4 Epiphany 2017: Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly…

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On occasion I have weighed
the pros and cons of getting a tattoo.
But what could I have tattooed on my body
that I feel certain
would be as true for me when I am Bunny’s age
as it is right now?

Millions of people get tatted up
in youth and with symbols, sayings, and
interesting mythical creatures
they think are cool.
But will they still think so
fifty years later
when their lives are so different,
and, lets face it,
when their tattoo so saggy?

I have only come up with one thing
I feel certain I could hold with as much esteem then as I do now –
or even back when I was twenty-seven
and ordained.
A friend drew it with beautiful calligraphy
on the invitation to my ordination.
It is, for me, bedrock.

that solid floor that doesn’t go any deeper,
underlying the loose alluvium
of bits and pieces of ideas,
beliefs, thoughts, and interests.

Do you have a bedrock belief?
You know, a hardcore value
that doesn’t soften or shift?
Not everyone does.
And I am not even saying
that bedrock beliefs
are superior to those molten,
shifting values that change with time
and circumstances.

I have both at my core, and I am sure you do too.

But here is the point about bedrock:
underneath Jesus’ preaching rhetoric
we just heard in Matthew’s version
of the “Sermon on the Mount,”
is bedrock Jesus.
Scrape away the “Blesseds”
and we get down to basic Jesus.
And when we do get down there,
low and behold,
smiling back up at us is Micah.

The “Sermon on the Mount”
is the Gettysburg Address
or “I have a dream” speech
of the New Testament.
It doesn’t get any better.
And it is also deeply rooted in Micah.

Here is a little intel on Micah.

He was born and raised among rural villages
and farmland in Judah
some eight hundred years before Jesus.
Micah and his family
were among the peasant class
upon whom were inflicted brutal taxes
that went to support the excesses
of Jerusalem’s decadent urban elite.
His rustic and lowly social status
was like that of the prophet Amos,
while Isaiah and Jeremiah
came from the more educated classes.

Our buddy Jesus
shared the same socio-economic profile
as Micah and Amos,
but eight hundred years later.

Studied with this in mind,
we will discover that the words of Micah
and the teachings of Jesus form a seamless garment.
Micah and Jesus
stand on the same bedrock –
no distance between them.

For example, they insisted
that the people of God
stop and remember
what defined their relationship with God.

They insisted
that the leadership of the people –
those at the helm of its stewardship –
go back to the bedrock of their identity
and refocus on the Covenant,
and its 613 Laws.

Now as soon as I say “613 laws”
our eyes glaze over.
But stay with me.

Micah and eight centuries later, Jesus,
sent a sharpened arrow
addressed to the wealthy and powerful
of their generations,
reminding them
that while the world was given
into their stewardship,
it was given for a reason;
their stewardship had a purpose and a mission.

Micah and his colleagues
reminded those who were in charge,
that the laws of Torah –
those 613 boring rules –
included a list of social entitlements.

He reminded the powerful
that those entitlements
were not being properly shared.
Those 613 Laws
that cause our eyes to glaze over,
spelled out in scrupulous detail
that food is to be shared;
that there is to be a periodic cancellation of debt;
that there is to be a policy
of fair distribution of land; AND
that access to power and resources
is to be expansive not narrow,
is to be inclusive not exclusive.

Those boring laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus
that we never read,
Micah reminds them,
form the very heart of the covenant with God.

Micah and Jesus,
reminded their cohorts,
that being the people of God
is not an entitlement itself
but a relationship lived into –
a covenant based upon
a particular kind of social order.

What Micah is doing
is putting us on trial –
putting his contemporaries on trial actually,
but through them, us.

In the scene we heard a piece from this morning,
we are treated to a cosmic version of the television series, “Law and Order” –
or the courtroom scene from,
“To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Micah imagines a court of law
in which the powerful elite of his day
are the defendants whose very power
is used as evidence against them.
It is a cosmic court
and at the bench is a tribunal of gods
with the God of Israel presiding.
(Talk about your Supreme Court!)

It is a cinematic Biblical moment, in which
God calls upon the mountains and oceans,
and all the company of heaven,
to act as witnesses against Israel.

The accusation is that Israel has been unfaithful.
The charge is that Israel has forgotten her origin.

The Prosecution asserts
that Israel has forgotten she was once in slavery;
and because she has forgotten,
she has lost her reason to exist,
which was to be a light
to the people who sit in darkness.

Micah’s poetic prophecy
includes a feeble defense put forth by the elite
as they make a pitiful acknowledgment of guilt:
“So what must we sacrifice to make things right,”
they whine before the heavenly tribunal.
“Should it be something really big this time?
What is it you want?
Rivers of oil?
How about our first-born children?
Yeah, that’s pretty big, huh?
We’ll throw in some extra prayers,
lots of Hail Mary’s,
solemn recitations of the Nicene Creed,
earnest confessions,
and communion; don’t forget Holy Communion!”

We get the picture.

It is a kind of adolescent maneuvering
aimed at evoking sympathy from the gods,
but which does not actually accept responsibility.
It is obvious
that the rich and powerful
neither accept responsibility
for the vast disparity of wealth and power,
nor do they buy into the Covenant’s vision
of a more equitable social order.

In fact, the very suggestion that God
is looking for some kind of religious ritual
to make things right,
is a painful indication they have forgotten
where they came from
and what their mission is.
And what Micah keeps saying,
in as many ways as he can,
is that we are to remember
where we came from
and what our mission is.

The cosmic court answers their forgetfulness
and answers their outrageous attempt
to bribe the court with their silly rituals.

“What God requires is to DO justice.
What God requires is to LOVE kindness,
What God requires is to WALK humbly with God.”

(And that, by the way,
is the only thing I have ever imagined
I could get tattooed on my person: Micah 6:8.
What God requires of us is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God).

But we are not quite down to bedrock yet.
We have to scrape a little more
to see what Micah saw
and know what Micah knew.
When a Hebrew prophet like Micah
uses the word, “justice”
it is not describing a legal system
that hands out rewards and punishments.

The word “justice,” on the lips of the prophet,
does not point to a particular method
of distributing resources either.

Instead, in ancient Israel, justice
– mishpat in Hebrew –
meant fidelity;
fidelity to the promises of a relationship.

In other words,
fulfilling the particular promises and obligations
of a particular relationship,
is what it means to DO justice.

Being just was defined
as loyalty to the promises of our relationship
with God,
with one another,
and with the community –
even with the planet itself.

To DO justice
is to BE faithful to our relationships.
That is why Micah focused on the 613 laws,
and Jesus articulated them with “blesseds.”
To be in relationship with God,
is to be the people of God,
which means to be faithful stewards
of an equitable social order.

as Micah meant it,
also has a surprising definition.
The Hebrew word for kindness
is associated with the word for “womb.”

“Womb,” is of course, a universal metaphor
for the place that connects us all
as brothers and sisters.
To LOVE kindness is “womb love;”
meaning a concern for all creatures
rooted in a deep and pervasive feeling of connectedness.

“Kindness,” as it turns out,
is not just another word for being “nice.”

Kindness has to do
with a radical sense of connectedness –
as if you and I inhabit the same womb.

You are in me
and I am in you,
and I will care for you and fight for you,
not because we share the same
or religion – but because we shared the same womb.

To LOVE Kindness is to love one another
AS IF we shared the same womb: Twins!
(Look at the one or ones you fear, mistrust, or do not like –
he or she or they are your twins).

Finally, as you might have guessed by now,
“humility” meant something different to Micah
than what it means to us.

By “walk humbly with God,”
Micah did not mean
a slumped-shouldered shuffle.
Humility had nothing to do with emotion;
not with guilt
or shame
or posture.
Instead, humility is the simple
yet painful acknowledgement
of our utter fragileness
and lack of self-sufficiency.

Conjure up the image,
one I have offered before,
of a young child walking with a grandparent.
As they arrive at the curb
and are about to cross the street,
both instinctively
reach for each other’s hand.
That is humility.

Like a child crossing the street alone,
we are always unsafe
when we live unto ourselves.
To BE humble
is to live in full awareness
of our need for God,
and of our dependence upon one another.

To BE humble
is to resist the delusion of self-sufficiency.
That is really hard for us
in our culture of rugged individualism.

But there it is, the bedrock underneath Jesus’
Sermon on the Mount:
to do justice,
love kindness,
and walk humbly with God.

To DO justice is to BE faithful to our relationships.
To LOVE Kindness is to love one another
AS IF we shared the same womb.
To BE humble is to live in full awareness of our need for God
and one another.

With that summation then,
in Micah’s imaginary cosmic court,
the prosecution rested its case.
Now the court waits to see if the defense
can stand up and argue against the evidence.

I dare say,
if we look around at our society,
especially today,
it is a society that has been organized
to benefit a few – which includes many of us.

If we look around at our planet,
at our culture,
at our economy;
at South Main Street
and Exchange Street;
if we look at our own lives;
I dare say Micah’s indictment of forgetfulness
is still open:
we have indeed,
forgotten where we came from
and what our mission is.

So I invite us,
as we open ourselves in prayer
over the next few moments,
and as we come forward for communion,
and as walk through our day today,
and as we keep unfolding the season of Epiphany,
let us remember
where we came from…and what our mission is.

Here is a hint: It is not about us.