Have you ever seen a western depicting the Pony Express? A small rider with a giant, powerful horse would attempt to deliver a message. If Indians attacked the rider, the only hope of escape depended upon the speed of the horse. The rider would ride as fast as the wind to deliver a message and had to keep going, especially when arrows whisked past their ears. Sometimes life feels as if we are riders for the Pony Express. We keep going as fast as we possibly can without true rest. We push ourselves to the limit and tend to keep going right past warning signs. At least our culture recognizes this tendency and counteracts it with articles, books, workshops, seminars, conferences, and reminders to seek and secure balance in life. Whether it is developing goals, prioritizing better, or managing time, finding balance is the key. Balance is needed between home and work, desserts and healthy foods, exercise and relaxation. A lot of balance is needed in life.
There is a kind of balance in life that doesn’t seem to get much attention. Balancing the body and mind, or we might say the physical and the spiritual, could be as important as the other parts of life we need to balance. In fact, I would argue that it is the most important balance because if the soul feels balanced and secure, the rest of life begins to come into focus. So, in a way the balance of the self with the soul is the foundation for all of life. Jesus certainly advocated that when he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 27:36-40) Called “The Great Commandment,” that is one of the most familiar replies of Jesus. The Old Testament equivalent of that might be found in Micah 6:8. When the people asked what God required, the answer was, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
This Old Testament verse gives the prescription for a first step toward a balanced life. It is the command to bring life into spiritual balance. Micah the prophet spoke these words over 2,700 years ago to people whose lives were like the Pony Express just as ours are today. The simple beauty of those words can help pull our lives into focus with the same force it held when they were first spoken.
When Micah wasn’t delivering prophecies, he was a farmer living about 25 miles from Jerusalem. The country had been split into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom was invaded and occupied by the Assyrian empire. The southern kingdom was not worried since they had the capital, Jerusalem, which they thought protected them. But their self confidence was misguided. They were definitely out of balance on a lot of levels. They had fallen into unethical living. The poor were being exploited when new building projects began. The scales of businesses were fixed. People were accepting bribes. Those in authority were taking advantage of their position and taking land and inheritances from others. And the foundation of all of this unethical activity was idolatry. Micah pointed out that even though they worshipped on the right days (and maybe even in the right ways according to the norms of the day), they had drifted from God in their everyday lives and had become corrupt.
In the context of our Scripture Micah asks the people to remember that they are God’s people. Using the image of a courtroom, he says that God has called them to trial. I love the witnesses Micah stated who were there to testify. Micah says that the mountains and hills are present to hear the case. What an image! The mountains and hills have witnessed how God has saved the people. God led the people out of slavery into freedom. Simply looking at creation should remind the people that they have been cared for by God. Remembering God’s care was intended to provoke several responses….to get the people to act justly and help the poor, to treat others as children of God and not objects, and to live out the values that a community of faith should cherish. These were the three commands of balance- to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.
Maybe you heard this story of a community that acted with kindness. It began in a bank when an elderly gentleman brought in five hundred silver dollars. He wanted them converted into currency so he could put the money toward his wife’s cancer treatment. Even though the man was told that the actual value of the coins would be more than five hundred dollars, he wanted the money immediately. But the bank did more than give him the money, the bank appraised the coins and gave him $6,500.00. Others in the community heard about this story and also sent money for his wife’s treatment. That is a kindness far beyond what is expected.
One of my professors at seminary, Thomas Long, writes that Kindness is Simple but Not So Simple:
“…When the Bible uses the word kindness, it doesn’t mean the best part of me expressed toward others. It means something that would not be possible were it not a gift from God. When the Bible uses the word kindness, it means looking at other people in the light of what God is doing in the world. What we learn when we look at Jesus Christ is that God is recreating the world, taking a broken and bruised humanity— you and me—and making us altogether new creatures, forming in us again the image of God. Kindness is a refusal to look at other people in the light of how they are in the present tense and an insistence on looking at them in the light of what God is making of them in God’s future. To put it bluntly, in the Bible kindness is an act of civil disobedience. It’s a refusal to treat people according to the customs and the mores and the traditions of the status quo of the world around us and an insistence on seeing them and treating them in light of who they will become in God’s future.”
Our reactions to those in need who deserve kindness is what Micah was talking about. But he was also talking about reacting with kindness to those who do not deserve it. There is a story told in Alabama about the first African American president of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington. While he was walking through a neighborhood a white woman asked him if he would like to earn some extra money chopping wood. So he did chop wood but refused the money she offered when he was finished. After he left, a neighborhood girl told the woman who had chopped her wood, and the next day the woman went to his office to apologize. He could have made many replies, but instead he answered with a kindness that only could have come through God. He said that he enjoyed physical exercise and that he never minded helping a friend.
There is another famous reply you may have heard. As Mother Teresa replaced the bandages on a leper’s face, a tourist said, “Sister, I wouldn’t do what you are doing for ten million dollars!” She stopped what she was doing and looked away from the leper and at him. “My friend, neither would I,” she replied.
Bringing your life into balance means giving a kindness that cannot be bought. The justice and kindness that all people deserve comes from humbly walking with God, thinking of God as our
companion and not only as a weekly appointment in the sanctuary. Walking humbly with God means God is directing our business practices with ethical decisions and thoughtfulness for those in need and realizing that we are blessed with God’s presence all the time. One of Augustine’s poems about the presence of God is:
“O Beauty ever ancient, ever new You were with me, But I was not with you.”
A good example of walking with God happened here in Chicago in 1953 when Albert Schweitzer arrived to receive the Nobel prize. As he got off of the train he walked past the photographers and the reception committee so that he could help a woman with her bags. Then he walked back to the committee that had been waiting for him to arrive. The next day the newspaper reported a quote: “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.” Albert Schweitzer was a walking sermon. He understood the balance of the soul within the self, how difficult that balance is to find, but how God equipped us to search for it. He wrote: “No one can give a definition of the soul. But we know what it feels like. The soul is the sense of something higher than ourselves, something that stirs in us thoughts, hopes, and aspirations which go out to the world of goodness, truth and beauty. The soul is a burning desire to breathe in this world of light and never to lose it–to remain children of light.” In his classic book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, he wrote, “The demands of Jesus are difficult because they require us to do something extraordinary. At the same time He asks us to regard these [acts of goodness] as something usual, ordinary.”
Micah’s speech calls us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly in our ordinary lives. How do we react to that? When the people of Judah heard that God had called them into the courtroom, they reacted like a child that just got in trouble. In our house our cordless phone is a kind of magic attraction for the children when we receive a call. Wherever the phone goes the children seem to show up with a game that makes a phone conversation impossible. When we tell them to please go in the other room, the reaction is usually something magnified. “Should we never play a game again? We were playing a game. Should we never talk again?” In the same way the people of Judah reacted to Micah. Should we give ten thousand rivers of oil? Should we sacrifice our first born child? What does God want?
If we feel as if we are on the Pony Express we know how to slow down life. There are a lot of ways to find balance. But let us not forget that underneath all of the waves of life that we seek to calm is a deep ocean of the spirit. We need to seek to balance that portion of our life first. We may react like the people of Judah, with a childish question, “How are we even supposed to begin to address that balance?” The prophet Micah provides a simple and powerful first step that we can all try to take. Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. Amen.