One of my favorite television shows is Law and Order. Though for some reason I tend to watch the repeats on cable rather than the first run shows on the network. At any rate, for those of you who may not be familiar with Law and Order, it is a combination of a police drama and a courtroom drama. It moves from the crime scene to the trial – or very often a series of trials. The nuances of trial law are not familiar to me, but I can identify with the passion of the arguments and the determination of the district attorney to present a convincing case.
Picture this scene if you will. You’re in a courtroom. The people of Israel are in the defendant’s chair. God is the prosecuting attorney. And the jurors are the mountains, the hills, and the foundations of the earth because they have been there through time as witnesses to how God has dealt with the people of Israel. The prophet Micah brings the proceedings to order, declaring “the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.”
God rises to give the opening statement, and cries out, “Oh my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me!” In God’s words, you can detect a note of hurt. God is the one who is weary; for God has seen his people grow away from doing the right things.
Earlier in Micah’s writing, God has charged that in the face of opportunities to get rich quick, greedy landowners have taken the easy road to unfair riches. God has charged the rulers of taking bribes in exchange for favorable judgments, and self-serving prophets of saying what the people want to hear, for a price. God has brought the people into court to remind them of the reciprocal obligations of their covenant relationship. God reminds them of all he has done…saving them from slavery, sending spiritual leaders like Moses and Aaron and Miriam to guide them, blessing them and delivering them to the Promised Land. In other words, the charge that God brings to the court is that the people of Israel have forgotten their history. They’ve become victims of a kind of willful, careless amnesia. God’s gracious work with and among them has slipped their minds and they have fallen into misguided and self-indulgent practices. They’ve created their own set of ethics to get what they want. Stung by God’s accusations, one of the defendants answers for all the people. “What do you want from us, O God?” And then sounding like a whiney child, he goes on, “What must we bring to you that will make us acceptable? Thousands of rams? Rivers of oil? Our first-born child? By such intentional exaggeration, the people’s defendant’s point is clear: “Get off our case, God, and just tell us what you want.”
Micah answers for God. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good. He’s already made it plain how to live and what to do. Only that you do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”
These few words that Micah spoke for God over eight centuries before Christ sound so simple and basic. What is God’s standard of living? Just three things: to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. The truth is however, to fulfill these three things that God requires is challenging and difficult — not at all simple and easy.
Let’s start with God’s call to do justice. Depending on the circumstance, doing justice can very often be at odds with the status quo. Which means that there are times we are required to take an action that puts us in conflict with the prevailing way of things.
For example, recently there was a TV commercial in which an African-American man is being interviewed for a job by two other men. The man being interviewed is qualified and presents himself well. After the man being interviewed exits the office, one of the other men doing the interview says, “He would be a good guy for us.” But the man behind the desk crumples up the resume into a ball and casually throws it in the wastebasket with the comment, “I don’t think we need any more color around here.” There’s a quick cut-away and then we see the other man retrieve the resume and very deliberately smooth it out on the desk as he says, “I think we really should consider this guy.”
“Do justice.” The Hebrew word translated as “justice” is mishpat. It connotes a deep concern that goes beyond the judicial concepts of impartiality and fairness. Mishpat is a justice that expresses a special concern for those on the margins, particularly the weak and powerless, who are vulnerable to being ignored or forgotten. “Blessed are the meek…” says Jesus. Mishpat is a justice that aims to redress violations that have generated hatred, enmity and division.
Specialist Joseph Darby was the 24 year old who reported the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. He turned over the disc of incriminating photographs to his commanding officer because he is quoted to have said, he “thought it [the abuse] was very wrong.” Others were aware of the abuse, but chose to keep quiet about it. Darby chose to do justice – even though he had to know that he would be subject to scorn as a “snitch,” and worse, labeled as disloyal by some.
Doing justice can entail a cost that takes courage. But every issue of justice has names, faces and stories that God asks us to pay attention to and do something about. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake” as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.
The second requirement of God’s standard of living is to “love kindness,” or as other translations have it, to “love mercy.”
Now kindness may hardly seem like a big deal for God to want from us. Kindness requires a concern and care for others that is often expressed in small gestures. But Ahavat Hesed, the Hebrew for “to love kindness,” stands as a stern counter- point to our human tendency of self-centeredness. The requirement to love kindness is meant for those too preoccupied with their own concerns, living their lives as what one scholar calls “the sovereign self.”
The poet Adrienne Rich has written:
“In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you.
We found ourselves reduced to I
and the whole thing became silly, ironic, terrible:
We were trying to live a personal life
and yes, that was the only life we could bear witness to,
but the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather.
They were headed somewhere else
but their beaks and pinions drove along the shore, through the rage of fog,
where we stood saying I.”
To love kindness is to be reminded that we are to love our neighbor as our self. A way of living that is rooted in compassion and commitment to the well-being of others —especially the disadvantaged and struggling. Bringing it close to home, to love kindness is building a well for a village in Ghana; it’s our youth and their parents constructing a house in Mexico; it is sending our custodians, Rudy, Dwight and Sydney down to Jamaica with food and clothing and money to help rebuild homes damaged by hurricane Ivan. And loving kindness is: the response of nations, aid workers from all over, and individual contributions to the disaster of last Sunday’s destructive tsunami that caused so much death and devastation along the coast lines of countries on the Indian Ocean.
Lastly, Micah tells us, we are to walk humbly with our God. “Walking humbly” doesn’t square well with the spirit of our times. Humility is out of fashion. Just watch the highly popular show, The Apprentice on TV. Can there be any bigger egotist than Donald Trump? He personifies the “sovereign self.” He believes his ostentatious trappings of wealth qualify him as the model (or god) for all who want to succeed and be rich. “Learn from me and you can have it all,” he says. And bright, ambitious, foolish young men and women seek to emulate him.
To walk humbly might best be understood as not taking ourselves too seriously — but taking God seriously. We are to walk humbly, remembering that what we have has come from the bounty of God’s grace, and to remember with a grateful heart, that we have received in order to share with one another.
Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. The Lord God who calls us to do this isn’t calling us to do what comes naturally, or what comes easily. God calls us to do these things even when no one else values them. In fact, it is especially when these values are neither honored nor respected that it’s all the more important we hold to them firmly.
One of my favorite books is, To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. The story is set in the south during the 1930’s. It is about a small town lawyer named Atticus Finch who comes to the defense of a black man wrongly accused of the rape of a white woman. He is ostracized and condemned by the “good white folks” for representing the black man in court. One evening, just before the trial is to begin, Atticus is sitting in his rocking chair on the porch of his house reading the newspaper. His daughter, Scout, comes out of the house and Atticus puts his paper down to pull her up into his lap. They talk quietly together about the trial of Tom Robinson. Atticus knows there will be trouble for her at school once the trial begins. He knows how the community hates what he is doing, and he tries to help her understand why he simply had to do what he was about to do.
“Scout, when summer comes, you’ll have to keep your head…; it’s not fair for you and Jem, I know, but sometimes [even when you are little] you have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down – well all I can say is that maybe when you and [your brother] are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and [you will see that I tried not to] let you down. Tom Robinson’s case…goes to the essence of a man’s conscience. Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
Scout answers, “You must be wrong. Everybody in town thinks you are wrong.”
“They’re entitled to think [whatever they want],” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide a majority rule is a person’s conscience.” (To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee, p. 113-4, as quoted by Joanna Adams in a sermon at Trinity Church in Atlanta)
Atticus goes on to try the case, and of course, he loses in the courtroom. But he did what God required.
How about us? With what shall we come before the Lord our God? In the church, and in our workplaces and in our homes we do what God requires every time we reach out in compassion with loving kindness; every time we stand up and speak for those who are voiceless and oppressed; every time we think about “we” and not only about our “sovereign self.”
However, as we are all too well aware, in our journey through life, there are times each of us falls short of God’s standards for living. There are times we mess up and take a wrong turn. There are times we don’t get it right and make the wrong choice because we weigh the benefits and consequences in our own favor. There are times we go along to get along. But through all these times, all the way along, God walks with us, Christ is beside us: encouraging us to be faithful and true to our calling, and blessing us when we are.
So let us resolve in this New Year that we will strive “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.” Especially – especially – when and where justice, kindness and humility are hard to find.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.