Sunday Sermon

“Brigid Meets Micah”

A meditation based on Micah 6:1-8

February 2, 2020

United Church of the Valley

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

Today, I’m thinking about Ireland…

not just because I get to return there

later this year, leading a small pilgrimage

back to this holy land…

but also because, in Ireland,

today is known as the first day of Spring!

A story will help explain…

Once upon a time,

in the place we call Ireland,

long before the coming of the Christ to that land, there were gods and goddesses.

There was the Goddess Maeve,

whose anger at injustice

was known throughout the land.

It is said, that if a king or queen acted unjustly

toward their citizens,

Goddess Maeve saw to it

that they met an early demise.

Yeah, you don’t mess with Maeve J

There was Lugh, the god of light,

whose very name in the Celtic language

means, “light.”

In the season we call late summer, in August,

with the gentle decreasing light

signaling to the ancients

that harvest would soon be over,

Lugh was honored with festivals

and he, in turn,

mercifully blessed the people

with food enough for the winter.

And there was Brigid, goddess of healing and fire,

whose warm presence

brought safety and confidence to the people

during the long winter months.

So strong was Brigid’s presence in the ancient world,

she morphed into the Christian Saint Brigid–

doer of good works,

founder of monasteries (hospitality) for women,

and 1 of the 3 major Christian saints in Ireland.

Brigid–both goddess & saint–was especially honored

as the harbinger of spring,

today is Brigid’s Day / Spring!

So, Happy Spring, people!

For the Celts,

the beginnings of the four seasons

was more about the promise of things to come.  For us,

the seasons begin

with the solstices and equinoxes,

which often fall at the apex of the seasons’ gifts,

rather than at its beginning.

Think about it, in early February, in wintry northlands,

the signs of spring are few and far between.

John and I lived two years in the Philadelphia area,

and this I learned:

in February, it’s still winter and it’s still cold.

So, too, in ancient Ireland.

Buds are barely appearing on still-snowy branches.  There may be a slight appearance

of crocus or snowdrops—

the first flowers of spring—

as they begin to poke their greenery

through a layer of snow on the ground.

But, in Ireland in early February, the world is still

and the air chilly

and the sun a white ball in the sky

devoid of its warmth.

So the celebration of Spring’s beginning today—

for the ancients and for us—

is a promise of new life that is to come,

not a statement of what is already here.

The Christian author of Hebrews calls this, “faith”…

”the assurance of things hoped for,

the conviction of things not yet seen…”

I invite you to think about Spring,

in this more Celtic way today—

Spring as promise

more than as what you can now see—

what then does this spring mean to you?

What do you envision?

What promises does this particular Spring offer you?

[responses…]

Today,

we can see Brigid as the one

announcing the promises of spring

in the midst of a pantheon of Celtic deities

who are justice-driven and mercy-filled,

then the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah

can guide us into the specifics

of how we might live such lives

of justice, mercy and humility ourselves.

Of how we might illuminate and reflect

justice, kindness, humility

into our families, our neighborhoods,

our country, our 21st-century world.

Micah lived in a time of relative prosperity, as do we,

and this eighth century prophet

asks that community rhetorically,

“What do you think God really wants of you?

What is it that God requires?

Do you honestly believe that God is impressed

by large sacrifices…

by thousands of rams

or ten thousand rivers of sacrificial oil?”

Now that the prophet has their greedy,

materialistic-oriented attention,

he answers his own question

in a typically fun Irish manner…

he answers a question with a question!

“God has told us over and over and over again

what is required of us.

And what does God require,

but for us to do justice,

to love kindness,

to walk humbly with God?”

The question that answers Micah’s original question

seems to inquire,

can you imagine anything beyond

being just and kind and humble

that God would expect of us?

We’ve perhaps heard this verse

quoted so many times in the declarative voice—

“what God requires of you is….”—

it might be challenging for us to hear in it

the original question of faith:

“What does God require of you,

but to do justice (?) and to love kindness (?)

and to walk humbly with your God?”

What else could God possibly require of you

beyond justice, kindness and walking humbly?

 

These three words—justice, kindness, humility—

they are bandied about whenever a theologian

talks about social justice.

Let’s look at what these words really mean

and how might they shape

your context for ministry…

The Hebrew word translated as “justice”

refers to something that people do.

It is not enough to wish for justice

or to complain because justice is lacking.

It is not enough, even, to pray for justice.

Justice, in Micah’s world and in ours,

is a dynamic concept

that calls on God’s people to work actively

for fairness and equality for all,

particularly on behalf of and with people

who are weak, powerless, or exploited by others.

Think of Greta Thunberg…

think also of the underpaid LVN

at the local convalescent home…

Justice is an everyday activity, a mindset,

a hermeneutic—

which means the glasses you wear

to understand scripture and life—

the lens through which you see…

justice is that lens through which

we view the world and our place in it.

The word translated as “kindness”

is one of the most common words

in the Hebrew bible,

yet is impossible to translate

using just one or two English words.

The Hebrew word for kindness is “hesed”

is used to describe God’s love

for the world and all its family—

God’s steadfast love,

God’s forgiving love, God’s creative love—

all of these notions originate with the word hesed.

Hesed combines love, loyalty, faithfulness,

care about, and care for.

It is used in scripture to describe the key element

in all relationships—

whether between human and human,

or between human and divine.

Hesed is the fundamental basis

for keeping covenant faithfulness in relationships;

for the most vibrant and living relationships

are not based in fear or in duty,

in manipulation or in coercion.

Our most healthy relationships with others

and with God

are based in love,

in mutual respect, in loving care for and about.

This is the heart of the Hebrew word hesed.

The third of the three major words in Micah’s passage

is humility, or humbly…walking humbly.

Some scholars have suggested that the original word

might be better understood

as “carefully” or “circumspectly.”

That is, walk carefully with God…

walk circumspectly with your Creator.”

You see how that shifts the idea of humility?

Humility is not the kind of head bowed

apparent stance of subservience

that we may assume,

but rather, humility is a moment-by-moment

attentiveness to God’s being with us,

seeing the Divine around us, in us, through us.

Such attentiveness naturally leads us to see others

as also infused with the Spirit of God,

and thus cycles us back around

to the first two parts of God’s requirement:

to do justice, to love kindness.

Several years ago, just prior to his untimely death,

Dr. Forrest Church wrote his final book,

Love and Death.

Dr. Church was longtime Senior Pastor of

the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City

and the author of more than two dozen books.

In his last book,

Dr. Church offered the world his mantra for living,

developed out of his choosing to live with cancer,   rather than to give up and die

when cancer appeared in his life.

The mantra is this:

Want what you have,

          Do what you can,

          Be who you are.

Hear that again…

While there are so many insights

that could be shared about this mantra,

I want to focus today on what Dr. Church said

about the last part of it, Be who you are.

In a sermon delivered in the fall of 2007—

one year into his living with cancer

and two years before his death—

Forrest Church wrote that,

“Being who we are means embracing

our God-given nature and talents.

I, for instance, loved my father.”

As an aside, you may recall

that Forrest Church’s father was the senator

from Idaho, Frank Forrester Church, III.

Son continues,

“I still love my father.

I honor and admire him.

Once, however, I wanted, more than anything,

to borrow his ladder to the stars.

I had more confidence in him than I did in myself.

I wanted to be like him, not like me.

Then the moment of reckoning arrived.

Halfway through my doctoral work,

I was handed a political career on a platter.

In 1976, at the age of twenty-seven,

I had run my father’s presidential campaign

in Nebraska,

a primary he won against Jimmy Carter.

After the primary season ended,

the Carter people invited me

to head up their Nebraska effort that fall,

sweetened by an offer

from Nebraska’s lieutenant governor

to remain in the state

as vice-chair of the Democratic Party,

with the promise of standing for Congress

two years later if everything worked out.

I might very well have done this,”

writes Forrest Church,

“but [for the fact that] my father interceded.

He called me a quitter.

Finish your doctorate, he said.

Then go ahead and do whatever you wish

with your life.

So I persevered.

And, in persevering, I found my calling.

Two years later,

I was installed as the ninth minister

of All Souls [Church in New York City].

For almost thirty years I have been privileged

to serve this congregation,

fulfilling not my destiny—

I don’t believe in destinies—

but answering a call that was mine,

not someone else’s.

To envy another’s skills, looks, or gifts

rather than embracing your own nature and call

is to fail in two respects.

In trying unsuccessfully to be who we are not,

we fail to become who we are.”

One final story…

From Chasidic teacher, Rav Zussya

who famously shared this parable,

“I am about to face the Holy One…

and justify my sojourn on the world.

If [God] will ask me:

Zussya, why were you not like Moses?

I shall respond,

because you did not grant me the powers                       you granted Moses.

If [God] will ask me:

Zussya, why were you not like Rabbi Akiba?

I shall respond because you did not grant me                  the powers you granted Rabbi Akiba.

But the Almighty will not ask me

why I was not like Moses

or why I was not like Rabbi Akiba.

The Almighty will ask me:

Zussya, why were you not like Zussya?

Why did you not fulfill the potential

which was Zussya,

and it is for this question that I tremble.”

 

“Be who you are.”

“See the spring that is still a promise.”

“Do your own particular brand of justice.”

“Love in your special way of kindness.”

“Walk humbly as only you can do.”

And it will be enough.

Amen and Blessed Be

 

 

Invitation to Communion:

10th century Poem attributed to St. Brigid herself:

I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.

I’d love the heavenly

Host to be tippling there For all eternity.

I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,

To dance and sing.

If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal

Vats of suffering.

White cups of love I’d give them

With a heart and a half;

Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer

To every man.

I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot

Because the happy heart is true.

I’d make the men contented for their own sake.

I’d like Jesus to love me too.

I’d like the people of heaven to gather

From all the parishes around.

I’d give a special welcome to the women,

The three Marys of great renown.

I’d sit with the men, the women and God

There by the lake of beer.

We’d be drinking good health forever

And every drop would be a prayer.

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