Monday, February 20, 2017

Micah: What Does The Lord Require Of You?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Micah 6:1-8:

This week I did a google search to find out what the most famous passages from the Bible were. The results I found were not necessarily the most famous, but they were the passages that were most looked up. At the top of the list were some passages you might expect like John 3:16 “for God so love the world that he gave us his only son,” and there was the 23rd Psalm “the Lord is my shepherd” and 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous statement about love, “Love is patient and kind, love is not boastful or envious.” And there were some that I was totally surprised by, like a passage from Zephaniah, who we will discuss in 3 weeks, saying “Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”  A nice passage, probably taken totally out of context, but not one I have ever found myself quoting. But the reason I wanted to look up what the most famous passage were was to see if any were included from the prophet Micah, because he has at least two with which most of us are familiar, and another we know although we don’t know that we know it.

The one we don’t probably know is that it is from Micah that we get a prophecy that the messiah will come from the town of Bethlehem. In the 5th chapter we hear “O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2) A more famous one is from the 4th chapter, where we hear “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Now that’s a phrase most of us are more familiar hearing from the prophet Isaiah, who was a contemporary of Micah, but it appears word for word in both books. But by far the more common passage, and one of my favorite scripture passages, is Micah 6:8, which we heard this morning, which the New Revised Standard Version translates as “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

We are told that Micah is from the small town of Moresheth, which is about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem. He prophesied under the reigns of kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah of Judah, which is roughly the years 730-700 BCE. As I said, he is a contemporary of Isaiah and also Hosea, during a time of great conflict and turmoil for both Israel and Judah, which witnesses the destruction of Israel in 721 and also attacks on Judah, but Jerusalem is spared destruction because king Hezekiah agrees to pay an exorbitant tribute to the Assyrians so that they won’t destroy them. Many of Micah’s prophecies are against Israel, referred to in his book as Samaria, but they also apply to Judah as well, and when Jeremiah is later prophesying the coming destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonians in the 6th century, he quotes from Micah about what is to happen.

Micah, in many ways, is like the prophet Amos in why he says that Israel, and later Judah, will be destroyed and that is because of their treatment of the poor and the social outcasts, that the rich are getting richer, at the expense of the poor, while the poor keep getting poorer. Justice is not being conducted within the realm of the kingdom, judgements are made based on who has given the largest amount of money, the ruling elite make rules that benefit them while injuring, or ignoring, the cries of those at the bottom, and my favorite part, prophets will offer words of blessing and good will to those who give them money, and priests will only teach the Torah for a fee.

The passage we heard, from the 6th chapter of Micah, begins as a court case against Israel, with God as the plaintiff and Israel as the accused. The first voice we hear is that of the prophet calling in those who will witness or judge the case, which are the mountains and the hills, or we might say the creation is going to listen to God’s complaint. Then God begins the accusation, which is basically that the people have forgotten what God has done for them. Because of this, we might expect to hear righteous anger coming from God, which is certainly what we hear in other parts of Micah, and in the other prophets, but instead what we hear is a sense of bewilderment that the people have gone astray, and God asks “what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you?” There is also a sense of intimacy expressed between God and Israel, as God begins the address saying “O my people.” And then God lists some of the things that he has done on their behalf, we might say the benefits they have received from God that come into play as part of the judgment, which includes brining the people out of Egypt, and sending key leaders like Moses.  God has done all of these things, first so that people will know the power of God, but more importantly God has done these things because they are God’s people, this is God upholding God’s side of the covenant. The people cannot complain that God is uncaring, but instead the break in covenant rests with the people.

The third voice we then hear in the case is the people responding to God, asking what they can do to make things right? First, it’s just asking if the normal offering will be fine, but then they turn to excess; shall I bring a thousand rams and ten thousands of rivers of oil? This is like saying, “man I really messed up, and a dozen flowers just isn’t going to cut it, I need to have jewelry this time.” But the problem with this answer is that because God is not the problem God didn’t cause this to happen, and so trying to placate God with extravagant or very conspicuous displays of religiosity is not going to solve the problem. If you remember in Amos, after similar accusations were made, God says “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  That is outward displays of religion, or belief, are not enough unless they are accompanied by an inward change, and inward decision to follow what God has called us to do. As the passage ends, we don’t get this judgment, as we might expect with a normal court case, nor do we get a final closing argument from God, instead Micah says, “stop asking what God wants us to do, because God has already told us: do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”

There are lots of ways to encapsulate our faith in a few words, but I think this passage is one of the best. However, I also think this is one that we make mistakes over and read wrongly. What we often hear, and certainly what we practice, is if this passage said love justice and do kindness, or mercy as it’s often translated, and walk humbly with your God. We like to do what we think of as mercy a lot, and it’s where we try and spend most of our time. It’s helping people in need, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are sick and in prison, all those things that Jesus lists when he tells us that just as we do it to the least of these so we do it to Jesus himself. And this is important work, but what Micah says is that we are to love these things, but we are to do justice, and that’s where the really hard work begins. As Archbishop of Brazil Dom Helder Carrera once said, “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. But when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.” That’s the difference between doing mercy and kindness and doing justice.

We also often misunderstand the words that are being used, not intentionally, but simply because the definitions of the words in English don’t always match up exactly to what they mean, or connote in Hebrew. So, for example, when we hear mercy, it’s often related to the things we just mentioned of helping people. The Hebrew word is hesed.  It’s often translated as love, loyalty, mercy, kindness, steadfast love and loving-kindness, but there is not a good English word that encapsulates the meaning of this word, which is why sometimes you’ll hear and read people just using this word as if we all know what it means. In scripture, it is often used in the context of a relationship in which one person is in significant need of help, often help that is essential to their basic well-being or even their survival, and the person giving that help goes above and beyond normal expectations. If we think of the story of the good Samaritan helping the man who was beaten, not only does he take him to help and care for him, but also agrees to pay for whatever additional needs he has. That can be seen as an example of hesed, which is quite a bit more, I think, than what we normally think of as simply practicing mercy. It is asking us to go above and beyond the normal and to care for people in a radically different way, it is also a movement towards doing justice.

When we think of justice, most often we think of the legal system and laws, and that’s certainly a part of it, but only a small part. First, we have to remember that because something is legal does not mean it is just. There are lots of things that we consider unjust, like apartheid, or Jim Crow Laws, including voting restrictions, that were completely legal. Legality is more often about power, than it is about justice. So, it’s much more than just law. The Hebrew word for justice is mispat, and it refers to God’s order, in everything, for the covenantal community. To do justice is to order everything in alignment with God’s will, and thus what justice involves is not just legal justice, but economic justice, environmental justice, social justice, and on and on. It most importantly, it involves not just justice for us, but more importantly justice for others. Justice in scripture is most often about what happens to the least in society, those who don’t often have any say in what’s happening.

In the immigration raids this past week in Las Cruces it was reported by some members of United Methodist Churches, and the clergy I know there, that ICE were just going through trailer parks knocking on doors demanding to see identification. That is, they had no information that people were in the country without papers, but because they were Hispanic and living in a poor area, they were presumed guilty until they could prove otherwise. That is an unjust situation, and certainly one that builds fear, and one of the ways we can know it is unjust because if the police started pounding on our doors and demanding proof of citizenship we would rightly be upset about it. And so, if it is also happening to our brothers and sisters, we too should be upset about it. But let me show tell you a personal story of justice, and specifically the issues that Micah and Amos are talking about, which is the power of money to buy influence and decisions.

In the late 90’s, I was working for a small non-profit that was advocating and working on building low-income housing using environmentally sustainable building materials, which included alternative energy sources. In the legislature that year there was a bill introduced that would allow people to connect their homes to the grid and sell energy they were creating, mainly through solar and wind, back to the power companies. The power companies themselves were opposed to this measure and were working hard to defeat it. On the day we were finally able to get a hearing on the issue, I was there to speak in favor of the bill, opposed by lots of energy company representatives. At the end of the hearing, the senator who was sponsoring the bill, said he decided to call the secretary of state’s office to see how many registered lobbyists there were for the power companies. Now as quick background, to be registered as a lobbyist, you have to spend at least half of your time doing lobbying work. That means that CEO’s and others do not have to register because they don’t spend half their time in lobbying work, but still clearly do lobbying for their interests. So, he asked how many lobbyists there were and he was told that there were more registered lobbyists for the power companies than there were members of the New Mexico legislature. That means they could have had one lobbyist in every representative and senator’s office at the same time in opposition to this bill. We didn’t have any registered lobbyists because none of us spent half of our time lobbying, and this doesn’t even begin to touch on the power of campaign contributions. The senator then said that he knew the bill would not pass, but also knew it would come back when it was in the power companies best interest to have it pass. Which it eventually did because now you have all the solar companies wanting to connect you to the grid so you can sell back excess power that you generate. These things are also justice issues, because they are about power, and we called not just to like or love justice, but we are called to do justice, and that’s really, really hard work. But it also goes in alignment with the last thing Micah says that we are to do and that is to walk humbly with our God.

Again, it’s important to know what the word translated as humble is really saying. The Hebrew word here is not the Hebrew word for humble, because in Hebrew humble usually denotes an action or socio-economic and political situation marked by insignificant status, suffering and deprivation.  Instead, the Hebrew word is hasenÄ“’a which has a meaning of attentive, paying attention to or watching. So, while humbly certainly has a sense of lowering, or self-effacing, the true meaning is more active. The best analogy I could come up with is walking a dog. When a dog has been trained to walk, so that it heals properly, the dogs will has been subordinated to the will of the person walking them. They do what the human wants them to do, but more importantly, they have to be constantly paying attention to what the human is doing to make sure they are in alignment with their will, so they stop when they are supposed to, and turn when they are supposed to and go when they are supposed to. The don’t walk is done in unison with the will of the walker. That is how we are to walk with God. Attentively, and so if we are out pulling on the end of the leash, or stopping to smell everything, following our own desires, then we are not living or walking in hasene’a, in alignment with God’s will for our lives.

In the earliest days of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was asked what Methodist were supposed to do, and so he generated what have become known today as the three simple rules, which are first to do no harm, second is to do good and the third was, in his words, to attend upon all the ordinances of God, but which has been shortened to stay in love with God. All three of these things build and work upon each other. If you are staying in love with God, then you will also do good and do no harm, and if you are doing no harm, you will also do good, and work to stay in love with God. The same is true with this injunction from Micah. If you are walking attentively with God, living your life in alignment with God’s will, then we will also be loving kindness and doing justice. And if we are doing justice and we are loving mercy, then we will also be walking attentively with God. You cannot do just one of these things, because they all add in to the others. Every week when we say the Lord’s prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. God calls for us not just to love justice, but to do justice, and what we see in scripture is that justice is measured by how well the most vulnerable fare in the community. And God calls for us to love mercy, or hesed, which is going above and beyond the normal expectations to help those in need, especially those whose very lives may depend upon that help, and this too we might note is doing justice. And God calls us to walk not just humbly, that is turning our lives over to God, but to walk attentively to make sure that all that we do is alignment not just with God’s will for us, but more importantly with God’s will for the world. What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love mercy and walk attentively with your God. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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