Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon: What Does God Want from Us?

Micah 6:1-8
What Does God Want from Us?
James Sledge                                                                                       January 29, 2017

I feel confident in saying that this congregation has more lawyers in it than any congregation I’ve served or been a part of. I mention that because it means many people here should recognize what’s going on in our scripture passage. Rise, plead your case… The scene is a courtroom, a cosmic one. Mountains and hills and the foundations of the earth are seated as a jury. Israel is subpoenaed to testify, for God has a case against her.
I’m not sure why our translation says the Lord has a controversy with Israel. Better, Yahweh has a lawsuit. But what is it that has caused God to take this step, to take God’s own people to court?
Here, once more, we encounter the problem of dealing with short snippets of scripture in worship. God’s lawsuit makes little sense without what comes before. The evidence against Israel is already before the court, but we don’t know it if we’ve not read the book of Micah. There Micah rails against the wealthy who enrich themselves at the expense of the poor, pushing families off ancestral lands in order to expand vast holdings. He condemns politicians who have sanctioned such activities and religious leaders who have invoked God’s blessings on an economic boom for the wealthy built on the suffering of the poor.
This was not appreciated by the wealthy and powerful. “One should not preach of such things…” they complain. I’m reminded of the old joke about parishioners complaining when the pastor leaves the expected confines of faith, belief, and the spiritual. “He’s stopped preaching and gone to meddling.”
The rich and powerful are not much different in our day than in Micah’s. They still want religious sanction without religious critique. Donald Trump, like every president before him, invited religious figures to pray at his inauguration, to associate God’s blessings with his presidency. At this inauguration and others, those asked to pray are chosen and vetted to ensure that they know and appreciate their proper role, as Micah clearly did not.

Israel’s leaders want Micah to conform. Most religious authorities are happy to oblige, to say that as long as the Temple is grand and the offerings and sacrifices pour in, God is on their side and will protect them from their enemies. But Micah keeps insisting otherwise.
Finally, Micah brings God’s lawsuit against Israel. But when God begins arguing the case, it is an odd argument indeed. There is no long list of Israel’s failures to keep covenant, no condemning their trampling God’s Law, but instead a pathos filled glimpse of God’s heart.
“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” God reminds them of the rescue from slavery in Egypt and bringing them into a good land. God pleads with Israel to “Remember.” They have forgotten who they are, just as the church often does. They have imagined that some religious rituals and statements of belief will suffice, forgetting that they are called to be a set-apart people whose way of living shows God’s ways to the world.
God’s appeal seems to move Israel. They know they must respond.  “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” But their religion is still safely compartmentalized, restricted to worship and belief. Their response moves from burnt offerings to year old calves to thousands of rams and finally to the absurdity of sacrificing their own children.
But Israel’s offer to ratchet up their worship is ignored when the verdict comes in. Worship is not even mentioned. Instead the ruling is what some have called the nearest the Bible comes to a bumper sticker rendering of the Christian life. Do justice… love kindness…walk humbly with your God.
Of course the bumper sticker loses something in translation. “Justice” means much more than a just verdict. It speaks of creating a just and equitable society where the poor are lifted up and the outsider finds welcome. “Kindness” is usually translated “steadfast love,” and both “justice” and “steadfast love” are routinely used in the Old Testament to describe the core character and nature of God.
What does God expect of us? That is a fundamental religious question that Micah seeks to answer for a people who have forgotten. Such forgetting is a perennial religious problem, perhaps because of our tendency to distort the question itself. We invert the question, turning it into, “How do we get God to bless us, to be on our side?”
People mean various things by this. Some are looking for a ticket to heaven, others an easier life. Some desire spiritual fulfilment, others help with some problem. But regardless of what people seek, inverting the question turns God into a resource to be accessed, another consumer good to be acquired.
Micah re-inverts the question for Israel and us. It is not about what we can get from God but what God wants from us. And what God most wants from us is to discover, to remember who we truly are: beloved children of God meant to live in covenant relationship. And that means becoming more like God: creating a good and just world and being motivated by steadfast love and kindness. It means not insisting that God go with us, but turning and going humbly along the way God leads us, the way Jesus shows us. It is a way that seeks the good of the other over self, that values the weak and “the least of these,” that welcomes the stranger, and choose love over hate and fear.
None of this is about following the rules so God will like us or give us something. Rather it is about the hard work of becoming truly and fully human. And despite how good we humans are at resisting God’s invitation to become fully alive, I think most of us have, here and there, gotten a taste of it. We had moments when we gave ourselves away to something bigger and better than self and felt more alive than ever before.
I’ve shared this before, but I think it’s worth sharing again. It’s something Bono, from the group U-2 said when he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast a decade ago.
A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life -- in countless ways, big and small. I was always seeking the Lord's blessing. I - I'd be saying, "Look, I've got a new song...Would you look out [for it]. I have a family; I'm going away on tour -- please look after them. I have this crazy idea. Could I have a blessing on it."
And this wise man asked me to stop. He said, "Stop asking God to bless what you're doing. Get involved in what God is doing -- because it's already blessed.” Well, let's get involved in what God is doing. God, as I say, is always with the poor. That's what God is doing. That's what He's calling us to do.[1]
Too bad Bono, or Micah, didn’t speak at the inauguration.

[1] Bono, 54th National Prayer Breakfast, Hilton Washington Hotel, February 2, 2006.

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