Sermon – 2.2.20 – What Does the Lord Require of You?
Rev. Katie Callaway
Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For 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.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
“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?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
This is the written word of God.
Thanks be to God.
You can tell a lot about a person by their bumper stickers. It used to be popular for proud parents to put a sticker boasting about their brilliant honors students at the local elementary school…which raises a host of questions. But that is another sermon for another day. Then someone started making stickers mocking the elementary scholars that said, “My dog is smarter than your honors student.” I once saw a sticker adorning a mini-van that said, “I used to be cool.” My favorite stickers, by far, are the religious stickers. But not because I particularly agree with them, but because they reveal a lot about what is most valued and most important in people’s journeys of faith.
I love the one that says, “In case of rapture, can I have your car?” Have you seen the ones that say, “Do you follow Jesus this close?” Or, “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.” How about the one that says, “God is coming back, and she is not happy.”
We have a tendency to latch on to catchy and concise statements to express our faith. Whether they are on bumper stickers or banners, these concise statements often become ideological creeds. And often we fall into the temptation that if we have it on our car, or share a facebook post about it, or even preach a sermon about it, then we live our life by it. But unfortunately, that isn’t how this life of faith works. When I see someone with a bumper sticker that says, “If you died tonight, would you be in heaven or hell?” I must confess that I draw a lot of conclusions about the person driving the car. It says something about the kind of the faith to which the driver holds dear. In today’s reading from the prophet Micah, many of us find a verse that is not only familiar, but could be a bumper sticker or banner for our faith journey.
Micah 6:8 is one of those verses that is a beloved summary of a socially involved person of faith. What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. While it would make a great bumper sticker, we lose a lot of meaning if we simply lift it out of the larger context and put it on the back of our cars.
In today’s text, we get a different image of God. A God begging the people to listen. Imploring them to remember. A God bewildered with humanity’s tendency to lord power over others again and again. A God frustrated by worship that was not making a difference in people’s lives. When read with Matthew’s Beatitudes, we find an image of a God who is desperate for the people to experience an authentic spirituality paired with an unquestionable concern for those experiencing oppression and marginalization.
The book of Micah is set at an interesting time in Israel’s history. Micah was a prophet in Judah, the Southern Kingdom, but his prophecies shed light on what is going on in the Northern Kingdom. We pick up the timeline after a long period of peace is disrupted by a rapidly expanding Assyrian power. The king of the Assyrian Empire would conduct yearly campaigns to show its neighbors, the two Kingdoms of Israel, who was in charge in the region. Eventually, when the king of the Assyrian Empire died, the Northern Kingdom rebelled but was overpowered after a three year battle. So after all of this, the Kingdom of Judah, where Micah was, began having to absorb an influx of refugees. So Micah spends much of his time in the public eye warning the cities of Judah drawing upon what happened in the Northern Kingdom. He preaches that the the sins of idolatry and abuse of the poor are what led to the fall of the Northern Kingdom then warns the people in Judah that if they don’t start caring for the poor, if they don’t start paying attention to the injustices in the society, then they too will meet the same fate as the Northern Kingdom.
But the people of Judah thought that was impossible because within Judah was Jerusalem. And Jerusalem was the home of God. And they were faithful to make their sacrifices in Jerusalem. They would live lives of opulence, yet they would go at the appropriate times to the temple to make their sacrifices. According to Micah, this was defamation. They were defaming the very name of God by relying on occasional sacrifices to essentially buy favor with God. They would misuse their power, then seek forgiveness—not by a a change of actions or attitude—but by an offering, bought with the money they stole from the poor. And that cycle went on and on, further solidifying righteousness in the minds of the rich leaders, and further perpetuating injustice in the greater society.
The problem was that they equated their worship—their sacrifices—with forgiveness and righteousness. They had a transactional view of faith. If I make this sacrifice, I will receive righteousness. It was as if they mistook the finger for the moon. Worship was the finger pointing at the moon, but they mistook it for the moon itself. They saw worship as an end in itself. They believed if they participated in worship as prescribed by the tradition and as expected by society, then they would be marked righteous and could treat people however they chose—even if it went against the religious precepts they claimed to hold dear.
We, like the people to whom Micah is preaching, mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. While our worship is beautiful and can certainly be a vehicle to experiencing the presence of God, we are tempted like those we read about today to make that the essence of our faith. It is easy to give into the temptation to want an easy fix for faith. The sacrificial language in our text shows us that it is certainly tempting in this culture of transactions to understand our relationships with God as transactional. This text shows us the fallacy in those perspectives. We cannot let the entirety of our faith be defined by one hour on Sunday mornings. We can’t settle for easy, transactional resolutions to our faith.
Rather, our lives of faith are defined by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. This is a lifestyle, not a transaction. And this lifestyle requires a lot from us. It is demanding. It is not easy. These three admonitions for a type of three-legged stool. Emphasizing just two of them without the third is incomplete and leads to imbalance.
As a church and as individuals, we get loving kindness. Some translate this as mercy. However you translate it, we live this well. We participate in so many mercy ministries, offering a hand up to those who have struck out in life. Each first Sunday of the month, you are invited to give to our benevolent fund on the way out of worship. This money goes directly to offering mercy to those who need it. When families have their utilities shut off, they can come to our office, where Karen greets them with a smile and love. We use the money from the benevolent fund to help these people out, offering them a hand up when life has spun out of control. We offer mercy when we open our doors and our arms to families experiencing homelessness and we house them for a week. For the last 7 nights, we have offered three families mercy through warm meals, warm beds, and most importantly warm hearts. The list could go on and on in the ways we offer mercy as a church.
I will confess to you the ways that I struggle to enact this text because I’m willing to bet that you struggle too. I often don’t know where to start in doing justice. I walk by people begging in the squares and wonder what I can do to help—to really help. Not only do I struggle with understanding what justice means in any given situation, I struggle to quiet my fears that might prevent me from doing justice. Fear is a major obstacle in doing justice.
Does this resonate with you?
There’s a story that really brings to life justice for me and challenges me to try to enact this text in my life. It is a story of a group of people who live along a river. One day, they notice a dead body floating down the river. Of course, it alarms them. They go in and retrieve the body and with care bury it beside the river. Then the next day, they see two bodies. Like the last day, they retrieve them and bury them with care beside the river. This goes on for days and each day the number of bodies grows. So a few of them decide they will build a dock so that they can retrieve the bodies easier. They work day and night on this dock and the bodies keep coming at an alarming rate. A group from this community abandons the work of building the dock because they are concerned it is not helping the problem. Despite the rest of the community’s judgment, this small group walks upstream to see if they can find what is causing all of this death. They were trying to get to the heart of the issue. They were trying to do justice.
Doing justice means getting to the heart of the issue. It means systematic changes that prevent the bodies from floating downstream in the first place. This is what our society needs. This is what our church must do. Jurgen Moltmann says, “It is not football games that unite a society; it is social justice that creates lasting social peace.” Tonight, many Americans will tune in to a football game. Republicans and democrats will laugh together at the new Doritos commercial. Women and men will shed a tear together at the sentimentality of the new Budweiser commercial. It will feel like we are united. But this is not real peace. Real peace is created when justice is achieved—when people are in right relationship with one another.
We can’t be in right relationship if I am denying the humanity of your very existence. We can’t be in right relationship if I am unaware of the subtle ways that I dehumanize someone. We can’t be in right relationship if I am okay with the way you are taken advantage of by someone more powerful than you. We can’t be in right relationship if I think the way you vote makes you ignorant.
We are called to be in right relationship with each person we encounter. That is doing justice.
And friends. Let me tell you. It is tempting to engage in the work of justice and think that we are so much better than everyone else because we are changing the world. It is tempting to be smug and self-righteous about the justice we are doing. It is tempting to convince ourselves we are doing justice because we are standing up for what we believe. Remember the three-legged stool. Doing justice must be balanced with mercy and humility. We must not become smug and self-righteous about the work we are doing. Having the right answers, doing it all the “right” way is less important to God than being compassionate.
I truly believe that it is only when we integrate humility into our lives of faith that we can even get close to doing justice and loving kindness.
Tony Campolo says it best, when he talks about his time mentoring a young student at the University of Pennsylvania who had recently converted to Christianity. Campolo was mentoring him and trying to teach him the basics of living a “Christian” life. Eventually, the young man came to Campolo and said, “You know, if you put together a committee and asked them to take the Beatitudes and create a religion that contradicted every one of them, you would come pretty close to what I am hearing down there at that church. Whereas Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor,’ down there they make it clear that it is the rich who are blessed.” Then the young man goes on through many of the Beatitudes, voicing his frustrations that there would be a church full of people preaching with their actions the opposite message from the beatitudes.
Campolo says that encounter made him reflect on whether or not his lifestyle was really Christian. Recalling Soren Kierkegaard who once said, ‘If you mean by Christian what the Sermon on the Mount says about being a Christian, then in any given time in history, there might be four or five such persons who would have the right to call themselves Christians.”
This journey of faith is difficult. It is not for the faint of heart. At the heart of today’s texts is the question of whether we are who we say we are.
What would it look like for us to be who we say we are? What would happen if we as individuals do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God? What would happen if we live as people committed to doing the hard work of justice, examining our own biases, our own shortcomings, our own privileges, so that we can create a more just society? What would happen if we as a church committed to going upstream to address the systematic issues in addition to offering the merciful hand up to those who are down and out? What would happen if we didn’t just claim Micah 6:8 as an idealogical creed but what if we actually lived it?
What does the Lord require of you?