Laura Rousseau, Westworth United Church, January 29th, 2017
Scripture: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Is your to-do list too long?
Does it involve vacuuming the carpets? (mine usually does). Does it involve organizing the basement? Reading a book your friend loaned to you two years ago that you haven’t gotten around to yet? Does it involve sorting through that drawer of miscellaneous papers and mail that you may not have even opened yet?
Does your to-do list involve going to church? Does it involve leading a blameless life, doing what is right, speaking truthfully from the heart, and standing by your promises even at a personal cost, as today’s psalm suggested it should? Does your list involve seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with your God?
Your practical to-do list is probably long enough, but for many of us who are aspiring to live up to the title “Christian,” the moral to-do list may be even more overwhelming.
Fortunately we can scratch off animal and human sacrifices from the list, as we learned today in the scripture reading from Micah that God doesn’t want that.
When we’re reading the Bible, it can start to feel like a very long list of what to do and what not to do. Starting from the most important commandment of all: “Love your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” And we also have the lists of what not to do. For example, don’t murder, and don’t covet. And take the plank out of your own eye before you try to take the splinter out of someone else’s.
And perhaps this last instruction is the crux of the message from today’s scripture readings. The plank in the eye of the Israelites in today’s text from Micah was their assumption that God operated on a quid pro quo system whereby their temple sacrifices would earn God’s favour and convince God to help them. But all that was actually required was to walk humbly with God. The Hebrew word translated as “humbly” in this text does not simply mean “modestly” however. It also means “attentively.” The Israelites thought that they had a long to-do list of ritual sacrifices that were necessary for their relationship with God. In reality, all that was necessary was for them to be attentive to God and notice how God was already acting in their lives.
The early Christian community in Corinth also needed to be reminded about the foundation of their relationship with God. In his letter, Paul warns them against boasting about their accomplishments, even the things that they thought they were accomplishing on God’s behalf. Paul reminds them that God didn’t chose them to participate in salvation because they were wise, or powerful, or of noble birth. God chooses to be in relationship with the weak and the lowly because God loves humanity unconditionally. God’s choice to love God’s people is prior to any accomplishments they might achieve or fail to achieve. It is part of God’s nature to be in loving relationship with us, whether we have many things checked off the to-do list of Christian outreach, or whether we count ourselves among the lowly and despised that have nothing to boast about.
The tendency to make the wrongful assumption that we need to work to earn God’s love is not unique to the Israelites or the first century Christian community in Corinth. In modern times, our tendency to view the Bible as “God’s instruction book” has often led us into taking a list of moral precepts from the Bible and extrapolating them. Tragically, when this process happens without the guidance of God’s love, it results in things like the Crusades, or colonialism, or the abuse and genocide of the residential schools.
And I don’t believe that these things are always perpetrated by evil people. A lot of badness in the world comes from people with good intentions. Because It’s easy to get so focused on getting things done, completing the moral to-do list if you will, that we rush ahead and leave God behind.
One of my favourite parts of leading a worship service is being involved in choosing hymns. I was fortunate to have many good options in the hymn book to choose from for today that relate to this theme of how our relationship with God is, and always should be prior to, any action that we take in God’s name. The prevalence of this theme in our hymns is also a good sign because it means that what I’m saying today is nothing new or revolutionary, which for a rookie preacher is, I think, a very good thing.
Relationship with God is the absolute foundation of the Christian life, and through this relationship we will receive the strength and wisdom to work towards God’s kingdom on Earth according to God’s will. In 1882, William Longstaff wrote the words to the hymn we will sing together as a response to this sermon: “Take Time to Be Holy.” This hymn says “Let God be your guide, run not before God, whatever betide. Be calm in your soul, each thought and each motive beneath God’s control.” A century later, Shirley Murray wrote the words to today’s opening hymn. She similarly reminded us that God is “making space within our thinking, lifting shades to show the sun, raising courage when we’re shrinking, finding scope for faith begun.”
God wants to lift the shades and show you the sun. God wants to direct your faith and energy towards good works. God wants to help you get the plank out of your own eye so you can help people with their splinters. And all of this needs to come before we try to accomplish anything on the moral to-do list. Or even attempt to write a moral to-do list.
One of my theological studies professors said something I really liked. He said “God is not a furtive woodland creature.” And he explained that God is not hiding from us, God is, in fact, desperate to be known by us. God will try anything to be in relationship with us, even coming in human form in Jesus Christ so that we could know God more fully.
So God is there, waiting for us to connect. Waiting for us to set aside our fears, our dismay at the things we continue to hear in the news, our own feelings of inadequacy, set it all aside, and “take time to be holy.” God wants us to join in the relationship that God has initiated with humankind. God is waiting for us to connect through prayer, through scripture reading, through fellowship and the collective wisdom of the spiritual and religious community, and through simply taking time to notice how the Holy Spirit permeates all of creation.
So, you know what? Put going to church on your to-do list. Not because you feel you ought to, but because this is meant to be a place and time set aside to work on your relationship with God. This is a place to “Find the Quiet Centre.” To “clear the chaos and the clutter” so we can see the things that really matter. This is one of the special and holy places where we do some maintenance to our relationship with God. This relationship is the foundation of our faith. This relationship is the source of all our strength and wisdom. And it is this relationship with God that can guide us in our mission to becoming the hands and feet of Christ in the world.