Monday, January 31, 2011

Egypt in Revolution: Justice, Kindness, Humility

I have added this sermon because I appreciated trying to relate Micah to the revolution in Egypt this week. I delivered this sermon at Grace United in Brampton Ontario on Jan 30, 2011 as part of an Emmanuel College Southwest Presbytery "blitz" . . . Ian

Text: Micah 6:1-8

Justice, kindness, humility: we gather here this morning to reflect again on these virtues. They come down to us over the centuries from the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah and they ring again with their usual clarity, beauty and power. But this morning, we reflect on these virtues against the backdrop of extraordinary news: the revolution in Egypt. What a moment this is turning out to be! One protestor in downtown Toronto yesterday suggested that this week we are all Egyptians, and I agree with him. I pray that in solidarity with our Arab brothers and sisters we feel empowered by God's freely given grace to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. For this is a moment filled with wonderful promise and grave dangers.

The events in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon and other Arab countries this week surprise me even as they also seem as evocative as first the breath of spring. The surprise comes from asking, "Why now?"  Yes, there is poverty, corruption, and brutality in these countries -- but such conditions have existed for decades. So what caused the dam to burst this week and not another time?

The sense of recognition comes from memories of similar abrupt changes: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Europe after 1989; People's Power in the Philippines in 1986; the popular revolts in Central America in the 70s and 80s; the revolution against the Shah of Iran in 1979, and many others over the centuries. The Arab revolts can remind us that sometimes, everything changes in an instant. I am also reminded that such changes can sometimes lead to unforeseen consequences that the rebels later regret.

Here in peaceful and prosperous Canada we enjoy civil liberties and the rule of law. We often look upon poverty and repression in other lands with pain and regret; and we cheer popular movements to bring justice and freedom in places like Egypt from the sidelines. This morning we watch, pray and hope for Egypt and other Arab countries. Will the protestors succeed in ridding themselves of brutal governments? Will there be more bloodshed? Will new governments be even worse than the old ones? Or will a new era of human rights, peace and prosperity dawn in North Africa?

As late as Friday morning, when I met with Rev. Ross to discuss this service, I didn't think I was going to relate our Scripture reading from Micah to current events. Instead, my plan was to focus on requirements for worship. But then I watched the evening news on Friday, and a shift in focus seemed appropriate.

In today's reading, Micah contrasts Israel practices of animal sacrifices with what he says is most acceptable in God's sight: to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. This is a much-loved passage, especially in a church like ours that is focused more on ethics and social justice than on ritual and dogma.

This semester, I am taking a course on the history of the United Church of Canada, and in a 1931 article we read two weeks ago titled "The Genius of the United Church," the author says that the passage from Micah we read this morning represents "the highest point in Old Testament religion."

But even though Micah's simple virtues of justice, kindness, and humility might seem less difficult to us than the 613 commandments of the Hebrew Torah or the rituals of sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, they are still presented to us as requirements from God. For me, this highlights an ongoing tension in our faith between God's requirements and God's grace.

When Ross asked me on Tuesday for a title for my sermon, the idea of requirements in worship was rattling around in my mind, so I came up with the phrase "No Jacket Required." A quick search via Google showed me that I probably remembered the phrase from a 1985 Grammy-award winning pop album of Phil Collins called "No Jacket Required." Collins' title was inspired by an evening where he was denied entry into a posh "jackets-only" restaurant despite his wealth and fame. In turn, his annoyance referred to in his album title reminded me of my childhood.

In the United Church of my youth in the 1960s, polished shoes, bow ties, and suit jackets were part of the Sunday-morning routine. By insisting that we dress up, my parents gave us the message that respect for God was conveyed through proper attire.

But despite dress requirements for church, Hebrew sacrificial rites, or even Micah's prophecy from God, I don't believe that God truly does require anything from us. In his New Testament letters, Paul reminds us again and again of grace. God's Grace freely accepts and heals regardless of our religious practices or our good works for justice. We don't have to do anything to receive God's grace.

So how does this understanding of grace square with ethical requirements such as doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God?

For me, responding to God's call comes from an awareness of grace and not as a  requirement. 10 years ago, I surprised myself by returning to worship at my local United Church. In these worship services, I remembered and woke up again to the wonderful news that amid the difficulties, pains, and disappointments of life, God's gracious love and acceptance is freely given to us. Being transformed like this in worship led me to get involved in the work of the church -- not from a sense of obligation, but from gratitude and new-found freedom. And so . . .  justice, kindness and humility. I will examine these three virtues in reverse order.

The older we get, the easier humility seems to come for many of us. This is not because of any great qualities we might posses. Quite the opposite. Our lives are filled with inevitable stumbles, failures and embarrassments. Bodies age and betray us. Relationships sour and sometimes break down. Worldly success eludes us or else reveals that it lacks the spiritual wealth that our hearts most yearn for. A long life tends to be one in which we are humbled -- especially when we accept God's acceptance of us in our less-than-perfect reality. Accepting God's acceptance can transform life's humiliations into a humble self-acceptance.

When we embrace our sacred but humble reality, we also become more open to kindness. What could be kinder than accepting ourselves just as we are, even though we are broken sinners. Such self-acceptance is kindness at its best. Having forgiven ourselves, we will better empathize with all our fellow pilgrims, who are as broken and foolish as we are. And so we walk both humbly and with kindness on God's path of faith, hope and love.

And what about justice? Justice means several things in the Bible: being in right relationship with God, in right relationship with ourselves, and in right relationship with our neighbours. When we notice that something is out of line, we are moved to seek justice. Perhaps our actions show that we have strayed from love. Perhaps we are suffering in an abusive relationship or from physical or emotional disease. Perhaps at the social level, we notice unnecessary poverty, neglect, violence, or cruelty. When we become aware of such imbalances, we seek God's help to bring us back in alignment with love and well-being. We seek to do justice.

As sinful mortals, our efforts to achieve justice often fail to achieve their objectives. This is yet another reason for us to remain humble and to be kind to each other. Life is not easy and the world is filled with problems that we can't easily solve. And yet God's grace is available to all of us, and at the deepest and most important levels we are accepted and healed. When we remember this, we might feel freed to heed God's call to throw ourselves into the work of the church, its mission, and its social justice programs regardless of whether our efforts will be successful.

This week, millions of Egyptians, after suffering years of injustice at the hands of police, courts and government, heeded a call. Parents have been called from balconies to join their children in the street. Colleagues have been called to join their fellow workers in standing up to a corrupt and brutal government. Neighbours have been called to join neighbours to protect their homes from looting.

Whether a better life comes from the response of millions of Egyptians to these calls for justice, only time will tell. But I am deeply moved when I hear that Muslims arose from prayers this past Friday with cries of "Freedom, freedom, freedom." And I am sure that a similar cry rose from the lips of Coptic Christian worshippers after Sunday morning worship in Egypt today.

There is much that is out of alignment in our lives and in our societies. There is much that we can struggle to make right. But regardless of our actions, our successes or our failures, God's healing acceptance of us is assured. May this assurance give us and our Egyptian brothers and sisters the courage to humbly and kindly struggle in the days and weeks ahead for a world of greater justice, peace and love.

Thanks be to God. Amen.