Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, Jan. 29, 2017, on Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12
Audio: click here
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?
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Once, when I was in middle school I was at a table in the cafeteria where someone, an older boy, had brought some playing cards, so we were playing Rummy or something. Then he suggested we play Black Jack, which we did. Then he suggested we play for money – which is called gambling, and at that moment, doing something transgressive seemed oddly appealing. So, I was in.
It was small stakes. All the money I had was my lunch money. We played several hands. The older boy dealt, and kept winning. I kept loosing. Once I actually looked up from my cards to observe him sneaking a peak at the next card coming up – which is cheating. So I caught him. It mad me so mad. I had already lost enough that I was not going to be able to buy lunch. I was going to be hungry all afternoon. It wasn’t fair. I felt taken advantage of. But what could I do? He was older, much larger than me. He had the power, and he was abusing his power. Recalling that, I can still feel the feelings I had.
Probably every one of us has stories of when someone else used their power or position to take advantage of us. Whether a family member or an employer, or a gate-keeper whose yes or no could provide access we needed or take it away – all of us have been in that position. You have finally gotten up to the counter and the person on the other side can decide, on a whim, to be agreeable or to make your life miserable, and sometimes they decide against you.
I am fully aware that the examples I’m using are about minor injustices, maybe even trivial injustices. I am using these to establish a base-line we all share. I’m aware that there are people in this room who suffered grave injustices with significant life consequences. I am just making the case that all of us, not just victims of gross injustice, knows the feeling, and we know in our guts how wrong it is to be treated unjustly.
We all have a sense of justice. We all know that in a perfect world, no one would be able to take advantage of anyone else. But we also know that the world is unfair. We did not choose the families we were born into, nor the country, nor our race, nor gender – and all of these factors are hugely significant throughout our whole lives in determining how many advantages or disadvantages we have. The same with our physical health, and our emotional conditions. We chose none of them, but they all matter in an unfair world.
Darwin gave us a description of the world in which the strong survive at the expense of the weak. But is that the last word on the subject? Is unfairness and inequality simply the inevitable way the world is?
If that is the end of the story, why do we all believe in justice? If the world has never ever known perfect fairness, why do we believe in it? Where did that come from?
We have no argument with science. We believe that the process of evolution has been established. But we believe that God is the source of this incredibly diverse and complex world. We believe that God is the mind behind the equations and super finely-tuned properties of this world that are required for our existence. We believe that God is good, and the source of our sense of goodness.
We believe that God is just, and the source of our sense of justice. We believe that the most descriptive thing we can say about God, while recognizing that God is ultimately a mystery we will never comprehend, but nevertheless, the best thing we can say is that God is love. Not only that God is loving, but that God is the essence of love itself.
So, however it was that we became human, we are the products of God’s loving creation. We can wake up every morning and know that the truest thing about us, our essential and fundamental identity is that we are children of God. God loves us. God is with us. God grounds our lives with God’s presence.
God is here, luring us in each unfolding moment to embrace the possibilities of that moment of goodness, truth and beauty. And God suffers with us when we suffer. God shares our suffering from illness, from injury, from grief, from hardships, and yes, from unfairness and injustice.
This is the vision we have of the world. There is a reason for hope because there is more going on than meets the eye. In fact even to the scientific eye, the eye enhanced by microscopes and telescopes, most of the universe remains unseen.
According to NASA “It turns out that roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the universe.”
We cannot see it, but we all know is that justice is real, and we do not want to live in a world without it. Love is real, and we cannot live in a world without it. This is God’s world, and we have been given this incredible gift of life, to live and to celebrate the wonder and awesomeness of each moment.
All of this is how we can understand that even in situations of unfairness and injustice, like the world that the prophet Micah was living in, he can hold up a vision of another way a better way to live. A vision of what God wants for the world.
Micah did live in dysfunctional days. The nation was experiencing a time of great prosperity for a very few, and poverty for many. Wealthy estate holders were gobbling up peasant land.
Speaking as a prophet, on behalf of God, Micah says,
“They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away” (Micah 2:2)
The ten commandments in the Law of Moses says, “you shall not covet” but that law was being ignored, along with many others.
Micah considers this situation of ignoring God’s laws as a form of betrayal. The people who had received so much blessing from God were turning their backs on him.
God reacts to the betrayal with questions for the people:
“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”
I set you free, God is saying from brutal oppression, from gross injustice, from years of suffering, and their response was to become like little Pharaohs to their own kin. That is betrayal.
Making it Right
So, then the question is, what can make it right? What should the people do, if they realized their betrayal and wanted to re-establish a relationship with God? What does God want? With what kind of restitution should they come before the Lord?
In that day and time, normally sacrifices were brought to the temple as ways of honoring God. Offerings of calves, oil offerings, and grain and other offerings were specified in the Law.
So, on behalf of the people, Micah puts the question:
“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?
Or rams, or an oil offering? Here begins some exaggeration for effect:
“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
In the ancient world, in non-Israelite religions, people thought that you could almost coerce the gods to grant you favor by the volume of your sacrifices. That was, to Israelites, a pagan idea: God cannot be controlled or coerced. Some pagans also believed in and practiced human sacrifice, which Israel abhorred. So Micah continues the exaggeration, almost to the point of mockery:
“Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Remember, the question is, with what shall I come before the Lord to repair the broken relationship caused by betrayal; the betrayal made clear by the injustice all around. Micah answers his own question:
“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?
God wants, not more religion, God wants justice. God wants kindness. God wants humility.
Joy: This is What God Is
This is our profound joy: that we worship and serve this kind of God! The God who in every moment is with us, presenting us with possibilities of joining in God’s dream of a just and fair world.
This is how we are loyal to God: by responding to this high calling. The Israelites had a whole complex system for helping this vision to be implemented. The law of Tithing assets provided support for the poor. The Sabbath year laws helped poor people get a fresh start with debt relief. The Jubilee year was a land reform law. Gleaning laws meant that the landless poor participated in and benefited from the harvest. And there are many others.
We live in completely different times with entirely different economic structures. But we share the same vision, the same high calling. What puts a smile on God’s face, if we can anthropomorphize to that extent? What does God want from us?
God wants us, in our day, in our nation, in our families to insure that justice is done in our world. God wants us in our day, in our nation, in our families to be kind, opening our hearts to people in need. God wants us in our day, in our nation, in our families to have the humility to know that this is God’s world; all of it, and the people in it. We have all affirmed these values, not just because they come from Micah, but because they also come from Jesus, whom we seek to follow.
Jesus’ Sense of Justice
We can see from Micah where Jesus got his sense of justice. We can see how he was not at all impressed by power or wealth. Jesus had a clear alternative vision of what it meant to be blessed by God.
“Blessed,” he said, “are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Theirs is the kingdom of God.
So, it is our great joy to come before the Lord as people who share God’s vision. It is our hope and faith that in spite of the long road ahead, God is with us in the quest. God is here, in each moment, offering new possibilities. And if, in the quest to do the right thing, there is opposition, then God is with us then as well. Jesus said,
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
Because of the difficulty of the quest to uphold God’s vision of justice, kindness and humility, it is crucial to stay connected to God who gives us this vision and who calls us to this high calling. It is crucial to do as Jesus did, practice regular spiritual practices of prayer and meditation.
It is crucial to keep meeting as a community for worship and mutual encouragement, because sometimes the Jesus way of justice will be unpopular. But we have answered the call, and we are people who know what a blessed life looks like. We are people of great joy, knowing that God is like this. God has made us for this: for justice, for kindness, and for humility; for this high calling, we rejoice.