January 29, 2017 – Fourth after Epiphany

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

Preacher: The Rev’d Patrick McManus

The prophet Micah is a good example of why ordinary folk at the time didn’t very much like the prophets—they were so angry and they were so stark in their language.  In fact, I’ve come to think of the prophets and Micah in particular this morning as that friend who has the gall to speak the truth to you, even when you don’t want to hear it…that one person who will call you out on whatever it is you need to be called out on.  In the moment, you don’t much like them, but you give it a little while and you begin to recognize that what they said, you needed to hear and your heart warms to them.

That’s what it’s like to read Micah.  Of course no one in Israel wanted to hear something like,

“Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Should you not know justice?— 2you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; 3who 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 caldron. 4Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have acted wickedly. 6Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation.”

Heartwarming stuff, really.  As a nation, Israel was failing in the justice department.  They had forgotten that since God showed them mercy and rescued them over and over again that they were to show the same mercy not only to the destitute of their own fellow Israelites but to those around them as well.  In fact, their lack of care and concern for the poor and hungry, the destitute and needy is compared in Micah’s opening salvo to cannibalism: through your disregard for the poor you are not only forgetting about them, you are consuming them, your indifference eats away at their dignity, your lack of mercy and covenant fidelity consumes them body and soul.  Israel has gotten fat off a steady diet of injustice and iniquity and in their penchant and lust for their own desires, their memory has been clouded and they have forgotten how to live as God’s people as a beacon of justice, mercy and faithfulness.    Israel’s memory was short and so God calls them out on it through his prophet Micah.

In this sixth chapter, we’re actually transported into the courtroom. This is God and Israel in controversy…Israel is being called to account and they have no defense for their actions and their inactions.  Twice God asks them, what have I done to you, in what way have I failed you?  Of course the answer is that God has not failed them, only their memory has failed.  So God reminds them: remember the Exodus?  Going back to when God first rescued them and remember Balak? This was a more recent moment of God’s rescue in the life of Israel.  They book end Israel’s memory from the more ancient up to the present…the implication is that they should remember everything in between.  That they have forgotten is why they have come to love evil and have become a people of injustice.

We can often get caught up with ourselves and our worlds get very small very quickly.  This, like Israel, is about forgetting, it’s about forgetting what God has done for us, how God has saved us, where God has made provision for us.  When we forget this, our frame of reference becomes very small.  And like Israel, the result of this is not simply amnesia, it’s forgetting what God’s justice, mercy and faithfulness looks like in the world, it’s forgetting how to treat the people around us with the same mercy, love and grace with which God treats us, it’s forgetting what God really wants from us.

When we forget the heart of God’s covenant of mercy and love and justice, we come to the point where we think God wants the outer trappings of a relationship…the gifts, the yearly donations, the religious duties we give ourselves over to.  That’s exactly what Israel thinks: “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? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”  It’s like a broken marriage…no gift will fix it, no amount of jewelry, no flowers, no commodity will fix this covenant.  There has been a transgression; Israel has broken the covenant and the only answer is a turning again to what God really desires.  God does not want the outer trappings of a marriage.  God wants his partner, body and soul, period.  What does God desire? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him.

Where justice is broken, the covenant is broken.  Where people in need are ignored, we have failed the covenant of God’s love.  We don’t have to look at recent events and recent Executive Orders to see this (though it’s glaringly obvious there) we only have to look into our own communities with eyes that are not fixed on our own navels.  Justice is perverted, even in our own community.

“Love kindness” is a weak translation.  It sounds like God wants us to be kind in a sentimental sort of way (no doubt he does!, but this goes deeper).  The verb here is literally “covenant fidelity”, being faithful in a covenant like a marriage; being faithful in our covenant with God means being faithful to God’s people…all of God’s people.  And in all of this, we are called to a closer relationship with God, to be in deep covenant with the one who has called us to himself.

Like a spouse who has been failed, who has been cheated out of faithfulness, who has been ignored and shelved for something else, something fleeting, God does not want the outer trappings of religion without first having us body and soul.  God does not want your money, your glib prayers, your time, talent, and treasure (as we’re fond of saying) without first having you.  He will not have it any other way.  Nowhere in Micah does God ask his children to spend more time in religious meetings or give more of their money to religious causes.  The prophet doesn’t claim God longs for his sons and daughters to pray more.  No, God longs for us to act in concrete ways much the way God acts.  God longs for us to treasure the things God treasures.   God longs for us, body and soul.

And much like in a marriage the only way change is gauged is through action.  Love, mercy, justice, fidelity are not feelings, they are not sentiments first and foremost.  They are actions, they are visible, and they are measurable.  We can say we love someone with our lips but our lives can tell very different stories.  May our life together tell the story of God’s love for us and for all people.