The Seven Habits of Highly Faithful Churches: Diakonia (Service)
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Part VI of a VII Part Series
“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?” –Micah 6:8
St. Francis, the thirteenth-century ascetic from Assisi, says, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words,” implying, of course, that the world will know who and whose we are not so much by what we say as by what we do. Sometimes it’s called The Theology of the Hammer. The Gospel gets preached when we build homes for the poor, teach the illiterate how to read, slop hash in the soup kitchen, and attend to the children of God the rest of the world would rather ignore.
The prophet Micah says that this sixth habit–the habit of service–is the most important of them all. Let me tell you a little something about the prophet Micah. We don’t know much about him, but we do know that he lived in the eighth-century B.C., which makes him a contemporary of the more famous prophet Isaiah, whose bestseller eclipsed Micah’s more modest and obscure little book.
Micah hailed from the small town of Moresheth about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem. Intimations from his writings suggest that he was a blue-collar kind of a guy, a common laborer, perhaps a small landowner who farmed a couple of acres of grapes or olives or figs, or maybe hired himself out to others as a kind of migrant worker, though the eloquence of his writings betray an education superior to what you might expect from a grape-picker.
In any case, middle-class scholar or poor working man, Micah was a champion of the forgotten. He preached during a time of fabulous prosperity for the nation of Israel, but was simply mortified that a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats, as some American Presidents are fond of promising. He was disturbed that the ancient equivalent of the Dow Jones kept creeping up toward the stratosphere, and yet most of his compatriots couldn’t scrape up enough cash to keep the kids fed and educated.
He would not have been bashful about asking Americans why in the first 13 years of the twenty-first century, two indexes in our national consciousness keep rising in direct proportion–the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the child poverty index. Both keep going up and up, if you take a ten-year perspective or longer. I guess I don’t recommend that you read the rest of the book of Micah, unless you have a strong stomach for scathing social criticism. But there is this relatively tolerable passage, the most famous in an obscure little book.
With some rhetorical questions, Micah asks what gives a human being the right to look God in the eye without shame. And he wonders if religious devotion will equip us for God’s presence. “With what shall I come before the Lord?” Micah asks. “Shall I come with a burnt offering? How about a thousand burnt offerings, or ten thousand rivers of oil?” Somehow he suspects, however, that religious devotion is insufficient equipage for the presence of God. Going to church and bringing your tithe just won’t do it.
And then in a eureka moment, it hits him like a bolt of lightning. “I know the answer. I’ve always known what the Lord requires. It’s not a gift, but a life.” It is indeed a sacrifice, but not the kind of sacrifice you can just lay at the Lord’s altar and be done with. It is the offering of a well-lived life, and all of the personal sacrifices that that decision entails. “The Lord has shown you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”
In a prior sermon from this series, I suggested that divine worship is the most important of the seven habits of highly faithful congregations. Regular, corporate worship is the center of the church’s common life, I said, and the Christian’s most significant responsibility is to acknowledge and adore the glory of the Creator. But now Micah tells me that I was wrong. Micah says that God doesn’t care so much what you do with your life on Sunday as what you do with it the other six days of the week.
The nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach used to warn religious people against squandering all their love on God. I love that phrase: squandering all our love on God, attending exclusively to the vertical dimension of the religious life and ignoring the horizontal, being good theologians but lousy neighbors. Don’t squander all your love on God, says Micah.
As Christians, the cross stands at the center of our faith, and the cross has a vertical post and a horizontal beam, which stands for the great commandment: love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself. And who is your neighbor: the Samaritan is neighbor to the Jew, and the poor to the rich, and the black to the white. In fact, it might be said that it is impossible to love God unless you love the neighbor first. That’s the priority: learn to love the neighbor, and then you will learn to love God.
You know Dietrich Bonhoeffer, don’t you, the German theologian and outspoken opponent of Hitler who was thrown into prison and hanged in 1945, just days before the Allies liberated Berlin? He used to say, “Only those who speak out for the Jews have the right to sing Gregorian chant.” I mean, that sounds a lot like Micah to me: with what shall I come before the Lord? I will come with the haunting loveliness of Gregory’s music, but not before I have put my life on the line in courage for the persecuted. According to Bonhoeffer and Micah, righteousness precedes holiness.
So it could be that the sixth of my seven habits of highly faithful churches–service–might be the most important. You probably know the New Testament word for service: diakonia, which just means caring for the poor and the disenfranchised. The English word ‘deacon’ comes from diakonia, because in many Christian traditions, it is the deacons who care for the poor, the orphan, and the widow.
Three short points–but of course! That’s Micah’s framework, not mine. Three points: justice, kindness, humility. Do justice, says Micah. In other words, attend to the corporate, institutional dimension of righteousness. A highly faithful church will produce Christians who speak truth to power, who take Jesus with them into the voting booth, who change or break laws which crush humanity, who will ask why, in an age of unrivaled wealth, so many are left behind to scrape by with next to nothing. I wonder what Micah would say about our current immigration debate.
One Jewish scholar points out that the command to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger is repeated 36 times in the Hebrew Bible, more than any other commandment, including the ones to love God and to observe the Sabbath. Before the Jews became God’s definitive global witnesses to the identity of the Creator, they were slaves in Egypt; they knew what it was like to have nothing, so that is why, said this scholar, in today’s America, Jews live like Episcopalians, but vote like Puerto Ricans.
What does the Lord require of us? The Lord requires that we do justice, to exercise conscience, and to exhibit character in the corporate, political, and institutional dimension of our common life together. But Micah also tells us to love kindness. In some ways, kindness is a smaller word than justice. If justice is corporate or institutional righteousness, kindness is justice at the micro-level. Kindness is the just, fair heart of the individual, the soft, vulnerable heart which can still feel a suffering not its own and reach out to touch and heal where it can.
Some of us have no taste for the macro-ideologies of political and institutional justice. We don’t see ourselves meddling with power structures, passing referenda, running for office, or dissecting the befuddling subtleties of the political world. But we all have neighbors, and we’re all called to love kindness. Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has made a career of studying the ways in which Americans practice or forsake kindness. He’s written this beautiful book entitled The Call of Service, and in that book he tells the story of a couple of assembly line workers who didn’t so much decide for as fall into acts of kindness.
They were about 30 years old and one of them was forced to put his father into a nursing home. There wasn’t much money, and it wasn’t a very nice place, but the old man stayed there and the two young men began visiting, and when the man’s father died, the visits didn’t stop. And one of the men says, “So that’s how it got started. We went every week, and we told the people that we weren’t anybody special, but we like to have fun, and we could try to give the folks a good time. We could bring them some cookies, and we could sing–I can sing a lot of songs, and my friend plays the piano (no big deal–but the tune gets across), and we could always read the papers, if someone was blind or had the shakes and couldn’t hold the paper steady…We just decided we’d be ourselves and be as friendly as we knew how, and my wife made these cookies, and I just went and offered them around, and they all told us to come back, and we did, now we’re regulars and we love it–it’s part of our lives. You give something, and believe me, you get something back.”
Well, there it is, horizontal religion on the macro-level–justice–and on the micro-level–kindness. Just one more word from old, grumpy, curmudgeonly Micah: walk humbly with God. The word “humility” comes from humus, which means ‘earth.’ Walk low to the ground. Remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. What we have is not our own, but gracious, extravagant, unmerited gift.
Last year my daughter spent her semester abroad in Florence, so we wanted to visit her while she was in Europe, but we’d already been to Florence, so we decided to meet her in Amsterdam, the land of our ethnic heritage; we’d never been to the Motherland. My wife’s maiden name is Van Dyken, and you can’t get any Dutcher than that.
When you visit Amsterdam, you have to visit the Anne Frank house–it’s the law–so we did. And we were struck once again by Miep Gies, one of the Dutch Christians who hid and fed the Frank and van Pels families at the risk of their own lives. The Franks are so grateful for their hospitality and courage and thank Miep over and over again, and extol her courage, but she keeps saying, “We’re not heroes; we just don’t like the Nazi’s.” That’s what it means to walk humbly with God. It means you don’t see yourself as a hero, you just love–and hate–the right things.
I wonder if anyone knows who Jay Hook is. I didn’t, until I read about him a while back, but he’s a local guy, from Waukegan, Illinois, and he is 78 years old now. He graduated from Grayslake Community High School, and then went on to earn an engineering degree from Northwestern, so he must have been pretty brilliant, but he was also a gifted baseball pitcher, a bonus baby drafted out of Northwestern by the Cincinnati Reds. When the expansion New York Mets came into existence in 1962, he ended up with them.
It was Jay Hook’s dream to win 20 games some year in the majors, but it was not to be. That first season with the Mets, he lost 19 games; it wasn’t really his fault, of course; the Mets, as you know, lost 120 games that year. So Jay Hook played three years with the Mets, and then decided to give up and took a job with the Chrysler Corporation, where he had a long and successful career.
He was known more for his brains than for his arm. While he was with the Mets, he worked on his Master’s Degree in Thermodynamics, and he was also a member of the National Rocket Society, so he was, quite literally, a rocket scientist. His teammates were in awe of his intellectual prowess.
Earlier that year in 1962 U. S. Astronaut John Glenn had been the first human being to orbit the earth in space, and so Jay Hook would explain the physics of rocket propulsion to his teammates in the clubhouse before and after games. Jay Hook always said, though, that Roger Maris’ 61 home runs the year before was a more significant accomplishment than orbiting the earth.
He would also explain Bernoulli’s Law to his teammates. Bernoulli’s Law is the one that not only explains how airplanes stay aloft, but also how and why baseballs curve. Jay Hook’s diagrams of Bernoulli’s Law once ended up in The New York Times. Jay Hook knew exactly why airplanes fly and baseballs curve. Mets Manager Casey Stengel would wander through the clubhouse and listen to Jay Hook holding forth on how baseballs curve, and he would just shake his head in disgust and say, “If Hook could only do what he knows.
Yes? If we could only do what we know. We know this. We know James is right when he says “Faith without works is dead.” We know this. We know that the cross is at the center of our faith, with its vertical post and its horizontal beam: love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself. With what shall we come before the Lord? The Lord has shown us what is good, and what the Lord requires of us: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.
Lawrence Kushner, God Was in This Place, and I, I Did Not Know (Jewish Lights, 1993), 112-13.
Robert Coles, The Call of Service (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1993), p. 47.
Robert Lipsyte, “Spring of ‘62: Revisiting the Dawn of the Mets,” The New York Times, February 19, 2012.