Preached on 29 January 2017, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Do you have favorite scripture passages? This passage from Micah is one of my favorites. In fact, when I die, this is the Old Testament lesson I want read at my funeral. Have you thought about that? Talked to your loved ones about what you want at your funeral? It’s not a bad idea. For one thing, it makes it easier on them at a time that’s already stressful and confusing and hard to make decisions. None of the lessons I’ve chosen are among the suggestions in the prayer book, by the way. They don’t have to be.
But maybe more important than that, choosing now can provide direction and a certain level of accountability to how you live your life now.
Here’s what I mean. I would hope that whoever knows me well and comes to my funeral or offers a eulogy or homily would nod when they hear the readings and understand why there were chosen. I hope they might say, “Yeah, that was Mary.” And I would NOT want them to be puzzled and say, “Huh, I wonder why they chose that?” That’s what I mean by accountability.
So, let’s take a look at this reading from Micah. We tend to focus on that last verse – “What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” And that’s the bit I’m drawn to as well. It’s what I aspire to. And I’ll get back to that, but first, let’s look at the context.
The book of Micah is about Israel on trial. It’s written in a few different time periods: around the time that the northern kingdom is under threat or attack by Assyria and then around the time of the Babylonian exile, when the southern kingdom fell.
Israel is on trial and the indictment is rampant injustice. City-dwellers are pitted against farmers. Elites (those with wealth and power) are grabbing land for their own purposes. They are commandeering resources and people in order to go to war for their own advantage. Economic corruption abounds.
The trial is also against large nations abusing smaller nations, taking advantage of the chaos caused by the situation I just described. It is about turning a blind eye to the injustice within their society to focus on external threats.
In other words, Israel is pretty messed up. And it’s systemic, it’s not just the actions of individual “bad apples” as the saying goes.
So, in that context, we hear God calling Israel to account. “What have I ever done to you?” God asks. “Testify before all of creation! Oh, I get it,” God gets sarcastic, now, “I brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from slavery! I gave you prophets and leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. I performed mighty works and signs, so you would know my salvation.”
Israel responds, “What can we do to appease you?” and they suggest ridiculous sacrifices – again, robbing from the produce of the land – thousands of rams, rivers of oil, even their own children!
And what does God say? “You already know what I desire of you. Do justice, love mercy or kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
Let’s start with that last bit, walk humbly with God. It’s not about walking with our heads down, three paces behind God, berating ourselves and thinking we’re worthless. It’s better translated as deliberately or intentionally. So, it’s more about actively choosing to walk with God. It’s like waking up in the morning and asking, what would God have me do today, and continuing to ask it throughout the day – and then expecting an answer or at least clues – looking for them as we go through our day.
And of course, we’re given two guiding principles at the beginning of the verse. Love kindness, or mercy, and act justly. Now when we speak of justice, too often, what we really mean is institutionalized revenge – punishment – making someone “pay” or suffer in some “proportionate” way for suffering they caused. That kind of justice is often seen in opposition to mercy. If someone receives mercy, they can’t receive justice and vice versa. But this isn’t a sermon about our criminal justice system. I want to draw your attention to the contrast, though.
What we’re talking about in Micah is biblical justice. Biblical justice and mercy go hand in hand; you can’t have one without the other. To act justly is to choose righteousness; to do what is right; to treat others with dignity and compassion and fairness; to ensure everyone has the basic necessities. Even when society is a mess and your enemies are at the gates, God says do it anyway. Do it always.
We hear the call to righteousness in the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel today, too. We’re going to spend the next few weeks in chapter 5 of Matthew. This is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He begins by going up on the mountain with his disciples, the twelve, and teaching them. Now the crowds that have gathered may be listening in, but he is teaching the twelve. In this list, we hear who he has come for, who he has come to be with: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – there’s that righteousness bit again – the merciful – we’ve heard that before, too – the pure in heart, peacemakers, those who are persecuted for his sake. He says they are blessed – enviable, fortunate!, even, is a better translation.
On the one hand, those don’t sound terribly fortunate, what we desire for ourselves. On the other hand, – this may be teaching them what it will mean to be his disciple; a call to action: To be righteous and merciful; meek, poor in spirit, and pure in heart; to mourn and to make peace; and it will mean they will be persecuted. It is to be with those who are poor, hungry, mourning, merciful, and so forth because that’s where Christ will be; where Christ is.
Christ invites them to come along, to participate with God in bringing about the kingdom of God; the commonwealth of God; where God’s deepest desire, the well-being of all humanity and all of creation is fully manifested.
Discipleship is to act justly, righteously, to love mercy, and to walk intentionally with God, in all things and all places at all times. It’s waking up each morning and asking, What would God have me do today?
And then looking for God’s response.
It may mean asking, Can our mercy and mourning and peacemaking, our hunger for God’s righteousness, in meekness, pureness of heart and poverty of spirit, can it extend beyond our little sphere? Can it reach to the next town? Over the mountains? Across the country? Beyond our borders?
What would God have me do today?