Sermon: Keeping Up Appearances

Preaching Text: “[What] does the Lord require of you…?” (Micah 6:8)

If you’ve never seen it, I would recommend a very funny British TV comedy called Keeping Up Appearances.

As the title suggests, the show is centered on the lead character, Hyacinth, who’s made it her life’s mission is to climb the social ladder in spite of her working class connections. By her side is her ever-genial, long-suffering husband who must continually jump through hoops to satisfy her blatant, risible, over-the-top, albeit repeatedly failed attempts at pretending to be someone she’s not.

This is perhaps best exemplified (to the amusement and/or embarrassment of those around her) by the way she indignantly pronounces her last name, Bucket, as “Bouquet.”

I am especially tickled by this because of my mother’s family. I think it fair to say that they, too, exhibited a certain strain of pretension, if not delusions of grandeur. At one point, as it turns out, they commissioned a coat of arms to be made bearing the family name.

What’s funny about this is that their name was “Eimer,” a German word that means…bucket! So the heraldic design of their escutcheon prominently features two wooden buckets!!! The irony is rich.

In today’s reading from Micah we see something similar at work. Here Jahweh excoriates the people of Israel for their superficial appearance of faith-keeping while failing to the do the things Jahweh truly desires!

After reciting a litany of blessings God has bestowed on Israel, most prominent of which is leading them out of slavery in Egypt, itself the seminal event in Jewish history and the beginning of its sense of identity as a people, Micah asks:

“With what shall I come before the Lord?” He goes on to offer several possibilities: Burnt offerings? Year-old calves? Thousands of rams? Ten thousands of rivers of oil? His own firstborn? (The irony is getting pretty thick here.)

So if not these things, then what? The answer Micah offers seems simple enough: “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Israel’s problem, as we said, is that it only appears to be doing God’s will, on the surface. Outwardly all seems well. Sacrifices are being made and regular and orderly worship is occurring, as required.

But are the faithful doing what God truly desires? Does God really need thousands of rams or rivers of oil? Or is Israel by its offerings merely “keeping up appearances,” not unlike Hyacinth “Bouquet?”

In his book, Transforming Congregational Culture, the one I probably mention far-too-often, Tony Robinson quotes Peter Drucker, a business consultant. Specifically, Drucker talks about “work avoidance,” a phenomenon whereby businesses, institutions, and organizations fall into the habit of doing a lot of busy-work while avoiding what’s most needed.

They end up busily rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while ignoring the pressing need to retool to meet the critical challenges of the moment. All such efforts, he assures, are in vain.

Drucker talks instead about meeting the “adaptive challenge.” He likens this to someone who’s had a heart attack. The patient must immediately go about changing their lives in significant, even fundamental ways, such as changing their diet or starting a new exercise regimen, to name but two. Overall a wholly new way of living is required.

His point is that it’s not always enough to make a few minor changes or tweak a few considerations. The challenge just may require wholesale change.

Robinson relates this to the now well-documented 50-year decline of mainline Protestantism. He argues that when the church first began its decline in the mid-60s, it was slow to recognize the problem, much less address it. If it attempted anything at all, it was to tweak a few things rather than embrace the need for wholesale transformation as the situation demanded.

In other words, we in the church are pretty good at “work avoidance,” busying ourselves with all manner of details while ignoring the very real “adaptive challenges” we are facing. Stuck in our routines, we “major in the minors and minor in the majors.”

Thus, in effect, we end up offering God year-old calves and rivers of oil while ignoring the essential baseline questions, such as what the Lord truly requires of us.

This is a common human problem and certainly not confined to churches. We all tend to get into routines without ever asking ourselves the deeper question as to why we give over so much of our lives to them. To do so requires that we stop, take stock, and seek the answers only God can bequeath.

That means each of us should have a mission statement for our lives related to the question of what God wants you and me to do. Together, as the church, we should do the same.

Such requires discernment. Spiritual discernment. Which is difficult to achieve. It requires that we take the time to be intentional about praying, worshipping, asking questions, and (here’s the hardest part) listening and waiting for God’s answer.

The fact is, our world is full of ready-made answers. There’s no shortage of them. The secular world is nothing if not eager to impress upon us its logic, from the way we welcome the stranger, organize our common life, raise and spend our money, as well the way we treat one another.

The way we habitually do these things may seem obvious at first, until, that is, we take the time to actually listen for God. God’s ways, after all, are not our ways. And as our culture moves ever-further from Christianity and the church, this difference grows daily more pronounced.

As the discerning faithful, then, what is the mission of First Church? What is its true purpose, as God would have it?

Micah says it’s to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. If so, how is this done in terms of specifics?

Discerning our answer requires patience and hard work (not mere “busy work”). Yet given our American “can-do” spirit and its attendant expectation of immediate results, any genuine discernment demands that we develop a countercultural lifestyle born of listening and waiting, one that very well may result in an answer altogether different from what we initially would have expected.

Of course, the devil is in the details, as I’m always saying, especially when it comes to doing God’s will. So, what, specifically, is God’s calling First Church to be and do? Surely it is not to be a clone of the church down the street.

For it’s made up, after all, of a unique set of individuals with unique backgrounds, ideas, and gifts. Cookie-cutter solutions, such as the world gives, simply shall not do.

God has a specific calling for each of us, individually and corporately, as Christ’s Body in this unique time and place. Indeed God’s will may not be obvious at first blush, but it is nonetheless both real and present. So will we take the time to wait and listen? Or will we busy ourselves with minutiae, content with keeping up appearances?

Last week I referenced the Senior Pastor at the first church I served. After one particularly difficult day, he confided his frustrations with me. “I’m tired of playing church,” he remarked.

And we all know what he meant. Are we truly doing what the Lord requires? Or are we just playing church and keeping up appearances? Amen.