The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
February 24, 2019
…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:1-8)
This passage comes in the midst of several Epiphany readings, selections, and options. I have deliberately chosen it because it speaks volumes to what we are going through here at the parish. It comes in the midst of our corporate revitalization as we transition from our Annual Parish Meeting, to our first meeting with a newly elected vestry, through a change of seasons shortly ahead taking us from Epiphany into Lent (via Ash Wednesday), to a much anticipated vestry retreat, leading eventually to the passion and drama of Holy Week and Easter. And that’s just one reading offered up on a Sunday morning in the cultural context of a local parish eager to get underway as spring slowly approaches.
In addition, we see further that this passage from Micah is universally regarded as one of the most powerful in all of Scripture, and it comes from the ancient Hebrew writings, or what are sometimes referred to as the Books of the Old Testament; sacred and prophetic Jewish texts. We need to be careful as Christians when we speak-out and lay claim to the Gospel, insisting that the Good News of Jesus Christ contains all things necessary to salvation. That’s true, given our unique principles and values. It is important, however, that we do not assume our theology is the only source of truth in the world, or the only way we can come to a valid interpretation of what God asks, indeed requires, of us. In Micah we have a perfect example of this admonition to render ethical and compassionate service to others regardless of different religious orientations, and we should be cautious about claiming that the proclamation of Good News is our own special prerogative. It’s not.
But if not, what then does the Lord require of us? According to the prophet Micah what is expected are basically three things; justice, kindness and humility. None of these are uniquely Christian virtues or possessions, and none of these are far removed from the sphere of any human being who occupies space on “this planet earth our island home,” to use a contemporary phrase from our Prayerbook’s Eucharist. By contrast, yet grounded at the same time in the ancient heritage and writings of the Jewish faith, we share a profound understanding of what it is that God wants from all of us.
So let us take a closer look then, at the three components, or expectations, of the Lord: the theological matters of justice, kindness, and humility.
First justice. This is not a new concept for Christians. In our baptismal covenant we are asked directly – “will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Justice is at the core of our faith, and it constitutes a significant piece of our doctrine. To secure justice takes effort. That is why the question uses the verb “strive.” If you want to follow through on the work you are commissioned to do to advance Christ’s ministry, you will by necessity have to strive, and conceivably even sacrifice, in order to bring about a positive outcome.
Justice is not an easy term to define. Usually we place it in the legal realm and expect the litigation that occurs in various courtrooms across the land to produce results that appear as just-findings or fair-outcomes for the various disputants, litigants, plaintiffs or defendants. Yet that is a limited, even a legalistic, interpretation.
In the wider ethical sphere, justice is a principle that speaks to the nature of God, and it reveals the promises that God makes to His people. Justice is a human right, and we have a sense of its ingredients in our earliest years growing up, even though we are hard pressed to state categorically when justice first became clear to us as something very important which should be acknowledged. For me quite honestly, it happened in kindergarten when justice (in the person of Miss Fisher our teacher) required that we line-up, take turns, and not step out of line. It was a life-long lesson.
For the purposes of the biblical writer, however, formulating his view thousands of years ago, justice is not about kindergarten teachers shaping children’s values; it is something instead that God demands of us if we are to live righteous and fulfilling lives. The same was true then as now. It is non-negotiable and not debatable. So, Bottom-Line - What does the Lord require of you? Simply this: #1 - do justice!
Secondly, the Lord requires that you love kindness. Here the emphasis shifts somewhat from the juridical to the realm of the interpersonal. To be compassionate in our relations with our neighbors means that we need to show kindness. This does not mean that we are to become soft-hearted; but it does mean that we are to find ways to express those dimensions of our regard for one another such that we develop bonds of affection.
Note the linkage here of two very positive concepts – love and kindness. God requires in addition to doing justice that we love kindness as well. The predicate verb is to love, and the objective noun is kindness. Love kindness. Together we have a grammatical action formula that puts our faith and love of God into play with other people. By loving kindness we commit to loving our neighbor as our self. That is central to our belief as Christians.
In sermons I’ve given on prior occasions linking themes together like love and kindness, or justice and mercy, I have indicated that we should also make a clear distinction between the interactive and the reflective. Jesus unmistakably calls us not merely to right belief, but to right relationships. One is based on thought, the other is based on action. Christians need to keep their faith in balance. Authentic faith contains “thought, word and deeds” (all three) if it is to be genuine. But the defining criteria, the litmus test as it were, is the action of loving kindness that gets expressed within the boundaries of interpersonal relationships.
And lastly, it is required that we walk humbly with thy God. This refers to a matter of spiritual posture. Humility is one of the hardest things to incorporate as we go through life in a world that stresses rugged individuality, unique talents, dynamic personalities, and an affinity toward success, accomplishment and achievement. Those aren’t bad things in and of themselves, yet they are clearly not the kind of things that make us humble.
Surprisingly, it is only when we fail at ordinary tasks, or make dumb mistakes in life that we sometimes learn our most important lessons. Out of the humility of our failed experiences, comes recognition of our weaknesses, and that insight ironically can be our greatest strength. Walking humbly with thy God means that we acknowledge our limits, and that we know our final destiny is not dependent upon our own striving, but grounded instead upon God’s grace. In the final analysis, it is not about our individual talents, our highly developed skills, or our inspired desires to make a name for ourselves in the world; it is about our love of God, our willingness to praise God, and our ability to discern God’s care and love for us as God reveals His “amazing grace.” The path to salvation is marked by a road where we are asked to walk humbly with thy God.
So as we wind-up and approach the end of the Epiphany season this coming week, remember that Jesus said in today’s Gospel:
Do not judge, and you will not be judged.
Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned,
Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
And let’s recall as well those ancient and prophetic words of Micah in response to the age-old question:
What does the Lord require of you/ but to do justice,
to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:1-8)
We ask all this… In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
CREDITS: References, notes, and citations available on request.