St. John’s Episcopal Church, Kirkland, WA
But this is not Law & Order. We are in the celestial court. The gallery is filled with heavenly beings, minor deities, seraphs and the heavenly host. There is no simple plaintiff’s chair, when the creator of all takes that position. And the defendants are a swirling mass of indignant and affronted people whose faces and clothing change and morph as if they represent all of us, through time and space.
Micah, prophet of Israel, stands between plaintiff and defendant in that awkward role that is prophet, pleading the case for both, to both, before the court. The judge, lofty mountains and high hills, wear snow capped peaks like white wigs of a proper court room. The slow, earthly judges of rock and stone hold court here and loom over all but God.
As the drama begins Micah demands that God’s people answer the charges that Micah has read out, charges of sin and evil, of stealing from the poor, of harassing the outsider, of inhospitality, prejudice and cruelty. He appeals to the mountains themselves to judge the case between God’s own self and God’s people. And then God speaks for the first time. But it is not the thunder of an angry, vengeful God that echoes across the court room, across the divide that has grown between them. God calls out, “what have I done to you? How have I failed?
I rescued you from Egypt, I freed you from slavery, I gave you wise leaders men and women both. I saved you from King Balak and turned his curses into blessings.” I cannot hear God’s unhappy cry without thinking of my mother, staring at the precious thing that I had just carelessly broken. She looked tired, and frustrated. She was wondering herself just how she’d failed to raise a careful, kind, considerate daughter. She would sigh and look at me and say “it’s now you I’m disappointed in, it’s what you’ve done.” Mothers can be devastating.
The human beings on trial shout back, perhaps with the same sort of sarcasm I was prone to as a teenager. They are thinking like humans. “What,” they say, “have not our sacrifices been enough for you? What more do you want? How about a thousand sheep, is that enough? Or I don’t know, maybe you want us to sacrifice our children?” You can almost hear the whining. “We’re following the rules, why can’t you be satisfied?” What more do you want from me?
I suspect you all know, I think so do those Micah is accusing, I think we all know deep in our heart of hearts. Micah stands between God and this miserable mass of human beings and sighs. Micah sighs and shakes his head and says what we all know to be true: God does not care about your sacrifices. God asks only that you do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
The phrase has been so over used it sounds trite. But it’s anything but. Humanity is on trial, our love affair with God is at stake. God, our aggrieved partner stands behind the marriage counselor and the line has been drawn in the sand. This is what matters, not a long list of rules, not a list of who is a sinner and who isn’t, not a complicated set of ethics, not a laser focus on one issue and damn the rest, not how we worship or what we tithe.
Do justice Micah pleads and he uses the word the prophets have all used. A word meant for those who treat the poor with dignity, who protect the weak, who put the common good before their own. Justice is the very nature of God, it is the action that seeks to restore community.
Love kindness, Micah begs. The word he uses in Hebrew is hesed which is the same word used to describe the faithful love of God, a love that reaches out to the other with gentleness, patience, faithfulness, which requires nothing in return for its faithfulness.
Finally, Micah says to the petulant band of human beings, walk intentionally, humbly with God.
Just that, the drama of the court room, the depth of sin. We expect God to have a list of things that are abominations. To be wrapped up in the inmate details of whether or not we drink, or dance, who we chose to spend our lives with, how we raise our kids, even what we eat. But when it comes down to it, over and over again the experience of those wise enough to listen deeply for the voice of God echoes back the same thing: justice, love, humility.
Simple things, world shattering things.
Greed cannot withstand the humility that recognizes the needs of others.
Hatred and bigotry shatter in the face of God-like hesed.
Inequality crumbles into dust for those who have stood beside God and felt their own beloved worth echoed in the lives of all those around them.
God does not care how well we’ve memorized scripture, or the prayer book, or even the hymnal. God does not care about how well we follow a list of rules, if we tithe exactly 10%, or how much we deny ourselves for the sake of some religious code. God cares deeply however about how we treat one another.
God cares if our hearts are so hardened that a problem is only a problem if it is a problem for us. God has no use for our privilege.
God cares if we chose safety over welcome, control over relationship.
God cares if we are so twisted around and warped by those who would mislead us that we fail to see the glorious image of God in whoever we are supposed to be afraid of today: the gay, the Arab, the Muslim, the immigrant. God cares deeply when we hear only those things and cease to hear God’s own voice naming each of us beloved child of God.
Jesus’ sermon today gets the cute name “the Beatitudes.” But there is nothing cute about it. It is as upside down, as radical, as Micah’s court room drama.
Our translators would perhaps have been more help to us if they had translated the Greek a little differently because what Jesus says quite literally is that God is with the poor, those who mourn, the humble, those who now know injustice and hunger for righteousness. This is not some warm fuzzy, “blessed.” As we might parrot “I’m too blessed to be stressed.”
No. What Jesus is telling the people around him who are suffering at the hands of the defendants from Micah’s trial, is that God is with them. God stands with them. And that with God, they will find the justice they need, they will find peace and mercy and they will be treated as beloved sons and daughters. The implication is clear: there are people God is not with.
They are wealthy, and comfortable, and powerful or just complacent. They are those who would twist and manipulate their sisters and brothers into hatred and fear. They are afraid and so they turn away from God’s ways. They are truly cursed, because God is not with them, and there is no worse sentence that could be passed on anyone.
The thing I cannot get my head around, because I am a fallible human being, is that Micah’s invitation is open to all.
To the righteous and unrighteous alike. To the one who suffers and the one who causes pain. We are all of us, given another chance. We are all of us called to turn our lives toward justice, loving kindness, and a walk with God. All of us, together. In the everyday. In the ordinary, and in extraordinary moments as well.
And each time you stumble turn back humbly to the God who is waiting, arms outstretched to pick you up.