What does the Lord require? The prophet Micah’s question is perhaps 3,000 years old, and yet, it is THE question before us today. What does God require of us, Holy Communion, in 2023?
Today’s sermon also serves as my “state of the parish address” for the annual meeting. But I’m a preacher, so we’re going to start with scripture. The question, “what does the Lord require?” is asked and answered in Micah chapter 6. Honestly, our translation threw me off a bit as I read it. I often love the Common English Bible, but in the case of chapter 6, verse 8, give me the old language: “Do Justice. Love Mercy. Walk Humbly with God.”
Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon was the second woman ordained to the order of bishops in our church, and she used to say that Episcopalians love this verse but too often they get it backwards. Episcopalians tend to LOVE justice, and DO mercy. What is it to DO justice?
As I say those words, I know many of us are reeling having seen the video of the brutality Tyre Nichols faced at the hands of law enforcement. I wish I had answers for you today. I don’t, just pain. I haven’t watched the video, reading descriptions was enough to make my stomach turn. I am glad we have guest preachers in February, in art and activism, in medicine and community care, in government, in church, and in education have been re-making systems. I am grateful that I get to share this pulpit with preachers whose work has been about helping St Louis realize Black Lives Matter.
Justice for LGBTQ+ Kids in Jefferson City
Justice requires a great deal. This week, I was down in Jefferson City. I went with our Rabbi in Residence Rori Picker Neiss. It was my first trip to the state capitol. We left before 6am Tuesday and didn’t return until 1am Wednesday morning. We came to testify both at an early morning senate hearing and late evening House hearing. There were nine bills being heard this last week which attack LGBTQ+ rights. More are up this week. Some would ban trans kids from sports teams. Some would criminalize parents for working with their kids’ doctors on gender-affirming care.
Rori has a trans kid who testified eloquently alongside his parents. I admit, I was in tears Tuesday night as Rori’s spouse Russell looked at legislators and said, “please don’t make me a felon for listening to my kids’ doctors.” It was a rough day, and it was long.
I want to confess to you Holy Communion, there was one moment which made me a little embarrassed. After the first hearing, we stood out in the hallway of the capitol to take pictures. I smiled in a big group photo, and then Rori and Rabbi Daniel Bogard from Central Reform Congregation called out “Jewish Community.” Someone shoved a phone in my hand. In a collar, I was obviously the photographer goy. Most everyone else stayed put, because dozens of our Jewish neighbors turned out against these laws. I need to admit to you, I was jealous. Our St. Louis Jewish community is doing justice. I wondered, where are the Episcopalians?
You are invited. If you’d like to come to Jefferson City, shoot me a text, send an email. We will get you on the list. The bills come up fast. We had just over 24 hours notice for last week’s hearings. You’ll need to be able to drop things, take a fast day off and carpool. If you can’t go to Jefferson City, but you can help drop off or pick up kids from school, or cook a meal so someone else can testify, I’d also be happy to hear from you. Doing justice takes a whole village.
Justice and Mercy takes a Village
This year I learned about the village. My written report to the parish includes the fake latin phrase “semper gumby: always be flexible.” Mercy requires flexibility. The word Mercy in this verse is thick in the Hebrew. I think that’s why our translation tries inartfully to fill the concept out with “faithful love.” The Hebrew is hesed, one of the most important in Bible. Hesed is often translated in the psalms as “loving-kindness,” but it also carries connotations of mercy and forgiving. God’s mercy endures forever. This has been a year to love mercy.
From shifting plans due to COVID variants, to changing the arrangement of the furniture, to creating the “pray-ground” space, we’ve had to imitate Gumby. We have, mostly, lived in flexible merciful space. In our mission statement, we call our church “a welcoming and diverse community which seeks to follow Jesus.” Welcome, Diversity, and Community are our core values. They sound nice, don’t they? We paint ourselves a nice picture.
But don’t be fooled: Welcome, Diversity, and Community are hard work. It isn’t always easy to show up, especially if you’ve got to get kids out of bed and dressed on the one day you don’t get in trouble for being late. Showing up ready to welcome others, to make them feel at home, to help them connect to community is hard work.
Holding together across a diverse congregation takes patience, gentleness, and listening. We live in a world which builds silos and rage. Listening takes practice. Gently teaching someone about race, or pronouns, or to not make assumptions based on age can be tough work. Staying in community is tough. There are times when we all say something wrong, miss an email, get frustrated with a neighbor. We all need a little grace, a little loving-kindness, a little mercy.
Learning about Humility
To continue on with Micah’s requirements, I need to say, this year I personally learned about humility. I would not have chosen to be absent from you for two months, that was the bishop’s call. My absence, and my return, have taught about trust. I learned how strong, reliable, and resilient this community can be. When I am at my least mature, I run the danger of thinking I have all the answers. I learned this year, you don’t need my answers. You don’t even need me to make church happen. Your vestry, Julie, Chester, Hannah, Mary, Barbara, Loretta, and Josephine, even our organist Steven before he had to follow his husband to Nashville, they pulled together. Volunteers really leaned in. Humility for me this year was about realizing I might go fast alone, but we go farther and have more when we walk together. I am incredibly grateful to still be walking with this community. Ellis and I are so thankful for all you’ve done and all you are doing for us, and more importantly for this church. Humility, for me this year meant learning to trust you all more.
Doing Justice means Doing Church the way YOU do Church
This is a year when a whole lot of people leaned into the work of making church. You did it by ushering, and reading, and re-arranging chairs. You leaned into the work by investing in this place. Stewardship for 2023 finished with records set. For the first time we have surpassed $300,000 in pledges. But your investments were not only financial. You showed up to smudge people’s foreheads and pray in grocery store parking lots at Ashes to Go. You came to remember beautiful souls who now rest in peace like Sondra Ellis, Martha Bonds, Chris Carter, and too many more. You helped baptize and tell God’s stories with our kids. You plugged quarters into washing machines and colored with kids while the clothes spun. You worshiped in a downtown park, in a June rain, to show God’s love at Pridefest. You theologized over pints and food at Schlafly brewery and brought your friends along. This year you brought your kids and grandkids to see our new window, and invited them to wonder what it could mean to Rise Up with Jesus.
We live in a part of the world where doing justice means doing church the way that Holy Communion does church. Too many churches and pastors are behind so much cruelty and hate in this state. There are so many folks in this parish who are still recovering from the church of their upbringing. It matters that you show up for worship and welcome people exactly for who they are. It matters that you show up for one another across all kinds of diversity, and that you take the time to learn about the history and reality of racism in Sacred Ground. It matters that we show up for our neighbors and build community.
Holy Communion, thank you. For all you have been this past year. As we look ahead, what does the Lord Require of us? I pray that in the year (and years) ahead, Holy Communion is known as the church where we do justice. Amen.