Monday, February 3, 2014

The Case from God

Micah 6:1-8, Epiphany 4 A, February 2, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Atticus Finch vs. Racism
The book and subsequent movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, have become classics. This coming-of-age story has influenced generations of children as they also come of age. At some point, all children learn of terrible evils and how they can live in this world despite them.

The courtroom scene in that book and movie is a classic. The narrator Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, is the lawyer for a black man named Tom Robinson who is charged with raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Because of the rampant racism during the thirties, Atticus knows that he will loose the case. However, he chooses to represent Tom Robinson because he wants to teach his daughter Scout about justice.

So, during the trial Atticus skillfully shows the court that Mayella’s severe bruises were caused by a left-handed man, but Tom Robinson’s left hand is lame. Through examinations, Atticus brings out the truth that Mayella wanted Tom Robinson, but he refused her advances. So, Mayella used her white privilege to charge Tom Robinson with rape. Indeed, Atticus shrewdly discovers that it was Mayella’s father who beat her.

Yet, despite Atticus’ hard work and excellent execution, the court finds Tom Robinson guilty. There was nothing that Atticus could have done to change his client’s charges. This was a hard lesson for Scout to learn: in that age the evil of racism could not be overpowered by sound judgment and kind souls.

God vs. Israel
Evil like racism has been around for centuries. Sometimes sound judgment and kind souls can make a difference. In fact, that is exactly what God asks of the people of Israel in our first lesson. In Micah chapter 6, we hear of a very different courtroom scene. This figurative one does not take place within a building; instead, it is set outside where the whole world can hear. There is a judge ready to hear the case that God, the plaintiff, sets before him. The people of Israel are the defendants. The mountains and hills form the gallery. Instead of revealing the entire trial, the author only gives one statement for each party.

As the scene begins, the judge addresses the Lord for all to hear, saying, “Lord, now is your time to speak your peace. Tell all of us what you have to say. Your message will resound around the earth, through the mountains and in the valleys.”

Then the judge turns to the defendants’ table and addresses them, saying, “Listen, people of this earth, to what your Lord has to say. Even as the Lord’s voice will ring throughout creation, so also will it ring in your ears. The Lord has an argument to pick with you, the Lord’s people of Israel.”

Finished with his opening speech, the judge turns back to the plaintiff’s table. He gives the Lord the floor to speak to the assembly.

Instead of addressing the judge or the jury, the Lord then turns to His people sitting behind the defendants’ table. Addressing them, He says, “O my people, what have I done to you? How could I possibly have exhausted you? I do not understand. Over and over again, I have saved you from terrible misfortune. I delivered you from slavery in Egypt, freeing you from hard labor and cruel punishment. I gave you leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to guide you to the land that I promised to you.

“O my people, do you not remember how King Balak of Moab had schemed to have Balaam curse all of you before you even entered this land? I stopped Balaam from cursing you. I opened the mouth of his donkey so he could understand his folly. Balaam blessed you because I intervened. Then I gave you the land that I promised.

“By now you should know the saving acts of the Lord.”

With that, the Lord finished his statement and returned to his seat. The judge gestured that it was the people’s turn to respond. The defendants’ representative rose and responded,

“What do you want from us? How can we approach you, bowing down before your presence? Do you want a burnt offering? Maybe our finest fatted calves? Or would you like thousands of rams, or all of the oil we can muster? What about my firstborn son, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? What is enough for you? Can we ever make amends?”

The judge does not need time to decide his verdict. He declares, “The Lord has already told you – did you not listen? You know what is good in the Lord’s eyes. All that the Lord requests for your sentence is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Seek out ways to stand up for one another; always share kindness with friends, foes, and strangers; and enjoy a simply fulfilling relationship with your God. That is enough.”

There, the scene ends. The Lord showed that He felt justified in his actions. After saving the people of Israel time and time again, the Lord could not understand why the people complained so much. The people responded by suggesting outrageous sacrifices, including their firstborn. Clearly, the people did not understand the purpose of the rituals in their tradition. Then, the judge described for all what the Lord really wanted, not empty rituals but a sound relationship.

What does the Lord require of you?
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God. I wonder if the people of Israel thought that they were off the hook with this one. Or did they realize what a huge expectation this is? Each of these expectations individually requires a lot of effort. All three together is an enormous undertaking.

First, to do justice, in Hebrew mishpat, means to follow God’s law. Inherent in God’s justice is caring for those who are least among us, the ones who once were widows, orphans, and foreign visitors. Now, that category also includes those living in poverty and the young and old who cannot care for themselves.

Next, to love kindness means to appreciate God’s love, in Hebrew chesed. After receiving God’s loving kindness, we are to share this exact loving kindness to everyone. This can also be described as compassion, empathy, and benevolence. We can share God’s love with others.

Finally, we are to “walk humbly with our God.” This one is harder to define. Although humility is certainly an important part of our relationship with God, this phrase may also mean to be peaceful, modest, or meaningful. The Lord expects us to fully participate in the life of the church so that what we offer is never meaningless.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout and Atticus Finch show us how evil racism can be. In Micah, the prophet shows us that God has already overcome the worst evil in our world. The least we can do in response is to care for the least among us as an expression of God’s love in response to all that God has already done. Amen.

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