Pay the Fine or Transform Your Life?

When my grandmother was well into her 80s and becoming a very unreliable driver, she hit a grad student in a Beetle. It was entirely my grandmother’s fault. When we asked her about the accident, she got defensive and said, “Insurance will cover it.” As if throwing money at the situation makes it un-happen. Because the alternative—that she stop driving—would have meant transforming the way she was in the world. It would have been the end of her independence, which would have required her to leave her home. Eventually, reluctantly, unwillingly, she did make these changes.


Boeing fired its CEO recently, and perhaps it will pay compensation to the families of those killed in its 737 MAX air crashes last year as a way of trying to buy its way out of trouble. But unless it changes its culture—unless it stops worshiping the god of money and goes back to a culture of building the best and safest airplanes possible—throwing money does not fix anything. It certainly does not make those crashes un-happen or those victims come back to life. Nothing can change that. Boeing needs to transform its values and priorities.


Both of these examples—my grandmother as an individual, and Boeing as a corporate entity—are about trying to fix things with money rather than transforming the core of how they operate. And both of our readings today address this topic of values and how we are to prioritize our relationship with God.


We begin with the reading from Micah. Notice that this passage is framed as a lawsuit. God is bringing a case against the people of Israel and calls the mountains and hills, the foundations of the earth to hear the case and offer judgment.


God presents God’s case: “I saved you from slavery and from all these other oppressive times. And you won’t give me the time of day. You turn your backs on me, practice injustice, are hateful to each other, are conceited and proud and think you can do it all on your own.”


The people respond: “Can I buy my way back into your good graces with thousands of rams and ten thousands of rivers of oil? Even offer you my firstborn child?” No. God cannot be bought. God does not ask you to pay God off with some fine; rather, God seeks your transformation. God doesn’t want some consolation prize to compensate for your absence in the relationship. God wants the relationship. And it may require you to shift your values and priorities, because here’s what the relationship looks like:

  1. Do justice.
  2. Love kindness, and
  3. Walk humbly with your God.

The end. Rams, or even offering your firstborn as a sacrifice—God wants none of that. Has no use for it. God wants you.


Back in the early 2000s I worked in Benaroya Hall, which takes up a block between Second and Third avenues downtown. Many of the marches and rallies came down Second Avenue, and those of us working in the warren of cubicles on the fifth floor could hear them pass by. One day just before 5:00 an anti-war march came booming down the street: drums, costumes, signs—“No blood for oil,” “No war in my name.” Several of us in the office went to the window to watch them go by.


Our president at the time had said he didn’t care how many people marched in the streets; he was still going to do what he felt was right. On the one hand, I had to admire him for sticking to his values. On the other hand, I was wishing his values were closer to mine.


So as much as I was heartened and delighted to see this anti-war protest march by, and as much as I wanted to join the march when I got off work in a few minutes, I also thought, “What’s the point? No one’s listening. I might as well just go home.” There was this internal wrestling match going on.


At 5:00, I left the building . . . and I joined the march. I was still wrestling, wasn’t quite sure why I was there. But as I looked around at all the people who had turned out—who had made the effort to organize the march, maybe even took time off from work to get there early, who had done way more than I—I realized that I had to know I am a person who, at least once in a while, will show up and say, “Not on my watch.” And I had to bear witness to all the others who felt the same. We weren’t there for the president. He had already said he was ignoring us. We were there for each other. We were there for all the people driving by in their cars, or riding by on the buses, or walking or biking past us, watching us from their office windows.


What if no one had shown up? What if everyone thought, “What’s the use?” and just went home? Then They would have won—capital T “They,” whoever that may be in any given case. The bar would have been lowered, and They would know They could do whatever They wanted and everyone would just roll over and take it. As we’ve heard from our current president, he could shoot someone in broad daylight in midtown Manhattan and no one would say a word.


That’s dangerous.


And we got a taste of it this week in the trial of the president in the Senate. The Micah reading had a trial, and we had a trial of our own. No matter which party you prefer, both sides had complaints about the system not working. And I fear the result is that the bar has been lowered for what actions our current president—and all future presidents—can take and know that there is no check on that power. The president can act like a mafia don and fully expect that to be okay.


Our senators are human. Some of them have been fighting like mad to bring about justice. And some of them can be bought. They can be convinced to worship the gods of power, fame, political party, whatever. They can be convinced to worship those gods rather than the God of truth, justice, kindness, and humility.


Our God cannot be bought. And, if we’re following Jesus’ teachings in the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, we must likewise be people who cannot be bought. The Beatitudes tell us to be content with what we have and who we are, because then we cannot be bought. The Beatitudes tell us to get our inside world—our mind and heart—put right, because then we will see God everywhere in the outside world. The Beatitudes tell us to care for each other. The Beatitudes tell us that even when we are grieving a loss, we are closer to God than ever, because God is our dearest one and will never leave us. That all sounds a lot like Micah saying to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.


Both of these texts, Micah and Matthew, tell us how to be in the world and how to put God first. Stand up for justice, even when those around us are putting the bar for behavior lower and lower. Love kindness, even as nasty tweets and mass shootings become the norm. Walk humbly with our God—draw close to God even in moments of grief, even when we despair of things ever changing. Know that we are to show up, practicing justice, loving kindness—and the outcome will be something beyond our control, something that we trust is in God’s hands.


They say that a mission statement should be no more than seven words so that people can remember it. The mission statement at Disneyland is three words: Make people happy. We’ve been talking recently about how to take our faith out into the world, how to have words for an elevator speech. “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with our God.” Nine words. A little over the seven-word limit, but still pretty short. If someone is asking about our faith journey, we could talk about these nine words.


I know that you take these words seriously. Many of you live them out every day of your lives. We are trying to be the kind of people who live into these words, who show up for our relationship with God first and foremost because it does matter, it does make a difference, and the mountains and hills and foundations of the earth are indeed bearing witness. The people watching from their office windows, the people riding by in buses and cars and on bikes—they are bearing witness. And they see the need for this voice of truth and justice in the world.


May we continue to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, even if society persecutes us for doing so. Then we know that we are making Them—capital “T” Them—uncomfortable, because They see the truth, They see the facts, They see what it means to live with love. And They see how far They have strayed from all of that.


There are those who worship the god of money, who prefer to sin boldly and just pay off anyone who gets hurt; who prefer to buy their politicians in order to create a political system that benefits them; who think they can do whatever they want and not worry about God. We are a people who believe in transformation. Who believe that if we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, we will be transformed into our best selves, no matter what those in power are doing. And we will be agents of transformation, and inviters into transformation, for all around us. We prefer to transform our lives rather than try to pay a fine and buy off God. May that always be so. Amen.

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