Posted by: owizblog | January 29, 2017

“It Really Is That Simple…” Sermon, UCB, 29 January 2017

Reading: Micah 6:1-8


The Book of Micah embodies a voice speaking out of, and into, complicated times. This is a voice from the hill-country of the little kingdom of Judah, just the old territory of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and from a vantage-point slightly to one side of events.

This is the voice of someone who watches as the newly-revived Assyrian empire sets out to make itself great again. this is the voice of someone who looks on as the much larger kingdom of Israel, the land of the Ten Tribes of Israel as they had been, tries unsuccessfully to stand up to the Assyrian threat is overcome, rebels, and is swept from the face of the earth. This is the voice of someone who sees the focus of Assyrian power turn terrifyingly on Judah, and Jerusalem.

This is a complicated society and a complicated social situation. These are complicated times. In fact, as the prophets all see them, they are the upshot of what has gone before; not just the rise of huge, hostile powers outside that reshape the world willy-nilly, but of social processes, ways of living, which have hollowed out the life of the people, made the poor vastly poorer while the rich heap up wealth and hoard it. The prophets of the Old Testament say this in so many words.

Old habits die hard. When things go wrong, when the world grows dark and threatening, people fall back on the old, traditional responses. Let’s get more religious! Let’s get serious about the religious things, the religious rituals, the religious language and ceremonial! Let’s turn to God.

But, say the prophets – but, says Micah here – you are looking in the wrong place. God isn’t where you think he is. You have lost sight of God in the injustice of your shared life, the life of your society. Your trust in God has failed. You won’t get back to God by doing the religious things more intensively.

You know what God wants. It’s very simple. Perhaps it’s so simple that it’s getting beyond you. So here it is:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God.


Why is it inconceivable that to face the world the way it is, we need first of all to become the sort of society we should be?

That’s a question we need to be asking. Because we live in a changed world of unimaginable, barely-understood forces reshaping our lives. We live in a world of panic and confusion. A whole, enormous society seems to have turned back to old-time religion to find its answers, a society in which lots of people shout about God’s laws, but none of them seem to be listening to the voices of God’s prophets. Which means that millions of people have become fanatically religious because they aren’t listening to God.

And it isn’t just America.

Why is it inconceivable that the uncertainty with which we face an uncertain world is to do that we have become a society in which poor people are treated as though they are less than human, and the agendas of money and power shape everything?

Why is it inconceivable that, as Nobel-prizewinning economists like Rudolf Stieglitz point out, what is wrong with our world is that greed is actually destroying wealth – that while a few, unimaginably wealthy, individuals are taking more and more of the cake to themselves, and becoming yet wealthier, the way this is done is actually shrinking the cake for everyone?

Why is it inconceivable that just sharing makes us all richer, and in many, many different ways, might be a law of economics because it’s actually the way the world is meant to work?

Why is the idea fought against tooth and nail that our world is the way it is because it isn’t the way it should be? Yes, in a world of many faiths, in a society in which many people don’t have a faith, we might feel awkward about saying that this has something to do with the character of God, with what God wants – justice for the poor, everyone to matter, the very planet on which we live treated not as our private quarry and landfill site, but Creation, something of which we are the stewards and trustees, not the negligent, profiteering slum landlords.

But when we say things the way God makes us see them, there will be many, many people who will hear us. And they might not share our starting-point, which is faith, and they might not come to it, or to us – but they will hear our voice, and agree with what we say.

And where they speak up, from their starting point in other faiths, or in a secularized view of the world, and call for these things – – justice for the poor, everyone to matter, the planet on which we live treated as something of which we are the stewards and trustees, not the exploiters – we can hail them as doing, and calling for, what God wants, whether they know it or not.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God.


We are inclined to panic, because we feel that Christianity is losing its purchase on society. Several sociologists and historians of religion have remarked that Scotland never had laws against opening a shop on a Sunday because nobody would have dared open a shop on the Sabbath.

There’s that lovely reminiscence I heard on the radio some time ago, of the speaker as a wee boy walking hand in hand with his granny down the main street of a Highland village when a dog trotted in front of them.

His granny jerked the boy’s arm almost out of its socket, and growled “Straichten yer bunnet, Wullie – it’s the Minister’s dug…”

That sort of social power has gone forever. But if we lament it, we are lamenting the wrong thing. Power was not something the Church wielded in the New Testament. The Church of the Jesus who was crucified for announcing that with him the Kingdom was breaking into a world utterly unlike the Kingdom, utterly unlike what God wanted the world to be – the Church of the Jesus who took the poor, and the unrespectable, and the chaotic, the people whose lives had fallen to bits and who were hated and feared by the respectable for what they represented – which was what can so easily happen to anyone who falls through the net – and told them that they mattered, that their existence registered with God, that God loved them.

The Church of the Jesus whose demand was utterly simple, was, as Paul says, a Church of simple, uninfluential people. The only power that Church possessed was the power of the powerless Christ, who went to the Cross to turn the world upside down; an unrecognizable power, because it looks like weakness.

An unrecognizable power, because it works according to a logic which, in the dog-eat-dog, de’il tak the hinmost logic of the world the way it is, looks like stupidity, not the wisdom of God…

The power of the Church, and of the Gospel, the power of the love of God, isn’t the power that signs executive orders, and commands walls to be built, and opposes might to the forces of history, hoping to stop them in their tracks. The power of love, God’s love, shows itself as the powerlessness that endures all things, bears with all things, because the power of love is the power of God’s long game…

And that’s what Paul will tell us, in our Epistle reading, after our next hymn…

[Hymn 220: O sing a song of Bethlehem]

Reading: 1 Corinthians 1: 10-18


And there it is! Simplicity – the radical simplicity that is the mark of what God does. Not the simplicity of stupid people, who think they can control the world by reducing it to their terms. That’s the stupid simplicity of power, not the wise, foolish powerless power of God.

We make things so complicated!

The famous radical Christian Website Ship of Fools: The Magazine of Christian Unrest runs competitions every so often for the best religious joke of the year. These, like all the best religious jokes, are sometimes unexpectedly challenging to the way we see things. Here’s one winner from years ago. It’s about doctrinal purity, and how it gets in the way of what faith is really all about – what God actually demands of us.

I’ve translated it into terms of the amazing number of splits and divisions over niceties of doctrine

that, at one stage saw eleven Presbyterian denominations in Scotland, each differing from each other by a whisker on points of doctrine, and each claiming to be the True Face of the Kirk. Sometimes, it has to be confessed, it has been difficult to see the loving image of Christ as that True Face…

So: I was leaning on a beautiful mediaeval bridge over the river in a delightful old town in Italy, and I recognized a Scottish accent in the man next to me. We got talking, and soon discovered that we were both Presbyterians.

“What kind of Presbyterian are you?” I said.

“I’m a member of the Secession Church!” he said.

“Me too!” said I. “Isn’t providence amazing! Auld Licht or New Licht?”

“Auld Licht! And you?”
“Yes, me too! Praise the Lord for all his love! Burgher, or Antiburgher?”

“Wonderful!” I said. “So am I! How marvellous is the love of the Lord! Lifter, or Non-Lifter?”

“Lifter!” he said.
So I shouted “Die, heretic!” and shoved him off the bridge…


And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God.

We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

It really is that simple.

And if it doesn’t seem like it, think of this: do you imagine that we will be asked to stand before Christ and account for where we stood on double predestination, or on the nature of the presence of Christ in communion? As the Gospels tell it, the questioning and answering go in a very different direction.

He will say to [them]… I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’

It really is that simple.

I nearly bankrupted myself one Easter years ago. There were several small primary schools in my charge, and at one of them, I did an Assembly about this year, at which we looked at the Beatitudes, from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which you’ll hear Len read in a few moments.

It went well, the children all grasped how powerful Jesus’ words here are, and how important, and I tossed off the reckless remark that I would give an Easter egg to any child who learned the Beatitudes off by heart before the Easter break.

Alas, they had a very diligent Head Teacher, and she made sure that every child in the school learned the Beatitudes off by heart. Fortunately, there were only twenty pupils in the whole school – but it made a big hole in our monthly budget.

I don’t know if you, like me, and like those pupils at Pinwherry Primary, had to learn the Beatitudes off by heart. It’s a passage of only 172 words, but when you’re a child, remembering what will happen to the poor in spirit, or how the peacemakers are blessed, is a complicated challenge.

Yet at its heart, there is a huge simplicity.

It’s the simplicity of the white light shone through a prism, that is split into its glorious complexity, without ceasing to be the light it is.

It’s the simplicity of the love we are called to trust, to follow in our path through the world, and to show in our daily lives. However complicated the world is, it’s that simple.

In a world bloated with greed, where the poor go hungry because of all the things the rest of the world thinks it can’t live without, we are called to be poor in spirit,

In a world so full of grief, we are called to sit with the grief of those who mourn – or how can we speak to those who mourn with any sort of comfort to offer? As the poet John Donne says: “The Bible tells us that in that day, God will wipe the tears from every eye. What will God do, on that day, with those who have never wept?”

In a world where power is idolized, idolatrously worshipped, we are called upon to divest ourselves of power, to become meek, and live out the truth that power and violence have their limits – but gentleness and love do not.

In a savagely unjust world, where many can afford to waste, while many starve, we are called on to hunger and thirst for righteousness.

In a merciless world, we are called to be merciful, to show that mercy will find mercy.

In a world which twists the truth past breaking-point, and into mangled “alternative truths” we are called pure in heart, because it’s only purity and straightforwardness, in a twisted world, that “gets” God.

In the wreckage of a brutally broken world, and across the battle-lines of misunderstanding, we are called to be peacemakers, peace-builders as the original Greek has it.

And we are called to be those who are persecuted because of righteousness, because if the world is skewed and distorted away from what God would have it be, this is how we know we are doing it right. We live in tension with the world as it is, because our calling is to live in the world as it should be, and shall be – in the Kingdom which is not come yet, but is coming and, in Christ is already here.

Let’s hear this astounding simplicity refracted by the world’s complexity – the simplicity that can cope with the world as it is, without reducing it to simplistic nonsense – once again as Len reads to us Jesus’ words from the opening of the Sermon on the Mount…

Reading: Matthew 5:1-12

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