Going with God’s flow

Readings
Micah 6.1–8
Matthew 5.1–12

 

Unlike offerings, lifelong habits of kindness, justice, and humility are not transactions to dispense and check off, duty done. Rather, they characterise a stance of leaning toward others: extending grace reflexively, without measure, as God has done, not because others deserve it but because they need it; promoting fairness, especially toward those at risk; and certainly not trying to appease and be done with God, but instead humbly keeping hearts open and pliant. What God sought from the Israelites, what faith says God still seeks from us, is to cultivate capabilities we have seen in our Maker, capabilities we who are made in God’s image already possess: a warm heart for all, a passion for fairness, and the flexibility to learn as we go in this complex matter of seeking grace alongside justice. ― Patricia J Tull, Connections Year A, Vol.1

___________

Today, we’ve heard one of the great Old Testament scriptures. It’s from the prophet Micah (6.8):

[God] has told you, O mortal, 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?

It may surprise you to hear that this is part of a courtroom drama. So come with me to court, and see how it all unfolds. 

Ok, let’s see who the characters are in this courtroom drama. Our drama needs a jury; who is the jury? The mountains and the hills, who have been there for millennia and who have seen the ways of the Lord from everlasting. 

Our drama needs a plaintiff, someone to bring an accusation. Who is the plaintiff? God! 

Micah sets it all up at the beginning of chapter 6:

Hear what the Lord says:

   Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

God had a controversy with the people of Micah’s time. You know, the religion business was going really well. People were flocking to the Temple of Jerusalem. financial offerings were way up. That’s good, right? 

Yet God has a controversy with the people of Israel, a bone to pick with them.

O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 

God is gathering evidence here, and calling witnesses. The evidence is Israel’s history: God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 

And there are those willing to testify for God: Moses, Miriam, Aaron. Unimpeachable witnesses. 

It’s an open and shut case, but God reminds them of other events as well. King Balak of Moab wanted a non-Israelite prophet called Balaam to curse Israel, but—so the story says—a talking donkey stopped him. 

And God reminds them about what happened ‘from Shittim to Gilgal’. What happened? Shittim was where the waters of the Jordan parted to allow Joshua to lead the Israelites across the river, and Gilgal was where they entered the Promised Land. 

God is building a pretty impressive case here as the saviour of Israel. 

Israel’s reply is pretty sarcastic. You know when you invite people over for a meal, they might ask if they can bring a little something, like a bottle of wine or a salad? That’s not what the people of Israel are suggesting they should bring to God. No this is heavy sarcasm. They say:

With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

Calves were expensive, only sacrificed by the well-to-do. So shall I bring a precious calf to sacrifice for God? Or does God want more sheep than you can count, and whole rivers of olive oil? Shall I sacrifice my son so that God will be pleased with me? 

What the hell do you want from me, God? You saved us, but what payment could possibly be enough for you? How on earth could I pay you back? 

So here it comes again:

[God] has told you, O mortal, 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?

That’s enough for God. 

You know, where the people went wrong is to think of everything as a transaction. If God gives us good things, we should give something back to God. But when you see how much God has given, even our very lives, what can we give back? Nothing could ever be enough. 

But God seeks a relationship with us. God loves us and wants our love in return. 

How do we show we love God? We do justice, we love kindness, we walk humbly with God. 

A lot of that isn’t flash, it’s not showy. It doesn’t draw attention to ourselves. It’s timeless. In fact, it would fit very well into the Sermon on the Mount. 

The justice God seeks from us is the justice God graciously gives us. It’s restorative justice. God’s justice restores us into communion with God. It reconciles us back to God. It brings us home to the Father, just as the Prodigal Son came back home and was welcomed with open arms. 

‘Do justice’. It means seek to put things right, desire reconciliation. 

Cornel West, an American public intellectual and Christian, puts this well: 

Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public. 

We could even say that God’s justice looks a whole lot like mercy to us. 

Do justice, love kindness. 

When Micah says ‘kindness’, he doesn’t mean doing a good deed. Though I’m sure he’d applaud our good deeds. He’s not echoing those wonderful words of Tennessee Williams: 

I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers. 

Though of course, Micah would also applaud strangers being kind to one another. 

The kindness that Micah directs us towards is the kindness of a closely-knit community. It’s the kindness of people brought together by God in covenant. 

It’s the kindness that characterises a Christian community at its best. The kindness that draws us into relationships that feel like family. 

We recognise it when we are in the midst of a kind community. 

We also recognise it when kindness is lacking in a Christian fellowship. 

Kindness is a simple thing; it’s not beyond any one of us to be a kind person. 

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. (It’s right, isn’t it—this little trio of virtues would be right at home in the Sermon on the Mount.) 

Walk humbly. We cannot walk with God unless we walk in humility. ‘Walking’ humbly is a way of saying behaving with humility.  

I like to picture humility this way: A little child walks humbly with their mum. They hold mum’s hand, turn when mum turns, stop when mum stops. They don’t run across the road, and they wait for mum’s ok to walk across. That’s humility. 

That’s a very little child, of course. There comes a time when a child has to try to do things themselves. It would be very strange indeed if I couldn’t walk down the street unless I held my 93-year-old mother’s hand. 

But that’s the point: walking humbly with God is a lifetime task, because you and I are always God’s little child. No matter how old we are. 

Humble people don’t tell you how terrible and untalented they are; truly humble people don’t really think about themselves, how they come across, what people think of them. They live in the moment. 

I said this trio of virtues would fit in with the Sermon on the Mount, but there are real echoes in the Beatitudes that we read today. The Beatitudes are the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount. Can you hear those echoes?

Blessed are the meek, the gentle, the nonviolent, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

God desires justice, kindness and humility from us toward God, toward people, and toward other living things. If we do this, everything else will follow. So: 

Do justice: seek reconciliation and restoration. 

Love kindness: be slow to anger, do not retaliate. 

Walk humbly with God: be the child you always are in the eternal embrace of God. 

Amen.

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Filed under Church & world, Epiphany Season, RCL, sermon

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