This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on January 29, 2017 is built on the readings assigned for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here.
We awake this morning and read that there is a lawsuit being filed. Legal briefs have been filed already. People are lining up on one side or the other. There are defendants in this case and there is a plaintiff. But this is no ordinary lawsuit and it deserves our special attention. Thank goodness we have the prophet Micah as our courtroom reporter to help us to understand just what is happening.
Micah starts out describing the way that the jury is selected:
“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” (Micah 6:1-2a)
The plaintiff in this case is none other than the Lord God Almighty, Yahweh. And Yahweh calls into the jury box the very foundations of the earth, things that have been true for all eternity. Yahweh goes on, or Micah goes on to tell us the Lord has a controversy with his people and he will contend with Israel.
At this moment the lawyers break in and refer us to some briefs that have been filed previously in the second and third chapters of the book of the prophet Micah. The issue that Yahweh has with Yahweh’s beloved people is this:
“Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2).
In the second brief filed with the court Yahweh says,
“And I said:
Listen, you heads of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel!
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 bones;
who eat the flesh of my people,
flay their skin off them,
break their bones in pieces,
and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
like flesh in a cauldron” (Micah 3:1-3).
In his briefs filed with the court Yahweh compares the judges, the ones in power to decide justice in their courts, to cannibals devouring the people for their own benefit.
And yet, even in the face of these horrible offenses Yahweh does not judge and does not seem angry. His opening statement to the jury
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me” (Micah 6:3).
Dismayed, hurt, bewildered that God’s beloved people have Lost Their Way, Yahweh Launches into a recitation of their history together.
“For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery” (Micah 6:4a)
Egypt was the place where the people of Israel had been in bondage and suffered under cruel task Masters, had been oppressed, had been abused, God reached in to that terrible situation, hearing the groans of God’s people and brought them out, brought them out of oppression into a land of promise.
And Yahweh didn’t leave them alone on that journey on their way to the promised land, a place of freedom and dreams. God reminds them that Moses and Aaron Miriam were there to guide them to lead them on Their Way.
Yahweh reminds them that when they were fleeing from Israel, and they entered the land of Moab, King Balak, conspired with the prophet Balaam, asking Balaam to curse the people so that Balak’s armies might defeat them. But Yahweh entered into that moment and refused to allow Balaam to curse the people, instead leading him to bless them.
Then when Joshua had the people just outside the land of Canaan, ready to pass through that entrance gate into the place that had been promised them, Yahweh stopped up the waters of the river Jordan so that they could pass from Shittim into Gilgal in peace and in safety with their feet walking on dry land.
It seems that the people of Israel have forgotten their own history, have forgotten their relationship with the Lord their God, and have forgotten how they got to the land of promise, where they now live the land; that they have dreamed of a land where they could be free. But in the face of this recitation, in the face of this accusation, they turn and they offer compensation;
“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” (Micah 6: 6-7a)?
Wealth beyond imagining shortly this is compensation. This is what the Lord wants and desires from us. And this will put us back in right relationship. For certainly wealth is the end of all things. Perhaps beginning to sense that this isn’t enough, they even offer to sacrifice their own children:
“Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul” (Micah 6:7b )
Micah the courtroom reporter steps in it in this moment tells us:
“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” (Micah 6: 8).
Rams, rivers of oil, wealth mean nothing to Yahweh. It is the way we live with one another, the way that we are in relationship with one another, the way that we treat our fellow creatures all created by the hand of the same loving God. It is in this role that the prophet Micah functions, to call the people of Israel back to their true nature, to remind them who they are, and of their history, and to point out where they have gone astray. Because Micah knows, and we know if were being honest, that is dangerous to forget our history. It’s dangerous to forget from whence we come, dangerous to forget the core foundations of truth that have resided in the mountains from the beginning of time, the foundations on which God created all that is.
Among those foundations are these words that Matthew relays to us, words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth,
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
And these words,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22”37-39).
If Micah were here today I’m sure that he would use those words to begin the history lesson that we all need to hear this morning. Those words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth are at the foundation of our story and who we are. Words which, if you really think about it, formed the basis for these words,
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door”(The New Colossus)!
Those words comment from a sonnet called the new Colossus which was written by Emma Lazarus and they are inscribed on a plaque inside the pedestal upon which stands The Statue of liberty in New York harbor. They are part of our history, and our foundation, and they name who we are. They reflect the ideals upon which this nation was founded, ideals that have endured since the beginning of all time, ideals to which the prophet Micah calls us this morning.
A history lesson: Friday, January 20 17th, just two days ago, was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Do we need a history lesson? We need to ask ourselves how many people the US government turned away during the Holocaust fearing that they were Nazi spies. You don’t have to look very far to find stories like that of the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers almost all Jewish, who were turned away from the Port of Miami, the ship forced to return to Europe were more than a quarter of those 937 passengers were murdered during the Holocaust.
History indicts us. History calls us to account. And history sharpens our focus on the times in which we live and move have our being. In the face of this history we might begin to ask, “What can we do in recompense for all that has transpired? How can we make ourselves right with the Lord our God? And just like in the case of the people of Israel, God will turn God’s back on our offerings of wealth and prosperity, our burnt offerings of rams and our rivers of oil. For there is only one thing that the Lord our God demands and requires of us.
To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God!
The prophet Micah lived almost 3,000 years ago calling the people to account. Only his words and his spirit are with us today. But they are ours and we need to stand in the long line, the tradition of prophets that reach back to Micah, and Isaiah, and to Ezekiel, and to Jeremiah. We need to stand in that place and remind ourselves of our history, and call people to account.
There will be lots of opportunities for us to stand in that place. Today at noon at the capital there will be a vigil for Muslim immigrants and refugees. And from two until 5 o’clock this afternoon at the Monona Terrace there will be a conference to talk about the ways that we can support the immigrants, the aliens in our midst in this community. I hope that some of you will join me at that conference this afternoon and I hope that all of you will feel the prophet Micah standing at your back, urging you to speak, urging you to fulfill our unique vocation as the church; to call people to repentance, to call our people to remember our history, and to remember what can happen when we lose track of who we are, of where we come from, and of who we serve.