Here is the English translation of the sermon I preached yesterday at the Closing Service of the Kirchentag in the Stadtpark in Hamburg.
SERMON for Closing Service, DEKT 34, Hamburg, 5 May 2013
(Draft English translation)
I have two very young grandchildren. The elder is called Ben and he will soon be three years old. It is very funny listening to him learning to speak English. His language ability – shaped by living in Liverpool where the accent is … er … ‘unique’ – means that he learns phrases quickly, but doesn’t always use them correctly. So, I am looking forward to what he makes of the phrase: “Your eyes are bigger than your tummy.” Like many kids of his age, he can eat for England… and he sometimes takes more than he needs, more than he can possibly eat. As he grows up he will learn.
Or will he?
How much is ‘enough’? How much – and of what – do I need to be satisfied? And is ‘being satisfied’ the same as being ‘happy’?
The prophet Micah was thinking about this many centuries before iPhones, designer jackets and sports cars. Banking crises and currency challenges lay far in the future, and yet his own society was struggling with hard choices about how to live and how to love together with people who aren’t just like me. Micah’s world sounds familiar, doesn’t it? He wrote in a context of economic revolution. Material prosperity in his time led to an individualistic materialism and an approach to religion as a means to achieving or fulfilling man desire – what we might call ‘self-fulfilment’. And this, in turn, had led to a crisis in the area of personal and social values in which, as usual, the poorest people suffered the most. Injustice, greed and false idols of self-protection characterised society and shaped political and economic direction. Religion was tamed, having lost its challenging edge – a challenge based on a vision of a different world.
So, what Micah has to say was not relevant only to Israel many centuries ago, but speaks to us now. Because what he addresses is not particular social or economic arrangements, but the human heart and mind – which, for all our technological progress, does not seem to change very much at all from one generation to the next. It seems we still want to be happy and fulfilled and satisfied, but perhaps without recognising that such happiness, fulfilment and satisfaction cannot exist for any individual – or single community – without reference to the happiness, fulfilment and satisfaction of what the Bible calls my ‘neighbour’.
We might also remark that this applies to our political obsession with ‘security’. I cannot be secure, if my security simply negates the security of my neighbour. I cannot think about security in isolation from the needs of those who live alongside me. And it is this that places a question mark over the effectiveness of dividing walls, whether they be those dismantled in Berlin or those being constructed in the Land of the Holy One.
However, Micah is less concerned about establishing political programmes at this point than imagining a vision. He calls people who have lost their way and forgotten their story (as children of the God who created the cosmos and all that is in it – including the poor, the foreigners and those who are ‘different’) not to take hold of a vision ‘out there’, but to be grasped by a vision that transforms the way they see God, the world and themselves.
It is as if Micah says to his fearful people: “The old ways of seeing and being haven’t worked have they? Do you feel more secure now – happier in your skin? Or dare you see that your vision is tired and dull, that all you hoped and worked for now lies around you like the ruins of a once glorious city? Like Damascus or Baghdad or Aleppo?
A popular comedy series in NDR takes place in a bistro. In a famous line, the owner says, „That’s just how it is…“ – thus is the world. But the Bible subverts our understanding of reality and invites us – no, challenges us – to see God, the world and ourselves differently. The world does not have to be the way it is!
One day the famous Italian artist Michelangelo was seen rolling a huge stone down a hill. He had to use all his strength to manoeuvre the great rock in the right direction. Someone saw him and and asked what he was doing: after all, it is just a big rock. Michelangelo replied that he was in a hurry because there was an angel in the rock, waiting for the artist to reveal him.
Michelangelo could see what normal people couldn’t even imagine. And this short story illustrates the challenging vocation of people who want to look out through God’s eyes. Do we simply see what is before our eyes, or do we see the world around us differently?
Micah invites us to think differently, to see God and the world differently, and to be fired by a vision of a different world. A world in which we can be satisfied with ‘enough’ and in which our neighbours can be satisfied without us having to be afraid. The images he uses in 4:4-5 of his prophecy are deliberate: there will be no terror or fear because you will be satisfied with your own tree and not need to capture your neighbour’s tree when you don’t need it. After all, you can only sit under one tree at a time, can’t you?
This vision assumes that individuals and communities, fired by a different vision, will only take what they need and will deny themselves what they do not need. They will question economic models that worship at the altar of infinite economic growth – as if they are never any consequences of such growth. And they will never be content while the growth of their fig tree comes only at the expense of – or as a threat to – their neighbour’s fig tree.
Micah paints a picture of how and what the world might become – an image that goes beyond mere argument and worms ist way into our imagination as an image of hope and promise. It is as if he gently plays a melody that slowly develops into an ‚ear worm’ of hope and longing in the soul of a lost people.
This vision radiates peace; the song resonates with love and generosity that drive out fear. According to this vision everyone – regardless of which language they speak or which culture they espouse – can live with their neighbours in security and without fear. The God of Israel takes fear away and creates a new world full of new potential for human flourishing and the common good.
And this vision calls the people of God back to their original vocation: to live in the world in such a way that all people recognise in them the face of God.
Micah challenges us today to be inspired by a vision that fires our imagination, colours our memory and from which we cannot escape. Michelangelo saw the finished sculpture; he simply had to work at the stone until the angel concealed within it revealed itself. He saw deeper, he could recognise the potential, and so turned his energy and strength to creating the beauty that others could not yet conceive.
We are called to see as Michelangelo did – to recognise God’s face in the world and to reveal hope to the world. The Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn captures Micah’s call when he sings: „You gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight”.
As much as you need. Only as much as you need. Perhaps my grandson might learn after all that when he has what he needs, then he has enough.