The scene is a courtroom.
Micah sets it up. This is a very specific kind of literature, a common near eastern form, called a covenant lawsuit. The aggrieved party – in this case, God, calls the people to account. Imagine that courtroom, the lawyer standing up, adjusting his suit, looking the jurors in the eye. Perry Mason, Matlock. In this case God comes as the prosecutor, maybe like Jack McCoy, the District Attorney Sam Waterston plays on Law and Order.
"Rise," God says to Israel. "Hear, you mountains…for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel." The hills and mountains have been around a long time, they are fit to be the jury, God says. They have seen peoples come and go across the earth. They have seen, God says, my faithfulness.
Then God addresses the people directly: What have I done to you? Where have I gone wrong? Throughout the book of Micah God has been building God’s case:
Chapter 2, verse 2: "[The people] covet fields and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance."
Chapter 2, verse 9: "The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses; from their young children you take away my glory forever."
Chapter 3, verse 5: "Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths."
There is injustice in the land, God says. In 1986 WRAL did a documentary on child poverty called, "Every Fourth Child," referring to the embarrassment that is a poverty rate of 1 in 4 children in this state. Earlier this month they aired a follow-up, called, "Every Fourth Child…Still," because the numbers haven’t moved.1 62% of the children at our neighborhood school, Hope Valley Elementary, are on free and reduced lunch. There are 8 Durham elementary schools over 90%.2 And we’ll watch the Super Bowl tonight, where a 30-second ad costs $4 million dollars.3 Oxfam, an international organization that fights poverty, issued a report this week that tells us that the world’s richest 1% controls half of the world’s wealth. This tiny slice controls some $110 trillion, or 65 times the total wealth of the poorest 3.5 billion people.4 There are always going to be people with a lot of money and people with less, but the wider that gap grows, the more the opportunities are concentrated, and all power and access flows one direction. Hear this, the prophet speaks in chapter 3, "you rulers of the house of Jacob…who abhor justice and pervert all equity…Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money, yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall ever come to us." (3:9-11)
Then God changes tone: "O my people, what have I done to you?" Then God answers God’s own question. I brought you from the land of Egypt, freed you from slavery, called leaders – Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The references to King Balak and Balaam are to a wonderful story in the book of Numbers (chapters 22-24) in which a foreign king, Balak, attempts to recruit Balaam, an oracle with some divine powers, to curse Israel so that Balak could defeat them. But God, through God’s own power and by recruiting a talking donkey, saved Israel from this outside threat. From Shittim to Gilgal is probably a reference to the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land.5 That you may know the saving acts of the LORD.
Then the people respond in rhythm, built as liturgy. With what shall I come before the LORD? With burnt offerings, with the finest calves? How about elaborate sacrifices, thousands of rams, rivers of oiling? Recalling the Exodus again, the people wonder if they need to pay the penalty the Egyptians paid, the death of their firstborn? What must they DO, they wondered, to be reconciled to God? Echoes of this question have plagued faithful people throughout the centuries. What does God want from me? How can I figure out what I am called to do? The church has an odd history with these things, too often, from the ancient Israelites to the medieval church, making religious practice the answer. Come to church this many times. Perform these specific rituals. Buy these indulgences. Pray this particular prayer. Will this be enough, O God, the people wonder? Is this what you want us to do?
God has told you, Micah says. 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 not a faith that is free of religious practice. Coming here, praying the prayers, singing the hymns, gathering around font and table – these things, combined with our own individual spirituality, are at the heart of the life of those who seek to follow Jesus the Christ. But, the problem comes when these things are the END of the life of faith, not its beginning. When it is ONLY about worship here, or only about your devotional lives, or ONLY about the prayers you pray at night- if it is ONLY about those things, then we have, once again, missed the point entirely. This must be the beginning. Of a life of JUSTICE, of action, as we work for the poor and the powerless. Of a life of KINDNESS, which is the Hebrew word hesed, which is much more than playing ‘nice’ with each other. Hesed is about a sense of deep obligation to God and one another, of loyalty. Of compassion. Of a life of Walking HUMBLY, moving through our days life with God, putting God first, above ourselves, above what we think we want or need, above our desires or our fears.
But this isn’t anything new to many of you, this text that has been on the front of our bulletin for some 40 years. To those of you who scrambled on Tuesday to make sure our shelter meal got down to Urban Ministries before the weather came in. To those of you who just came back from serving in Mexico. To those of you who look out for your neighbors, to get to know folks who are alone, who give an extra gift to the church or another helping agency because you are bound and determined not to let your money OWN you, that all of our gifts might be for the good of the world. To those of you who do countless things on the side, way beyond the formal ministry of this church, making meals, advocating for the mentally ill, working in your kids’ schools. Micah 6:8 is not a tag line, but a deep and profoundly counter-cultural way of living, that is different from the values of this world, that is rooted in hope.
In the cold of Thursday night a number of us made our way out Angier Avenue out East to the new building of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC. There was a nice reception and tours. Information about the more than half a million people in their 34 county region that live in poverty and have a hard time feeding their families.6 There is a new freezer there, 320 square feet, with a plaque beside it that YOU paid for with money given for Westminster’s 50th anniversary. And there were prob. 25 folks from this church there, who are doing their best, with so many of you, to LIVE Micah 6:8. Haywood, our pastor emeritus, received a really wonderful award for 20 years of service to that place. And the room was full of people, corporations, churches, community volunteers from local colleges, people who understand that investing in others, in the poor, in a vision of justice and hesed and compassion IS the way this life works, and is God’s call to us. That this life of worship, here, is the beginning. But that this means nothing if we aren’t shaped into a different kind of living in God’s world.
Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. Everything else is burnt offerings and rivers of oil, hollow religious rituals with no heart. So, as we come to the table here in a few moments, we give thanks, that God might feed us for this journey, for the feeding of the world. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Every Fourth Child… Still, WRAL. Thanks to the Rev. Mel Williams for pointing me to this.
2. Free & Reduced Lunch Statistics by School, Durham Public Schools.
3. Super Bowl Ads 2014: What Does $4 Million Really Buy You?, International Business Times.
4. Oxfam: World’s Richest 1 Percent Control Half Of Global Wealth, NPR.
5. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), pages 577-580.
6. 34 Counties Branch Profile, Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.