January 31, 2016 | Micah 6: 1-8 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
For the past two weeks we have been gathering around the words of the prophet Micah and the particular section of the writings attributed to him that we heard read this morning about seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. We’re doing this as part of an ongoing process to breathe some life and renewal into our outreach ministry here at the church. We’re asking ourselves what the scriptures and particularly the prophet Micah have to tell us about ministry that reaches beyond ourselves and out into the world around us. Where is the Spirit nudging us in ways that inspire us? Where is the Spirit nudging us in ways that cause us enough discomfort to want to pay attention?
Two weeks ago we heard from Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan Kaplan that the prophet Micah whose name means “who is like God” was a farmer from a rural area of ancient Israel who was concerned with economic justice in particular. We learned that he predicted the fall of Jerusalem due to the corruption of the religious and political leaders and how he had a pluralistic vision of the future, a time of restored peace in which everyone would worship in their own faith traditions with respect and mutuality.
Last week, Rev. Wade helped us to unpack what is means for us to seek or create justice by tending the places of unnatural suffering in our world. He talked about how in the face of unnatural suffering things like people starving when there is more than enough food and people sleeping in the streets when there is room for all and when there is war and neglect caused by human hands our work is to resist this suffering (as opposed to accepting it as part of life) going upstream to get at the root causes of many of the inequities in our world.
My task this week is to help us delve deeper into what it means to love kindness.
I want to begin by saying that after three weeks of reading the book of Micah and the sixth chapter in particular, something strange is happening to me. I’m finding myself identifying more and more with Micah and his righteous indignation and more specifically I’m finding myself identifying with God and God’s righteous anger.
Take this morning’s reading for example in which we have before us a scene from a courtroom. God is the long suffering plaintiff in the case, the people of Israel are the defendants and the mountains stand as witness to the proceedings, presumably because there are no reliable human witnesses left on the face of the earth, they have all given themselves over to dishonest living. The case God has against the people can essentially be summed up as a case of infidelity. God has loved the people and the people have turned away. They have been unfaithful, running after gods of their own making, power and money and status.
Now the reason I find myself so readily able to identify with the plaintiff in this case is because on any given day of the week a very similar scene repeatedly unfolds in my own kitchen.
It looks something like this: I have asked my children to do something or perhaps to stop doing something for the umpteenth time with no resulting action. Then my son, usually the eldest says something like this “Why do we always have to do what you want us to do? How come we never get to do what we want to do?”
This would be the point at which I, like Micah, who speaks on God’s behalf at verses 3-5 of chapter 6 begin to recite a litany of all the things I do for my children: I go to work so I can make money to pay for their food, and toys and clothes; I gave up going to the gymn so I could get them to their Taekwando classes; I make not one, not two but often three different meals for supper every night and on and on and on. And what do I get in return? Ingratitude and complaints and resistance to doing the things I ask of you.
That’s how I know how God feels about the people of Israel and why God has every right to want to smite them with anger. Listen again to God’s voice:
“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam. O my people, remember how what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittam to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
Now in my house after the “look at all I have done for you” litany has been recited, my children usually come running to me with hugs and kisses offering up all kinds of exaggerated penance for their transgressions wanting to know how they can make it up to me for being so inconsiderate and so ungrateful. Sometimes they suggest their electronic devices be taken away from them for weeks on end or every toy in the house be given to the poor because they are so undeserving.
We all know I’m never going to actually make them do any of that. We all know how the drama ends. They hug me, I hug them. I apologize for getting so angry with them and being so mean and I tell them of course I don’t mind doing all those things for them, I do it because I love them. And they apologize to me and we all start all over again.
It’s easy for us to miss the exaggerated penance offered up by the people of Israel in Micah’s courtroom drama because we’re not overly familiar with animal and human sacrifice in our day and age. To offer a ram, or a young cow or oil on the altar would not have been an uncommon form of penance in Micah’s day and age. To offer a child would have been unacceptable but to offer a child to the priesthood would not. So when the people ask what it is they need to do to absolve themselves of their sins, of their ingratitude and turning away from God, and they ask if a thousand rams would do the trick or ten thousands of rivers they are being just as dramatic as my children are when they offer to give up their electronic devices for weeks on end. They are being just as dramatic as God is being in this story.
And maybe that’s because somewhere in their being and somewhere in our being, we all know how this drama ends.
Somewhere in our being, even if we have forgotten, we know that we are loved, even when we have turned away from that love, even when we have messed things up. Somewhere in our being we know that in order to make things right in the world there is a formula we need to follow that transcends every religious tradition and the formula does not ask more of us than is reasonable or than we are capable of doing: seek justice, love kindness, walk humbly. That’s why this verse from Micah is so attractive when we hear it, because it resonates with our souls. We know that this is what we need to create a just and loving world.
We know this is what we need to do, but we and even the prophet Micah, it seems, forget it.
Or at least we underestimate how important it is for all three of these things to be tightly woven together. So we get passionately caught up in our desire for righting wrongs and we forget about loving kindness and humility. Or we feel so humble we think they can’t do anything and we forget about the power of love inside of us to overcome so much of what makes the world a messy place to be. Or we want to be kind but we don’t want to make anyone unhappy by challenging them. Or we want to challenge people so much we don’t care about being kind. So instead of feeling inspired and empowered, we feel guilty, or defensive or just plain overwhelmed and we end up doing nothing.
That’s why the spiritual practices related to seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly are so important, because they help us to pay attention and remember.
A long time ago, after I had been backpacking in Southeast Asia which had exposed to all kinds of abject poverty, I returned to my North American life and plagued by my own indignation. After being exposed to so much suffering I was unable to be gracious with many of my friends and family. I harshly judged my close friend for her excitement about her brand new leather couch. I scorned my brother’s financial success. As I tried to sort through my own issues of how to live faithfully in an unjust world I alienated person after person. Consequently all my attempts to make people listen to my pleas about the injustice of the world fell on death ears. I wasn’t a very kind and loving person to be around. It was prayer and meditation that brought me back to kindness.
A couple years ago I was invited to attend a justice event with Pastor Sean Graham from the former Cove Community Church. The event was held at 10 Avenue Alliance church and was attended by mostly evangelicals. A lot of the speakers that day talked about things we had been talking about in the United Church for decades. I recognized many of the stories and the issues and the social justice theories. But there was a significant difference between their tradition and ours. At the end of the day I said to Sean, if this event had happened in the United Church people would not have been this gracious with one another. People would not have treated each other as kindly and with as much care as I witnessed people caring for one another at that event. After years and years of justice seeking, many of our folks have become weary, embittered, even nasty in their interactions with each other.
I said to him, you know, we could probably teach you a lot about justice, but you could teach us a lot about mercy.
In the sixth chapter of the book of Micah when the people ask God what they should do in response to all that God has done for them, one of the requirements is to love kindness, sometimes translated as loving mercy.
Rabbi Laura told us that the word kindness, chesed in Hebrew, is a performative word. In other words we are to love the action of love, we are both to feel love for one another and to act on that love.
Another source I read about the word chesed said this is the word most often used to describe divine love and it means being loyal even to those people who are undeserving of love and loyalty.
This is the love of the parent who drives down to the jail to bail out their child who has been brought in for possession of drugs; this is the love of the women of Colgne, Germany who after hundreds of their sisters were sexually assaulted in the streets on New Year’s eve, reportedly by migrants and refugees, went out to the city’s biggest refugee center in the days following to give flowers to the men there to say we cannot let this xenophobia come between us.
This is the love of the sports fan who never gives up on the team no matter how many times they lose.
This is the love we desperately need for each other as human family, love that crosses boundaries, love that does not judge whether or not the other deserves it.
If there’s anything the book of Micah has to tell us perhaps it is this: it is understandable that from time to time in our relationships, when we fail to live up to each other’s expectations, or when we are so passionate about what we know needs doing in our families and in our world, that we do get weary with one another, and we do get angry and indignant about what is wrong with the world, but the call is always to return to the practice of love, to return to mercy.
This is the place out of which we are called to serve the world, not out of duty, not out of guilt, not out of false humility, but out of a place of deep, forgiving and active love.