What is good | 27 July 2014

 

Twelve Scriptures Project

Text #6: Micah 6:8

There’s an expression you might hear from time to time: “If these walls could talk.”  This tends to get said inside a building, a space, where we recognize something significant has happened, but there aren’t any people around anymore who would have witnessed it.  No one – except for these walls, which have been here all along – could tell us the story.    If you’ve never said “if these walls could talk,” or even knew the expression existed and was available to be said, perhaps you have thought the thought behind the expression, walking into a place – and wondering what all has happened within those walls.

When we bought our house just up the street we learned that the elderly couple we were buying it from had lived in it for 50 years, raising their children and hosting their grandchildren throughout that time.  Although we didn’t have any interest in the walls of the house divulging anything about the family, we did have a sense that the walls now surrounding us had contained the long history of another family.  As it turned out, one of our first acts of home ownership was to permanently silence one of the walls by eliminating it from existence and opening up the kitchen to the dining room.  Fortunately none of the other walls fell down in the process.

If the walls of this sanctuary could talk, what would they say?  They have witnessed baptisms, baby dedications, services for healing, Vacation Bible Schools, many joys and concerns shared openly and prayed for.  If these walls could talk I wonder if, instead of talking, they would sing, having absorbed all the sound waves from voices gathered together week after week.  I wonder if these walls prefer Baptist red carpet or Mennonite purple.  As if a church needs one more voice on what color to have the carpet.

If these walls could talk: silent witnesses brought to life and enabled to tell a story no single human has been around to see.

Micah 6:8 holds the privilege of being the shortest of our Twelves Scriptures.  Just one verse.  This past week during Bible School the kids and teachers have had a memory verse each day and this is one of those scriptures that is very doable in committing to memory.  “The Holy One has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  Micah was one of the early Hebrew prophets, roughly contemporary with Amos, Hosea, and the first Isaiah, and this passage is sometimes referenced as a summary, a distillation, of all prophetic teaching.  When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment in all the Hebrew Scriptures he combined two different passages about loving God and loving neighbor.  One wonders if this one just barely missed the cut as a close third.  Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.  “Do this, and you will live.”

This passage is also a transition from “The primacy of love” theme to “The cry of justice.”  Last Sunday Mark made the comment that perhaps all of the Twelve Scriptures are really about love in some way.  “God is love,” as the 1 John 4 passage declares.  If you ever get an email from CMCer Jon Lucas, who is on staff at the BREAD organization, you might notice that the tagline at the bottom of his email provides a nice connection between the themes of love and justice.  It’s a quote from Cornel West which says, “Never forget, justice is what love looks like in public.”  If all of these scriptures are ultimately about love, then these next two speak to love going public, through the practice of justice.  Our partnership with BREAD is one of the key ways we commit ourselves to love’s public presence as justice in Franklin County.

Micah 6:8 is a short passage and works fine standing on its own.  But it is also a climactic statement set up by what comes before it.  It’s in these previous verses that Micah evokes what might have been the equivalent in his day of “If these walls could talk.”  This summary statement of the prophets is watched over, perhaps even declared by, witnesses who, to the untrained ear, appear to be silent.

As Micah sets it up for us at the beginning of chapter six, we are invited to imagine with the prophet that we are in a courtroom scene, or a trial before village elders.  Yahweh, the LORD, is playing the role of the plaintiff, bringing a charge against the people of Israel, the defendant.  Micah has spent the previous five chapters naming some of the specifics of this charge: the rulers run the nation through bribes, the priests and prophets are easily swayed by moneyed interests.  The people oppress one another and covet the fields and houses of their neighbors, sometimes seizing them.  In this virtual courtroom, the prophet is playing some combination of bailiff, court reporter, and attorney.   There are no quotation marks in Hebrew, but the first to speak could very well be the prophet, who calls the court to order.  The version printed in the bulletins is taken mostly from the JPS, Jewish Publication Society translation, which is pretty close to the NRSV, but does a little clearer job of capturing the legal nature of the language.

Hear what Yahweh is saying: Rise, present your case before the mountains, And let the hills hear you pleading.

Which immediately introduces the other major players in the case.  When you’ve got the prophet, the people, and the Lord all involved in the case, you’ve kind of run out of people to be that impartial third party – the jury, or the elders who judge.  But there’s a solution.  The jury, as we’ll think of them, those witnesses to the case at hand, will be the entire created order.  Listen up mountains and hills.  This is your letter in the mail.  You’ve been summoned for jury duty.  We will plead our case before you – Although it’s kind of hard to imagine creation being a completely impartial body, given that it is highly indebted to the plaintiff for its very existence.  But we’ll trust that they will do their best to listen closely to all sides.  If these walls could talk – if these hills and streams and trees could listen and deliberate, and talk.

The prophet continues:

“Hear, listen, you mountains, the case of Yahweh — You firm foundations of the earth! For Yahweh has a case against His people, He has a suit against Israel.”

With the mountains, the bedrock, and the rest of mother earth properly seated in their places and at attention, it’s time for the opening statements, which swings us over to the plaintiff, Yahweh.  Only rather than addressing the jury, the Lord of the Universe turns and addresses the defendant directly.

“My people! What wrong have I done you? What hardship have I caused you? Testify against Me. 4 In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5

Yahweh begins by claiming the defendant as an intimate participant in the covenant.  “My people.”  And proceeds to plead innocence of any wrong doing.  And not only innocence, but Yahweh has done everything to love and serve the people.  Yahweh can be rather harsh through some of the prophets, but here Yahweh is almost pleading with the people.  “What hardship have I caused you?”  Yahweh then begins recounting the salvation story of the people.  I saved you from slavery.  I even provided leaders to march you toward freedom.  Moses – the deliverer, the one who walked out in front.  Aaron, the top advisor, the speech writer, the confidant.  Miriam, the music leader, the one who brought the spirit of celebration and joy on the other side of the Red Sea, as she led the people in dancing and rejoicing at their deliverance from Egypt.

And then Yahweh goes on with recounting more of the divine faithfulness to the people.

“My people, Remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you, And how Balaam son of Beor responded to him. Recall your passage From Shittim to Gilgal — And you will recognize the gracious acts of Yahweh.”

Things were no doubt getting a little tense in the room, and in order to relieve the tension a little bit Yahweh reminds the people of that time when a king hired a prophet to curse them, Balak enlisting Balaam for the job in Numbers 22, which resulted in the prophet Balaam’s donkey verbally convincing the prophet that this wasn’t such a good idea.  Long before the Shrek movies, Yahweh knew that a talking donkey would be a big hit with the people.    Come on people, that was a good one.  And you made that other passage across that other body of water, from Shittim to Gilgal, across the Jordan.  You got some real estate of your own out of this whole deal.  I have been most gracious to you.  My people.

Yahweh has said his bit, and takes a seat, if Yahweh can do that, and it’s the people’s turn to respond.  And they do so in verse 6 and 7.

It’s hard to tell the tone of voice here, but it appears that the people are either playing dumb, taking the route of ignorance of the law, or are trying to demonstrate that they’ve done everything that’s asked of them and Yahweh still doesn’t seem to be pleased.  Basically, saying Look jury, we’ve done everything legally required of us and this Yahweh character is just way too demanding.

The people stand at the defendant’s stand and address the jury, avoiding eye contact with Yahweh.

“With what shall I approach Yahweh, Do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, With calves a year old?   Would the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, With myriads of streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, The fruit of my body for the sins of my soul?”

This Yahweh wants way too much.  Each suggestion for what might work gets more extreme.  He apparently isn’t satisfied with the perfect calf a year old, or with thousands or rams sacrificed on the altar.  Well how about my firstborn child?  Is that what it’s going to take to make things right with Yahweh?

The stage is set.  And that bring us to Micah 6:8.

Question: Who or what is speaking these words of verse 8?  It’s not the people, because they are clearly the ones being addressed.  It’s probably not Yahweh, because it speaks of the Lord in the third person.  That leaves either the prophet or the jury.  We have some imaginative freedom here.  Either this is the prophet offering a pastoral word to the people, or, what I kind of like to imagine: this is the jury, the hills and the mountains, who have witnessed this whole drama of God and humanity from the dawn of our species.  The mountains like Sinai who have helped mediate heaven and earth in the giving of the Torah, that hill in Galilee that will serve as the site of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that taught the way of the beloved community; the geological fixtures, which have risen up patiently and slowly over the countless millennia from the pressures and forces of this ever shifting planet, seen species evolve, flourish, and fade away.  Have themselves been worn down by rain and wind, only to be lifted up again through other forces.  The ravines of Clintonville, which carry the runoff of our lives into larger bodies of water.  Those which see all this drama and stand as silent witnesses to God’s abiding faithfulness in the world.

The jury has heard enough.  They have consulted and are of one mind, they speak with one voice.  They address the defendant, the people, with the verdict.

8 “The Holy One has told you, O mortal, what is good, And what does Yahweh require of you: Only to do justice And to love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God.”

What is good.  That very word pronounced over the hills and mountains and all of creation at the beginning.  “It is good.”  “It is very good indeed.”  This is what is good.  This is what allows creation to flow, to be renewed, to continue in covenant with its Creator.  It’s not complicated.  It’s not a puzzle.  It has very little to do with whatever religious ritual you thought was appeasing some kind of angry or demanding deity.

The jury has given its verdict.  The village elders have spoken.  When these walls talk, they don’t tell us secrets or something we’ve never heard before.  They tell us what we’ve heard all along, and simply struggle to remember.  Justice.  Mercy.  Humility.  The summary of the message of the prophets, and not a bad summary of the prophet from Galilee who would come centuries later.  Not a bad summary for what this congregation is all about.

 

 

10/30/11 – 7 Billion, 150, and the Prophets – Micah 3:5-12, Matthew 23:1-12

The prophet Micah imagines a day when there are no prophets to speak to the people.  A day in  which prophecies cease; words of instruction and guidance from those who claim to have the inside track on God’s thoughts, fall silent.  The prophet Micah says, “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray… ‘it shall be night for you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation.  The sun will go down upon the prophets and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame, they shall cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.’”  Micah sees a time when his fellow prophets join the ranks of the unemployed because they are given no more visions, no more insights, no more commentary, no more “thus saith the Lords” to deliver.  This, Micah assures his listeners, is an improvement.  This is the good news.

The problem was that the prophets of Micah’s time had used their position of leadership and power to seek their own gain.  This text accuses these prophets of crying “’Peace,’ when they have something to eat, but declar(ing) war against those who put nothing in their mouths.”  In other words, as long as the prophet had a full belly, he or she declared that everything was right and just in the world, but as soon as they felt a little bit of personal pain or a tinge of dissatisfaction with the status quo, they started drumming up support for a war to remedy the problem.

Better no prophet at all, than a false prophet.  Better no prophets than many false prophets all speaking out of their own self interest, sometimes even seeming to agree with each other, reinforcing a lie.

The situation highlights that the claims for what is just, what is right, what is needed, have always been multiple and conflicted.  Micah ends up getting his own book in the Bible and so, for us, his voice gets elevated above the others, but chances are at the time it was a whole lot less clear who was speaking for the Lord, and who was speaking for themselves; who was out to get a buck on a best seller, and who was lending their voice for the common good.  Micah has a beef to pick with his colleagues the prophets and from all we can tell, he was in the minority.  The cacophony of voices claiming to speak the truth, claiming to speak with divine authority, could easily have drown him out.

It can get confusing out there, in the multitude of voices, when one is looking for a word that is true.

How does a people find their way?

Speaking of a multitude of voices, tomorrow, October 31st, according to the United Nations, the global population will reach 7 billion people.  This is stunning considering that there were only 2 billion people on the planet in 85 years ago.  1804 was the first time there was ever 1 billion.  It took all of human history to get to a billion, then once we reached 5 billion it took only 12 years to reach 6 billion and 12 years to go from 6 to 7.  The rate of growth is expected to slow down some over the next decades, but most estimates still project that by 2050 there will be between 9 and 10 billion people.

I’ve been doing some reading recently about our foraging, hunter/gatherer ancestors, human history before 10,000 years ago.  The interest didn’t originally come from the reality of current population numbers, but maybe there has been some kind of subtle mental desire to get a better handle on the world by looking at simpler times.  In this reading I have encountered the concept of Dunbar’s number.  This number, proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, is a theory about the amount of stable social relationships that any one person can have at the same time.  Another way of looking at it is basically a number about how big a group of people can be and have everyone know everyone else.  Once the number is exceeded, it shifts all sorts of social dynamics, calls for some level of hierarchy, or at least more formalized leadership structure.

It is admittedly loose and flexible, but Dunbar’s number is 150, and apparently it has been researched as applying to tribes, small villages, Roman and modern armies, the size and organization of businesses; it has even been determined to be the splitting point for the highly communitarian Hutterite communities, our Anabaptist cousins.  After this number gets exceeded by too much, it’s extremely difficult to “hold all things in common” as the Hutterites seek to do in imitation of the practice of the early church as recorded in Acts.  There are also studies confirming that this number plays out in social networking relationships as well, so, no matter how many Facebook friends you have, you can’t realistically keep up with all of them.  I noticed recently that Facebook now let’s you designate whether a friend is a ‘close friend’ or an ‘acquaintance’, perhaps a nod to the fact of dunbar’s number, and an acknowledgement that status updates are not all created equal in each person’s social world.

Theories hold that most foraging societies, would have stayed within the bounds of this number and that our brains and social habits evolved to be pretty good at relating within this size of a group.  Knowing people and families builds social trust, increases accountability, and puts more of an emphasis on the common good rather than personal gain.  It’s easier to figure out what is just, what is right, what is needed for the individual and the group.  Such a group size calls for very little formal leadership and political structures.  Other dynamics of foraging culture kept human population in the millions, rather than billions, for hundreds of thousands of years.  Not until the advent of agriculture, settled societies, the surplus of food, did humans start regularly living in groups bigger than 150.  Our brains are still back in those small foraging circles of relationships, while we find ourselves embedded in more and more complex, more and more heavily populated bureaucratic societies.  We no longer live as communal foragers.  We are confused farmers, and like the ancient Israelites, we try and sort through the multitude of voices, to hear the words of the inspired prophet, giving her voice for how to live a sane, human, God-filled life.  Helping us find our way.

Jesus waltzes into the world of confused farmers, gets his hands in the dirt, and starts to teach us how to be human beings.  Teaches us that this mess we have made of things is already forgiven and that there is another way.  Shows us that the Christ Spirit resides in each one of us.  And calls into being a new community, made of both Jew and Gentile, original Israel and new Israel.  He doesn’t always have kind words to say to the leaders of his people.  Jesus embodies the same prophetic energy carried by Micah, and isn’t shy about naming abuses.  Jesus acknowledges that the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, which is to say, that they hold the honor and the duty of being the continuation of the prophetic tradition to their people; listening for God, teaching, instructing, interpreting.  But, Jesus laments, they are serving themselves rather than the people.  Eugene Peterson gives a contemporary flare to these words of Matthew 23 read by Karen.  “Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals.  They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help.  Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next.  They love to sit at the head of the table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’”  (The Message)

So where are the prophets?  Have they fallen away and have the visions gone dark as Micah imagined?  Are we a people without the prophetic voice to teach us how to find our way?

I saw an interesting cartoon picture recently which showed the new MLK memorial in Washington DC.  In the picture, King was absent from the memorial, with the silhouette of his body in the background, showing him walking away.  On the memorial was hung a sign: “Gone to occupy Wall Street.”  It brings up the consideration that maybe we don’t want a prophet.  Maybe it’s easier to celebrate our dead prophets for their work in the past than to allow them to be alive in the present and disturb the present order.  Keep MLK safely carved in stone.  Keep Jesus safely obscured on the pages of the Bible.  If things are going well for us, prophets don’t necessarily always work in our favor, annoyingly pointing out that things are not well for everyone.

Or maybe we don’t need any more prophets.  Because all that can be said has already been said.  Last week Dustin preached about the greatest commandments.  Of all there is to know, of all the laws and commandments, what is the most important?  Jesus answered, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and to love your neighbor has yourself.”  That’s all you need to know – as long as you get the added twist that everyone, all seven billion of them, is your neighbor.  And Micah himself had something to interject here.  He may have anticipated a lack of future prophetic voices, but he said, “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might.”  And Micah gave us the beautiful summary of prophetic teaching.  Micah 6:8 says: “God has told you, O human, 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?”  That pretty much says it all.  What else is there for a prophet to say?

After Jesus chastised the failed prophets of his day, he gave a remarkable teaching.  He cautioned against any kind of title or position that set one person above the other people of the community.  He names rabbi, father, and instructor as examples of names that should not be used.  One might also wonder if ‘prophet’ would be included.  Jesus’ followers were not to use those kinds of titles for each other.  This is, by the way, one of those teachings of Jesus that we his followers have conveniently ignored.  But I wonder if there isn’t some wisdom in this that we in our post-foraging, and now post-farming, maybe even post-industrial culture could gain.  We who live way beyond the scope of our personal Dunbar circle, and have a tendency to elevate leaders above us whom we in turn either idolize or demonize.

Jesus’ teaching here is not to call anyone teacher, because we are all students.  And not to call anyone father, because we are all siblings, and the only one who fulfills that authoritative role is God.  So we are students of one another.  And we are siblings of one another.  And we are prophets to one another.  In these small circles of relationships we have, our 150, these small intersecting circles which bloom out and eventually include everyone; in this body which is our congregation, we listen to one another, we speak humbly, and we believe that each one is filled with the Spirit of God, which is the spirit of the prophets.

We appear to be living in a time not quite like the day Micah imagined when there are no more prophets, but more like the time of Micah, where there were many.  And our prophets speak to us through every form of media yet invented.  Speaking in hundreds of languages all throughout the world.

Out of the multitude of voices that are around us, and it is a multitude, false prophets, inspired prophets, and everything in between, we discern together what the Spirit is saying to us.  And we look to Jesus as the one who taught us how to be human and how the spiritual and the economic and the political mix and weave and intersect and give us glimpses of the Kingdom of God, which is already among us.