Sermon: Back to Basics

02-02-2014    Preaching Text: “[And] what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

We humans are funny creatures, especially when we group together. For example, consider how faith communities often lose touch with their most basic reasons for being.

In today’s celebrated reading from Micah, we hear again the prophet’s plea to the faithful to return to the basics, to forego all the accretions of pomp and circumstance that effectively replace honest, sincere faith with artifice. For, it seems, the further we humans get from the basics of anything, the more elaborate become our expressions of whatever that might be.

Thus Micah asks whether God desires pro forma bowing and scraping. What about burnt offerings? Thousands of rams? Expensive oils? Ever-more dramatic displays of repentance?

The answer, of course, is none of these. Instead the Lord requires a return to the basics: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

Of course, throughout the history of Israel, there are continuous laments from the godly who see the faith being watered down by the insidious influence of the surrounding culture. Time and again, the prophets urge Israel to return to Jahweh in earnest, rather than with its ever-more lavish, outward displays of piety.

Some years ago, I debated my father about the state of the church, specifically the importance of maintaining its basic, historic virtues and values.

My father, it must be said, was a person of high moral integrity. As a case in point, on the day he retired, he told my mother that, looking back over his working years, he was most proud of the fact that he had never cheated anyone.

This, I might add, is perhaps especially notable given that he worked on Madison Ave., where, according to him, it was not at all uncommon for copywriters to steal other people’s ideas and present them as their own.

In an amusing aside (at least for me), my mother a few years back, asked him whether he’d like to watch an episode of the hit TV show, Mad Men. “I lived it,” he told her matter-of-factly, “why would I want to watch it on TV?” (As an aside, not that you asked, I’ve only seen one episode of the show and found it ridiculous and not at all realistic or credible.)

My father had grown up in a pastor’s family (with a lot of relatives who also were pastors) and had learned strong moral values, which stood him in good stead as he navigated the economic hardships of the Depression in both Philadelphia and New York, and while serving as an ambulance driver on the front lines in North Africa and Italy.

Like many of his generation, he returned from the war and, through hard work and strength of character, was able to carve out a good life for himself and his family. (That said, his greatest challenge was, more than likely, rearing my three siblings and me!)

After he married, he moved out of New York to neighboring Connecticut, a move he really didn’t want to make. But this was during the post-war period and there was housing available there.

And yet, he never seemed to fit it. He always complained about the pretentiousness of suburbia. Instead, he seemed to hold on to his more humble, street-born roots, eschewing what he termed “phoniness.”

I remember my mother telling me of the time a famous news anchor from one of the three national networks came to speak at my elementary school. My father, otherwise quiet and thoughtful, apparently took umbrage at what he perceived as the anchor’s undue pomposity and air of false authority.

He took such umbrage, in fact, at least according to my mother, that he proceeded – quite uncharacteristically, I might add – to ask the anchor a question that must have been, I can only assume, a rather futile attempt to interject a bit of humility into the situation.

As the years went by, however, he tended to adopt a more laissez-faire attitude about certain things. It had a “whatever works for others/who am I to judge?” flavor to it. Having grown up in the 60’s, and having seen firsthand the wreckage of so many around me, I challenged this curious and somewhat nascent “magnanimity.”

He argued that though he held these more “tolerant” views, they certainly hadn’t caused any difficulties for him in his life. To which I suggested that this likely was because he had grown up with strong, solid values, which don’t necessarily translate easily to those without such a background.

I also pointed out that his personal life was completely devoid of anything remotely resembling the more libertine lifestyles of which he now seemed more or less tolerant. Though he himself might well hold these beliefs without adverse consequence, I complained, what about those without a similar moral upbringing or training?

During a pastoral counseling session years ago, a client, a young man, told me how his parents professed to be very “open” about things, drug use included. Marijuana use, for example, was perceived by both as no more problematic, they said, than having a glass of wine with dinner.

Until, that is, his mother happened to find a small amount of marijuana in his bedroom. Her reaction, he said, was extreme, almost hysterically so. Yet, prior to this, his mother was completely OK with it – in theory at least!

This past Monday, January 27, the musical world celebrated the 258th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. One of Mozart’s enduring legacies is that he took what was the very formal tradition of his day, the sonata form, and tweaked it, improvised it, and in so doing created one of the greatest bodies of work the musical world has ever known.

Which is to say, Mozart knew the tradition inside and out, and, because of his mastery of it, he was able to improve it in a way that worked, that made sense. He didn’t change form willy-nilly. Nor did he throw that same tradition out whole cloth.

Rather, because of his familiarity with the past and its traditions, he knew instinctively when to break the rules and when not to. Thus, I would argue, such improvisation is done effectively, and well, only by having knowledge of what came before; by being keenly attuned, in other words, to the basics.

As you may know, the Study Group had our first meeting this past Wednesday. Among other things, I suggested that perhaps the most important thing the Protestant Mainline churches can do today is to get back to the basics. Only then will they succeed in addressing the true needs of a culture and world seemingly cut off from what are the most basic things of life. Amen.