January 29, 2017
William G. Carter
“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?
The preacher had lost his stride. It was stunning, because we had just heard a long sermon in a little ramshackle church in Syracuse. We were a group of college students on a weekend retreat. Most of us had lived sheltered, white skinned lives, so our chaplain said he wanted to expand our perspective on Christianity.
Well, this did it. He took us to a Pentecostal Temple in a tough neighborhood. There were people clapping their hands, stomping their feet, and speaking in tongues. Clearly they weren’t Presbyterians. The sermon was seventy-five minutes long. It rambled four or five times, but the preacher wanted to make sure that our group of fifteen was properly instructed in the particular nuances of a denomination that none of us had ever heard of. It was the first time I ever saw or heard a band with a drum set in a worship service, and that stuck with me.
But what I will never forget how the preacher lost his stride. He had taken the offering plates and handed them to the ushers. While the band struck up a song and Sister Louella banged a tambourine, the ushers came around and held out the plates for us to put something in. I put in a couple of dollars and my usher stood there and looked at me. He didn’t move. So I pulled out another dollar or two and put it in. He looked at the money, looked up at me, shook his head, and moved on. It was disconcerting.
As the band and Sister Louella whipped the small crowd into a frenzy, the ushers danced to the front with their offering plates. The preacher called the music to a halt and said, “Praise God!” Then he took the offering plates, looked down and said, “There’s not enough here!” With that, the band started up again, same song but louder. Sister Louella is banging that tambourine. That same usher appeared again, standing a little closer, pressing that offering plate right into my chest, waiting for me to pull out that walled and give him some serious money.
I knew that all I had was a twenty dollar bill. I was a college student. There was no credit card and I needed to get gas for the car to go home. But he stood there, holding out the plate until I coughed it up. So I did, even though I would have to borrow ten bucks from the chaplain for the gas to drive him home.
And when the ushers circled back and danced back up the aisle, this time led by Sister Louella with her tambourine, the preacher took back the plates. This time, before he exclaimed “Praise God,” he actually looked down to see what they had gathered. Then he lifted his eyes toward heaven and prayed, “Holy God, we hope this is enough for you. We pray that nobody is holding back from the Lord. And we know . . . and we know . . . and we know . . .” He paused awkwardly. He seemed to have lost his groove. It was still for a moment.
Then he blurted it out, “We know that you want so much more from us than our money.”
Did you hear what he said? “We know that you want so much more from us than our money.”
In my first church, you never would have heard those words come from the finance committee. Money was about all they wanted. They grumbled about the stinginess of the congregation, how tight the budget was, how they weren’t sure they could afford a preacher. In a church with Tiffany windows, it was a remarkable thing to say.
One of the old timers on that committee was Richard. He once said to me, “The only good stewardship sermon is one that makes the people feel guilty.” Then he glared at me. I was too young and eager to please to admit how he reminded me of the usher up in that Pentecostal Temple in Syracuse, pressing a tarnished brass offering plate into my chest a second time.
What was the underlying message? “There’s not enough money, there’s not enough money.” That is the mantra of many churches. It is the recurring word of a great number of non-profit organizations. It is also the refrain in a lot of homes. “There’s not enough money, there’s never enough money.” As if money is the only thing that matters.
So Micah, the small town prophet, hears a word from the Lord. He’s from the village of Moresheth, about twenty miles outside of Jerusalem. And he sees quite clearly what money is doing to people. Because it’s not enough to say you want more money; if you have more money, it can begin to mess with you.
Micah sees how those who have fields want more fields, so they seize them from the people who live there. They do whatever wickedness they can, he says, “because it is within their power” (2:1-5). They oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance. They dream up the schemes while they lie in bed at night.
Meanwhile, the rulers of the country are confused by lies or tainted by bribes. They are so intoxicated by power that they can’t tell the difference between right and wrong (3:1-8). All the while they are supported by the well-paid clergy, the ones who avoid the hard words of truthfulness, the preachers and priests who live in luxury and look the other way when the plunderers do their dirty work.
So I think of the haltering prayer of the Pentecostal preacher: “We know that you want so much more from us than our money.” How true that is!
In today’s text, the prophet sees a courtroom scene. God is both the judge and district attorney. The mountains and hills comprise the jury. And God says, “What’s up with you people? Can’t you remember anything?”
- I brought you up from the land of Egypt.
- I purchased your freedom from the house of slavery.
- I gave you Moses the law giver, Aaron the priest, and Miriam with her tambourine.
- I delivered you from Moab, I brought you to the Promised Land.
So what does God expect of us? What does God require from us?
How about a big offering? Well, that’s one answer. You could bring the young calves required in Leviticus, offered to prove that you love the Lord and want your sins taken away. You could step it up and present “thousands of rams,” just like King David, an extravagant offering to show how rich you are, how much you have to give. You could give “rivers of oil,” when the average person wouldn’t have nor need much more than a quart. You could even to extremes like Father Abraham and say, “Here is my first-born son offered to you.”
Wouldn’t God be pleased with a big offering? The question is met with silence. Because God wants so much more than our money. God wants lives that do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord.
Justice is something we do, not something we talk about. In the Bible, justice is acting like a neighbor, a good neighbor, a fair neighbor. It’s working for the benefit of the people around us, especially for the benefit of those who get left out and left behind. Justice is working for them.
Kindness is something for us to love. It’s the word “hesed,” which means “loving-kindness.” It’s a word of affection and loyalty, a dedication to build human relationships, and not to trample on them.
And walking humbly with our God: that’s the alternative to walking arrogantly by ourselves. The only way to walk with God is “humbly,” for God is greater than we presume ourselves to be. Walking humbly is to have a right perception of ourselves: able to walk, and therefore equipped, but doing so humbly, so that we are not intoxicated by a sense of ourselves.
This is what God requires of us.
When President Jimmy Carter took the oath of office at the beginning of his term, he put his hand on a Bible that his mother had given him opened to these words. And in his elegant and hopeful inaugural address, he declared, “I join in the hope that when my time as your president is ended, people might say this about our nation: that we had remembered the words of Micah and renewed our search for humility, mercy, and justice.”
President Carter understood these words as a benchmark for our lives. They capture the essence of what makes a good Jew, and therefore what makes a good Christian. They capture the essence of what it means to be a good human being. To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God. That’s what God requires. It’s so much more than money.
Given our current national situation, I will invite you to make your own connections and draw your own conclusions. But I will remind you of a story. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama after a civil rights demonstration. Eight protestant ministers, all white, wrote an article telling Dr. King that he had to tone it down, take it more slowly, and not push so hard for equal rights.
Like the apostle Paul, Dr. King wrote them a letter which he also sent to the newspapers who might print it. He pointed out that Jesus had been executed as an extremist. In a great line King said, “Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and therefore rose above his environment.” Then he said:
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.
So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight between other community agencies rather than a headlight leading (people) to higher levels of justice.
That is always our choice, isn’t it? Whether we will be the headlight or the taillight, especially when we know what God requires of us: to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.