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Monday, January 31, 2011

How, Then, Shall We Answer?

Epiphany 4, Yr. A
Micah 6:1-8
1 Cor. 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

We live with two cats, Streak and Noel. They're both quite wonderful—affectionate and engaging—but whereas Noel is fairly well-behaved, Streak gets into a lot of trouble. When we find pieces of trash strewn about, it's "Streak, what did you get into?" When a bagel is suddenly missing from the toaster or a sandwich is on the floor, it's "Streak, why can't you stay out of what you aren't supposed to be into?" When we hear a crash or a bang, it's "Streak, what have you done now?" And as he—well, streaks—out the door to where he does not belong, it's "Streak, not again!"

I don't know why we bother talking to him, because when we look to him for a response, he proceeds to wash himself obliviously or to rub lovingly against our legs; occasionally, he bounds away from the scene of the crime, casually distancing himself and leaving the dog to take the blame. But we always know that before long, he'll be back to his old tricks, his basic nature getting him into trouble again. I can't really blame him, because that's just who he is, and he can't be any other way.

In today's reading from Micah, we hear that the Lord has a controversy with his people, and I there’s some of the same mix of frustration and irritation and even despair that I use with Streak, or that any of us use with someone who's wearing us out. "Oh my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!"

In response, we stand before God and we act as if nothing has happened and we're just minding our own business, or we try cozying up to God, being especially charming for a while, or we run away and leave someone else to take the blame. But I'm sure God knows that before long we'll be back to our old tricks, our independent nature getting us into trouble again. Yet God keeps hoping, because although that's how humans are, we—unlike cats—can be another way.

That "being another way" is the response God is waiting for when pleading again and again, "Answer me!" God doesn't want our excuses; God doesn't want us to explain where we think God has gone wrong; God doesn't want our fleeting apologies and momentary love. God longs for us to be transformed, to change—or allow to be changed—our hearts, and from that to change our actions. Our basic nature may be to get into trouble, to act as if our human desires are the paramount rule, but our potential to choose change and the hope that we'll use that freedom is what keeps God crying to each generation, "Answer me!"

How, then, shall we answer? Paul's words to the Corinthians make clear that the kind of response God is looking for isn't the same as what the world would suggest. Our concern shouldn't be with redoubling our efforts to appear wise, or powerful, or pious, or wealthy. Success in achieving those goals isn't the answer God wants, because those categories are all self-centered; they're all boasts based upon saying, "Hey, God! Hey, world! Look how good I am now!"…and it's just that sort of self-focus that's gotten us into trouble again and again.

How, then, shall we answer? What does the Lord require of us? Micah puts it as well as anyone ever has: "To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." Boy, that sounds simple…and it is so darn hard! This is the answer God wants from us, for us to undergo a change of heart, releasing the world's concern with power and wisdom and status, and re-orienting ourselves to God and God's priorities.

Our conversion begins as we learn to walk humbly with God. That means not only accepting the possibility of being weak and foolish and despised by the world, but in fact celebrating that our most inept and helpless moments may be exactly the ones when God is most able to work in and through us. It's right there: "We proclaim Christ crucified…" At the heart of the Good News is God restoring creation in the midst of derision, shame, ridicule, and helplessness…not despite those circumstances, but through them. The power of God is completely revealed when all human power has been cast aside.

We begin our answer by saying to God, "I don't know a thing about what it really means to walk with you, but here. I. am.," and then trusting that somehow, as that encounter with God is repeated again and again, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, God will transform us, God will begin to draw a faithful response from us. It's a process that, above all, requires us to be with God—not pretending we don't care, nor trying to appear exceptionally devoted, nor slinking away from our sin and hoping someone else will face the consequences—just being with God.

After a while, our answer acquires depth, because when we're walking humbly with God, when our hearts are being changed, our actions will follow. Remember, the goal isn’t being smart or powerful or wealthy; those are the world's indicators of success, but not God's. If they happen, fine, but they aren't the scale we're called to use. When we're being converted from the self-centeredness that causes us to allow injustice and unkindness, when our heart and soul are finding release from the world's measures, then we're more able to answer as God desires, by doing justice and loving kindness.

That probably sounds moderately reasonable when we're sitting here on a Sunday, supported by one another, surrounded by the signs and sacraments of our faith, focusing on God. But Monday morning, when we get up and embrace the day, it may seem a lot crazier, a lot more foolish, and maybe a lot more impossible. Then—in the face of everything and everyone telling us to do otherwise—we need to return again to that humility, to continue saying to God, "Here I am," and trusting that God will guide us in being peacemakers and showing mercy, will give us a hunger and thirst for righteousness, will help us bear the laughter and derision that comes with going against the tide. In everyday language, that means sitting with a friend who's hurting, or introducing ourselves to a person who makes us uncomfortable, or not laughing at a joke that demeans someone else, or sticking our neck out to come to the defense of others when they're oppressed or abused. We're called to be a blessing to those who are in need of God's love. And we're called to do this without counting whether it will make us more popular or more powerful.

It's not easy to change, to be transformed, but it's possible; that potential, that freedom, is one of God's greatest gifts to us. We can choose to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. But conversion is a process, with some turns in the right direction and others down the wrong path. And so each day God cries out to us again, "Answer me!" How, then, shall we answer?

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