Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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God Challenges Israel
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.
‘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.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’
What God Requires
‘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?’
He 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 is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
The prophet Micah was called to serve God in a turbulent era. In his commentary on Micah, Gregory Mobley said that Micah offers theological interpretations of three significant events. One, is the takeover of the kingdom of Samaria, the northern kingdom of what had once been a unified Israel. It was roughly in the area that we call today the northern part of the West Bank. Another significant event was the movement of migrants out of the war-torn area into the city of Jerusalem, expanding the size of the city by quite a bit. And, given that folks from the North and the South had some big arguments about how to follow their shared religious traditions, I imagine that there was tension that accompanied this immigration.
And, the third event was the general instability of the region due to the aggressive behavior of Assyria. Assyria hadn’t only gone after Samaria. I’ve read that Assyria would become the largest empire in the world up to that time. And, they did not amass so much land and money through peaceful negotiation. They got it through war. Every nation around them would have likely felt at risk. Micah was called by God to address the horrors of war, changes in an important city, and the volatility of a powerful and dangerous neighbor. I am not a prophet, but, I am a preacher. And, we’ve observed a hellish two weeks in Gaza from afar and a nightmarish five days in Lewiston right up close. And, last week, homeless camps were swept in Portland. Maybe Micah has a prophecy that can help us out in our own volatile times.
Just a heads up: I’m not going to share everything Micah said. Like most prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Micah shared a fairly cranky message from God. The prophecies move from punishment to salvation, as is common in many prophetic messages. As Sarah Sarchet Butter notes in her commentary on this text, the first part of Micah 6 is even a trial. I have no urge to put the people who are suffering right now on trial, in large part because the bulk of the suffering I am witnessing right now is not the fault of the people who are hurt. Failures of policy and governance have put people in danger. The people who are in pain right now don’t need me or anyone else telling them what they did wrong to deserve to be harmed. They were simply existing in public when someone chose to do them harm. So, I would argue that not all of Micah will be helpful for us right now because it might make it seem like God wanted the destruction to happen and I am a firm believer that God did not.
The first word of chapter six is the Hebrew word “shem’a.” It means listen or hear, or, as Megan Fullerton Stollo argues in her commentary, “heed.” She says that implicit in this word is not just listening, but hearing that will be followed up with action. What are the hearers in this text being invited to heed? First, there is a recitation of what God has done for the people... a remembrance of salvation that, as Kenyatta Gilbert notes in her commentary, speaks of an intimate relationship between God and humanity. Hearing the stories of past salvation, the people respond then with a question about what is the appropriate way to honor God’s promise to care for them? The people’s initial response is to think of what sacrifices can be made in thanksgiving. There is talk of rams and calves and burnt offerings and river of oil. There is an offer of a firstborn child (it is not clear if this is serious or sarcastic). God says something different is required.
“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?” In his notes on this text, Peter B. Machinist says, “In this single sentence the prophet sums up a century of brilliant prophesy.” Do justice. Love Kindness. Walk humbly with your God. Shem’a... heed.... listen and act. Live in a way that brings justice alive. Root your actions in loving kindness. Move about this world as though you are confident God is with you. Move about this world following God’s direction with a measure of humility that allows you to make amends and change course when necessary, but is also confident that your relationship with God will continue to carry you forward.
Notice that everything God requires from the hearer in this scripture is relational. Justice, love, and humility do not exist in isolation. These are instructions that guide how we interact with each other as a reflection of our covenant with God. We can’t give God mountains of cash while treating our neighbors poorly. No amount of rams or calves or oil will make up for relationships that do not reflect justice and kindness. Our relationships with each other need to be stewarded just as faithfully as our relationship with God. The sacrifice we make for God, that is our acts for justice and our loving kindness, is given to the people that surround us. This community is the altar at which we place our love and from which we fight for justice.
Where will you share your love in the coming days and weeks? Because our neighbors here and abroad will surely need it. How will you fight for justice in the coming days and weeks? Because the world is seeming short of it. The author Cole Arthur Riley, who actually visited Lewiston and Auburn in the last couple years to give a talk, shared these words on her Instagram account blackliturgies: “If your hope is waning, find those who can sustain it. And when the time comes, you will carry someone else’s hope for them. No individual can resist despair on their own. We steady each other. We can’t afford despair.” Doing justice and offering loving kindness is how we will sustain each other’s hope in this tragic time. It is how we will walk humbly with God and with our neighbor. This is what is required of us. Let us finish with this prayer offered by Riley:
Inhale with me: This is too much to hold.
Exhale: So, we hold it together.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mobley's introduction to 1 Peter in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Mich Gregory ael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Peter B. Machinist's entry on Assyria in the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Paul Achetemeier, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996)
Megan Fullerton Strollo: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-micah-61-8-5
Kenyatta Gilbert, "Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Cole Arthur Riley: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cy8pd_sOjRV/?igshid=bmFjcGRtMW5xYXBq
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.