Joy, Gratitude and What God Requires
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
Joy, Gratitude and What God Requires
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On November 13th, 2022
Micah 1:3-5, 5:2-5a, 6:6-8
Our journey through the Old Testament continues today with one of the classic, cross-stitch worthy passages of scripture. Micah 6:8 What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. To briefly set that command in context, we have moved on about a century from the story we heard last week about the prophet Elisha, and the king of Israel and the healing of the Aramean general Naaman. The prophet Micah, worked in the southern kingdom of Judah a century later, during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. The Northern kingdom of Israel has fallen or is about to fall to the Assyrian empire—as has Damascus—and Micah is calling Judah to move away from idolatry and towards being just, and kind, and in right relationship with God. Listen now for snippets from Micah:
For lo, the Lord is coming out of his place,
and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
Then the mountains will melt under him
and the valleys will burst open,
like wax near the fire,
like waters poured down a steep place.
All this is for the transgression of Jacob
and for the sins of the house of Israel.
What is the transgression of Jacob?
Is it not Samaria?
And what is the high place of Judah?
Is it not Jerusalem?
Moving to words we hear at Christmas, there is a prediction of a shepherd king like David to come:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.
Then Micah sets up a courtroom scene, in which God takes issue with the people for missing the point when it comes to worshipping God.
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 tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
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 God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Let us pray. God may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our rock and our redeemer. May the Gospel be more to us than mere words. May the Holy Spirit produce in us strong conviction. Amen.
There are certain big moments of decision in life, aren’t there? Occasions when our priorities, the things that really matter to us, come into clear focus.
Now that’s not to say that we don’t make choices throughout each day about what thoughts to dwell on and which to let go, and how to spend the limited time and energy we have been given, and whether to do this or to do that in a particular situation. Holding onto a resentment or letting it go is a choice. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt or assuming the worst about them is a choice. Expressing gratitude to or for a person is a choice. Engaging in a random or intentional act of kindness is a choice. Being gentle with oneself or others is a choice. Our lives get built choice after choice after choice. It may not always feel like it, especially when life is coming at us fast and furious, but we do have choices day in and day out—not necessarily about what happens to us, but how we respond to it.
There are the countless little choices that make up a life, but there are also the bigger ones where we hopefully pause long enough to contemplate what we’re about to do and what it says about what we really value. Deciding to marry that one particular person. Accepting or leaving a certain job. Casting a ballot for this candidate or that one. Taking the time to be with a loved one in their last days. Saying yes or no to that volunteer opportunity. And, on this day we call Stewardship Dedication Sunday, filling out a pledge card with a yearly or quarterly or weekly amount in thanksgiving to God and for how God works in, through, and beyond the walls, the mission and ministry, of this congregation we call Immanuel.
In today’s text from Micah,
I can almost see the prophet, representing his whole community,
Getting ready to make a pledge.
He’s scratching his head, rubbing his beard, card in front of him,
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?
Burnt offerings? No.
Calves a year old? Uh-uh.
How about thousands of rams
Or ten thousands of rivers of oil?
The first born of my own flesh to atone for my sin?
What does the Lord require?
What does God expect of me?
That’s a great question to be asking today or any day.
The answer Micah gives is
Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God,
Which is simple, and by that I mean concise,
But not easy. Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly
It doesn’t provide the exact dollar amount to put on a pledge card
The precise number of zeroes to put behind it.
But like a number of other scripture passages, it helps frame the issue.
Jesus’ encouragement to
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself doesn’t give you a precise number,
But it does tell you what’s worth giving towards.
Jesus telling the wealthy man who trusted in his own righteousness to sell all that he had and to give it to the poor and come and follow him isn’t necessarily a prescription for the rest of us. Whether it gives the bottom line financially or not, it does suggest that there is a certain all in—and not stinting—quality to loving God and our neighbor as ourself.
The Apostle Paul’s instructions to the Thessalonian church to rejoice always, pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances, and his admonition to the church at Corinth to give cheerfully and without compulsion, for God loves a joyful giver, don’t provide set figures—but they do suggest a certain grateful and service-minded orientation of the heart towards God and others. And that orientation finds expression in the choices we make day in and day out.
To say that what God requires of us isn’t a thousand rams or ten thousand rivers of oil or even our first born children, but for ourselves and our community is to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God doesn’t set us free from giving with joy and gratitude and generosity towards what God is doing in and through and beyond Immanuel. It just helps us understand what our work is meant to be about.
If you have been watching or listening to our moments for stewardship this year—either live here in the sanctuary or on video—you have heard Margaret Orr, Phoebe Markwood, Lee and Paulette Rainie, Chris Payne, Steve Casto, Jim Magee, Alan Bagden, Frank Winston, Beth Simms, Ryan and Laura Curry—all talk about what Immanuel means to them and why they and their families give with joy and gratitude to the work here. I went back and gave each one a listen yesterday—and what I heard in each of them was a celebration for how this congregation and its staff have helped each other in the work of doing justice, and the practice of loving kindness, and the pursuit of walking humbly with God. It happens through intergenerational Habitat mission trips and serving as a Stephen minister; learning together and supporting one another in small groups and being a part of a community where people old enough to be your grandparents care about you; working together to provide a car for a refugee family and making sandwiches for Martha’s table. It happens as thin place moments in worship as music and preaching and liturgy move us deeply and inspire us to advocacy, service, and prayer. It happens through watching our fellow Immanuel members and friends show us what love looks like when it gets fleshed out in the choices human beings make.
Hear me clearly. Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God aren’t things we only do through Immanuel—but this is a place where we are regularly reminded of their importance and offered opportunities to put them into practice. Which brings us back to choices again—and Micah sitting there with his pledge card in hand.
The cynical among us might find it easy to dismiss Stewardship Sunday as the annual shakedown, or even want to skip it as if we were listening to NPR and just wanting to get back to our station’s regular fine programming. But the truth is that Sundays like today are times to remember that our choices matter and that the choice we make to give to what God is doing and might yet do in and through this congregation helps to make that work possible. Including, I can joyfully and gratefully say, bringing in a new stated supply associate pastor for children’s and youth ministry to help re-energize our work with the youngest segment of our congregation. You’ll learn more about Pastor Emma in the days ahead, and I hope you’ll choose to be here to greet her on December 11th, which will be her first day.
Our decisions about what to do with our time, talent, influence, and financial resources matter. The decisions we make reflect what we really and truly value, not just we pretend to value or wish we valued, but what really matters to us. The decisions we make reflect the degree to which we trust in God’s provision, too.
Coming to grips with that over our years in ministry is what has led Judith and I to think of our giving to our respective churches and other charities in terms of a percentage of our income and to increase that year over year until we reached ten percent. That same thinking, by the way, is why our annual budget at Immanuel begins with a ten percent tithe to the work of local and international charitable organizations.
Once more, back to Micah.
His issue with the people to whom he was writing
Was that they had lost focus.
They had forgotten the true priorities of their hearts.
Which is why he chastised them in chapter 1
For setting up high places in Samaria and Jerusalem.
High places was code for altars to something besides God.
Making something more important than God and what God required.
The other word for that is idolatry
And as a member of Immanuel said,
Isn’t it interesting that Idolatry begins with an I.
It’s always something that I make more important than God in my life.
It could be forgetting that I am a child of God and worthy of being treated that way. It might be building an altar in my heart to fear and anxiety, or materialism and greed. It might be an addiction to some substance or something else that brings me a rush or numbs me to really living and being present to life.
A day like today is a day to recommit. It’s a chance to declare through our pledges that we are not the center of the movie.