NRSV MICAH 6:1-8
6 Hear what the LORD says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 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.
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 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.
5 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.”
6 “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?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 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?”
NRSV MATTHEW 5:1-12
5 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the
kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
After the kind of week we had, the last thing we need is to hear about another court case. If you wanted to – and most of us, I think, don’t – but if you wanted to, you can have access through television, radio or the internet a blow by blow account of the impeachment proceedings in the nation’s Capital. It has been a full-blown trial, with lawyers making their statements, those in the jury boxes listening intently – at least, we hope so, and not just on party lines. You had a judge overseeing the whole thing. And then one of these days there will be a final decision, a verdict. Not exactly Perry Mason (I’m really dating myself here), but full blown court proceedings nonetheless.
We can shake our heads at the whole thing, or hope it winds up on one side or the other depending upon our political positions; or hope it doesn’t tear our country apart any more than it already is. But most of us would just as soon think about something else.
This weekend we get a reprieve from a ground hog and a pigskin. Today is Ground Hog Day, the time when a certain gopher by the name of Punxsatawney Phil will come out of his burrow to tell us if it is going to be a long or short winter. Actually, he will more likely be pulled out kicking and screaming by people in funny hats. It’s all in good fun, as it’s anybody’s guess as to what kind of winter we will have from here on out. So far around here it hasn’t been too bad, but this is Virginia, and you never know.
If a ground hog doesn’t give you enough entertainment there is also a football game this afternoon – the Super Bowl; the matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers. They will slug it out in Miami to the delight of their fans. Others of us will be more interested in the commercials, and who can come out with the most intriguing, sentimental or outrageously funny ad; all while trying not to think about all the money spent on those 30-second spots.
But even football games can have their controversies. I was driving around the other day listening to a report on NPR about how the Chiefs haven’t been to a Super Bowl in 50 years – something I knew – but this year’s visit comes with the concerns about any sports team that refers to itself by using a term based on a stereotype of Native Americans. It comes complete with the “Tomahawk Chop,” the music and gesture that teams like the Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins use to get their fans up and cheering. It’s all good fun for some folks. But Native Americans – including those who make up a whole Presbytery in our denomination – don’t find this kind of thing amusing. They do not feel lifted up and respected by a gesture that demeans their heritage and their culture.
So much for our trying to escape court proceedings. But all of these – court scenes, ground hog predictions and football games, all operate on the assumption that the goal in life is to win; to prove you are better than someone else, to come out on top. Competition is what is god here; the urge to be number one, ahead of everyone else.
That is, until we are hit square in the face with the realization that life is more than winning. Several years ago there was a movie called “Ground Hog Day”: in which Bill Murray played a cynical weather man sent to Punxsatawney to cover the proceedings. But a funny thing happened – he gets caught up in a time loop, one where the same day is played over and over again. It’s a strange movie but with a good message: If we think this whole thing of life is all about us, sooner or later we will be hit by something that gets us off our self-centered treadmills and beckons us to look for something else besides what’s in it for me.
That seems to be what was going on with the people of Judah in the time of Micah. He paints a picture of a courtroom scene, but it is a different kind of courtroom. Who’s the judge? You’d think it would be God, but the Lord is portrayed here more as a prosecuting attorney. Those in the jury box are all the elements of creation – the hills, mountains, “the enduring foundations of the earth.” The accused? That would be the people of Judah.
Scholars are puzzled as to what exactly compelled the prophet Micah to make this prophetic utterance. But a lack of justice among the people, especially toward those of the lower end of society, is always a candidate. Not just because it is prevalent in any society. But because this was a society that was warned against turning their backs on the least of these. God was always telling the people to take special care of the poor, the widow and the sojourner. The reason is that those folks have no one else to lean on. And they also have a tendency in those days and ours to be more sensitive about God’s presence and love than do we who have a lot of stuff and power.
But now God the attorney is calling on all of creation to witness not so much what the people have done as to what God has done: delivering people from slavery, bringing them into the promised land, working even through Gentiles like Balaam to “know the saving acts of the Lord.”
Why? Maybe they forgot. Maybe they passed by the part that says because God has treated you with love you are to treat others with love. Maybe they were more concerned with following the dictates of the law than paying attention to why the law was given in the first place – to teach us how to live with each other in a way that lifts up and respects everyone. It is all basically summed up in two words in the third verse, where it sounds like God is screaming at a recalcitrant kid who keeps throwing their food on the floor: “Answer me!”
If nothing else, those two little words proclaim in no uncertain terms that this is a God who cares. God cares about how people live. God cares about how people are taken care of. God cares about how relationships develop or break down. God cares about how people take care of the land. God cares when people throw around God’s name a little too carelessly.
To try to get themselves back into the good graces of a God who cares, the people consider what they can do, what they can give. They still haven’t gotten the memo; they think this spiritual journey is all about them, what they can do, how they can impress God. Burnt offerings? Calves, rams, rivers of oil? Child sacrifice, giving of their first born? Hey, they’ll do it.
If the list sounds silly, maybe we can put our own modern day twist to it. What can we give you, God? Our team’s victories – after all, everybody wants to thank God for letting them win. A killing in the Stock Market? Building up our finances? Our popularity – we can show you, O God, all kinds of good things and good deeds that we have done. We know you show up in victories, in increased finances, in successful careers, in children we like to show off.
But God dismisses all of this. The Lord has shown you what is needed, and it is not your stuff; it is not your triumphs. What does God require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
You hear that verse quoted all the time, from me and just about every other preacher. But think about it. It is not our accomplishments that the God who cares wants. God wants us to care as much as God cares; about ourselves, yes. But also about others, about doing justice, making sure that everyone has what they need to live a full, whole, complete life. God wants us to show steadfast love, the kind of love that God shows; God wants us to show that kind of love toward all those made in the image of the God who cares. And walk humbly with God; not arrogantly. We don’t get it right, we don’t have God figured out. But that’s okay. We walk humbly with God and with each other.
The Beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5 say pretty much the same thing. This is not an accomplishment; this is not a request for us to be these things. You can’t accomplish mourning, mourning comes to you. But these are blessings that come to those who are already in that place. Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, you who mourn, you who are persecuted in Jesus’ name. Blessed are you when these things happen in your life. Blessed are you because the grace God showers is not always seen best by those who have a lot; but by those who have so little. Those who suffer. Those who mourn. Those who are poor in spirit. Not so much to those who have a lot of things. But to those who embrace the fullness of life, and who feel in the midst of life’s tough times the love and justice of God.
Jill Duffield shared a story told by Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. She wrote: “He told … of one woman’s courage at the site of a lynching. Stevenson founded the National Memorial for Peace and Justice that memorializes the victims of lynching. At the memorial there are jars of dirt dug from the sites where these murders occurred. Stevenson shared the story of an African American woman who participated in this project. She was on her hands and knees digging dirt and placing it in a jar at one of these sites when a white man in a truck slowed down and looked at her. He drove past, turned around and stopped. He asked her what she was doing. She said she felt compelled to tell him the truth, despite her fear. He got out of the truck and asked if he could help her. She offered him the trowel. He declined and dug with his hands. Together they put the dirt in the jar. She noticed tears streaming down his face and she asked if he was okay. He said he feared his ancestors may have participated in the very lynching she was memorializing. She cried with him. They took pictures of each other, holding the jar, memorializing a moment of unexpected understanding, hope and reconciliation. A moment of blessed mourning, mercy, hunger and thirst for righteousness that came as a result of two people, each in their own way and time, in their ordinary lives, haltingly trying to do justice, love kindness and walking humbly with their God.”
We are invited to do that, too. Every time we set aside this day of athletic accomplishment to bring cans of soup or money to feed hungry people, we are testifying that our things and our victories are not what define us. It is God’s love that defines us. It is our relationships that define us. It is the way we let God’s Spirit blow free and wild in our lives that define us. When doing justice, loving faithfully and walking humbly with God and each other define our lives, we don’t have to count our victories. We are living in them. Amen.