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A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.

February 2, 2014

Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12                     

It didn’t happen very often, but when it did it was not altogether a pleasant experience. I am referring to those times when I was in high school and we lost a basketball game. Our coach, Doy Pannell, would always say to us in the locker room after a defeat, “That was my fault, gentlemen” (he always called us gentlemen when we lost). “You can put that one on me,” he said.

But we knew better. We knew that in his heart Coach Pannell was really thinking, “We lost that game because our fundamentals broke down. We’ve got to get back to the fundamentals.”

This is what he would do. At our next practice, he broke out the dreaded gloves. They were simple cotton gloves, the kind you might use in your garden or flower beds. But these had the ends of the fingers cut off. Try to play basketball  with only the tips of your fingers to hold the ball. It’s not easy, let me tell you. It was Coach’s philosophy that this was how you were supposed to handle the ball, lightly in the fingertips. And generally, by the time we finished our drills with those gloves on our hands, we were taking care of the ball in the manner that he preferred.

I wonder if that might work for the Razorbacks. They could  certainly use the help, whatever form it might take.

What works with basketball works with faith as well. Have things been slipping a bit lately for you? Have you found it more difficult to do those things that, in the past, have aided you in your faith journey? Have the scriptures just not spoken to you as they have before? Is your prayer life going sour (and notice I said “sour,”  not “south.” I am a southerner, after all!)? Is it harder for you to relate to what you know is important, especially when it comes to following Jesus? If so, it may just be time to get back to the fundamentals.

In the eighth century B.C., the people of Israel were losing… every single game. In fact, the final score wasn’t even close, they were being defeated by such large margins.

If you were here last fall for our series on the kings of Israel, you might have felt as if you were on a roller coaster. One king would be considered good in the eyes of God, the next was evil. Up and down went the fortunes of God’s people, depending on the virtues of whatever person might be on the throne at any given time. Well, the prophet Micah labored during one of those down times, when the political and military giant Assyria had swept down from the north and pretty much conquered that part of the known world. Israel and Judah, the two Hebrew nations, had, after a series of political blunders by their royal leadership, been swallowed up by the Assyrians.

If you thought 2008 was a tough year economically in our part of the world, and maybe even if some of you lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, that was nothing compared to what the Hebrew people are enduring. Assyria is literally sucking the life out of the Israelites. They are having to pay heavy, heavy tribute just so the Assyrians won’t remove them from their homes and take them into exile. Life is about as harsh as life can get and the people of God are trying to find the answers they so desperately need.

They clamor and cry for relief, but instead of rescuing them, God sends them prophets like Micah. Prophets – have you noticed? – don’t always tell you what you want to hear. But they are quite effective in providing perspective. At the point where we pick up his message, Micah has reminded the people of what has gotten them into this mess. Then he lays it on the line…

If they want to get back into the good graces of their God, what will it take? Does God want more burnt offerings? Will sacrificing year-old calves do the trick? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands and thousands of rams on the altar? Does he want them to offer him ten thousand rivers of oil?

There is even some evidence that in their desperation the Israelites have resorted to some of the evil religious practices of their pagan neighbors. Does God want them to sacrifice their first-borns to cover for their transgressions? Will burning their children, the “fruit” of their body, do anything to make up for the sin of their soul?

No, says Micah, let’s get back to the basics, the fundamentals of our faith. There is only one thing that will please God and start the wheels churning toward reconciliation. What does the Lord require? Three things, that when sifted down, are really just one thing: the Lord requires that you do justice, that you love kindness, and that you walk humbly with your God.

Micah was telling his people that they had gotten sloppy in their faith and thought that pleasing God was a matter of going through the motions of animal sacrifice – in other words, worship – without giving much regard to the way they were living otherwise. Consequently, their world was falling apart around them and they were wallowing in despair.

It really is true, even and especially today, that people will vote their pocketbooks. What happens when the economy falters? You find people in it for themselves, who have little regard for the needs of others, and survival becomes the name of the game. It’s the wrong direction to take, says Micah. The prophet is calling them back to the essentials – the basics – of their faith, telling them that what is required is that they give focus to the fundamentals, to that which God really and truly wants from them. The basics require that we cast our vision and our hopes beyond our own immediate needs, and that we give our efforts to others.

This was the eighth century B.C., I remind you, and the question still holds some three thousand years later… what does God want from us? Get out the garden gloves and let’s play ball, because it’s time to get back to fundamentals. What does God want from us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. In fact, that serves as a wonderful mantra of our faith: do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

Notice that of these three things, the first two have to do with the relationships we have with others: justice and kindness. If you want to treat God well, treat God’s human creation well. Then, and only then, can you focus your attention on your relationship with God.

So listen carefully: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly before your God. This is what I suggest you do: close your eyes if you must, but concentrate and think of one person – just one – who you have known and who embodied these virtues of justice, kindness, and a close relationship to God.

Earlier this week I was going through some files, looking for some information on one of our committees. I came across a letter Tom Greer sent to me the day after Christmas in 1996. Tom, as many of you know, was a good friend to this church, so much so that his picture is hanging on the wall outside this sanctuary. He served this congregation twice as interim pastor. I had only been here a few months, but after having officiated the funerals of Payton Kolb and Janie Howell, both in December, Tom wrote thanking me for the way I framed their lives in the respective eulogies I had delivered at their funeral services. It was a kind and gracious thing for him to do. That letter will always be one of my treasured possessions. Of course, seven years later I found myself with the painful task of officiating Tom’s service following his unexpected death.

Tom may have come to the mind of some of you as one who embodied Micah’s admonition to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly before your God. It may have been Payton Kolb. Tom’s letter encouraged me to dig deeper in my files and read again what I had to say about Payton at his funeral.

And, it caused me to reflect on my dad. I read this passage from Micah at his funeral in 2007. Do you mind my sharing a story about him, one that I told at his funeral service?

My dad was a wholesale grocer salesman. He would travel all over northeast Arkansas visiting mom-and-pop stores – the kind that existed before Walmart and convenience markets made them extinct – taking their orders, and then turning them in for next-day delivery. He did this for more than forty years for the same company.

A year before he died, our telephone rang. I wasn’t home, so Janet answered it. The woman on the other end of the line gave her name, said she was calling from Jacksonville, and wanted to know if Eric Hyde from Paragould was my dad. Yes, Janet told her, and the woman commenced telling her story.

She had run into Glynda and Mike Turner at a baseball game in Memphis. Their grandsons were playing against one another. Somehow, somewhere, in the conversation the Turners mentioned that I was their pastor. When she found out I was from Paragould, she asked Glynda and Mike for our phone number, and called the next week.

For a number of years, she and her husband had owned a small grocery store in Amagon, Arkansas. Amagon is located between Waldenburg and Newport on Highway 14. Some of you may recognize it as the hometown of our governor, Mike Beebe. Her husband operated the store while she managed the small post office across the highway. At one point, they found themselves in financial straits and were afraid they might have to declare bankruptcy and close the store. They talked with my dad one day about it, and even though I’m not sure he had the authority to do it, he let them order groceries from his company on credit until they were able to pay for it. That small deed, the woman told Janet, enabled them to get back on their feet. Eventually, they were able to sell the store and put away enough funds to enable them to retire. Had my dad not done that, she told Janet, she didn’t know what might have happened to them.

Would Janet give them my parents’ phone number so she could call my dad and thank him for his kindness? Janet told her that Dad would not be able to talk with her on the phone, that he couldn’t hear well enough to use the phone any more. Why not write him a letter, she suggested?

A few months after my oldest brother Hugh and I had brought Mom and Dad here to Little Rock, to live in a nursing home, we went back to our hometown and began the arduous and emotional task of cleaning out their house. Many of you have found yourself having to do the same. While going through their important papers, I found that letter. It was like holding scripture in my hand because, in my mind, what my dad had done – and there were other stories much like that one – was embody the testimony of the prophet Micah. He treated people with justice and loving-kindness, and he walked humbly with his God.

You have your stories, I’m sure, of others who have done the same. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is time for us to place ourselves in the scriptural narrative. One commentator has said that this message from Micah is where “faith finds its legs.”1 Where does your faith finds its legs? Beyond simply talking about your faith, beyond merely going to church, beyond just going through the motions, where does your faith finds its legs? Maybe this will help you with the answer. I ran across it just recently…

When I’m sick and you bring me a meal, I don’t care whether you’re a Calvinist or Arminian.

When I’m poor, and you give me some food and money, I don’t care if you’re pre-millennial or post-millennial.

When I’m in the hospital, and you send me a get-well basket, I don’t care what your church denomination is.

When you visit my grandparents in the nursing home, I don’t care what style of worship music you listen to.

When you’re kind enough to shovel my parents’ driveway, I don’t care what translation of the Bible you read.

When you give my friend a lift when their car breaks down, I don’t care if you’re Baptist or Catholic.

When you help my grandmother carry a heavy load of groceries, I don’t care what you believe about evolution.

When you’re celebrating my birthday with me, I don’t care about your views related to baptism.

When you grieve alongside me during the death of a family member, I don’t care if you tithe or not.

When you love me in deep and meaningful and authentic ways – nothing else really matters.2

Is it time for us to get back to the basics of our faith? If so, it begins by asking what God wants from us. The answer is in your hands, if not your fingertips.

Lord, may our journey find us coming back to you. The way to do that is to care for others in Jesus’ name. To that end, go with us, we ask. Amen.

Notes

1Andrew Foster Connors, Feasting On the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville, Kentucky, 2010), p. 294.

2adapted from Stephen Mattson, “When Christians Love Theology More Than People,” Sojourners Blog, January 22, 2014.

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