Sunday, February 2, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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 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?” 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?
It was at this moment that I understood the world had truly shifted: Marcos and I were at a very fashionable garden party up in the Catskills, hosted by some friends of ours. It was a beautiful summer evening, and we had gathered on the large deck as the sun dipped behind the mountains and a sudden coolness came to the air. As one does at these kinds of things, we mingled. I’m not the most natural “mingler” in the world, but I’ve learned to fake it.
As I was mingling, I suddenly came face to face with a very elegant woman. We chatted for a moment about the view and the delicious food and our mutual friends. She told me a little about herself. And then she asked me the dreaded question: “So James, what do you do for a living?” There was a pause, as there always is when I’m asked this question, as I tried to get the lay of the land. After a few seconds, I replied: “Well, I’m a Congregational minister.” For a split second, her polite smile vanished before she managed a recovery. “What’s that?” she asked - just like that. And so I gave her the user-friendly answer that I have perfected over the years. But about three sentences into my perfect explanation of what a Congregational minister is, she mumbled, “Excuse me” and walked away, leaving me in mid-sentence.
It wasn’t always like that, you know. When I first started in ministry back in late 80s, there was still a general respect for the clergy. I was treated with some deference in the grocery store and at the barbershop and the gas station. But those days are long gone. With each passing year, American society is less and less religious, and experts see no slowing in that trend. With each passing clergy scandal, ministers and priests and rabbis and imams are more and more distrusted. Nowadays, I don’t often tell people what I do for a living unless I just have to. Why would I invite that kind of discomfort when I’m only trying to get my haircut?
Now despite this decrease in religion in America, spirituality is said to be on the increase. People now proudly declare themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” Maybe that describes you or someone you love. Frankly, it describes sometimes me, when I feel fed up with religion but am still inextricably drawn to the spiritual life.
To declare oneself “spiritual, but not religious” implies that these two things are somehow opposed to one another or at least organically unrelated. And while this may feel like a new thing happening in the world, it’s actually a very old thing. There has always been a tension between religion and spirituality. There has always been the temptation for religion to try to codify and control the things of the spirit, followed by an inevitable pushback. And we see that tension in this passage from Micah.
We don’t know much about Micah except that he was a small-town boy from a place called Moresheth, about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem. He was a younger contemporary of other prophets you may have heard of like Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea. Interestingly enough, scholars note that there are some striking similarities between the writings of Micah and Isaiah, implying that there may have been collaboration between the prophets, or maybe even a prophetic school from which they all borrowed.
Micah’s prophecy is presented as a courtroom drama. God is the plaintiff and the people are the defendants. And in the closing argument, God makes a striking case against the people, particularly the upper echelons of society, the intelligentsia, and the cultural elite, accusing them of being particularly hypocritical. God also laces into the clergy, declaring them all false prophets. And the rich, God says, are the most violent of them all. Yet all of those accused were religious.
Well, apparently, Micah was a pretty good preacher, because the people saw the error of their ways and responded with fervent repentance. And as a way to show their repentance, they did what they knew best. They became more religious! Instead of sacrificing three or four rams to show how sorry they were, they would sacrifice a thousand! Instead of one hundred gallons of their best olive oil, they would offer ten thousand of rivers of oil. They even went so far as to offer their first-born children. They were sorry for what they had done and they thought that more religious observance was the cure.
They were not so unlike many of us. Sometime we feel sorry for our selfishness or dishonesty, and decide that the cure is more piety. We will go to church every Sunday! We’ll make a bigger pledge! We’ll say our prayers every night! But those things don’t necessarily get us what we need. And according to Micah, God doesn’t want more religion. What God wanted is more spirit. God wants personal transformation that results in societal transformation.
So, how does Micah describe that? Well, his answer is one of the best-known verses of the Bible: “God 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.”
If you Google that verse, you will find scores of beautiful images that you can post on Facebook and Instagram. It will make you seem “woke” and enlightened. But what does it actually mean, from God’s point of view, to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God?
In our current state of political division and entrenchment, the word justice has become a bomb we lob at one another. Each side lays claim to its true meaning. But the biblical notion of justice, to which we are all called whatever our political opinions, is enshrined in what we call the Golden Rule. To do justice is to do unto others exactly as you would like them to do to you. The great theologian Cornel West puts it this way: “Justice is (simply) what love looks like in public.”
And what about kindness? Aren’t we kind already? Well, we might be nice, but kind is something far deeper. The Hebrew word translated here are kindness is “chesed” – a very rich word that references the idea of holy covenant and obligation between people. This is not about smiling at the cashier at Big Y. Chesed is about trust and vulnerability as an essential building block of human relationships. In this way, justice (doing to others as you would want done to you) and kindness (vulnerability and trust) are cousins.
And humility? Well, is there any more precious commodity in our world today? In a culture in which we are regularly encouraged to think of ourselves as the best or #1, cultivating humility as a spiritual discipline is about as counter-cultural as you can get. So, what is it? Well, here’s a very simple definition of humility: to be humble to remember that God is God… and you are not.
The prophet Micah proclaimed that the religious life is not necessarily a spiritual life. Micah preached that religion cannot make one just and kind and humble. But here’s the thing. It sure can help.
And that’s the truth that some “spiritual, but not religious” folks don’t quite understand about what we do in this room – that religion practice can serve an essential purpose in our spiritual quest – because justice and loving kindness and walking humbly is hard work, and best done in community, with others who will hold us accountable and pray for us and laugh with us and cry with us.
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. That’s a beautiful, spiritual idea. It will make this world a better place. And religion, done right, can actually help to get us there.