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Music used for this service:
Voices United 701 “What Does the Lord Require of You”
Words, Music: Jim Strathdee © 1986 Desert Flower Music. Used by permission.
Voices United 218 “We Praise You, O God”
Words: JuliaCory. Music: Netherlands melody. Harmonized by Edward Kremser. Public domain.
More Voices 103 “Ka mana’o ’I ’O (Faithful Is Our God)”
Words and music: Joe Camacho, 1999.
Voices United 960 “The Lord’s Prayer”
Adapted from a chant by R. Langdon. Public domain.
More Voices 113 “Jesus Saw Them Fishing (Fish with Me)”
Words and music: Ken Canedo, 2002.
“Go Now in Peace, Never Be Afraid”
Words: Don Besig and Nancy Price, 1988. Music: Don Besig 1988. Words and Music – ©1988 Shawnee Press.
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, License # A-734863. All rights reserved.
O God of our hearts,
you call us to walk a narrow path
with a love that reaches wide.
What do you require of us?
We seek your presence and hope for your grace,
and you come to us again with words of love.
Nurture us, as your beloved children,
to seek the ways of your wisdom,
walk the path of your love,
and be disciples of your grace.
So that all may know and respond to your love,
given to us in Jesus Christ, your son and our saviour,
in whose name we pray,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and forever. Amen.
We continue through our exploration of Hebrew Scripture passages that show a God of love and mercy, and New Testament passages that show a God of judgement and challenge, to counter our stereotype that God in the Old Testament is violent and retributive, and that God in the New Testament is somehow “better” or, at least, nicer.
So we come to this passage, which is one that I’m sure many people count among their favourites. And it occurs to me that I’ve only ever written one sermon on it, and that was for my preaching class in seminary. Because, normally when I confine myself to the lectionary, Micah 6 comes up the same time as Matthew 5, with the Beatitudes and the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. So now I get to finally preach on this one.
And if our purpose is to disprove that God as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures is not the violent, jealous God we think He is, there is no better passage than here. Here, we see a God who demands sacrifice specifically refuted, a God who instead loves justice, kindness, and humility. Not a God of mighty warriors or proud kings; a God of the lowly. Not a God who does violence to Her people; a God who has had violence done to Her.
“Oh, my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you?”
God seeks relationship with us, and both He and we are aware that the relationship is broken by human injustice. When we hurt each other, through action or inaction, we hurt God. When we hurt creation, through action or inaction, we hurt God. It is all made in the image of God.
In the passage after what we heard read, God describes the injustices to which the prophet Micah speaks:
Can I tolerate wicked scales,
and a bag of dishonest weights?
Your wealthy are full of violence,
your inhabitants speak lies,
with tongues of deceit in their mouths. (vv. 11 – 12)
The economic injustice of ancient Israel is our injustice today, even still. We cheat and exploit each other, or we turn away from the exploitation of others because to do something would require too much sacrifice.
So because of the injustice among human beings, because of the wounding of the Earth that we were given to tend and be stewards of, God asks us why we have hurt Her? She still seeks reconciliation and to be in a just and healed relationship with us.
And, the prophet asks, what can we do? How can we apologize to God? With a sacrifice of oil, or livestock, or even human beings? How many presents can we give God to make up for the abuse we have inflicted on Him? We’re willing to do anything, pay any price, it seems, but all God asks of us is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him.
Isn’t that so human? How we’re so often willing to do just about anything to make up for what we’ve done, except for the one thing that would make a difference, except change the behaviour that hurt others in the first place. We’ll say we’re sorry a million times over; we will confess, make restitution, feel bad . . . we will say Black Lives Matter and re-examine our history of colonialism and the legacy of residential schools . . . but we will not change; we will not make and fundamental changes in how Black communities are policed, and we will not make any changes in our current relationship with First Nations. We just want the problem to go away.
All of this, church, offerings, religion . . . all of it is meaningless if it does not bring us to a place of justice, kindness, and humility. God doesn’t care about religion; God cares about people.
And so, God gives us the simplest of requests, and yet it is the most hard, because we are so attached to injustice, hate, and pride.
God tells us to do Justice. Most of us are familiar with the translation that says to “seek Justice,” because it sounds more poetic, but the verb is to do.
The Hebrew word here used for “justice” is mishpat. Literally, it means a legal judgement. The concept of a greater justice than legal justice is one that is common today, because we separate the laws of the land from higher human ideals. But we are talking about God’s law here, and as we have seen when we discussed Leviticus 19 last week, the law in the Old Testament, as we have seen, is a law of the Spirit of God, not rules on a page. The core of the law, as Jesus said, is “love God and love your neighbour as yourself.” Everything else, as Rabbi Hillel said a hundred years before Jesus, is commentary.
God’s law is justice—it is what we call social justice—and God calls us to be doers of justice. To make justice, not just look for it. In our modern world, people scoff at the idea of what they call “social justice warriors,” who care about racial injustice, gender inequality, liberation for LGBTQ people . . . but if you read this book, and see a God who cares about the outcasts, the poor, and those who are set aside by society, a God who hates injustice, then we have to acknowledge that this is exactly what God asks us to be.
Kindness, we might think, is mere politeness, friendliness. But the Hebrew word chesed¸ has a much deeper meaning. It speaks of covenantal obligations, once again drawing us back to the law of God that says, “love your neighbour.”
All religions and philosophies have a concept of “loving-kindness.” Something that is deeper than mere friendliness, a love for the neighbour that is as deep as the soul. It is something that acknowledges the full personhood of the other, that they are not just side characters in our lives’ stories. In Buddhism, it’s called metta. Here in Hebrew it is called chesed. In Christianity, it is called agape and it is the love that Paul speaks of when he says, “If I have not love, I am nothing.”
A true loving-kindness motivates us not just to feel empathy for our neighbour, but to strive to help them. It motivates is to do justice. It reminds us of the human being in the other, and it helps us to be in touch with our own humanity. Without it, we are not fully human and we do not fully embody the image of God, because God is love.
Finally, there is the command to walk humbly. Much is made of pride; should we be proud of our accomplishments, of who we are? People have said to me that Gay pride is wrong because pride is a sin, all the while saying they are not ashamed of the gospel and that they are proud to be Christian. How dare I be proud in defiance of God?
But they mean different things. And the Hebrew word here that is important is tsana¸ to be humble, to humiliate oneself.
Hearing that word, “humiliate¸” puts us in a different context. We think of the times we have been humiliated before others. It isn’t a good feeling. But it’s a feeling that we feel because we are so attached to social standing, to being seen as smart, or beautiful, or important. Getting a question wrong when you raise your hand in class only feels humiliating because we attach so much importance in being seen as intelligent. If we didn’t care, it wouldn’t matter. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t make fun of others in an effort to take them down a few pegs, so they’d have no reason to fear.
This call to humility comes at the end of a passage where God humiliates Her people by calling them to account. The prophet speaks humiliated when he asks what we can do, with what we shall come before the Lord. And it is after this that God turns to words of love and comfort. There is no need of self-abasement, nor sacrifice of oil, cattle, or firstborn. His yoke is easy and his burden light. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. Such humble, simple things God asks of us.
It is okay to be proud of accomplishments. Being proud of having raised a family, of having done a good job at work, of having a talent that you can share with the world—this is not sin. It isn’t the same thing.
The pride that says, “I have accomplished something, therefore everyone who hasn’t is a loser or just lazy:” that is sin. The pride that says, “I can never be wrong,” and refuses to admit to being wrong because we’re so attached to being right . . . that is sinful pride. The pride that says that, as a man or as a white person, I have never been a beneficiary of privilege, that every woman or BIPOC that does not have what I have just isn’t trying enough and any claims of systemic racism are wrong . . . that is sinful pride, and it keeps me from doing justice and loving kindness.
All of these things God asks us to do are connected. To do justice, we must love kindness, and to love kindness we must be willing to put aside our pride and be willing to be just a little humiliated.
So if we reframe, what God says here, what does the Lord require of you:
To adhere to the spirit of the Law, which is “love thy neighbour;”
love loving-kindness, connecting with each other in full human relationship;
and walk humiliated with God, acknowledging that we are not perfect.
It is difficult. It is difficult because we are taught by society and human nature to do only that which benefits us, and we live in a world where hierarchies are everywhere and we have to fight each other for a place at the top. But in comparison to all of the other things religion and society have demanded of us . . . sacrifice your life, your livelihood, your children . . . God asks of us surprisingly little. It is the cross we must take up to follow Jesus. Amen.