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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

February 2, 2014

What Thy Lord Requires

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

              On a cold winter’s day in January of 1977, James Earl Carter Jr., from Plains, Georgia, as unlikely a man to become President as any who have, opened the Bible, raised his right hand and took the oath of office.  He opened that Bible to the passage we read this morning: “He has showed you, O man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God.”  It was Carter, a devout Baptist and Sunday School teacher, who took up a hammer as an ex-President to build homes around the world for Habitat for Humanity.  Only Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson matched Carter’s devotion and discipleship as a Christian.  And when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in bringing about the Camp David Accords, he said, “If the misery of others leaves you indifferent and with no feelings of sorrow, then you cannot be called a human being.”

             What does God want from us?  If you were signed up for a college course, starting today, one of the first things you would want to be clear on is, “What are the requirements?”  Somewhere prominent, you would write them down as the teacher spoke of the assignments and expectations of what would be required of you: two five-page papers, a mid-term exam, and a twenty-page final paper.

             So let’s think of today as the first day of class, a class which will meet for the rest of your life.  The course is called “Life.”  And the instructor is the Living God.  What does the Lord require?  Mark it clearly, fellow students!

             “To do justice….”  The Hebrew word is mishpat, and it is a rich Biblical word.  It is a word that appears over four hundred times in the Old Testament, so essential is this notion of justice to Israel’s God.  Ambrose, the great Bishop of Milan, whose preaching was what prompted the conversion of Augustine, said, “The rule of justice is plain, namely that a good person not swerve from the truth, nor to inflict any unjust loss on anyone, nor to act in any way deceitfully.”  You can run a business or carry on a practice or build a family on that!  It was justice that Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking of when he dreamt of the day when his children would “be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  It was the inherent justice of King’s vision, a profoundly Biblical one, that gave King the power to bring change to a nation.

             If you have not seen yet the movie, Philomena, you are in for a treat.  It tells the true story of Philomena Lee’s fifty-year search to find her firstborn son, a boy she named Anthony.  Philomena, played by Judi Dench, was born in Ireland and gave birth to a child out of wedlock in 1952 at the age of eighteen.  In 2009, Martin Sixsmith, a British journalist, wrote a book about Philomena’s search to find her son.  Sixsmith had just lost his job with the Labor Party unjustly, and he was world-weary, cynical and a somewhat snobby intellectual.  It is the relationship between journalist Sixsmith and the lovely, devout, simple Philomena that makes the film so rich.

             But Philomena is a film about justice.  Sixsmith discovers to his utter disgust that the convent where Philomena worked to do penance for her sins had sold her son at the age of three to a wealthy American family from St. Louis, and then persistently lied over the years, feigning ignorance as to what actually took place.  They claimed that all their records had been burned in a fire, and Martin learns that folks in the town of Rosecrea believe the convent purposely burned all the records of their activities.  Martin is a lapsed Catholic, already mad at God and the Roman Catholic Church, so this just inflames him even more.  They go to America in search of Anthony and find there that the boy was raised as Michael Hess and became an attorney.  He served as legal counsel in the Reagan and Bush White House.  What they later discover is that Michael was searching for his birth mother as well, and went to Rosecrea to the convent three times over his life in search of his biological mother.  He was told his mother abandoned him at the convent and they had no record of her whereabouts.  The injustice done to this one mother and her son cuts deeply and witnessing it hurts you.  It is almost unbearable, as injustice always is.  Sadly, we only are moved by injustice when it touches us or someone we love.  Watch your child be treated unfairly, though, even once, and you begin to gain a sense of how much God cares about “doing justice.”

             Note that God does not simply want us to believe in justice or to love justice, but rather “to do justice.”  We are to be people who are just, but also people who are champions of justice.  Our nation was founded upon the notion of “liberty and justice for all,” not just for some, and we should not rest as Americans and especially as Christians until that vision is fulfilled.

             What does the Lord require of you?  “To love kindness….”  Or as some translations put it, “to love mercy.”  The Hebrew word is hesed, and it often appears as a characteristic of God’s great love for us.  It is usually translated “steadfast love” or “loving kindness.”  God requires kindness or mercy of us.  Before William James left for Harvard College, his Uncle Henry James offered these words: “Willie, I have three things to say to you….  The first is be kind.  The second is be kind.  And the third is be kind.”

             Kindness matters in this world, and all of us are called by God to major in it.  It surely has the power to bring out the very best in us.  Alice Isen taught Psychology at Cornell University.  In 1995 she did a study of forty-five physicians, and found that those treated kindly by their patients were more likely to make correct diagnoses.  Those treated indifferently or even poorly by their patients were less effective in diagnosing them.  Kindness makes a difference!

             I love the story of golfer Raymond Floyd, who was once approached by a fan for an autograph and simply blew him off, and rather gruffly.  Arnold Palmer saw the incident, and walked over to the man and brought him to Floyd and said, “This man is a friend of mine.”  Floyd was embarrassed and signed for the man.  He said, embarrassed, to Palmer, “I didn’t know he was your friend.”  Palmer looked around and said, “All these people are my friends, Raymond.”

             In Philomena, the nuns prove that you can be ever-so-nice and still deny people justice.  But Martin shows that you can have a passion for justice and lack any kindness.  Philomena is simple, but she is unfailingly kind, even when she learns that she has been treated unjustly, lied to repeatedly, and that her son was as well.  When they finally confront the nuns at the convent with the truth, and an old sister viciously attacks Philomena for her sinfulness, Philomena says, “I’m going to forgive her.  Sister Hildegarde, I want you to know that I forgive you.”  Martin is furious.  “Just like that?!” he says.  “It’s not just like that.  It’s hard.  It’s a hard thing to do.  I don’t want to hate people.  Look at you.  I don’t want to be like you.”

             Martin is frustrated, and he says honestly, “I’m angry.”  Philomena says, “I know.  It must be exhausting.”  Philomena lives her faith.  She pursues truth and justice with a relentlessness, but she never loses her commitment to kindness and to decency.  Maybe she knows how greatly she has been forgiven by God.  She tells Martin as they stand at the grave where he has purchased a plastic statue of Jesus to adorn it, “People should know what happened here.”

             I had a wonderful teacher in Seminary named George Hendry, a Scot who kept teaching long after he had retired to packed classes of students hungry for his wisdom.  One day in class he said, “When I was a young man, I was impressed by clever people.  But now that I am an old man, I am impressed with kind people.”

             What does the Lord require?  “To walk humbly with your God.”  The Hebrew word is halakhah, and it means literally “the way of walking” or “the path.”  We all find a path to follow, and God is pleased when that “way of walking” leads us to humility.  Paul said to the Romans, “I bid everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.”  This is a great gift to possess, a right estimate of oneself as you walk through this world.

             I love the notion of “walking with God,” for when we are aware that the Lord is by our side, we are going to be saved from self-absorption and self-inflation.  One time I led a funeral service at graveside in Spartanburg for a beloved, highly respected attorney, and it seemed like the whole town gathered there.  I could not use a note, so I just spoke from the heart.  I suspect the Holy Spirit showed up that day, and the service took on a power of its own.  It went far better than I could have ever managed on my own.  Afterwards a dear friend in that church, a widow named Patsy Correll, who was on the committee that called me, waited around until the crowd abated.  She said, “Don’t ever let yourself get a big ego, Todd.  There is nothing more pitiful than an old man with a big ego!”  I know she shared that word because she loved me, and I have never forgotten it.

             To walk with Jesus through this life is to be humbled.  To remember that Jesus is your judge is to know how far you fall short, and how wonderfully kind this One who embodies justice and mercy truly is.  John Bunyan said, “He who knows himself best esteems himself least.”

             So how do we teach our children and grandchildren “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God”?  By seeking in our own lives to do the same!  Albert Schweitzer said, “Example isn’t the best teacher – it may be the only teacher.”  Augustine, in his sermon on this passage, said, “You ask what you should offer.  Offer yourself.  For what else does the Lord seek but you?  Because of all earthly creatures God has made nothing that is better than you.”

             Class begins today.  It is called “Life,” and God is still our Great Teacher.  And what does the Lord require?  “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

                                                                                     Amen.

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