Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Part 2

Sermon: What does the Lord require of us? 

Micah 6:6-8, Luke 24: 13-35

Has it ever occurred to you that people in the days of the Bible did a lot of walking? Just think about it for a moment:

  • Abraham and Sarah making the long journey from Ur to Haran to Canaan;
  • The Israelites led by Moses on their epic 40 year journey in search of the Promised Land;
  • Jesus and the disciples constantly on the road in Galilee and Judaea;
  • Paul’s missionary journeys taken in company with Silas and Barnabas and Timothy.

Admittedly Paul made some of his journeys by sea, but more often, he walked. Because there was really no other way of getting from A to B. If you were relatively wealthy you might have a donkey, or a camel, or even a horse. If you were really wealthy you might travel in a carriage. Otherwise you walked. And, if you were in company, as you walked you talked… there wasn’t really much very else to do. When we read the gospels we find that Jesus did some of his best teaching while walking along the road… and today’s Gospel story is a good example. On Easter evening Cleopas and his companion are walking the seven mile journey home to Emmaus, discussing the events of the day and this strange rumour that Jesus is not dead but alive. Luke says:

As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them.

Jesus walked along with them… on one level that’s a simple, everyday observation. But it is also very profound.  Isn’t that what we have recently been celebrating, in our Christmas festivities? That God, in Jesus, walked among us… and still walks with us in our journey towards peace, reconciliation, justice and unity. In the words of a Christmas prayer:

Today, O God, the soles of your feet have touched the earth.
Today, the back street, the forgotten place have been lit up with significance.
(from Common Order, Church of Scotland)

So there’s lots of walking in the Bible. But the interesting thing is that if study the scriptures, we find that these are not always real, physical journeys involving real physical walking. In the Bible walking is a very common metaphor for the way people live their lives and the basic choices they make. So we are told to walk with God, walk in obedience, walk in integrity, walk in wisdom, walk righteously, walk in the ways of the good, walk in the light, walk in love, walk by the Spirit.

One of the best known examples occurs in our first reading, from Micah: what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (6:8)

This particular text was chosen for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity by Christians in India. They have reflected on their own situation and have come to the conclusion that the search for unity amongst Christians must address not just denominational differences, but also the divisions and distinctions based on caste which are so deeply engrained in Indian culture and which are also sadly present in the churches. In particular they draw our attention to those people who have been given the label of Dalit:

The Dalits… are the communities which are considered ‘out-castes’. They are the people worst affected by the caste-system, which is a rigid form of social stratification based on notions of ritual purity and pollution. Under the caste-system, the castes are considered to be ‘higher’ or ‘lower’. The Dalit communities are considered to be the most polluted and polluting and thus placed outside the caste-system and were previously even called ‘untouchable’. Because of casteism the Dalits are socially marginalized, politically underrepresented, economically exploited and culturally subjugated. Almost 80% of Indian Christians have a Dalit background. (What does God Require of Us? Full Theological Introduction p.1)

We hear the story of Sarah, a Christian woman from a Dalit community:

When they came for Sarah Digal, she wasn’t there. She had fled, five children and mother-in-law in tow, to the safety of the jungles a kilometre away. So, they set ablaze all that she had left behind, a framed picture of Jesus, a Bible in Oriya, utensils in the kitchen, some clothes, mats and linen. By the time Sarah tiptoed back, when she saw it was safe, her home was gone. What was left was burning embers, ashes and smoke. The neighbours came to commiserate with her. Sarah took a good look, stood erect, and pulled her sari firmly over her head. She began to pray. “Lord, forgive us our sins. Jesus, you are the only one. Save us from our misfortune. Free us, Lord.” The words were tumbling out. Sarah’s children slowly joined her. She was weeping as she pleaded with God for deliverance. Her neighbours and others around her joined her. It is a simple bond of human compassion and a strong reminder to her that nothing can sever a woman from her God. “I will die. But I will not stop being a Christian,” Sarah said through her tears. (From the WPCU Worship Pamphlet)

Reading the book of Micah, and reflecting on the reality of life for Dalit communities, Christians in India have come to see many parallels between their own situation and that addressed by the prophet. They write:

Micah’s rejection of rituals and sacrifices which were impoverished by a lack of concern for justice, speaks of God’s expectation that justice ought to be at the core of our religion and rituals. His message is prophetic in a context where discrimination against the Dalits is legitimized on the basis of religion and notions of ritual purity and pollution. Faith gains or loses its meaning in relation to justice. In the contemporary Dalit situation Micah’s insistence on the moral element of our faith requires us to ask ourselves what God truly requires of us; mere sacrifices, or to walk with God in justice and peace. (What does God Require of Us? Full Theological Introduction p.2)

For our Indian Christian sisters and brothers, this ancient prophecy of Micah is brought to life and becomes a contemporary question: What does the Lord require of us?

This is a question faced not only by Christians in India as they confront caste discrimination both inside and outside the churches. It is a question faced by us as well. What does the Lord require of us, here and now, in Holloway and Tollington and Finsbury Park, in a time marked by economic crisis and ever increasing inequality? Well, I suggest the answer is still the same. It remains, in the words of the prophet : to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

What does the Lord require of us? Islington churches have responded to this in many different ways, through drop-ins and nightshelters, street pastors and foodbanks, walks of witness against knife crime and bins to put them in; offering hospitality to community organisations of many kinds and sanctuary to those whose lives are under threat.

What does the Lord require of us? This evening we are going to hear about two very different ways of responding to the challenge of the prophet. First Mark Brennan, the coordinator of the Islington Churches Cold Weather Shelter will speak about housing and homelessness,  and then Valerie Flessati, who is vice-President of Pax Christi will introduce us to the splendid Pax Christi Icon of Peace and Reconciliation which is visiting this parish this weekend…

(Short contributions from Mark and Valerie)

What does the Lord require of us? The Christians from India who prepared this year’s materials for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comment:

What God requires of us today is to walk the path of justice, mercy and humility. This path of discipleship involves walking the narrow path of God’s reign and not the highway of today’s empires. Walking this path of righteousness involves the hardships of struggle, the isolation which accompanies protest and the risk associated with resisting “the powers and principalities” (Ep 6:12), especially when those who speak out for justice are treated as trouble makers and disrupters of peace. In this context we need to understand that peace and unity are complete only if founded on justice. (What does God Require of Us? Full Theological Introduction p.4)

There’s a lot of walking in the bible. And we are called to join the walk, the journey towards justice, the pilgrimage towards peace, in company with Jesus and our Christian brothers and sisters of many different denominations and traditions. An old gospel hymn begins with these words:

When we walk with the Lord
in the light of his Word
what a glory he sheds on our way!

May God bless us and shed his glory on us and the way we take.

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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