SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV'D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 4, 2015, THE FEAST OF ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We’re waiting for Joaquin this weekend, so perhaps it’s ﬁtting that we’re sort of in the eye of Hurricane Francis today. It is a “Francis Fest” at the Advent - keeping the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, blessing beasts this afternoon at 3 (Francis would’ve dug that). Plus, in the wake of Pope Francis’ whirlwind American tour, we begin a 2-part Entr’acte series on his encyclical Laudato Si. Francis to the left of me, Francis to the right . . . .
I’ve been reading Omer Englebert’s classic biography of St. Francis of Assisi, and Francis was, indeed, a remarkable man. Though his life sometimes gets lost in legends, Fr. Englebert says:
Francis is universally admired, but he has not always been universally understood. As with Jesus Christ, another universal ﬁgure, Francis’ admirers often try to remake the saint in their own image. Modern romantics are beguiled by Francis the nature lover, the man who talked to the birds. We have Francis the social worker, the humanist, the lyric poet, the drop out. At the other extreme, Francis is viewed through the prism of religious sentimentality. The Poverello - the “little poor man” - charms us with a sweet gentleness. Or he chills us with his fasts, his stigmata, his heroic and unfathomable asceticism.
What about us? Say there’s a biography of us or our parish - what gets written? “Religious sentimentality?” Do we charm or chill? How do we see ourselves? And most important — how does God see us?
I had lunch with a parishioner this week who told me a pastor friend of his served a church that had spent almost a decade working on their “mission statement.” Having meetings, discussion groups and questionnaires, cobbling together this document to describe what that church was about. But when someone started yet another conversation with him about that mission statement, the pastor stopped them and said:“I’ll tell you right now what our mission is: Be the church on Claremont Street” or whatever street they were on.
When the biography of the Advent is written, what will they say? Have we been the church?
Put a pin in that question, and let’s look at this famous passage from Micah. It’s a courtroom scene, believe it or not. The prophets are sometimes called God’s “covenant lawsuit messengers,” their job was to indict Israel for breaking their covenant with God. That’s how they made their bones, holding a mirror up to the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, so that they saw themselves as they really were. Look at the beginning of chapter 6:
Hear what the Lord says:
Arise (“All rise - Hear ye, hear ye”) plead your case before the mountains . . .
for the Lord has an indictment against his people,
and he will contend with Israel. (Micah 6.1-2)
At that point, Micah could’ve gone in any number of directions to indict Israel - he could’ve started naming off the Ten Commandments one after another; he could’ve gone through all 613 commandments in the Hebrew scriptures. Instead, he said - He (God) has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you . . .
love mercy, and
walk humbly with your God. (6.8)
Today I want to look at those three terms - justice, mercy, humility - let them be a mirror for us. And ask: If our mission is “Be the Church on Brimmer Street in Boston,” how are we doing?
First: Do justice
This word - mishpat or “justice” - is one of God’s attributes, the one that repeatedly aligns him not with the powerful, but with the poor. In Exodus, God fought against the Egyptians who pressed the poor Israelites into slavery. Then when Israel enjoyed privilege and “crushed the heads of the poor,” God judged his own people. (Amos 2.7) Proverbs 14.31: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.” The Dutch journalist and theologian Abraham Kuyper puts it this way:
When the rich and the poor oppose each other . . . both the Christ, and also just as much His apostles after Him as the prophets before Him, invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the suffering and oppressed.2
Some call this God’s “preference for the poor,” and that’s about when people of means look at me like I’m coming at them with a pitchfork. I’m not saying God doesn’t care for the rich just as much as the poor - the Bible is clear: “God is no respecter of persons.” (Acts 10.34) But what I am saying is this: It matters how we treat the poor. Whatever inﬂuence we have, any status or position or resources - none of that is ours by right. Rather, they are gifts of God, and we hold them in trust for those in need. Micah indicted God’s people for corrupt business practices that disadvantaged the poor (6.10-12), for seizing the property of the poor (2.2, 9), and one way we know we are being the Church on Brimmer Street is if we are caring for the poor.
Second: Love Mercy
This word is chesed, and it’s one of the most important words in the bible. It’s the word for God’s covenant love for his people. “Justice” is horizontal and points us toward other people; “mercy” or chesed is vertical and points us toward God. The question here is whether we are keeping our covenant with God, and it’s so much broader than simply justice to the poor - this is aimed directly at our hearts. Are we so smitten by God’s love for us that we’re compelled to love him in return with all our hearts, our souls, our minds, our strength. Do we love God enough to keep Sabbath and not overwork (that one indicts me every time)? Do we thirst for time with God in prayer, at mass, inconstant recollection of his place in our lives every minute of every day?
And third: Walk humbly
This last one really encompasses the ﬁrst two. Some versions say “walk circumspectly” or “walk wisely,” but what it really means is to bring our whole lives into conformity with God’s will. To really mean it when we pray “Thy will be done on earth - in our homes and lives and in this community - as it is in heaven.” That takes careful attention to be sure God has access to every room in our hearts - that we haven’t walled off parts of ourselves where we demand that our will be done rather than his.
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with our God.
One last point: In the run-up to verse 8, Micah asks rhetorical questions, each one more extravagant than the last:
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 ten thousands of rivers of oil? (6.6-7a)
Sacriﬁces, ritual - that’s religion. But God isn’t all that impressed with our religious exercise. He wants our worship, to be sure, but look closely at the next line:
Shall I give my ﬁrstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (6.7b)
The answer is, quite obviously, no. Even if we made every appointed sacriﬁce, even if we sacriﬁced our ﬁrstborn, that could never cover our sin. But He has shown you, O man, O Church of the Advent, what is good - At the cross, he showed you. God did give his ﬁrstborn for our transgression, the fruit of his godhead for the sin of our souls. In return, he asks not for religion. Be the Church on Brimmer Street. Not to earn God’s favor, but because he loved us even to the cross. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. He loved us ﬁrst; love him in return.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
1. Omer Englebert, St. Francis of Assisi: A Biography (Cincinnati, Oh.: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1979): 1-2.
2. Abraham Kuyper, Christianity and the Class Struggle (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Piet Hein, 1950): 27, 50 (quoted in Gary Smith, Hosea, Amos, Micah, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001): 433).