"What Does God Require?"
Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12
The prophet Micah lived and prophesied during a time of political turmoil and transition, during the second half of the 8th century BCE, in Judah. Earlier in the book, Micah describes a kind of religiosity in which people, especially religious leaders, are making a public show of how pious they are, with loud lip service to God. It seems that the conventional religion of the time kept religious leaders self-satisfied and the powerful in power. So for a messenger of God to speak prophetic words and proclaim judgment was a subversive act.
In the reading we heard this morning, we’re told that “the Lord has a controversy with his people.” We don’t get a list of the transgressions in these verses, but in chapter 3, Micah says to the corrupt rulers, “Should you not know justice?-- you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their ones…. Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! 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 come upon us.’”So, in the passage we heard today, God and the people are involved in a dispute. God is upset with the people and argues with them through the prophetic voice of Micah. So, God summons “earthly” observers such as the mountains, hills, and earth’s foundations to listen to this dispute.
In verses 3-5, God reminds the people of all the wonderful gifts God has provided and God’s actions for the sake of Israel. It is a brief salvation history with God playing the role of liberator, savior, and provider.
Basically, God says, “What have I done wrong? I am constantly saving you so that you will always remember my righteous deeds.”
Finally, in verses 6-8, the language of dispute is dropped, and we read a series of rhetorical question about what kinds of gifts God desires from us. “With what shall we come before the Lord?” Tell us, O God, what kinds of offerings you want from us.
God makes it clear what is good: “Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.”
This is pretty straightforward. What’s harder, though, is to live into these requirements as God’s people. What actions do these requirements call forth from us, as we look into our neighborhoods, into our cities, our nation, and the world?
We look around us today, and we see people who are hurting. Some people are resentful because they feel like immigrants or people of color are “jumping the line” to get the opportunities they feel are their right. Someone with a high school diploma or a GED used to be able to get a good job and live a comfortable life, but those opportunities for have been disappearing in this time of globalization and automation. For some people, if something’s wrong in your life, it’s handy to have a scapegoat you can blame it on. Somebody who’s different from you-- someone who’s “other.”
A lot of people are anxious and afraid. People are afraid of what will happen if they or a loved one gets sick. Those who are food insecure are afraid they won’t be able to put food on the table for their loved ones. Some people are so afraid of terrorist attacks they’re willing to cut off access for refugees from Syria an elsewhere and for Muslim immigrants. The list could go on and on….
So what are we called to do, as people of faith?
Last Tuesday evening Emily N. and I attended the January meeting of the Presbytery of Detroit. The January meeting is when the Moderator and Vice-Moderator are installed for the new year, and we come together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a presbytery. An important part of the meeting was a presentation by the Rev. Kevin Johnson and the Rev. Bryan Smith on the theme for the coming year, which is one of the Great Ends of the Church in our Presbyterian Book of Order: “The promotion of social righteousness.”
The Great Ends of the Church were adopted in 1910 by one the Presbyterian Church(USA)’s predecessor denominations, just two years after the Federal Council of Churches in the United States (the predecessor of the National Council of Churches, adopted the Social Creed of the Churches, in 1908. This was in an era when the main character of Charles Sheldon’s best-selling novel, In His Steps challenged his congregation to ask themselves before every decision, “What would Jesus do?”
The Presbyterian Church has long been a Christian community that values both personal and public/social morality. The Great Ends of the Church is a summary of what the church is called to be and why we exist: “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”
The scripture lessons today and through the season of Epiphany challenge us to live our faith in ways that promote social righteousness and exhibit the kingdom of heaven on earth. (Tune in next week for Isaiah 58 and more from the Sermon on the Mount.)
In the past, Presbyterians have promoted social righteousness through involvement in the underground railroad and working for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage. Presbyterians have fought for basic rights for workers, to eradicate poverty, and for civil rights. They did so because they believed that those who follow Jesus should act to advance the coming of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Their belief was grounded in our scriptures.
Luke tells us that after Jesus was baptized and was tested for forty days in the wilderness, Jesus went to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and read from the prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” People were amazed at Jesus’ teaching until he said something that made them feel uncomfortable. Then they tried to throw him over the cliff.
Near the end of Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus teaching that the nations will be judged by how we treat those who are marginalized. I’m going to pause here to say that again: The nations will be judged by how we treat those who are marginalized.
“The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me….’”
Could it be any more clear that doing justice and acting mercifully are an essential part of our faith and how we show our love for God and neighbor? So what does this requirement look like for us, in our time?
For each new time and context, we who follow Jesus must prayerfully discern how we are called to live. When we study the scriptures and pray, we are challenged to see the face of Christ in those who are “the least,” those in need of mercy and hospitality, those we might be tempted to fear because they are “strangers” to us.
One of the things that’s weighing on my heart especially this weekend is the indefinite hold on admitting refugees who have fled Syria and elsewhere, people who have been in a vetting process that lasts 2 or 3 or more years. I think about several of my friends who have family in Iran and how it could be a very long time until they can see one another face-to-face.
In Deuteronomy 10:19 in the Hebrew scriptures, we are taught that we are to love those who are foreigners, “for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” In Leviticus 19:33, we hear: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
So what do we do with these teachings? How are we called to live? Is it right or moral or Christian to choose personal comfort and safety and look the other way to avoid seeing those who are hurting or oppressed or in danger or hungry or locked out? I think we need to be praying about this. We need to be studying the scriptures and history and remembering how our nation decided to operate out of fear and turned away ships carrying Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, many of whom perished in concentration camps. We need to be and listening to “the voices of those long silenced” and having holy conversations with one another about who we’re called to be and why we’re here.
We need to remember that the Gospel is a word of protest. The Beatitudes are blessings, but they are also a call to action that point us to who Jesus is. If we listen, we may hear the truth about ourselves. We will hear what the Kingdom of Heaven is about.
This can be scary for some of us. For some, it may seem inconvenient to hear new truths that call us to change. But we can live into new adventures in faith with hope when we trust in God’s Holy Spirit to lead us further into God’s way of love.
I love the way our Brief Statement of Faith puts it: “In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom and peace.”
I invite you all-- us all-- to spend some time re-reading these sacred and transformative texts in the coming week. I pray that we might all find both challenge and blessing in Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount:
“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 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.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed 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.”
May we be found faithful as we live into this blessed way of love and justice and mercy! Amen!
Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
January 29, 2017