Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"In one ear and out the other"

Message preached February 3 , 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Micah 6:1-8

Order of Worship

            I can still hear my fatherís voice as he wondered at my lack of listening skills. "Son, it seems like what we say goes in one ear and out the other." This would sometimes, depending upon his mood, be accompanied by a visual search of my ear to see if there was, indeed, a clear passageway to the other side of my head through which his words could escape. I imagine at such moments my eyes were rolling ... if I even heard what he said.

            Iím sure none of you ever had similar words spoken to you at any time (whether or not you heard them). Likewise, I know that none of you have ever spoken such words - to a child, or a spouse, or a colleague... Yeah, right! Probably on a regular basis! Of course, when I say this, I need to be careful, for some of us struggle with the literal ability to hear. My experience, however, is that often such persons are able to listen much better than those who have no hearing disabilities. Itís the rest of us who seem to allow the important "stuff" to go in one ear and out the other. Am I right?

            Itís something God has been dealing with for a long time. You could say the Bible is the story, on the one hand, of a God who has had something to say for a long, long time - we often call this book "Godís Word." On the other hand, though, itís also the story of a people who just let these words go in one ear and out the other. From the Torah, the Law of God - words communicating how to live - to the history of how this Word has been put into practice over the years (or not); from poetry and prose which intends to help this Word move from head to heart, to prophets who shout this Word from mountaintop or darkest valley; this is the story of God speaking and Godís people listening (or not). Will it continue to just go in one ear and out the other?

            Last weekend at the District Youth retreat, the youth cabinet came up with a very creative way of dealing with something us older types had a problem with - i.e. how to discourage what is now called "freak dancing" (what used to be called "bump and grind") at the Saturday evening dance. Instead of just "laying down the law," which one of the youth on the cabinet perceptively said would just lead the kids to do it more (going in one ear and out the other), they came up with a skit and performed it during the talent show before the dance.

            In this skit, two cabinet members pretended to "freak dance" (which in itself looked pretty ridiculous). Then two other cabinet members came running in proclaiming that that just wasnít "cool." Instead, they pulled out some balloons and demonstrated a new way, with these balloons between them. "Leave some space for the Holy Spirit," they said. "Thatís the cool way." While some of us older types were trying to figure out what kind of theology of the Holy Spirit this suggestion portrayed (i.e. what happens if the balloon pops, can you "pop" the Holy Spirit?), it was a really creative way of communicating something.

            One of the seniors on the cabinet then spoke past the laughter, reminding the youth that they knew what was right and wrong, and encouraged them to do the right thing. Did it go in one ear and out the other? Well, as far as I know, we didnít have a problem this year. My parental blood pressure didnít rise. After the retreat was over, however, I did read in one of the evaluations that this particular youth would have had a better time "if the Holy Spirit hadnít been at the dance..." Though at first this comment ticked me off, on later reflection it reveals that the word didnít just go in one ear and out the other. It stuck around long enough to reveal a bit of the heart. We know what is right, probably more than we are willing to admit. That God is around when we make our choices, however, is something we may not appreciate.

            Now, in this morningís scripture the prophet Micah wasnít talking about inappropriate teen dancing. He had bigger "fish" to fry. Micah spoke, and continues to speak for God, complaining on Godís behalf. I can almost hear my father in the words, "Son, it seems like what we say goes in one ear and out the other." Micah reminded, and continues to remind Godís people of the story. "Youíve heard it over and over," he says. "What has God done to you" that these words just donít sink in? the prophet cries. You know the story. You know that itís not merely a matter of religious ritual that gets you anywhere with the Lord. Air-headed burnt offerings which reveal nothing of your heart are worthless. You know that, Micah mourns.

            "He has told you, O mortal, what is good." Should we add that God has told you "over and over and over again ?" It always seems, however, like it goes in one ear and out the other. This statement reveals something of the frustration of God with his people. You can almost envision the Lord searching in one ear to see if there is, indeed, a clear passageway to the other side of the head through which his words could escape. You can almost imagine, likewise, the eyes of Godís people rolling at such a moment ... if they even heard what he said.

            "He has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?" Okay, for the millionth time, letís repeat - perhaps trying different words. "what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Could it be said any more simply?

            As many of you, I have been reading recently about a fellow by the name of Kenneth Lay, who was chairman of the Enron corporation. Iím sure there is more to be said concerning this fellow - there always are more sides to a story than one. His is somewhat of a Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches tale of a poor preacherís kid who rose to the top of one the largest corporations in this country. He seemed to make all sorts of right decisions in his early life. In college he had a reputation for being a "straight-arrow" sort of guy, for instance becoming the president of a fraternity at the University of Missouri that said no to "alcohol."

            However, as many of us now know, the story of Enron is a tale of greed run amok. As the company started to go under last year due to shady deals that were kept hidden by "creative" accounting, Kenneth Lay and other executives at the top started bailing out their shares of stock, at the same time preventing their employees - whose retirement savings were tied to Enron stock - from selling. We have only just begun to feel the fallout from this whole affair, headed by a man who was outspoken in his belief in "God and free enterprise."

            There was a lot of "dancing" going on, my friends. Much of it was just plain not right. Of course, we can argue about the value of government regulation, but thatís not really where Iím going with this. I think you know where Iím headed. As the prophet Micah has said, "He has told you, O mortal, what is good" ... "over and over and over again." Is it just going in one ear and out the other? "And what does the Lord require of you?" Do justice! ... I know that itís more complicated than that. It always is. But at the core of every decision that needs to be made in life, there are almost always simple choices. Is it right? Is it just? We canít, however, face into those simple choices if we donít allow what God says to sink in.

            As more than one commentator has pointed out recently, Enron is not an exception. Itís sort of like if you discover one mouse in your house youíd better believe there are others. Our countryís financial system is at stake. And our system is currently the big cheese in the world. "Doing justice," as Micah said, is not only about bringing criminals to court, whether they be terrorists or swindlers. Itís about doing right, making sure what God says doesnít just go in one ear and out the other - allowing it to sink in. Cause, I tell you what - God is at the "dance," whether or not we want him there!

            Now, the Lord requires of us more than justice. "Love mercy," Micah proclaimed. Behind every story, as I said, there are many plots. Nobody is one-dimensional. Every person who makes a wrong choice in life has a story behind it. Remember that, you who were at the youth retreat last weekend. God is just, yes! Justice and righteousness and faithfulness and truthfulness and integrity are what God is all about, as well as what God desires of us. But, God is also full of mercy. If it were not for the kindness, the mercy, the forgiveness, the graciousness, the love of God - we would all be lost. If not for mercy, Godís message would be spoken only once. There would be no "he has told you ... again and again and again." There would be no second, or third, or "seventy-times-seven" chances for any of us.

            Do you love mercy? I know, itís hard to love something thatís abstract. With God, however, mercy is not an abstract concept. In the story we have received, a tale of God trying to get a Word in edgewise and his people just letting it go in one ear and out the other; in the faith passed down to us is the story of God making it very personal. Thatís what Jesus is all about - God putting his mercy into human form. God desires justice and righteousness. Yes! God also loves mercy. Jesus is Godís love and mercy expressed - living and dying and rising again to make things right between us.

            Let me ask again, do you love mercy? Itís not abstract any more. Itís about loving Jesus, and out of this love responding personally with mercy, kindness, forgiveness, graciousness, love. Itís not easy, Iíll grant you. What did the speaker at the Winter retreat say about the difference between "simple" and "easy?" Something can be "simple," but not "easy," right? Simple choices are not easy to make - to "do justice," to "love mercy." Sometimes the two - justice and mercy - clash with one another. Sometimes they go hand in hand.

            Thatís where the last portion of Micahís three-part call to faithful living comes in. Thereís no way we can "do justice," or "love mercy," if we donít every day seek to walk humbly, as if hand in hand, with God. Itís not enough to just be humble. Humility involves the awareness that our awesome God is walking with us every step of the way. In the "dance" of life, God is there, whether we like it or not. We canít "pop" his balloon, no matter how hard we try.

            To be a disciple is to walk humbly with God. In so doing, what God desires - these words like "justice" and "mercy" - doesnít merely go in one ear and out the other. Godís Word settles into and through the body - heart, soul, and mind - to the feet.

            Yes, God has told us, over and over. What does the Lord require of us? (Everyone?:) "To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." Amen.

For commentaries consulted, see Micah.

©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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