Text: Micah 6:1-8
I have a recurring nightmare in which I have to take a test for which I have not studied. It is a terrible feeling to know that I will fail the test. I am unprepared. I forgot we were having this test. Some of us live that nightmare in our conscious lives because we feel we are failing God's test. We feel as if God is subjecting us to some mysterious test and we don't know how to answer the questions. We may not even be able to read the questions. So of course we have no hope of passing God's test. What DOES God expect of us?
Today's lesson from the Prophet Micah answers that question. The prophet provides some relief from by providing us with the right questions and the right answers. Today's text is like taking a Pre-SAT class in which we learn not only which questions will be on life's most important test but also what the right answers are. We may think of this as a spiritual Pre-SAT preparation test. In this case, let's make the letters S-A-T to mean Spiritual Aptitude Test. So let's begin our Pre-SAT class in which we will learn the kind of questions that will appear on God's Spiritual Aptitude Test and also the right answers to the questions.
And right off the bat, wouldn't you know it, it looks like the Spiritual Aptitude Test will be similar to the academic test required for entrance into law school. How appropriate, we should have known, God's SAT would be similar to the law school aptitude test. After all, our Presbyterian denomination was started by a French lawyer who later became a pastor and theological writer. John Calvin loved the Old Testament and especially the ten commandments. He said the purpose of the ten commandments - the purpose of the law - is to prove to us that we will never make it without God's help. That is also the message that Micah proclaims in our text today.
We often hear about how we live in a litigious society. We hear there are too many lawyers and too many lawsuits as if this is some historical abberation. I wonder if it was ever any different? Perhaps in ancient times? In our text today we have a startling dramatization of God's lawsuit against Israel. Yahweh - the prophet's name for God - brings a "prophetic covenant lawsuit" against Israel. Yahweh begins with a self-defense, saying: "What have I done to weary Israel?" Yahweh then recites a history of saving actions on behalf of God's chosen people. Yahweh rescued Israel from Egypt in the exodus, provided Israel with leaders such as Moses, Miriam, and Aaron; preserved Israel with manna in the wilderness, and led Israel into the promised land. Yahweh implies that Israel has forgotten what Yahweh has done and therefore whose she is.
The first section of the text (Micah 6:6-8) is priestly instruction. (Cf Ps 15; Isa 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-24; Hos 6:1-6). In a liturgical responsive reading similar to our call to worship, the liturgist asks "What does the Lord require?" What does it take to restore and maintain one's relationship with God, given acknowledgement of sin (v. 7b). The liturgist wonders what kind of sacrifice does it take to please Yahweh? Is the normal sacrifice of burnt offerings and calves a year old good enough? If not, how about thousands of rams? Would that be enough? Or perhaps God demands ten thousand rivers of oil? Would that make Yahweh happy? The liturgist then sarcastically asks if Yahweh demands child sacrifice? I say sarcastically because the Israelite liturgist knows that Yahweh does not want child sacrifice. In Genesis 22 we learn in the story of God's challenge to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac that at the last minute God pulls the plug on that experiment and tells Abraham not to do it. So when Micah's liturgist asks if God demands "My firstborn child?" it is a rhetorical question. He already knows the answer is no. Such sarcastic questions arise because it takes a lot of emotional energy from some of us as we try to decipher just what it IS that God wants from us. Why are we here on this earth? Why did God put us here? What does God WANT from us?
Within a poetic liturgical setting in this text, the liturgist wants to know what does God require? The priest does not respond to all the scenarios listed but does answer the question. Here is what Yahweh requires.
First, Yahweh requires mishpat. Mishpat means to do justice. It means to establish law in the courts. It means to care for equity in all human relationships and in all aspects of human relationships. What does mishpat look like?
Misphat is working as a volunteer at BIM and seeing the Christ in the clients who come for food.
Misphat is making sandwiches for underprivileged youths while silently praying that God will feed their spirits as well.
Mishpat is cleaning up an apartment so that another cancer can come stay there at reduced rates during their treatment in your city.
And it's doing so in a certain way with a certain spirit or elan.
To a social worker the Master said, "I fear you are doing more harm than good."
"Because you stress only one of two imperatives of justice."
"The poor have a right to bread."
"What's the other one?"
"The poor have a right to beauty." (Anthony de Mello, Awakening: Conversations with the Master, 140)
Seeing the divine nature of the poor in spirit is a key to serving them with integrity. The idea is not to just give them a break by handing them some food but to give them a break by realizing that you could one day be the one asking for bread. So give bread to them with the same spirit in which you would like to receive bread from them one day if your roles were ever reversed. I know, that would never happen to you for a myriad of reasons you may think are true. Even so, just imagine it could possibly happen and act accordingly.
Secondly, Yahweh requires hesed. Hesed means to love kindness. Hesed means to show mercy. Hesed refers to steadfast love. It means being faithful in a covenant relationship. Hesed means paying attention to the human slaves in your own city and yes, even in your own neighborhood. Our neighborhood pastor's association was talking about this issue at our January meeting. There are houses not far from here where human slaves are housed. As you may know, Houston is the number one city in the United States for human trafficking. There is something about our location as a port city near an international border with a population that is extremely diverse that makes our city a distribution point for human slavery. We often back away from this reality, thinking, "Yes, I know about that but there is nothing I can do." But Yahweh will not let us off the hook. Misphat means we must work for justice for these human slaves. Hesed means we cannot look the other way. This is what God requires of us according to the Prophet Micah.
Another example of hesed is what happens when you take a thread of a prayer quilt and offer up a prayer for healing for the recipient of the prayer quilt. The tying of the prayer knot in a prayer quilt is an act of hesed in that it suggests keeping solidarity with others including those in need or trouble. The giving of a prayer quilt is an act of hesed. The receiving of a prayer quilt with a thankful heart is also an act of hesed. Hesed is loving kindness in action.
Finally, the prophet gives not a third requirement of what God wants but instead a summary of the first two. Yahweh wants Israel and the church and you and me to walk humbly with our God. We may not have a casual relationship with God. That is not possible. Yahweh requires that we acknowledge the Lordship of God. Yahweh requires that we submit our will to the will of God. Yes, we have Christ within us. We are children of God ourselves - a combustible blend of animal and divine natures. We humans are a little lower than the angels and a little higher than the animals. The hard work we have during our brief stay on this planet in this lifetime is to focus on integrating our two natures into one. The modern Buddhists have the idea that we are God who has intentionally forgotten that we are God. This is an old concept that was popular among the early Christians who were called Gnostics. Our task is to unmask the divinity within us. We are called to perform this monumental task in an insanely short period of time, usually less than 100 years. That is how long we get in this realm of existence.
What happens after we die? I have often wondered if our experience on this earth was not some kind of school in which we are trained in certain subtle arts such as developing compassion which is also known as hesed. The purpose of our hard lessons here are not for God's amusement but for our own purification. As Paul said, "We are refined by fire as gold is refined." (Text?) So I wonder what happens after we die and have processed all our life experiences and rested up for awhile? It doesn't seem right that all this effort would be required just for our own development. I wonder if there are not other planets or realms to which God may send us on missions after this lifetime. Perhaps all our inner work here is preparation for a future mission. I'm not sure but that's what I suspect.
There is one thing of which I am reasonably sure. It's clear as a bell right here in our lesson from the Prophet Micah today. Here it is in a nutshell. Genuine piety is seen in doing justice and loving mercy. That is the clear message of the Bible. We will do well to take it to heart if we really want to be the people of the Bible we claim to be. We will do well to practice mishpat and hesed if we want to pass God's Spiritual Aptitude Test. How we do on THAT test may determine our next assignment in the life to come. Let's get this one right. The answer comes from within. As Jesus taught so well, it is what comes from the inside of a person that corrupts a person or makes them holy. In this test and in this life, intention is everything.
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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on January 30, 2011.