Sunday, January 30, 2011

“Where Faith Finds Its Legs”[i] Micah 6:1-8 Epiphany IV, Jan 30, 201

TV Trivia quiz: Name this tune – “Law and Order” Theme

Courtroom Drama lovers should find the format of this passage familiar. It is a Covenant Lawsuit: The trial is laid out like this;
1st -A summons
2nd -A call to witnesses or judges
3rd -A list of benefits that the plaintiff has conferred upon the defendant
4th -Complaints against the defendant
5th -Should culminate in a judgment and sentence, but this one concludes instead with the lyrical passage..6-8[ii]

The cast is as follows:
the Injured plaintiff is God & Speaking for God, the prophet Micah
 the Judges are the mountains, hills and foundations of earth
the Defendant- is Israel , who responds to the charges with questions of the defendant’s own AND ironically exaggerates by daring to suggest the ultimate sacrifice: one’s children – Human sacrifice was not routine, but could still be found occasionally in other religions.
For Israel, the redemption of 1st born male was common language in which one paid a temple fee in recognition that the 1st born child (esp. male) Belonged to God in a special way.

The case presented in Micah is not really a new legal case, there is precedent in Isaiah Is. 58:1-5 that holds religious activity not valid unless worshiper has sincere intentions.[iii]
The Micah passage is one that Brethren often repeat and one that drives much of our service work like that we saw in the Disaster Relief Video.

We believe this to be true, we confess it with our lips, Yet how easy for us to “talk the talk” . . .

(Today  many of my words are owed to Dr. Amy Oden, one of my professors from Wesley who wrote eloquently on today’s scripture.)

When we watch a courtroom drama in which we are privileged to know the full story, how many of you answer back as the prosecuting attorney states the case against the defendant? . .
But that’s not the whole story, we say (b/c we saw what “really” happened)
There are extenuating circumstances
But as THIS case is laid out, it’s hard to come up with extenuating circumstances for the defendant, Israel.
As the prophet makes the case in the early parts of this text, he speaks for God, summarizing a history of salvation.
I brought you up from Egypt
I redeemed you from slavery
I gave you incredible leadership; Moses, Aaron, Miriam
Don’t you remember those times I saved you? I even blessed you thru the foreign priest Balaam.

It is easy for us to think this text is only about THEM; Israel of the past, someone other than us.

We might even be tempted to switch sides in the courtroom and get behind God, nodding our heads as we remember the reoccurring transgressions – of the repeat offender Israel.

Certainly we can’t side with Israel’s defense. If we were to translate into modern terms,
 we know better than to cite faithful church attendance and
adherence to regular religious practices of prayer and Bible reading as a
defense against God’s accusations. – don’t we?
            I cringe at the tone of the peoples’ defense; who answer the charges as if they only had to appease God.
“What payment will it take to get God off our backs?” “Can’t we just write a check and be done with it?”…

But THIS is where we realize we ARE sitting at the table with the defendants.
For how often have we dismissed what is required of us by ONLY writing a check and doing nothing more?
When has a congregational budget line item to disaster relief substitute for our advocacy and involvement?
OR a gift card for a family at the Doorways’ shelter substituted for prayer for the women and action against the abuse that sent her & others into the refuge of a shelter?

Enacting Justice,
Loving Kindness, &
Walking humbly,
“are not single acts that can be checked off the list and left behind” so our conscious will be clear. “periodic nods to equity do not constitute a faithful life.” Dr. Oden reminded me,
We “cannot send checks for disaster relief and avoid examining the lifestyles that contribute, at least in part, to some natural disasters.”[iv]
We cannot do hunger walks and refuse to change our consumerist  ways.
We cannot confess with our lips on Sunday morning and hold grudges at work on Monday[v] . . .

The thing is, we know the answer, we know what we have to do. .

Writer Andrew Conners, says, “God desires more than empty words. God desires justice that is measured by how well the most vulnerable fare in the community,”  [God desires] “a loyal love (hesed) that is commensurate with the kind of loyal love that God has shown toward Israel, (toward us). [God desires] a careful walking (halaka) in one’s ethical life.”

. .We have to walk the walk.

We can’t do what Israel tried, & resort to the same old ‘business-as-usual’ religious formulas and call it faithfulness. We may not conceive of offering bulls, but tell me we don’t think about increasing our giving, or attending church more often and trust that will be sufficient to ‘appease’ God?

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. "Walking humbly with God" means knowing our bent to self-righteousness. The life of faith is indeed a walk that reorients heart and life.[vi]

This Micah text is given to us “as a universal rule, Good for all people, good for all time.” It requires us to step beyond “personal piety to a life-giving reciprocal relationship with God and God’s other beloved children.”[vii]

We are not to STOP religious practices, we have to stop thinking coming to church alone is faithfulness – and we might note, that we can’t jump the aisle and use service as an excuse to skip prayer and worship.” The true WALK of faith is not an either-or proposition. We “just can’t use ritual practice of faith to excuse ourselves from the divine demands of justice and mercy.”[viii] Nor can we excuse ourselves from communal prayer and worship.
No matter where we squirm, we can’t get off Micah’s hook, his indictment – not even by jumping to the New Testament.

Because if we do, we run straight into the testimony of the most faithful witness; Jesus, who relates Law and Gospel and makes them both more promising then ever before - in the Beatitudes.

An email devotion I subscribe to reminded me this week that
“The Beatitudes can be read as law or gospel.
As law, they are rewards for good behavior.
As gospel, they are gifts that motivate good behavior.
Consider the difference:
The law says IF you are poor in spirit, THEN the kingdom of heaven is yours.
The gospel says: BECAUSE the kingdom of heaven is yours, THEREFORE you recognize your spiritual poverty.

The law says IF you are merciful, THEN you will receive mercy. 
The gospel says BECAUSE you receive mercy, THEREFORE you show mercy.

The law says IF you make peace, THEN you will be called children of God.
The gospel says BECAUSE you are children of God, THEREFORE you make peace.  

The Beatitudes call us to proclaim God's grace in response to our gifts in Jesus Christ. BECAUSE Christ gives us the kingdom, mercy, peace and his presence, THEREFORE we can share these gifts with others.[ix]

Most courtroom dramas end with a winner and a loser.
One of the things Jesus taught is that NO ONE has to be a loser.

If you are feeling heavy or oppressed after hearing the Prophet Micah - it’s probably a good thing for all of us to question our walk and look at the witness our living makes when we are put on the stand to testify. Yet Jesus’ words are not meant to depress us, but to call us to greater faithfulness and his words that we call, Beatitudes, are actually blessings.
Can you hear them this way?
 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 ‘HAPPY are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 ‘HAPPY are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 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.
 ‘HAPPY are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 ‘HAPPY are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ 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.

Jesus may be saying something more like this:
“You are half-there already. Tom Steagald's says,
When you already experience a hunger for righteousness, because you have been on the short-end of the stick and you wish for justice, not just for self but for the world, you will be satisfied. You really will. When you have grieved and felt some little comfort in the midst of it, you have a foretaste of the solace divine.”[x]

There’s good news in the courtroom drama for us and it comes through Jesus and his spirit, which provides everything we need to be faithful. 
If you can’t go on a mission trip to put your hands to work with hammer and nail, then put them to work with paper and pen and write to your legislators for the changes that bring justice to ALL sides.
When you know you can’t be anyone’s legal representative in court, be their advocate in conversations with your neighbors. Speak up for the immigrant, the homeless, the bankrupt, the Muslim -- because they are all ‘beloved of God’.

Wish for justice, pray for justice and act for justice in every little way you can and ‘blessed you will be’

When we Put justice, kindness, and mercy FIRST – finding our priority in ALL those upside-down ‘KINGDOM values’ – then we will be walking humbly with OUR God.

[i] thanks to Andrew Foster Connors in Feasting
[ii] W. Sibley Towner Feasting on the Word – Exegetical (Louisville: WJK, 2010) p 291
[iii] W. Sibley Towner Feasting on the Word – Exegetical (Louisville: WJK, 2010) p 291
[iii] ibid
[iv] Amy Oden
[v] ibid
[vi] Amy Oden
[vii] Sibley Towner Feasting on the Word – Exegetical (Louisville: WJK, 2010) p 291
[viii] Amy Oden
[ix] Carol Plummer, Stella Lutheran Church, Longview, Wash., Luther Seminary, MDiv, 1980 writing in “God Pause” email devotion
[x] Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal

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