This is the sermon I preached at last Tuesday’s Presbytery meeting. The text is Micah 6:1-8.
Just yesterday, I was walking out of the cafeteria at Utica College when I bumped into Cristina, who is one of my students. Cristina heads up an on-campus activist organization called UC Pride. This week, Cristina and the others at UC Pride are organizing an event called “No Name-Calling Week”. The purpose of this event is to raise awareness about bullying and the effect that abusive language can have on people.
Last autumn, a student at Rutgers named Tyler Clementi committed suicide after enduring brutal treatment from his fellow students because of his sexual orientation. For a brief period of time, the media took notice of the fact that several other students around the country were committing suicide after receiving the same kind of torture from their classmates.
These events inspired Cristina to initiate “No Name-Calling Week”. She made up a series of fliers with derogatory names like “Geek”, “Dork”, and “Stupid” written on them. She hoped that these fliers would inspire others to think more carefully about the kind of language they use in everyday conversation. I said to her, “It’s like you’re trying to teach the fish to notice the water.”
To her shock and dismay, Cristina discovered that people were ripping down her fliers, crumpling them up, and throwing them in trash cans. When she replaced the original fliers with new ones containing the names of those who committed suicide last fall, these were torn down as well. Cristina was disheartened, to say the least. “How could people be so ignorant and immature?” she said. I tried my best to comfort her. “Your program is obviously having an effect,” I said, “otherwise, people wouldn’t feel so threatened that they would need to rip the fliers down just to get them out of sight.”
Cristina lives with a potent vision of the way this world could (and should) be. She dreams of a society where people like Tyler Clementi would never be tormented to the point of suicide. She longs for a world where all God’s people are treated with equal respect and decency. At the same time, Cristina lives with an abiding pain, because this world is not as it should be. People would rather shut her up than heed her message. In this way, Cristina reminds me of the Hebrew prophet Micah.
Micah was a person who lived with a tremendous amount of tension in his soul. He was a proud Israelite who celebrated the dignity of his heritage. You might even call him a patriot. In today’s reading from chapter 6, he recalls how God led Israel’s ancestors out of slavery in Egypt and protected them during their long journey across the desert. He highlights particular moments when their survival was threatened by the evil King Balak and the corrupt prophet Balaam. Whenever their enemies sought to curse the Hebrews, God would turn it into a blessing.
Like my student Cristina, Micah also held onto a powerful vision for the future of his people. His description of this vision in chapter 4 is taken almost word for word from Isaiah chapter 2. (If one of my students were to do what he did, I’d report them for plagiarism!) Micah envisioned Jerusalem as an international center for education and spiritual renewal. Fear and violence would be done away with as soldiers “beat their swords into plowshares”.
But this utopia felt like a long way off from the Jerusalem that Micah lived in during the 8th century BC. In Micah’s world, we read that “the powerful dictate what they desire”. Politicians and judges were sold to the highest bidder. Powerful landowners foreclosed on houses and fields. They declared war on the poor and defrauded working-class people of their inheritance. So brutal was their treatment of their fellow human beings that Micah went so far as to call them “cannibals”. All the while, people hid behind a façade of religious observance and false piety.
From Micah’s point of view, his society was on a collision course with itself. Sooner or later, their hypocrisy would be exposed and their fragile house of cards would come crashing down around them. The nation of Israel would undergo swift and drastic downsizing, and this time, there would be no divine bailout to protect them.
“Alright God,” the people said with checkbooks in hand, “What’s it gonna take? Name your price! You want calves? Rams? Oil? Heck, I’ll even give you my firstborn child if it’ll get you off my back!”
And Micah said, “Wait a minute. God isn’t interested in your pious posturing. You know what God wants from you: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
We walk. Walking is a dynamic thing. There’s movement in it. And the really funny thing about walking is that (if you’re doing it right) you inevitably end up in a different place than where you started from. That kind of change is enough to make anyone uncomfortable. But God doesn’t call us to stand still. God doesn’t ask the people to adopt and orthodox doctrinal stance. When Jesus called his first disciples, he didn’t say, “Go and stand over there”. He said, “Come and follow me.” No offense to the old Sunday school hymn, but we as Christians don’t “stand alone on the Word of God”. We don’t stand at all… we walk.
We don’t walk alone, either. According to Micah, we walk “with [our] God” and God walks with us. This has been the case from the beginning.
Micah looks back at the events of Israel’s history and sees the hand of God leading them all the way. I think the same is true of you and I. If we could somehow find the courage to look at our life stories through the eyes of faith, we would see glimpses of that same hand leading us. We come from God. God is our Ground.
When Micah dreams ahead to this amazing vision of Jerusalem’s future, he’s not just regurgitating some nice words he plagiarized from Isaiah. That vision does not ultimately belong to Micah or Isaiah. The vision is God’s. And God will see it through to the end. As it was with them, so it is with us. That’s why I have hope for my student Cristina. Her struggle for equality is not in vain and I have faith that she will see justice established because the One who made her, sent her on this journey, and planted the dream in her heart is the One who will make the dream come true. We come to God. God is our Goal.
In the meantime, we walk through a world that has drifted so far from its divine Ground that the divine Goal seems unattainable. Yet all is not lost. We are still not alone, for the One who walks with us has promised to never leave us nor forsake us. The Alpha and Omega who is both the Beginning and the End of our journey is also the One in whom we live, move, and have our being. We come through God. God is our Guide.
God is our Ground. God is our Guide. God is our Goal.
“From God and through God and to God are all things. To God be the glory forever. Amen.” ~Romans 11