Monday, 03 February 2014 00:00

"Justice", February 2, 2014

Micah 6:1-8
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 2, 2014
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

This month, we will look at sacred work.  Each Sunday in February, we will look at a different topic of our sacred work.  The four Sundays will focus on justice, compassion, choices and mercy.  They are all part of our sacred work.

It is ironic that today’s topic, justice, would coincide with the week that Pete Seeger died.  Pete was a troubadour of justice. And he wanted the rest of us to join in the chorus of the work of justice.  I can tell you that I was tempted to make this sermon just a string of Pete Seeger songs.

When I was in my first year as a pastor, I traveled from Hartford to visit a clergy colleague for Thanksgiving in the Catskills. We got lost on the way to the train station and arrived just as the train was pulling away. The next train didn’t come for another hour, so we went in search of place to spend the hour in Beacon. We ended up down by the Hudson River and we saw people gathering in the boat house. There was music and food and we wandered in. We were listening to the speakers talk about caring for the river and I told my friend to look behind her. There was Pete Seeger, banjo on his back. I was star struck.

He inspired so many people over the years. He was less interested in performing for people as he was interested in singing with people.  I think he would like the way we sing together as a congregation with such gusto.


We’ve heard so many tributes to Pete and his inexhaustible thirst for justice.

Hear how he rewrote the words to Old Hundred.

"Old Hundred"

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing out for peace 'tween heav'n and hell.
'Tween East and West and low and high,
Sing! peace on earth and sea and sky.
Old Hundred, you've served many years
To sing one people's hopes and fears,
But we've new verses for you now.
Sing peace between the earth and plow.
Sing peace between the grass and trees,
Between the continents and seas,
Between the lion and the lamb.
Between young Ivan and young Sam.
Between the white, black, red and brown,
Between the wilderness and town,
Sing peace between the near and far,
'Tween Allah and six-pointed star.
The fish that swim, the birds that fly,
The deepest seas, the stars on high,
Bear witness now that you and I
Sing peace on earth and sea and sky.
Old Hundred, please don't think us wrong
For adding verses to your song.
Sing peace between the old and young,
'Tween every faith and every tongue.
All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing out for peace 'tween heav'n and hell.
'Tween East and West and low and high,
Sing! peace on earth and sea and sky.

Let us turn our attention now to the call of God in today’s scripture.

Micah 6:8 is the Hebrew Bible verse we know the best.  It’s the Hebrew Bible’s John 3:16, at least for UBC-types.  It’s the summation of the prophetic ethical tradition.
"What Does God require, but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God."

It’s a great slogan, a great mantra.  Heck, it’s a great bumper sticker.  Can you imagine people at the Super Bowl holding up Micah 6:8 and then actually doing it?  That would be remarkable.  Maybe that’s our next UBC marketing strategy.  Go to sporting events with big signs saying Micah 6:8.  We would feel so righteous.  “What does God require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

We ought to be careful to not only focus on verse 8 of today’s text without the larger context.  As Pastor Felix of second Baptist church in Leon said when we visited them a year ago, “A text without a context is really a pretext.”

The text comes from God’s deep disappointment with the people of Israel who squandered their giftedness and blessing in favor of a me-first-ism that made them a bit puffed up.

Micah is written in the 8th century, at a time when there is wealth and ease.  Amos came from around this time, too.  And neither were held in great regard.  They both exposed inconvenient truths.  Micah was concerned that the people went through the rituals of offerings while as Walter Bruegemann said, “Aggressive land practices, exploitive policies that generate wealth at the expense of the vulnerable” continue.  Micah uses colorful language to describe his people: The powerful covet fields, seize houses and take them away. (2:2)  They “tear the skin off my people” (3:2),  The political leaders take bribes and the religious leaders sell out for money (3:11) The book of Micah is God’s indictment against the people of Israel for squandering justice.  The people didn’t want to hear Micah then and we don’t want to hear Micah-types now, especially if it affects our status.

We like the fact that the stock market is doing better. We have a black president therefore we have overcome our racial disparity, right? Unemployment is going down a little bit. Can’t we just make our offerings and be done with it?

I don’t think Micah or God would be happy with that.

Micah saves his choicest words for leaders. “Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; they lean upon YHWH and say, “Surely YHWH is with us! No harm can come upon us.”  Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall be come a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.” (Micah 3:9-12).  Happy words.

The prophet Micah's words cut to core of the prophetic literature.  They remind us of Amos who said "Let justice roll down like a mighty water and righteousness like an everflowing stream"(Amos 5:24).

Those words remind us of Hosea who said to Israel, "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy.  I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know God."(Hosea 2:19-20)

"For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings"(Hosea 6:6).

They remind us of every single thing that Jesus did.  Everything he said, every action he took was all about doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.  That is what we are about.  It’s woven into the very fabric of our beings.  It’s the constant thread of our story.
There are three voices in the scripture for today.    It sounds like a courtroom.

First, Micah tells the people to listen up “YHWH has a controversy with you, O people.”  The reality is that God has had a controversy with Israel throughout the book of Micah.

Then God says, “What have I done to you?  In what ways have I wearied you?  Answer me!  I brought you up from slavery in Egypt and redeemed you. I gave you Moses, Miriam and Aaron. So that you might know my saving acts.”

Then the people ask in increasing desperation: “with what shall I come before such a God?  Shall I come before God with a tiny burnt offering?  How about a couple of year-old calves? It’s getting serious here.  Will God be pleased with thousands of rams?  How about 10,000’s of rivers of oil?”  This is extravagant, desperate, even terrifying.  No one could afford that.  So, then comes the worst.  “Shall I give my firstborn for my sins?”  Now the people are downright desperate, even absurd.
Micah then intervenes and says, Breathe people: “God has already told you what is good.  What does God require of you?  Just this.  Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”

The people want to atone for their sins.  Some little ritual that will wipe it all clean. They think this is what God wants.  But it is so not about atonement.

God doesn’t need sacrifices.  We don’t need to make offerings of money or things of monetary value to satisfy God.  What God needs is for you to do justice.  Do what is right.  Love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

We’ll talk about mercy in a couple of weeks.  Today’s word is justice.

Doing justice is not just personal piety, but sacred work.  Something that might be required. It doesn’t say like justice, or admire justice.  It doesn’t say remember the justice that someone else did or even we did in days of old. It says do justice.  Do it now. Do it in the future.  That’s what God wants.  No, that’s what God requires.

“Justice is what love looks like in public” Cornel West
Carol Dempsy in her essay in Feasting on the Word says that there are three types of justice:

Communative justice—focusing on relationships;

distributive justice—focusing on equal distribution of goods and benefits;

and social justice—the social order necessary for distributive justice.

We probably need to do all three.

Are your relationships just?  Are we being fair to each other?  Do we recognize another’s hopes and are we compassionate about their demons? Can we focus on their actions and not make judgments about their character?

Do we benefit from another’s misfortune? Do we hold others to a higher standard?  Do things like racial or gender privilege tip the balance in or out of our favor?
Doing justice is the core of the gospel.  I was once told that I could speak with people from the Fellowship of Christian athletes as long as I didn’t mention social justice.  It all sounded so absurd.  I lost the speaking gig. It’s like Christianity without the Christ.  The Gospel without justice is not the Gospel. It is “just us.”

Doing justice is the mark of the true Christian.

God is not interested in sacrifices and rituals and penitence.  God is interested in having us do justice.  And while we do it, we love mercy and are humble about it.

How do we do justice?

We do it by lobbying policymakers and being a voice for the voiceless.

We do justice by activism against the war machine and even by the way that we pant gardens and conserve energy.

We do justice by remembering that everyone is a child of God.

And God is watching.

Remember the vision of God in the 4th chapter of Micah.

“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of YHWH shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills…and God will judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war anymore; but everyone shall sit under their vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid, for the mouth of YHWH has spoken it.” (Micah 4:1, 3-4)  They will be in just relationship with one another.

What does God require of you?  Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.  As we contemplate our sacred work this month, make a list of the places where you individually and we collectively can do justice.
During lent, people often give things up.  In this pre-lent season where we concentrate on sacred work, why not concentrate on how you can do justice?

How can you be in just relationships?

How can you advocate for fair treatment?

How can you do the work of peacemaking?

How can you take care of this planet a bit better?

How can you be an activist for the people in Syria or South Sudan, or Iraq or Afghanistan, or Egypt or Palestine, or Mankato, or Minneapolis?

What can you do to do justice?

It’s after all, your sacred work.

And just so you know, I’m going to be making this list, too.  And I’m saying this so that we can keep each other accountable for our sacred work.

Sisters and brothers, our sacred work is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.  Let’s do it.  The prophets would approve, Micah, Isaiah, Hosea, Jesus and even Pete Seeger would join the mighty chorus.  And it would be good.