February 9, 2014
I met Celia in college. Celia was the first person I knew who did what we now call a gap year. Like most of her classmates, she started college right after high school, but soon realized she wasn't quite ready for the challenges that come with going off to school. So she decided to take a break for a year or two, work and figure out what to do next. One of the things she did during that interim was to participate in an Outward Bound course. Outward Bound is wilderness training. Participating in an Outward Bound expedition not only offers you the chance to learn about living and surviving in nature, it also helps you discover what you're made of. There are expeditions all over the country. You can sail the coast of Maine, ride the rapids in the Rockies, or go dog sledding and cross country skiing in the Boundary Waters. Some of the courses are designed for a week or two. Some are a month, and some are an intense semester or more. Celia chose intense.
She spent a semester in an expedition out west, hiking, camping, and trying to survive. One of the hiking practices in Celia's Outward Bound group was that the slower, less confident hikers took point. That meant that the slowest hikers found themselves at the front of the line, leading the way for everyone else. This forced everyone to adjust their pace to accommodate the slower hikers. It wasn't easy for the slower folks. It wasn't easy for the hikers who wanted to move fast. For the first few weeks Celia was always placed at the head of the hiking line. One day the group was hiking a particularly steep trail and they came to a gap between one rock and the next. Between that gap was a sheer drop to the ground below; far below. Celia told me the gap really wasn't that wide, but it required a significant stretch of the legs if you were tall or a small jump if you were shorter to get across. Celia looked at the gap. She looked at the path on the other side. She looked at the drop. Then she started to cry. Because she was hiking point, the whole line came to a screeching halt.
It didn't take long for the entire line of hikers to know that something was wrong, and to a hiker they tried to help Celia. They encouraged her. They gave her reassurance that she would be okay. They helped her face her fears about crossing over the gap. They told her to take her time and that they would wait until she was ready. At the beginning of their intense semester together, the more experienced hikers would have become frustrated at being stopped like this. They would have resented her tears and resented her for letting fear slow them all down. But the point of Outward Bound isn't to offer an exotic vacation. And although it does focus on leadership, it's not just about forming leaders either. It's about taking a group of strangers and helping them become a community; a community that is built on trust, support and respect. This is a community that is created not only in the hiking and camping and surviving, but in the walking. Celia's community gathered around her, and it wasn't so they could get the line moving again and the hike back on track. They gathered around her because they had been walking together, literally and figuratively. They had been walking together, and in their walking they had come to care for and love one another. That's why they encouraged Celia, because they had been walking together.
Walking is at the heart of our passage from Micah. That seems strange at first, because we don't hear about the walking until the end. This particular pericope from the prophet is essentially a courtroom scene. Israel is the defendant. God is the plaintiff. The Lord has a "controversy with his people." The hills and the mountains will witness to the case the Lord makes against his people. The Lord reminds his people of their story. He brought them out of slavery in the land of Egypt. He lead them in the wilderness. The Lord delivered them, and how do they respond to his care and salvation? They fall away from God's teachings, time and time again. They make the rich richer and the poor and the needy go hungry and empty handed. They forget the least of these in their midst. They seek after other gods. They forget their own story.
Israel answers God's claims. In verses 6 and 7, they ask what will finally make God happy? A list of gradually greater offerings is suggested; burnt offerings, calves a year old, thousands of rams, ten thousands rivers of oil. It finally culminates with the offering of their first born. Would even the offering of their first born children finally satisfy The Lord?
Micah, the narrator of this drama, adds the final words. None of this extravagance, none of this wild sacrifice is necessary. The Lord has told them already what is required of them. "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?"
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly.
At first glance it seems that doing justice comes first, followed closely by kindness, and then when you've mastered the first two, you have the time and resources to get walking. Except it doesn't work like that. What has to come first, what must come first, is the walking. We walk humbly with our God, and from that walk flows the love of kindness, and out of our kindness comes our desire to do justice. The walking humbly with God is the foundation for loving kindness and doing justice.
It seems to me that when we set out on this humble walk with God, we don't just haphazardly scatter acts of kindness and justice to people as we walk past them. Walking with God means we also walk with God's children, whoever and wherever they are. We walk with God and we walk with "the least of these." I think that is the call implicit in this passage. We're called to walk with God and to walk with others. But it's far too easy to miss that point. Instead we see walking with God as our personal journey alone. This humble walk required of us isn't about singing a few verses of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," and thinking that we've got it all figured out.
Jessica Krey Duckworth, one of the theologians at the conference I attended in the Twin Cities a week ago, said that, "faith is the journey toward the world." Faith is the journey toward the world. The walking that God calls us to do is about walking in the world. It is a walk with the broken people, the angry people, those who are hurting and those who hurt. Our loving kindness, our doing justice is about walking with God's children; not only beside them, but also, to borrow a cliche, in their shoes. Loving kindness is about our willingness to try on those shoes no matter how uncomfortable they may be. Doing justice is being willing to carry them when their walking becomes unbearable. And we do this because in our own humble walking with God, others have tried on our shoes and others have carried us. Our humble walking with God calls us to walk with others just as God walks with us.
In the town meetings we've had and will continue to have to discuss the vision and future for our congregation and our ministry, I've been quite open about changes I don't want to make. I've seen the possible changes we've begun to propose about our building and our location as a threat to the call I felt to come here. But time away is not only good for learning and rest, it's also good for finding new perspectives and new insights. This humble walking we're called to do is not going to take us down the same unchanging path. This humble walk with God will take us in different directions, across variegated terrain, and into new, strange and potentially frightening territories. The changes that may be in our future seem uncertain if not downright scary. But if not changing prevents me from humble walking, from loving kindness, from doing justice, then I have stopped doing what the Lord requires of me. And like the Israelites, I have put my faith more in empty words and shallow rituals than I have in God. I have trusted my own sense of knowledge more than I have trusted in God's wisdom. If this is true, than I have forgotten why I'm walking at all. Faith is a journey toward the world. If bricks and mortar prevent rather than open the door to walking in God's world, then let me be the first to knock them down. What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God ... into the world. We are required to get walking. So let's get walking. And let all God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.