It’s a piece attributed to Wilbur Rees, dating back to the early 1970’s, and one of those bits of writing that from the moment I first read it never really left me. “I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please,” he wrote. “Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, not enough to take control of my life, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk… just enough to equal a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black person, or to go out into the fields and pick beets with a migrant worker. Not enough to change my heart… I want the ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, but not a new birth… [What I want is] a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3.00 worth of God, please.”
Granted, some of the references come off a little dated forty years later (!), but I’ve got to say that even now that’s a powerful and disturbing piece of work; disturbing because I don’t know about you, but for me it points up just how much, where my faith is concerned, I fall short!
You see, I have always felt that being a Christian amounts to more than mere philosophy; that even though faith involves embracing the indescribable peace and comfort that comes in knowing God, that’s only the beginning. To have faith, and to be a Christian is to be no less than a follower of Jesus Christ; and that means whatever I choose to do or am called to be in this life, whatever I put out there of myself for people to see, as a Christian I am to be identified first and foremost as a disciple. A life of faith is meant to give shape and form to the entirety of our life and living; as Christians our lives are to be filled up with… Christ!
But then here comes a passage like the one I just shared and I come to the rather harsh realization that there is a wide chasm between how my life as a disciple should be and how it really is. I begin to realize that I do cherish having God in my life, but the truth is that there are times that what I really want is enough of God in my life to feel the warmth and strength of God in my life; but not always enough of God to feel his pushing and prodding!
I’ll confess it; no, I don’t always want God leading me out of my own comfort zone in order to become a true disciple; I don’t really want to be put in the place where I might actually have to take the risk to step up and do what I already know is the good, and right, and faithful thing to do! There are times I wonder, why can’t I just stand on the sidelines, nod knowingly and let others do the heavy lifting? Sometimes I’d rather not deal with the cost of discipleship, because I want the joy (!); yes, I’m a minister, but I’m here to tell you this morning that sometimes I just want my three dollars’ worth of God, thank you very much!
Whew! I guess if confession is good for the soul, then I’m pretty much good to go! Actually, I suspect that I’m not totally alone in that confession; that there are, in fact, a great many of us who struggle with trying to truly live unto that which we know in our heart is true and real about our Christian faith!
It’s interesting to note that on this Sunday we’re marking the “Festival of All Saints” – celebrating those who have walked the walk of faithfulness throughout the ages – the gospel reading for the day is, in fact, “The Beatitudes;” in which Jesus gives what may be his first overview of the kingdom of God and of the people who shall dwell within it! “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God… blessed are the meek…” and the merciful, and the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, and even those who end up reviled and persecuted for their faith! It’s one of the most beautiful and deeply meaningful passages of the gospels, and it’s meant as the spiritual reassurance to those whom Jesus came to save; but by extension it also represents what true faith ought to look like in us!
Which is interesting; because in all honesty, even at our most spiritual there are times for each of us when we are not as much hungering and thirsting for righteousness as we are simply seeking to get by! To live a life in mourning, or to be poor – in spirit or otherwise – is not what most of us would expect or desire from a life of faith. And as for those inevitable moments of persecution; well, odds are our first response is not going to be “rejoice and be glad!”
But there you have it: a “checklist for the saints,” so to speak, the very ideal of the Christian life as outlined by our Lord Jesus; and the hard truth is most often we’ve fallen short of that vision! Perhaps we’ve let the vision slip away from us; the inevitable result of having compromised our faith in and through the changing culture of the world around us. Or maybe it’s just easier to embrace discipleship’s joy without accepting its cost: part of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to as “cheap grace… the grace we bestow on ourselves… grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Whatever it is, the end result is that we’ve let ourselves become content with a passing, cozy relationship with God rather than wholly giving and directing our lives to God.
And the question is, how do we get back to that?
It seems to me that a good place to start comes from the prophet Micah in our Old Testament reading this morning: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high… 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?” Once again, familiar and powerful words to our years, words that offer some sense of stability in a complicated world; and yet words that set forth a radically different way of life. Basically, what we have here are the “minimum daily requirements” of a life of faith in God: to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk, humbly and wholly, with the Almighty in everything we do; three things that are infinitely more important than any sacrifice and offering we can make, and moreover, the sum total of what God intends for his people.
What’s interesting is that we tend to read those verses as very much a word of encouragement; but when you look at the backstory of Micah the prophet, you find that this edict to do justice and love kindness is less of an encouragement to God’s people than it is a judgment! It’s true; if you read around those three verses of Micah we shared today and what you discover is that “the LORD has a controversy with his people,” and that God “will contend with Israel.” In other words, if Israel fails to changes its ways, then it will become an object of scorn and derision among the nations and before God: the message here is that if you are going to be my people, then here is what is required of you.
I’m reminded of a story told about the baseball great Babe Ruth. The story goes that during one particular game, there was this famous umpire of the day named Babe Pinelli; and Pinelli had the audacity to call Ruth out on strikes! Needless to say, the Babe was not pleased, and angrily said to Pinelli, “There’s 40,000 people here who know that last one was a ball, you tomato head!” to which Pinelli replied very calmly, “Yes, that may be so, but mine is the only opinion that counts.”
It’s very easy, you see, for us to seek out any and all short cuts where living faithfully is concerned; all too tempting to rationalize away what we know to be true even in the face of our own failures in that regard. But in the end, you see, we stand with our damaged righteousness before the only one whose opinion truly counts; and so, here is what God requires of us.
And it is very simple – and attainable – but make no mistake, these are three requirements that mean everything. The first requirement has to do with conduct: to “do justice;” to live life with the gold standard of valuing others in the same way we value ourselves, and in the same way that we know God values us (it comes back to what we talked about last Sunday, the two great commandments: to love God and to love people). It means to bring justice and equity and fairness hope to others; most especially the poor in Spirit, to those who grieve, to those who have been persecuted and are downtrodden; truly, “do[ing] unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matt. 7:12).
That’s the first requirement; and the second actually builds on it: it has to do with character: to “love kindness,” you see, reflects an awareness of God’s mercy that cannot help but extend to our relationships with one another. It is to love as we have been loved, to forgive as we as been forgiven, to show mercy and compassion at least to the extent of what we’ve received the same from the LORD, which is infinitely. If I might put this in another way, the first requirement is to do the work of God’s love; but the second is to mean it!
And for that to happen there’s a third requirement that has to do with communion: to “walk humbly with… God,” which simply means to walk in fidelity with God, always speaking and acting and living as in the presence of God. I knew of a minister years ago who was fond of making sure there was always one empty chair at the table of any church committee meeting, and of telling those on the committee that “that was where Jesus would be sitting.” It served as a reminder that while they might not actually be aware of it, there is always a spiritual presence at these gatherings and the church’s business (and occasionally, its behavior!) needs to reflect that!
It’s a truth that extends to just about every endeavor of our lives, friends: it is “walking humbly with [our] God” that produces the character we need to possess to affect the conduct of our lives. It’s in walking in fidelity with our God that we can learn to live without compromises and without rationalizations; and to dare to live as radically as God requires… for it is that kind of life that ultimately leads to blessedness!
That’s what’s wonderful for me about the Beatitudes, and yet another amazing way that the Old and New Testaments connect: for Micah gives us God’s minimum daily requirements; but Jesus shows us the benefits of a life lived by God’s intention for us. According to Jesus, it is the deep desire to do things God’s way that will change your life; the blessedness that comes in knowing that even in the midst of poverty, or mourning, or persecution, we will discover a life that is light and a reward that is great and everlasting.
To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God: that’s what God requires as we go about the business of life; that’s our pathway of righteousness. And though we will falter and stumble on the journey – because that’s just who we are (!) – the good news is that we can just stand up and keep walking, because the great and glorious blessing that runs through the whole journey is that as we’re walking with God, God is walking with us… and for that, no matter what happens along the way, we can “rejoice and be glad.”
So walk humbly, beloved, this day and always; and as we do, may our thanks be unto God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry