Throughout history, bodies of water have served as clearly defined demarcation lines between one way to live and another. If you don’t believe me, I say somewhat jokingly, simply stand on a levee in the Delta and look toward Mississippi. In the western medieval world, the Atlantic Ocean was the ultimate barrier, as evidenced, at least apocryphally, by those maps that simply stated, “Beyond here there be dragons.” It was a warning to avoid what you did not know; something different and scary might reside on the other side. But water also offered safety, depending on which side of it you stood. For example, in our own country’s first few decades, that same Atlantic Ocean kept us safe from the intrigues that were always occupying Europe. And to our nation’s south, the Rio Grande, as miniscule as it now is, has a history of separating cultures—and languages—just as dramatically as any ocean. In the presence of bodies of water such as rivers or oceans, we tell ourselves stories to remind us which side is safe and which side is dangerous, where we should be and where we should not go.
This evening we have another sacrament: ordination. One of the tangible things that I will do is place a Bible in the hands of our ordinand. It is something that the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer require me to do, and have required since the first Prayer Book in 1549. So, Marna, you are the latest participant in almost six hundred years of this particular action. The admonition accompanying this action back then, as well as now, is to preach the Word of God. And that Word of God is not only the good news of God’s love in the form of the risen Christ, but also the words of the prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos and especially Micah, and what he stated in this evening’s first lesson. The Micah text is so important that the biblical scholar Philip King called it the perfect summary of prophetic teaching on true religion. That is quite a statement. If you want to know what the prophets are really trying to tell us, then read this particular lectionary text.
Micah tells his listeners and tells us who read him 2500 years later that God brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery. Listen carefully; he does not say brought “them,” as if he is teaching a history lesson. He says, brought “you,” even though he was preaching 600 or 700 years after the event. Through the Red Sea God delivered you, whoever the listener or reader might be. And then Micah asks his listeners to remember what happened between Shittim and Gilgal.
Now, in case you have forgotten what happened there (after all, we are in a room of Episcopalians for whom Bible study has not been at the top of our to-do list), let me refresh your memory. Those two towns sat on opposite sides of the River Jordan, and it is there where the Israelites crossed in to the Promised Land after their journey through the wilderness. The story includes the detail that when the very feet of the people who were carrying the ark touched the River Jordan, that river dried up. Think about it: as people carried God’s presence on their shoulders, their feet started making the water move back. God pushed back the waters so that they could cross, just as God had pushed back the waters of the Red Sea so that this people could escape Egypt and imprisonment. They humbly walked to their new home on feet that would not let water remain a barrier, on feet that would later also trample down the walls of Jericho. Micah, it seems, is reminding us that whatever walls we establish, whatever barriers we are fearful of overcoming, God will break them down, using our very feet as God’s own.
And that is why Micah next tells us to walk humbly…and to love kindness…and to do justice, that perfect summary of true religion. As a people who carry God’s presence with us in the form of the body of Christ, we become God’s agents in the world.
If we are now the body of Christ in the world, then our feet have some work to do. God calls us to deliver people just as God delivered the Israelites. We members of the body of Christ make choices based on justice and kindness and humility, virtues sorely lacking in today’s world, where injustice and greed and pride dominate. These ethical choices set us apart as Christians; they are the code of conduct by which we live and the virtues that we instill in whoever it is who comes to us to be baptized.
You have heard me preach and teach again and again on the need of the church to get outside its walls. Walls can be just like the Atlantic Ocean or the Rio Grande, lines of demarcation that we think will keep us safe. But why not step outside and take a chance that the tremor caused by our moving feet will cause some walls to come tumbling down and barriers to be overcome?
Look at what God is itching to do. God is itching to get our feet out there in the world, feet that will humbly step in to the water and dry the rivers of tears of the hurt and the oppressed and the forgotten, just as surely as the River Jordan was made dry by the feet of the Israelites. Still today people can cross barriers and be delivered from imprisonment; people can cross rivers and find a home. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly: an early Judeo-Christian ethic.
If you have ever had someone offer you a chance for freedom from whatever made you feel imprisoned, you have seen what Christ’s body looks like and what Christ’s feet can do. If you have ever had someone make you feel at home when you felt like a stranger, you have seen what Christ’s body looks like and what Christ’s feet can do. If you have ever experienced, at the hands and feet of someone else, justice or kindness or humility, then you have seen what Christ’s body looks like. If you have ever had any of these things happen to you, you’ve been raised from the dead. You have experienced resurrection.
If we believe that we are part of Christ’s body in this generation, then we have the God-given gift—and the God-given call—to hold up justice and kindness and humility so that there will be new appearances of the risen Christ as people go from illness to health, from despair to hope, from death to life.As I said earlier, at each ordination I hand the ordinand a Bible and tell that person to preach the Word of God. And if in the mind of the ordinand there is any bewilderment because, well, there are so many words in this Bible, so many things that are written down—some comforting and some harsh—my custom for the past ten years has generally been to write in the frontispiece of each Bible the following words, “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.” In essence, be the feet that will walk humbly and by where they step, part the waters so that someone can cross. Be the heart that is filled with kindness and thus attract the stranger and the fearful. Be the mind that seeks the justice so many people long for. Or to state it even more succinctly, for God’s sake, let’s be the risen Christ. Show all people who come to our Holy Table that they are part of that amazing body. And that they have hands and feet and minds and hearts of great worth, which can do great things. Let’s do the same thing that a small group of people in the wilderness did 2200 years ago: walk in the water and dry up the rivers that separate us. Walk with humility and kindness and justice toward our real home, the kingdom of God that knows no boundaries and has no limits. Amen.
“Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD. With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 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 6:1-8