Sermon February 2: With What?

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Faith United Methodist Church
February 2, 2014
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Rev. Krista-Beth Atwood

Scripture: Micah 6:1-8

Prayer of Illumination:

For the words of challenge, for the words of blessing, for the spirit of wisdom moving in our midst, we give you honor and thanks and praise.  Amen.

Sermon: With What?  

A couple of weeks ago ~ on my day off ~ I found myself nursing a sore throat.  I didn’t feel like doing much so I curled up on the couch to see what was on daytime TV.  After stumbling over the talk shows and soap operas, I hit the jackpot for sick-day television.  A Law and Order marathon!  This was 8 hours of one Law and Order episode after another and, believe me, I watched all 8 hours.

There is something addictive about Law and Order.  The crime is committed, the detectives investigate, a suspect is identified, the DA builds her case, the trial is conducted, and the jury returns its verdict ~ all within one hour.  It is, somehow, comforting.  The good-guys are on our side.  Justice usually wins in the end. By the end of my 8-hour marathon my sore throat felt better and I felt more hopeful about life in general.

That said, I am a little surprised about my appreciation of Law and Order, since my own experience with the court system was not so neat and tidy, and certainly didn’t wrap-up in an hour.  After I was assaulted 12 years ago ~ in addition to dealing with the physical and emotional trauma of the assault ~ I embarked on a 10 month journey in the courts.   I was assigned a Victim’s Advocate.  There were status hearing and dangerousness hearings.  There were meetings with the DA.  It was an unfamiliar world with a strange language.  It was overwhelming and more than a little terrifying.  In the end my attacker pled guilty to several agreed upon charges and spent time in jail.  I was pleased with the result ~ and mostly happy to have that part over ~ but I don’t know if justice was done.

In our Scripture lesson from the prophet Micah we are brought in as witnesses to a lawsuit.  In this lawsuit God is judge and prosecutor, the people are the accused, and all of creation ~ the mountains and hills ~ are present to hear the case.  Micah, the prophet, acts as defense attorney who advises the people on what to do to satisfy the court.

The specific charges God brings against the people aren’t laid out in these verses.  Yet, they are made clear in previous chapters:  false worship, injustice to the poor, dishonest rulers, prophets who don’t speak the truth.  God is grieved by these offenses and seems to wonder why the people have turned away.  In fact, God’s heart breaks so much that God asks, “O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you?”  God then goes on to provide a brief history of all that God had done for them through the years.  They were saved from slavery in Egypt, brought into the Promised Land, rescued from foreign rule.

When time comes for the defense, the people seem ready to admit their guilt.  They offer no evidence, call no witnesses.  They simply question, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?”  They know they’ve done wrong and want to know what to do to be brought back into right-relationship with their God.  They are ready for the penalty phase of the lawsuit.

And for the penalty, they have some suggestions.  Drawing on their understanding of ritual practices, they suggest some sacrifices they could make:  burnt offerings, calves a year old, thousands of rams, rivers of oil, even their first-born son.  They want to know what to do to satisfy God’s anger so they can get back on the right track as a people, as a nation.

At this point Micah steps in with a reminder, “He has told you 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?”  While it might at first seem to let the people off the hook, God is asking for something both more simple and more difficult than keeping ritual practices.  One can sacrifice a ram without changing one’s heart.  As Amy Oden put it, “Rather than offer God thousands of rams, Micah calls us to offer a thousand daily acts of love for each other and the world God loves.”  God isn’t looking for an exchange of goods, but a change of life.

So let’s unpack that last verse a little bit.  Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.  We often hear it as a stand-alone verse, without all the back-story.  If you get e-mails from me you know this is a favorite verse of mine ~ included in my e-mail signature.  But what do each of these things ~ justice, kindness, humility ~ really mean?

Justice, in it’s truest sense, isn’t just what is meted out in court to satisfy the
law.  In the Old Testament sense we might think of justice as an eye for an eye.  Yet justice is more than that, too.  Justice is the fair treatment of all people, with a particular concern for the oppressed.  Justice is restoration of balance, so one doesn’t get too much while another gets too little.  Justice is righting relationships and is related to love and grace.

In kindness we again meet that Hebrew word ~ hesed ~ that I have talked about before.  Hesed is loving kindness, covenant loyalty, mercy, and steadfast love.  To love kindness means to deal with others not as they treat us, but as God cares for us.  It is putting the wellbeing of the other as the higher value.

And humility ~ to walk humbly with your God ~ is to accept that you are utterly dependent on God.  James Howell, author of “What Does the Lord Require” explains, “…when the Lord requires [these things] it isn’t that the Lord ‘insists’ on or ‘demands’ these things.  God seeks them, yearns for them, and frankly needs them from us as intimate partners in God’s adventure down here.”  God does not hand down a sentence of punishment, but of invitation to right relationship, a life that we see embodied in the life of Jesus Christ.

With what?  With what shall we come before God?  Will we try to satisfy God with ritual practices ~ with exterior actions ~ without really changing our hearts?  As Amy Oden put it, “We cannot confess with our lips on Sunday morning and hold grudges at work on Monday.”  Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. How would our world change if we really practice it?  What situations in our congregation or community need to be addressed with justice, kindness, and humility?  God offers us a life sentence ~ a way of life.  One that invites us to partnership with God and with each other to bring about God’s reign on earth.  Amen.