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January 29, 2023

Being SJLC 2023: Connecting

Preacher: Guest Preacher Series: Serving Jesus-Living in Community 2023 Category: Biblical Scripture: Micah 6:1–8

Connections are an important part of human existence; we might even make a case that they are the foundation of human thriving. Jesus makes connections an important part of following him. Connections are so important that they are part of the biblical description of God as one being in three persons. The Trinity portrays God as relationships.

So it is good that St. John’s Lutheran has placed connections in its list of five organizing principles. This is the second in a series of sermons on those principles which began last week when Pastor Meehan presented the case for Gathering.

Our first lesson for this 4th Sunday after Epiphany helps us see the importance of connections. It’s from the 6th chapter of the prophet Micah and it claims that God has told humans what is good. Micah uses a question and response technique in organizing his written prophecy and our section begins with questions from God:

O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!

Micah gives God’s response: “I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” So the Lord had acted with grace toward the people. The Lord gifted them with his presence and his salvation. God acted on their behalf.

But that raises questions from the people, and perhaps they are questions you have: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

How much is enough? Some human societies have answered these questions with human sacrifice as a way to satisfy the desires of the Almighty One. But the prophetic Hebrew answer is different.

He has told you, O man [ADAM], what is good [TOV]. Bear with me to see how significant this phrase is in the Hebrew. O man, is the vocative “Adam” which takes us back to the origins of the species in Genesis 1, the word used for the first human there. And the word “good” is “Tov” just as it was in the phrase repeated six times in Genesis 1 as God looks at what he has created, “it was good” and after the creation is finished, “and it was very good.”

So good is more than a word about morality. It’s a word about beauty and utility and excellence. So let’s continue, “He has told you, O humans, what is good and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Each of these actions involves connections. Justice is a connection word because it calls for us to treat others equally, to show no favoritism or preference to anyone. To do justice picks up on what the first of the writing prophets proclaimed. Amos called for the people to let justice roll down like waters.

To love kindness picks up on another prophet, Hosea, who was directed to marry an adulterous woman and care for her to be a metaphor for God’s love for his people. The Hebrew word for kindness here is the all-important Hebrew word CHESED which doesn’t have any one equivalent in English. It’s translated by steadfast love in other verses, and by lovingkindness in the old King James. It’s love that is committed, that can be commanded, that connects the giver and the receiver.

And to walk humbly with our God picks up on the prophet contemporary with Micah, the prophet Isaiah, who speaks often of the uniqueness and oneness of the God of Abraham and Sarah, who called Israel into being, and since the Lord is so great the only proper connection with the Lord is with humility.

So this is what Micah declares is good, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Put those phrases up against the ministry and the death and the resurrection of Jesus and you will see that he did these things. God connected with us by coming in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and living the life that every human was created to give and then Jesus went into death to offer himself as the sacrifice for the sins of every other human being. We are called to follow in his footsteps, not to save ourselves, because Jesus has already done that but to live in the good way for which we were created and redeemed.

We are connected with God because of what Jesus has done, and now we are called to connect with others so that they too might know this great love. This is what the Holy Spirit leads us to do.

I’ve recently heard a podcast that I think helps us with this business of connecting. It’s called Hidden Brain and in a recent episode the presenter, Shankar Vedantam, presents the case for the importance of tiny interactions.

Others have called tiny interactions weak ties where strong ties identify our connections with those in our household, in our families and in our close friendships. Weak ties are those connections we have with others that are less frequent and less intense. Weak ties are the connections we have with grocery store clerks and people on a subway or an airplane or sitting in a waiting room. Weak ties are our connections with neighbors with whom we exchange good mornings or good evenings as we pass each other on a walk.

In the podcast episode I mentioned Vedantam interviews psychologist Gillian Sandstrom on her work to measure the importance of these weak ties and to explore ways to increase the number of tiny interactions. Studies show that weak ties bring people happiness even more than strong ties. Tiny interactions are shown to be the source of variety and learning in our lives, and they lead to the greater happiness people receive.

One of the ways that Gillian Sandstrom seeks to increase these tiny interactions is by teaching folks to talk to strangers, not in dark alleys or places of danger, but in the normal course of activity that we have every day. I was intrigued by this because Gillian identified herself as an introvert and that’s one of my identities as well. I go out for walks in the neighborhood to get exercise. My wife goes out for exercise as well, but she engages in every opportunity to talk with people along the way.

Here’s what Sandstrom and others have learned about talking with strangers. In having such conversations she notes that they have three parts: an opening, maintaining the conversation, and then ending it. I hope you’ll listen to the podcast to learn more detail about these things, but let me give you a brief summary.

Opening the conversation means breaking the ice. Talk about something that is common in what you are experiencing together—the weather, or the long line—or have some curiosity about what they are doing. With a lightness in your voice ask them, “what ya doing?”

Then comes maintaining the conversation. Here it’s important to listen well and feed back some of the things you’ve heard to show that you are listening. But at some point you’ll have to move to the third part, bringing the conversation to a close.

Better than coming up with some lie, like having to go to the bathroom, or having something else to do, try just thanking the person for the conversation and say you’re ready to move on.

I hope this brief background encourages you to reach out to someone new in your life, or someone who is one of your weak ties. And I’m going to suggest you start right here at St. John’s. Have you ever noticed how folks always tend to sit in the same pew? There’s something comfortable about that, but then you only have interactions with the same people who always sit nearby. You could expand your own horizons (and your own happiness) by trying from time to time to sit in a different place so that you could interact with different people on some Sundays. It would be an easy way to practice working on your weak ties, so that you could make connections, and do what is good, O human, to do justice, to love chesed, and to walk humbly before your God.

And to seek Jesus and live in community just as our theme suggests. Connections, try to increase the number of them for Jesus’ sake.  Amen