some other way than God wanted you to walk, have sinned we tend to call it in theological language. Because we all have sinned; we all have fallen short; we all have missed that mark that God wishes for us to hit.

I felt like I had been hit when my mother said those words. She had me sit on a stool in front of her. I don’t know if she was trying to smell my breath or what. But for this teenager, it made me feel like a child again, to be sitting lower than she was.

And then she said, “I’m your mother. I want you to tell me the truth.”

“I’m your mother,” she said. She didn’t yell. She didn’t fuss. But she did affirm the relationship that we had with each other.

This wasn’t about smoking per se, although she definitely didn’t approve. She’d watched cigarettes kill her brother; her sister Hazel who just recently died smoked almost all of her adult life.

But it wasn’t just about right or wrong, what she approved of or didn’t approve of, it was about our relationship, about when you are in that relationship with you parent or parents, when you walk with them, you act differently, you talk differently, you know that in valuing that relationship you do what your parents value, you enact it.

People talk about how so-and-so’s child walks just like them, stands like their mother. My parents used to tell me that I locked my knees when I stood, just like my grandfather.

And in that moment, when I sat on a stool in front of my mother, I told her that “yes” I had been smoking. And she didn’t say that it was wrong, she didn’t fuss, she didn’t yell, she just quietly said that she was disappointed in me.

And in a way that was so much worse!

And God said to the people, “What have I done to you? How have I wearied you?” God doesn’t say to them you shouldn’t have done this or that, God talks about that relationship, that covenant relationship that God has had with the people of Israel.

“What have I done?” God asks. God tells them again of how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, how God gave them rules to live by, a law that would guide them in their relationships with each other and with God, how there have been times where whole countries aligned themselves against the people, to hurt them, to harm them, and God protected.

“So, what have I done?” God asks. “What have I done?”

And it is at that moment that you know what you have done, what I have done, what we have all done. We pray that prayer of confession before we approach the Lord’s table for communion, “God we confess that we have not loved you with our whole hearts, we have failed to be an obedient church, we have failed to do you will . . . .”

And then our human response kicks in, we say things like “I promise I won’t do it again.” Or maybe we expect a list of punishments to be handed out, some way of paying for what we have done.

This is why we read, “With what can I come before the Lord?” We know that we are not worthy.

“Can I give God a burnt offering . . . or maybe a thousand rams . . . or maybe ten thousand rivers of oil . . .” or maybe whatever it is in your mind that you think would please God.

This is why people start off with the “I’ll start going to church every Sunday . . .” because we feel that we can do something. And maybe that would be easier if there was some sort of schedule, some list that said if I do this, then I can pay for it by doing that.

But it is not how God works.

Because God responds to the question by saying, “I’ve shown it to you already. What does God require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

That’s all. And what is last is really first anyway.

When we are in that relationship with God, walking humbly with God, sitting at God’s feet, we will do justice by those that we meet, by those we do business with, by our family, by those who do not have what we have. And we will love kindness, we will seek relationship with others, merciful relationship where we look past the wrongs that the other might have done, where we look past where we have felt slighted. And we walk humbly, knowing that God has offered us forgiveness, therefore we should forgive others, therefore we should be peacemakers, we should be meek, we must walk in relationship with God.

My mother didn’t ground me for a month or punish me in any way. She too called me back into relationship, asking me to promise that I wouldn’t do it again.

I cannot say that I never smoked again; but as we look at the relationship between God and the people of Israel there seems to be this constant cycle of being close then far, of following God’s will, then straying away from God. But God is there, calling you and calling me always, back into relationship with God, asking us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

No comments: