Just, Kind, Humble (Worship 1/30/11)

Just, Kind, Humble

Micah 6: 1-8

How do you know what you want?

When I was in the 7th and 8th grades I wanted a purse.  I had a purse but I wanted another one.  I wanted the one that all the cool girls in my school had.  It was the height of preppydom and, looking back, this was the most ridiculous purse I have ever wanted or owned.

The “Bermuda bag” was a little cloth bag, attached somehow to wooden handles that opened away from each other in order to get to the inside of the purse.  Along the bottom of the wooden handles were buttons and this is what made the purse the most amazing purse ever!  You would purchase a variety of different covers and then button them on, so that the texture, pattern, or colors of your purse could change with the days or the seasons or the outfits you wore.

It was an expensive purse and there was the additional expense of buying covers – you always had to have just one more.  It was the least practical purse I can imagine for 7th graders with huge stacks of books to carry around all day.  Because of the wooden handles, you either had to use one whole hand just to carry the purse or you had to precariously prop it up on the big pile of books and hope it didn’t slide off as you were changing classes.

In the manner of teenage girls everywhere, I wanted this purse for a looooonnnnng time before my parents would let me get it.  I needed it.  I had to have it.  I was the only one without one.  My old purse just wouldn’t do anymore.  Once I achieved this goal, having the purse and its one initial cover wasn’t enough.  I immediately began my campaign for the next cover.

My brother still talks about that purse sometimes.  I think he knew all along what a ridiculous thing it was and how fleeting my desire for it really was.  He likes to kid me now about buttoning those silly covers on and how, after wanting it desperately for so long, I abandoned that purse altogether after about a year or so.

How do you know what you want?

If you had asked me back during my purse-campaigning days I’m sure I would have presented an exhaustive list of the reasons that this purse would surpass all others.  I’m sure I could have listed for you exactly why I wanted this purse.  I will say it was definitely novel.  But the real reason I wanted that purse was that everyone else in school – everyone else I wanted to fit in with – had the purse.  I’m sure I never would have copped to that then, but it’s true.  The purse was just the latest symbol of who was in and who wasn’t.  And I wanted to be in.

It’s easy, with the perspective of 30 years and the help of one’s little brother to look back and see how caught up I was in something that didn’t really matter, even to me.  It’s so much harder to pause in the midst of intense, gotta-have-it desire and faithfully examine the longing.  It’s easy to have our desires shaped by the crowd we hang with, the images in the magazines, and whatever celebrity we admire.  It’s easy to just let ourselves float in a sea of desires without ever really noticing that we are at sea.

In a recent article one pastor commented on the trend of “trying on” churches the way you might shop for clothes, to see what fits.  She said, “People shop for churches that will meet their desires when they ought to be looking for a church that will shape their desires (The Christian Century, 1/25/11, “Selling Out?”, Lillian Daniel, p. 24).  She was referring to people who are looking for a good Sunday school program or a specific kind of Bible study, or certain types of music, or pastors who do or don’t wear certain kinds of clothing in worship.  She was referring to people who go from place to place with their list of longings, looking for the church that meets their needs.  She was referring to people who think they already know what they want.

We can all be like that.  We already know what we want, right?  We know what we need, what we’re aiming for, how much it will cost, how long it will take to get it, and who else has it.  We know this part and it’s not what we need church for – church is to help us be patient while we wait to get what we want.  Church is to make us feel good about what we are already striving for.  The God who loves us wants us to have what we want.  Right?

Perhaps I’m overstating the point but I do think, even people who are deeply committed to God and who live that out in a specific faith community – people like the people here at Wesley – even people like us look to God to bless what we want, rather than to find out what is proper for wanting in the first place.

Last year on one of our church visits in the district, Nina said, “The comfort that I found at Wesley, however, is not what kept me there these past three years.  And if it was, then the Wesley Foundation is not doing what it should be.  Jesus did not call Christians to a life of comfort.  He told us to love our enemies, forgive without ceasing, serve the poor and take up the cross.  It is in times of discomfort and when we are challenged that our faith grows” (notes from a talk by Nina Ruhter, April 2010).

How do you know what you want?  Is it what God wants for you?  Is it what God wants for you to want?  What Nina pointed out and what Micah reminded Israel of is that our job is to align ourselves with God’s purposes, God’s longing for our lives and the life of the world.  Our job as disciples is to want that, too, to long for what God longs for.  Sometimes that alignment of longings– that education in desire – will seem to come naturally and without a lot of effort.  Other times it will seem counter-intuitive and against our better judgment and conventional wisdom.

God finds all kinds of ways to bless us and, because we tend to be slow learners, it can take a lifetime to recognize some of the blessings for what they are.  We have a tendency to want to God to bless our own plans and ideas.  This is where ideas and so-called theologies like the “prosperity gospel” come in.  The prosperity gospel claims that God wants us all to have wealth and comfort and that, when those things show up in our lives, they are evidence that we are on the right track.  What’s wrong with this “good news”?

I won’t contest that God wants us to have enough money and comfort, but I will suggest that “enough” is the key word.  We just heard Matthew’s Beatitudes, a whole list of blessings for people in all sorts of situations, and there was no blessing for the rich (Matthews 5: 1-12).  Last month we heard Mary sing with joy her Magnificat – God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1: 53).  Time and again God makes promises about money and comfort, but those promises don’t sound like the prosperity gospel’s promises.  God promises to lift up and sustain the poor and hungry and calls the rich and full to justice, right relationships.  What God promises – what God wants – is the kind of justice and loving kindness for our neighbors that imposes limits and directions on us.  This is not “get all you can and see what’s left over for the poor and hungry.”  This is also not “too bad for the rich.”  This is the gospel – the rich are sent away empty, the hungry and poor are blessed – and whichever we are, we can be part of the kingdom of God.  We can long for this reality as God does.  We can want this more than our own limited visions of prosperity and comfort and “a good life.”

Did God care whether or not I bought that purse way back then?  I doubt it.  Did God care that it was pretty much my sole aim in life to acquire that purse?  I suspect so.  What else was I missing when that was my overwhelming focus?  What did I neglect to see or hear?  How did that pursuit fit in with the whole long arc of longing God has for my life?  Goals are good, motivations are fine, and desires are the material with which God can do some serious work.  But how do we know what we want?  And how do we learn to want what God wants?

This isn’t a sermon about sin.  I am not saying that we have to be told what’s right because we are too stupid or sinful to know better.  Is it sinful to have money?  Not in and of itself.  Is it sinful to have more than I need and keep trying to get more, regardless of the injustices inherent in a world where other people are starving and dying and living on the streets?  How do we know how to act?  God wants for us to want and do justice.

This is not a sermon about “the right thing to do.”  I think it is quite possible that there are as many right things as there are people in this room, probably more.  But it is about right relationship and that narrows it down considerably.  God wants for us to want mercy and compassion for all people and all creation.

This is not a sermon with the answer or the key to life.  There is neither one answer nor one time in question.  It’s an everyday, lifelong journey and God wants us as companions, walking together and aligning our wants with God’s own.

We are at sea, people.  It’s a choppy, deep cultural ocean of competing ideas and a lot of salespeople.  There are a lot of ways you can feed yourself, and clothe yourself, and earn a living.  There are a lot of people who need a friend like you.  But how do you know what you want?  How do you know you aren’t just pulling out your wallet because it’s on sale?  How do you know what God wants you to want?

God has already told you what is good (Micah 6:8):  “[A]nd what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah E. Lewis 2011