First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
February 2, 2020
Wisdom Readings: Micah 6:1-8, Rumi
Message: “Order in the Court!”
Hear what the LORD says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the LORD has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
‘O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the LORD.’
‘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?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
MESSAGE “Order in the Court!”
I had never been in a courtroom in any kind of official capacity until I was an adult, called to be a witness in a hearing regarding a break in and theft at our local church. I was the custodian and the prosecution had called me to identify the items that had been stolen and recovered. It is an intimidating space, the courtroom, especially once you are called to take the stand, swear you will tell the truth, and try to listen carefully to the questions asked of you.
It is an intimidating place to answer the question and have both attorneys’ ask specific questions trying to make different points. And one can only answer so much, once you’ve answered, you are not able to expand on that answer, unless of course the attorney wants you to. It is an intimidating place and space.
While Micah 6:1-8 has long been a favorite of mine and in particular the familiar verse 8 … “what does the lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God,” I had never thought about it as a courtroom scene until some years ago sitting in a seminary class and listening to our Hebrew professor dissect and interpret the passage for us. “This is a courtroom scene and God has brought a lawsuit against Israel for defaulting on the covenant,” she explained. A courtroom scene, a trial, complete with witnesses… appropriate for this day perhaps.
The prophet, prosecuting attorney for “the Lord” enters the scene and introduces the case… “Here what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains and let the hills hear your voice.” And then invites the mountains… (creation, the jury to hear the case). The prophet on God’s behalf lays out the complaint and the history and demands the people defend their behavior… “What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! I brought you out of Egypt. Remember what King Balak devised … or Gilgal… Remember the saving acts of the Lord!”
And then the drama of the defense… ironically does not address the charges but rather launches into a dramatic hyperbole of distraction and questions that attempt to make them the victim by suggesting God can never be satisfied. “O Woe is Me!” (okay that was my addition…) “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself on high?” Burnt offerings and calves a year old? (a Hebrew cultic practice… sacrifices offered to the deity…) Thousands of rams? (a common animal used in such sacrifices) Ten of thousands of rivers of oil? (another common offering) But really? Such excess? And then the ultimate excessive hyperbole… Shall I give my first born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” A practice abhorred by God in Deuteronomy and other Hebrew texts… you’re going to go there Israel?
Here is where the prosecutor will come in with passages from Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos and level these ridiculous exaggerated offerings and attempts to derail the point of the case reminding them God despises their burnt offerings and their rituals…and then no doubt pronounce a harsh sentence on behalf of the Lord… it is an intimidating place to be now for Israel… they have shown they have no defense other than to claim this God of theirs can never be satisfied. Now comes the justice… now comes the punishment…
So, who is God for you? I like to put it in terms of “character” … what is the essence of God’s character? So, When I say the word God… what comes to mind? Anyone? How we think about God, how we see God, how we understand God’s character is crucial to our faith, I believe, because it affects everything we do and believe from that point on in our journey of faith. Do we see God as angry? Do we understand God as a vengeful punisher? It affects how we understand grace, and compassion…it affects how we understand and see justice.
What is justice? When I say the word Justice… what comes to mind? The late Marcus Borg, author and theologian talks about our understanding of justice and how too many in the faith think of criminal justice when they think of God’s justice…in that, it is always about punishment.1 When I talk with some of my more conservative friends and colleagues about the unconditional love of God they almost always say.. “Yes, but God requires Justice as well.”
Borg would say, and I concur… “God’s justice is love and compassion.” Jesus told us as “I require mercy not sacrifice.” God’s way turns the status quo on its head. I think of some of the best courtroom scenes I have watched portrayed in movies… you know those scenes that draw you in and you know exactly what is coming and suddenly the defense… or the prosecution makes a turn that makes me say… “What?” “Where did that come from?”
Verse 8… that oft quoted verse that says so much… is such a turn. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, (i.e. what will satisfy God?) but to do justice, and to love kindness. And to walk humbly with your God?” Wait! What? Where is the justice? Where is the sentence? Where is the punishment? Where is the anger and the wrath? This can’t be right!
The prophet has dismissed the ridiculous claims of the people… that they can never satisfy God… here is what satisfies God… Justice, Kindness, and Humility. And, while those words will always resonate deep within me… I have come to appreciate Dr. Lisa Davison’s translation of the Hebrew with this passage… “Make Justice Happen. Love as God Loves. Be the very reflection of God in the world.”
Justice is about love. It reminds me of Dr. Cornell West’s words in his address at Howard University when he said…“Justice is what love looks like in public.”2 This love is not the sentimental, soft, anything goes love that is often hung on it… this is a passionate love, a resisting love, a love that will not let you go, a love that will not let go until justice for all … ALL is the Way and the rule and not the exception.
How that love manifests itself in your individual life might look different than it manifests itself in my life… yet… it is the same love… it is the same justice that calls us to work for the common Good of all persons…. ALL. Persons.
So, I challenge us all… for the sake of those who continue to be oppressed and marginalized, for the sake of those who oppress and marginalize, for the sake of the soul of our country and our world…For the sake of these little ones who will inherit what we leave behind….
Love the World… the Whole World!
Make Justice Happen!
Love As God Loves!
Be the Very Reflection of God in the World!
May it be so.
1 Borg, Marcus (2015), The Heart of Christianity, Rediscovering a Life of Faith, HarperOne, NY, NY
2 West, Cornel, (2011), Justice is What Love Looks Like in Public, Speech at Howard University.