The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
29th January 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
I’ve been wrestling all week with what it means to a follower of God in the year 2017.
I know the year has barely just begun, but due to elections in Europe and the United States, and the political consequences of those elections becoming reality this week, it feels like the Western World is engaged in a battle for its very soul.
Most of us are aware that Oxford dictionaries chose “post-truth” as the word of the year for 2016, and 2017 began with a battle between “facts” and so-called “alternative facts.”
This battle rages strongly in my home country, where a newly inaugurated Donald Trump has begun his presidency by signing a series of executive orders that threaten to destroy decades of diplomatic efforts, even though they follow through on campaign promises he made to his supporters.
Orders to pull out of multinational treaties.
Orders to begin construction of a “Great Wall” on the US-Mexican border.
Orders to refuse asylum to refugees from Muslim countries, excluding ones with whom the President has business ties.
An article I read this week from Sojourners, claiming that “American Christianity has failed,” had this to say about the situation:
“These presidential orders, which will refuse help to many of the world’s most vulnerable individuals, are what many Christians voted for. This is the fruit of their political labor, but it’s not the Fruit of the Spirit. In fact, love, joy, peace, happiness, and self-control are notably absent from the current administration.”
This flurry of action along with its ramifications combined with the struggle over what is true in a post-truth world has left many soul searching…wondering what it means to be faithful in such a context.
Do you wonder what it means to be faithful?
Do you struggle with how to respond to the developments of our world, not merely in fear or anger, but with faith?
Today our Old Testament reading offers us a chance to answer these questions.
We enter into the world of the prophet Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, and a prophet from a rural area in Judah, the southern part of the United Kingdom of Israel.
Last week we spoke about Isaiah’s context for prophecy…he was in the northern part of the country that was overtaken by the Assyrians in the 8th century before Christ, and it was only a matter of time before the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem is located, was also under siege and destroyed by Sennecherib’s invading armies…sending the people of God into exile.
If you were paying attention before Christmas, you might remember that Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, a prophecy Matthew immortalized in his Gospel.
But Micah is probably most remembered for the half verse that comes at the end of our reading today.
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
People who have read very little of the Bible even know this phrase, and for good reason.
It succinctly captures the heart of what it means to be a child of God.
In Micah’s world, faithful worship of God meant participating in the sacrificial cult of Judaism…animals would be sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple built by King Solomon for purposes of thanksgiving, drawing closer to the divine and, in some cases, for atonement for communal sins.
While the sacrificial cult most certainly offered faithful Jews of that time a pathway into relationship with God, a pitfall of it was that it was highly transactional.
The book of Leviticus lays out detailed notes about what animal is to be offered for what situation, even making exceptions and distinctions for those of great material wealth and those of meager means.
Offer this in sacrifice, the subtext reads, and you are made right with God.
Follow the proper rules, and you will achieve your desired result.
Though I am positive that there were many faithful everyday Jews who lived lives of grace and magnanimity while still participating in this transactional system, I can also imagine how such a transactional relationship could lead to inaction and abuse.
Such a system could allow a faithful adherent to be “justified” according to the law, even while ignoring any implementation of proper action based on that law.
Micah prophesied against this disconnect between offerings to God and living for God in the passage before us.
His frustration lies in the fact that he sees his brothers and sisters observing the letter of the law of Moses, but missing the living core that sparked the law’s genesis in the first place.
That is why he cries out to the mountains, the hills, and the foundations of the earth…asking God’s very creation to stand in judgement of his people’s failure.
He rants in the voice of God, HEY PEOPLE! WHAT’S UP? DON’T YOU REMEMBER THAT YOU WERE SLAVES IN EGYPT, AND I SAVED YOU? HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN ME SO QUICKLY AFTER YEARS OF PROSPERITY AND STABILITY? NOW YOU GO TO IDOLS AND FORGET THAT IT WAS I THAT SAVED YOU, AND YOU THINK THAT I AM APPEASED MERELY BY THE TRANSACTIONS YOU MAKE WITH ME? DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHAT IT IS THAT PLEASES ME?
Not burnt offerings.
Not calves a year old, not a thousand rams and not even ten thousand rivers of oil, or the sacrifice of your firstborn child!
I don’t want payment!
I don’t want transactional relationship!
I want you!
I don’t want some specific offering.
I want you to be a specific type of person.
I want followers who do justice. I want children who will sacrifice for mercy and kindness’ sake. I want a people who are bold enough to live according to the heart of my law, but with the humility required to live peaceably with others.
The early 20th Century poet Wallace Stevens encapsulated God’s claim in one line of his famous poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”
Let ‘be’ be finale of ‘seem’.
God is not edified by seeming to be religious, by seeming to be Christian, by seeming to espouse the superficials of what God’s law requires.
God is edified by authentic lives lived with integrity.
Nothing else does God require than the free will offering of the fullness of our lives… lived in all the honesty and messiness that accompanies human existence, and with a bent toward the justice we have been shown in God’s mercy and grace.
Micah begs his hearers to remember that, and Jesus will come along centuries later and put that remembrance into action.
He will embrace methods and tactics seen foolish by those who have a stake in preserving the status quo, and will go all the way to the cross and beyond in order to convey God’s never-ending gift of love.
We here in 2017 are confronted with the same decision as Micah’s hearers and Jesus’ disciples have been for nearly the past three millennia.
Will we let ‘be’ be finale of ‘seem’ or will we be content to live on superficial terms in acting the exterior and inferior aspects of religion without bringing forth the life-giving core that can truly transform our world?
The decision is yours.
But by God, this post-truth world of ours needs your YES more than ever.
May you be strengthened today to live authentically, to do justice, to love mercy and kindness. And to walk humbly with our God in the midst of the minefield of our modern world.