And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Luke 4: 16-21
What does the Lord require of us
but to do justice,
and walk humbly with our God?
This is the first in a series of Sunday messages focused on this simple and profound word, spoken through the prophet Micah 800 years before Jesus’ birth. Micah lived during a time of great societal inequity and political corruption. The religious leaders of that time, who also held great power, were preoccupied with what we might call personal sins and the elaborate sacrificial rites established to cleanse people of those sins, with seemingly little concern for the people themselves, the vast majority of whom lived in abject poverty. Nor did those religious leaders seem to have any sense that God would have something to say in response to the injustice throughout the land, preoccupied as they were with other things.
In the biblical narrative, prophets are those people who speak for God when those with ordained or institutional religious authority no longer do. The prophet Micah, like his contemporary, Isaiah, spoke with a clear message that God did care, that God cared a lot more about the just ordering of the society than of individual purification rituals. God cared about the impoverished, the oppressed, and the brokenhearted.
Jesus, as we just heard, was not only inspired by the prophets that went before him–he saw himself in their words, as the one to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the oppressed, sight to the blind, as one who did justice, loved kindness, walked humbly and intimately with His God.
He invites those called to follow him to do the same.
“Being a Christian,” writes our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, “is not essentially about joining a church or being a nice person, but about following in the footsteps of Jesus, taking his teachings seriously, letting his Spirit take the lead in our lives, and in so doing helping to change the world from our nightmare into God’s dream.”1
I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration to say that our decision to follow Jesus, and like him, to take our inspiration from prophets like Micah and Isaiah, is a matter of considerable urgency. Our communities, our country, and indeed, the world needs us to be brave in our witness to love as Jesus loves us all.
To underscore how much we are needed now, I’d like to read a few passages from a novel by Fredrik Backman entitled Us Against You. It’s the second in a series of books Backman has written about a small town–not in the United States but in northern Sweden–named Beartown.
All is not well in Beartown as Us Against You opens, and things are about to get worse. This is how the story begins:
Have you ever seen a town fall? Ours did. We’ll end up saying that violence came to our town this summer, but that will be a lie; the violence was already here. Because sometimes hating one another is so easy….2
As is usually the case when something goes terribly wrong, the fall doesn’t happen all at once and there are many contributing factors. As events start to spiral out of control, lines harden across the divides that separate people from one another. But the lines were already there:
At the beginning of chapter three, Backman writes:
The worst thing we know about other people is that we’re dependent upon them. That their actions affect our lives. Not just the people we choose, the people like us, but all the rest of them: the idiots. You who stand in front of us in every line, who can’t drive properly, who like bad television shows and talk too loud in restaurants and whose kids infect our kids with the winter vomiting bug at preschool. You who park badly and steal our jobs and vote for the wrong party. You influence our lives every second. Dear God, how we hate you for that.3
A young boy whose family is at the center of the escalating tragedy comes to a sobering realization. About him the author writes:
He’s twelve years old, and this summer he learns that people will always choose a simple lie over a complicated truth, because the lie has one unbeatable advantage: the truth always has to stick to what actually happened, whereas the lie just has to be easy to believe.4
Does this sound familiar to you?
These are the seeds of societal polarization. They lay underneath every human community, and–let’s be honest–within each of us. For years, generations even, they may lie fallow. But when we begin to water them with our fears and resentment, those seeds grow and threaten to choke everything around them.
There is a particularly insidious dimension to this kind of societal fall, which shows up in Beartown as it does everywhere else, and that is how certain leaders cultivate and exploit the seeds of polarization for their own gain.
The former U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, describes how this happens in the last book she wrote before her death, entitled Fascism: A Warning:
Unlike a monarchy or a military dictatorship imposed on society from above, Facism draws energy from men and women who are upset because of a lost war, a lost job, a memory of humiliation, or a sense that their country is in deep decline. The more painful the grounds for resentment, the easier it is for a Fascist leader to gain followers by dangling the prospect of renewal or by vowing to take back what is stolen.5
Most of what these leaders promise are simply lies. “But the first rule of deception,” Albright reminds us, “is that if something is repeated often enough, almost any statement, story or smear can start to sound plausible.”6
Does this sound familiar to you?
Like the fictitious Beartown, there are reasons to be concerned about the social climate in our country, and indeed, around the world. We are highly polarized. We tend to live and interact with people who think only like us, and as a result, we tend to view those who differ from us in the worst possible light. There is rising societal anger expressed in all sorts of ways. There is a widespread lack of trust in institutions, and leaders who are adept at exploiting our differences for political gain. Given deliberate misinformation campaigns, we can’t agree on what is fact or falsehood.
I can’t say for certain that the United States, like the town of Beartown, is at risk of falling. But we have turned against one another in ways that do not bode well. That’s why I was grateful to accept the invitation on behalf of the Diocese of Washington to join an effort led and organized by the largest United Methodist Church in the country–the BE just, kind and humble campaign. The idea is for Christians to do whatever we can to narrow the gap between us by taking the prophet Micah’s words to heart. Imagine what would happen if all Christians, no matter our differences, decided to commit ourselves to be just, kind and humble in both our private and public lives.
For as Albright writes:
The wise response to intolerance is not more intolerance or self-righteousness. It is a coming together across the ideological spectrum of people who want to make their countries better. We should remember that the heroes we cherish–Lincoln, King, Gandhi, Mandela–spoke to the best within us. The crops we’ll harvest depend on the seeds we sow.7 (italics mine)
The Micah 6:8 pledge is on the back of the small card that was included in your bulletin. Please turn and read it with me:
I pledge to strive to follow Micah 6:8 in all aspects of my life:
- To act justly and pursue justice by standing with and speaking out for those who are vulnerable, mistreated, in need or exploited
- To practice kindness and mercy in every interaction, even with those with whom I disagree;
- To act with humility, surrendering my will to God’s will, acknowledging that I may not always be right and should listen more and speak less.
And I will seek to inspire others to do the same.
In the time we have left, I’d like to focus our attention on the first of the three commitments of the Micah 6:8 pledge.
To act justly and to pursue justice by standing with and speaking out for those being unfairly treated in our society.
For there is a temptation, and an understandable one given how intense emotions can be, to remain silent, so as not to offend, or to imagine that what we can do is insignificant, given the magnitude of what we’re up against, and therefore we don’t do anything.
Yet I am convinced that if we ask and pay attention, Jesus will tell us where our voice is needed. Jesus will show us where we are needed. He will. And usually he calls us to those places where our hearts are broken by what we see. That we show up where he calls us to go is non-negotiable. What Micah’s words ask us to consider is how we do. With what energy do we enter that space, particularly if it is a challenging, conflicted or even polarized one–be it in our families, communities, or in the larger public arena where decisions that affect many are made?
Here, again, we can take inspiration from the example of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. Bishop Curry is never hesitant to show up where people are suffering, to speak the truth as he sees it, and yet he is among the most universally beloved religious leaders in our society, even among those who vehemently disagree with what he stands for. Why? Because he treats those who don’t share his view with kindness and humility, and never stops searching for common ground across differences.
Bishop Curry calls his approach to engaging the work of justice as standing and kneeling at the same time. He stands in his convictions, speaking as clearly as he can what he believes and why. And he kneels before those who disagree with him, particularly when they respond in anger, honoring them as beloved children of God and respecting their point of view as best he can. “And that if we all do that and engage each other,” he says, “kneeling in real humility before each other and before God, and yet being honest and up front and clear about what we stand for or what we believe and hold, the fact that we have knelt before each other creates the space where we can stand together with our differences.”8
Back to the novel Us Against You. While it doesn’t turn out well for everyone at the end, and one innocent young man dies, the town does recover and comes back to itself. And it does so for three reasons:
- A few very brave people dare to stand up for what is right and just and true, without running away, or cutting themselves off from those who are fighting against that truth.
- Those same people reach out across the divide to forgive those who hurt them.
- The one who died as a result of the polarization and violence was universally mourned, and in grief, the town found its way back to love.
I invite you to join me and others in this quiet yet powerful call to be just, kind and humble. To show up where Jesus asks you to, standing firm in what you believe to be right and true and just, and yet stay in loving relationship with those who differ, refusing to meet intolerance with more intolerance, but with love. And, yes, to allow grief to soften your heart.
Speaking of grief, think of the people in Florida right now. No one is asking another person who they voted for or the political party they belong to before offering a helping hand in the communal crisis of Hurricane Ian. All across the country people are mobilizing to help. Red and Blue are irrelevant. President Biden and Governor DeSantis are speaking to one another across the political divide that separates them. Grief has the power to unite us when nothing else will.
Being a Christian is not essentially about joining a church or being a nice person, but about following in the footsteps of Jesus, taking his teachings seriously, letting his Spirit take the lead in our lives, and in so doing helping to change the world from our nightmare into God’s dream.
May Jesus help us all to be just, kind and humble.
2Fredrik Backman, Us Against You (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018 –English Translation) 1.
5Madeleine Albirght, Facism: A Warning (HarperCollins, Kindle ed.), 9.