The prophet Micah imagines a court room this morning, with God taking the role of the plaintiff, the people of Israel the defendant, and the mountains and hills acting as the jury. God tells Israel that they need to give an accounting for what they have done so that the very foundations of the earth might hear it. And then God begins to plead the case: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me!”
A sermon based on Micah 6:1-8.
Can you imagine a more harsh beginning? God asking the Israelites what God had done to cause them to view their interactions with God as tedious. What had God done to cause them to become bored in their spiritual lives? And then God reminds them of all that the Almighty had done for them. When they were slaves for over 400 years in Egypt, it was God who delivered them through the leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam. When King Balak wanted to curse them, God caused the prophet Balaam—he of the talking donkey fame—to only proclaim blessings on the people. When they reached the banks of the River Jordan at Gilgal, it was God who stopped the flow of the water to let them cross into Shi-team (Shittim) and the Promised Land. Remember, God says, live into the reality of these saving acts, because they are not just “remote tales from long ago, but are living examples of the ongoing presence and power of God in every age,” as one theologian put it.
The people appear to be stunned. What do you say when given that mountain of evidence? They know that the jury will certainly not find in their favor. They are so caught off guard, that they remain silent, until a lone voice rises from the assembly in response. “With what shall I come before the Lord?” this one asks. How can I make things right? “Should I bring calves a year old to offer to God?” The speaker wonders what sacrificial offering should be brought to the Temple in order to find restitution. But then they go even further, recognizing the case God has laid out. “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or even ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” The respondent realizes that nothing can be offered to make up for how the people have treated God. They chose to go off on their own, to not follow the way of God. They had not remembered, but had given in to spiritual amnesia. And nothing they could ever do now would make it right.
Their situation was hopeless. There was nothing they could do.
Happy Annual Meeting Sunday to all you who celebrate! Whenever I question the Spirit’s movement in our world, I get metaphorically hit over the head with something like this—a scripture passage assigned for us in the lectionary that seems providential—and I am reminded that yes, yes indeed, the Spirit is out there doing her thing. (And yes, I know I just said, “her” when it comes to the Spirit. It helps to remind me that God is not an old white guy up in heaven, and is instead beyond our own limited understanding of all that we use to define God. God is so much bigger and more wonderful than I can comprehend in this life.) Because we forget sometimes, right? We—or at least I’ll speak for myself—sometimes I forget that God is on the move. Too often I feel like I’m stuck in a Narnian existence where it’s always winter and never Christmas. That God is far away from us. That God has just checked out.
Which is ironically the beef that God has with the Israelites. “What have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you?” What has caused you to grow tired of me and lulled you into forgetting all that I have done for you?
We look around ourselves and see hopeless situations both in our wider world and our community. Perhaps we took a peak at the deficit budget the vestry passed this year and see only desolation. We think the stories we hear in church are just that: stories. That they are “remote tales from long ago,” and it doesn’t enter our minds to think that they are “living examples of the ongoing presence and power of God in every age.”
Over the pandemic, I came across the 2019 documentary “The Biggest Little Farm” on Netflix. It tells the story of Molly and John Chester who in 2010 decided to leave their corporate lives in LA to purchase an abandoned 234 acre farm in Ventura County. That farm had been over used, the soil—if you could call it that—was rock hard, more like solid dust, and completely depleted of all nutrients. If I had been in their shoes, I would have not made it past the first walk around. But Molly and John saw possibilities. They renamed it “Apricot Lane Farms,” and they literally dug in.
Their first act was to put in place regenerative soil methods. They introduced farm animals in order to use the resulting manure to fortify the land. They begin planting fruit trees, and ground cover for the animals to eat. They diversified what they planted—the idea is to help them manage it all since crops come in at different times, while also recognizing that different vegetables need a variety of nutrients rather than depleting the ground of a just a few nutrients from a single crop planted over and over again in the same spot. They encountered more struggles and hardships than you could imagine—coyotes and snakes and thunder storms, oh my!—but they stick with it. They keep getting help from others who have walked the way before. They refuse to give up. And they turn that arid depleted land into a lush and glorious garden providing food to local markets and making a living for their growing family.
Back in October, the very week I returned from my sabbatical, the vestry held a retreat to consider goals for this year. As a part of that work, we began by contemplating where St. Mark’s currently is when you look at the life cycle of a church. Imagine a hill or a bell curve shape, with different spots delineated on it from a growth phase on the left side of the hill to the plateau and then a decline phase coming down. The model then shows four styles of interventions moving you from the right back to the left: renewal, revitalization, redevelopment, and restart. We collectively felt that St. Mark’s is coming down the back side between renewal and revitalization due in no small part to the impact of the pandemic. The years of pivoting and worshipping online and going outdoors and then online again, disrupted gains we had been making. Some people who had long be connected to St. Mark’s decided to move away from our area because their lives had changed. Others—especially younger families—reprioritized their lives due to their time in isolation finding less time for this community. Most of us have felt burnt out and depleted due to the impact of these past years and the whiplash from being in isolation to being thrust back into trying to have things just as they were before.
And with that information in mind, our vestry mapped out these goals. First, we must make sure that our ministries and expectations are in line with our needs and resources. What might have worked prior to Covid might not make sense now, and things that we’ve learned should be incorporated into our understanding of church as we move forward. For example, we will continue live-streaming one service each week for those who cannot join us in person no matter the reason. We’ve begun exploring new opportunities like Messy Church which is a more intensive once a month evening gathering for children and their families to explore the faith. With Sunday morning long being coopted by the availability of playing fields and sports, we’re finding ways to make inroads at other times.
Second, we recognize how much we all need community. Zoom gatherings, while beneficial when in lockdown, remove the incarnational component of meeting in person. And we are feeling lonely. This, I believe, held true even before the pandemic hit three years ago, but has risen to unacceptable levels in the aftermath. We long to be known as we are and to be accepted and loved. That’s work we have been doing—our men’s and women’s studies and our youth program have all continued to be impactful during the pandemic—and will expand with ministries like Dinner Church which returns once a month beginning next Sunday. We want St. Mark’s to be a place where people find those connections they so long for.
Third, we know that our society has pushed aside any real possibility of lament and grief due to the pandemic. 6.7 million people have died worldwide, with 1.1 of those deaths coming from our own country—the most of any nation. At the same time, we’ve dealt with significant issues around racism—reminded once again this weekend with the release of the video of the murder of Tyre Nichols by the police—and the impact of climate change which has become more and more present. We cannot just smile while looking around at a burning house, sipping tea and say “It’s fine!” We need to respond to that brokenness by providing a place where we can grieve the past, and find healing and renewal through the love of Christ.
Finally, we want to center our efforts on our young families. These past two years, we’ve had more baptisms at St. Mark’s than funerals. We live in communities where people move in to access good schools. Talk with any in this cohort, and they will tell you how harried their lives are, how full their schedules. And yet they will also say that they want to find deep meaning through faith and give back to make the world a better place and to instill those same things in their children. They want to fully experience the good news of Jesus’ love.
We felt led by the Spirit in all these aspects, and have sought to communicate that with all of you. We want to become the people of God in this community who know we need to do more than just going through the motions with our faith. We seek to be people who do indeed remember the salvation of God in previous times in our lives, and to allow those remembrances to drive us forward.
But it isn’t without cost, grit, and determination. We cannot accomplish all this without both financial gifts and a strong commitment to engage in this work of God with our very lives. Which is the very response God gives to the Israelites when they ask what they should bring to the Lord, because nothing would ever be enough to repay God. The prophet gives this response: “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.” If we think it’s just about finances, we’ve missed the boat already. God wants to join us on our life pilgrimage, God wants to walk with us. God desires for us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly on this journey of ours.
Friends, this pandemic has depleted much around us, and it might seem like it’s an abandoned old farm with soil that is literally good for nothing. It’d be easy to throw in the towel and say that our best years are now behind us, and so let’s just move on. But then scripture asks us if we have forgotten all the mighty acts of God, if we have not remembered that the stories of our faith are not just tales but living examples of the ongoing presence and power of God. A God who wants to act in a new way now, with our help. A God who asks us to bring a message of hope to our world. Who calls us to Welcome, and Inspire, and Serve God’s People in this time and in this place. May we do so with all that we are, staking our very lives on God’s deep love so that we might do justice and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God all the days of our lives.