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Beyond Belief

`This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this.... that you act justly, that you love tenderly, that you walk humbly with your God` (Micah 6:8)


I think that it must be about as pleasant being a philosopher as it is being an astronomer.....

Now, I don`t mean that either or both philosophers and astronomers are equally incomprehensible (they may well be incomprehensible, but thatís not the point!) No, their similarities must lie in the fact that no matter how significant they themselves regard the claims of their utterances and discoveries, much of the world stays the same with no visible change. This is perhaps even more true of astronomers than philosophers in that it truly doesn`t make much difference to the man on the Number 9 Bus whether this star is a pulsar and that one is a quasar or the other is a white dwarf or a red giant - No, what the man on the Number 9 Bus wants to know, is whether heíll get home in time for tea.

These days, for most people, philosophy is in much the same boat as astronomy. It didn`t used to be, but it is now. Many times in the past the European continent has changed its political, religious and ethical landscape because of philosophical reflection. But not these days. Philosophy is as significant to ordinary people as all those quasars, pulsars, red giants and white dwarfs.

In fact, philosophy and astronomy couldn`t be more different.

Star-gazing involves a systematic gathering of data in order to create patterns which lead us to understand our time and place. The collected facts provide the tools for the astronomer to construct a model which will tell us not only what has happened in the past, but what will in all probability happen in the future. Luckily for us, most of the stuff they discover that will happen to us and the earth and sun is a long time away, so we neednít really worry - (we just need to think about catching the bus getting home in time for tea ).

Philosophy is different, because it doesn`t appeal to facts at all.

It appeals to logic and argument - but there are no facts in philosophy, no models of the past or predictions for the future - simply words which try to say what is, and is not. And it is this quality which allows us to be philosophical when the electric bill comes through the door and we know there is no money to pay it. The facts are still there, (in the envelope containing the bill), but by ignoring the facts we can `be philosophical` about our lack of ability to find the funds to pay the electric bill. And it is this kind of thinking - cartooned, I know - which seems to have got philosophy a bit of a bad press in our days of data and facts and knowledge and information. To `be philosophical` about something these days is to indicate that you don`t really care - What you really care about is stuff you can scratch against the glass, things like catching the Number 9 Bus and getting home for tea.

I raise these two things - astronomy and philosophy - because they illustrate how some things can seem to be quite similar, lead us to similar value-judgements, and even be dismissed by some of us in the same mental trash-bin. But though both philosophy and astronomy may both have a similar effect on the man on the top deck of the bus, they are really quite different. Things are not always what they seem.

Take the church for example.....

Now that`s a really good one! We all know what church is about, don`t we? We know it`s about celebrating a set of beliefs about God, singing the hymns that the minister chose and we`ve never heard before, and meeting our friends...... and so on.

I had to spend some time thinking about what church really is last week, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; when I swapped pulpits with a Methodist Minister and tried to describe what we Reformed-folks really believe. And it is very hard to find words to describe church which are closed to misunderstanding - words which convey the meaning of what we are and do with such clarity there is no doubt at all where we are, and what we hold dear, and what we do.

The man on the bus is worried about being home in time for his tea... When you say the word `church` to him, I wonder what he thinks? What goes through his mind? What images does he conjure up? Perhaps he thinks that `church` belongs in the same category of thoughts as astronomy and philosophy!

I`ve spent a lot of time and energy in various places - study groups, worship and prayers - trying to persuade people that when you use the word `God` it is much more helpful to consider God to be a verb rather than a noun. (Pressing this idea is coming to be the mission of my life!) Whilst God truly exists, (noun) God is for all ordinary purposes impenetrable and unknowable except by analogy and metaphor, so it is a hopeless venture to try to get beyond the old white-bearded man in the sky, (even though the old man is a highly unsatisfactory image). No, we truly can`t imagine God in terms of `what` God is, so is it more helpful to think of God as a `doing-word`, an activity, (a verb?)

Think of all the words which end with the letters `ing`...... (the nice ones, and the nasty ones too!)

If we are sincere in our belief that God is aquainted with the whole world, then God is aquainted with all those `ing` words too - (God is so active you get out of puff just thinking about it).

Now, if it`s helpful to think of God in active terms rather than in terms of God as `being` - then why not think of church in the same way?

`This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this.... that you act justly, that you love tenderly, that you walk humbly with your God` (Micah 6:8)

So, don`t think of `church` as a place, or even as a building. Dare I say it? Don`t even think of church as a group of people! Think of it as a bunch of people `doing` things, like, acting justly, loving tenderly, walking humbly...

Micah, roughly a contemporary with Isaiah, and whose words opened our worship this morning, was the last of the eighth-century prophets. He was from south-western Judah and is preoccupied with social justice. He is totally independent of political and religious leaders - a bit of a maverick. Times were bad: Assyria captured Damascus and Samaria. Jerusalem was besieged in 701 BC. But the danger Micah saw was also internal: Leaders accepted bribes; merchants cheated their customers; pagan gods were worshipped along with Yahweh. Micah preached about sin and punishment; the punishment being clearly linked to their sin, just as unrepayable debt chains the borrower and lender in a poisonous symbiosis. Even so, he claims, there is hope: A remnant will form the nucleus of a new Israel, and its leader will be a true shepherd, one who brings peace. Micah was a fearless champion of the oppressed and under-privileged, attacking socio-economic injustice in his day.

`This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this.... that you act justly, that you love tenderly, that you walk humbly with your God` (Micah 6:8)

The Psalm we shared was most probably used in a service of admission to the Temple. In the service, the pilgrim seeking admission asked God who was eligible to enter (Mount Zion) and worship in the Temple - who has the right and privileges to enter the Lord`s tent - Who is acceptable? The answer is spoken by the officiant - `Those who are moral (walk blamelessly) in their words and deeds; those who do not harm other Israelites by what they say and do; those who despise evil-doers and honour those who hold God in awe, and charge no `interest` on loans to the needy and accept no bribes. These people will never be hindered by obstacles in their lives.`

We may smile a little at the charging of interest being equated with sinfulness - but Micah`s primary target was those people who used their wealth to keep the poor down - and the lending of money as high interest was the mechanism used by the rich to keep the poor, poor. So, sign up for Jubilee 2000 campaign, or risk the Psalmists tongue.

`This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this.... that you act justly, that you love tenderly, that you walk humbly with your God` (Micah 6:8)

I`d like to bring us back to astronomy and philosophy and ordinary things...... We`re not meant to be philosophical in our christianity - that is, philosophical in the contemporary sense of the word.

The message of Christ, rants Paul, - crucified, risen and alive - is God's power. But to those who hear the good news and reject the Cross it is nonsense.

Paul sees two kinds of people in the divided Corinthian Church - the `wise` and `those who believe`. He demands to know the value of rational debate and worldly wisdom - are the Jewish scribe and the rationalist debater - both possessors of worldly wisdom - truly wise? Philosophy and reason alone are to be given the heave-ho, says Paul, because through the birth of Christ, God has shown worldly wisdom to be folly. He explains that reason alone will not lead one to God. `Knowing God` (a very intimate term) is experiential. God chooses to save believers through the (apparent) folly which Paul preaches. To `desire wisdom` is to construct a religion by yourself and whose demands you are prepared to accept - in other words, philosophical reflection and reason alone delivers a truly comfortable unchallenging religion. Paul attacks the `Greeks ` - who are famous for their engagement in philosophy and reason - describing them as `unbelieving non-Jews`.

God's ways are not human ways. He calls on the members of the Corinthian Church to consider themselves; few are what the world would have chosen; few are worldly wise, powerful or aristocratic. But God's way was to choose those of apparently little account to show the apparently important that they are wrong. This is God's paradoxical way. Christ's life as Jesus of Nazareth started a new way of being a human in the active sense: and we, the inheritors of that new way, are set apart for God`s purposes for a similar life.

If only we would do it instead of talking and thinking about it!

`This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this.... that you act justly, that you love tenderly, that you walk humbly with your God` (Micah 6:8)

Jesus climbs a mountain in Galilee where he speaks to his followers. He talks about the new era he has come to initiate, and we know his words as the `Beatitudes`, from the Latin `blessed`. To be `blessed` is to be happy.

All the qualities are expected of the faithful, for the consequence is the same: they will enjoy God's rule. They will attain eternal life. They will be detached from wealth and dependant on God alone. Those who `mourn` the reign of evil forces on earth will be `comforted` (those who liked things as they were will be `consoled` in other words - but make no mistake, things won`t be the same!). The `meek` - people who do not press for personal advantage - will share in God's rule. Those who `hunger`- who ardently pursue God's will and purpose for his people, and do so single-mindedly and sincerely, `the pure in heart` -these will come to know God intimately. The `merciful` are those who pardon and love others (especially the poor). The `peacemakers`, those who seek shalom, the total state of well-being God provides through Christ, and `will be called children of God`, for they share in God's work. Jesus tells his audience that the values for admission to the Kingdom are the reverse of those valued by materialists.

This is all good stuff to which we all nod `amen` for we have heard it so many times...... But what in effect does it mean?

What does, `This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this.... that you act justly, that you love tenderly, that you walk humbly with your God` (Micah 6:8) really mean to the man on the Number 9 Bus? To you? To me?

It seems that we must return the `activity` God.....

If we reject (like Paul) the philosophical religion of the Ancient Greek mind-set - and much of materialism today - we have to return to the idea that to be a Christian goes beyond simply maintaining matters of belief, and it involves the attainment of shalom.

I don`t know if you used to play with magnets when you were younger, but it can be fascinating to see lumps of metal move other lumps without even touching them - invisible force-lines pushing and pulling, attracting and repelling, finding points of balance where their forces were equally matched and so forth. If you can imagine for a moment three magnets demonstrating their field of influence from different corners of a triangle, in the centre (if you can stay with me) is the invisible moment which I want to call the `shalom` point . The three magnets stand for: Personal responsibility and integrity - walk humbly Interpersonal respect of people - love tenderly Structural Justice - acting justly

`This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this.... that you act justly, that you love tenderly, that you walk humbly with your God` (Micah 6:8)

What it means is that it is when the people of God - the church - get beyond matters of belief, argument and doctrine - beyond the philosophy and the astronomy - and beings to become active (like the God who lures us on) that shalom will be achieved and enjoyed.

Middlesbrough is immensely fortunate - Linthorpe URC has been given a vote of confidence by the wider church. The approval of our Church Related Community Worker scheme by the national church is a recognition that we are not finished yet in this location - that there is still a lot for us to do. The activity-God, the doing-word-God lures us to muck-in and establish shalom, to (boldly!) go beyond theory and good intentions. So we say goodbye to a dry theoretical religion of ideas and concepts perpetuated for their own sake; We cease star-gazing... and begin to discover shalom...

`This is what Yahweh asks of you, only this.... that you act justly, that you love tenderly, that you walk humbly with your God` (Micah 6:8)

Amen