Sermon on Micah
May 25, 2008
Rhythm of Faith
Not too long ago, I gave Tim a really good Christmas present. The kind of Christmas present every man wants: I signed us up for ballroom dancing lessons. He was a terrific sport about it, but he did say that it sort of reminded him of the time as a budding young percussionist, he really, really wanted a Gene Krupa vs. Buddy Rich album called “Great Drum Battles” So he gave it to his mother for Mother’s Day.
The dancing lessons were very wonderful. We learned alot, though how to dance was not one of those things. But I still remember, from the first lesson, when hope was still alive and kicking in my heart, one of the things the instructor told us: You have two feet. Moving is possible only if you put your weight on one foot and then the other. Each step: One foot down, the other foot moves. Then you shift your weight and the first foot moves. Right. Left. Right. Left. That’s the basis for all dance.
What I want you to think with me about today is the idea that maybe our spiritual life, our relationship with God, our Dance with the Lord of the Dance, if you will go that far with me, is a matter of shifting the weight of our attention.
In looking at Micah, I think that he was a good dancer. Because, throughout his short little book, Micah moves between pronouncements of doom and promises of deliverance. These are kind of like footsteps. They aren’t of equal length. This isn’t a march. But the alternating emphasis moves the reader forward, toward understanding something both interesting and precious about ourselves and our divine partner, God.
There are two basic steps to the dance Micah teaches:
The first step is the step of judgment - of emphasizing the “bad news” about human beings and the rotten way we act. Now, this is the part that no one wants to hear, about how our lives are a mess because we’ve disrespected God and treated other people like dirt. No one wants to hear that. And preachers, most preachers, don’t want to preach that. So we say it very carefully, or not at all, or . . . and this is the easiest way to handle this step – we talk about how OTHER people have done the bad things and we talk about OTHER bad things than what we think you have done. In thinking about it this week, I’ve decided that’s not preaching. That’s gossiping. And it’s fun, but it’s not something you ought to hear from the pulpit. So let me say this. Micah didn’t mince words. And he wasn’t talking about somebody else. And, as much as I want to please you, I think that we who are sitting in this congregation this morning need to hear this bad news, too.
Micah’s prophecy was spoken in a very particular situation - a particular historical context - during the time after the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen completely under Assyrian control and before the Southern Kingdom - Judah, fell. At the time the first part of Micah’s book is written, the huge and seemingly unstoppable Assyrian war machine is marching inexorably toward Jerusalem. By the time the end of this book was written, a new power, Babylonia, actually stepped in to finish the job. All of which is to say that Micah spoke to a people in the midst of great danger.
And this national crisis alerted Micah to the fact that the people had strayed far from the path God intended for them: There were sins against God: spiritual unfaithfulness and idolatry. There were sins against each other: covetousness, injustice, exploitation of the poor. And what Micah is so good at pointing out is that these things are linked. This isn’t a case of some very religiously scrupulous folks acting badly toward their neighbors. Nor was it that some very nice people with business and personal ethics had just let their attendance at their place of worship slide. No. Micah makes sure his listeners and readers know that our relationship with God and our relationship with other human beings is linked. The life of faith is a life of integrity. There’s not little compartment for religion or spirituality and a little compartment for good manners. It’s all of one piece.
That’s still true. The life of faith is now, no less than it was 2500 years ago, of one piece. God, through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit has called us to a life of faith and love with the Divine and AND that life includes relationships of respect and love for other human beings.
You can’t be a Bible believing Christian when it comes to the power of prayer and an agnostic when it comes to money. You can’t be a spiritual giant when praying for your friends, but an atheist when it comes to dealing with strangers. You can’t take part of the Bible literally, when it suits you, but interpret other parts with an eye to context and overall meaning, when THAT suits you. You can’t do it.
Or . . . truth of the matter is, you can. We all do. We pick and choose in what areas of our life we’re going to take the Bible and Jesus seriously, and where we’re gonna just sort of . . . pass.
And our spiritual lives suffer for it.
And our communities and our nations suffer, too. Micah pointed out to his nation that their mistreatment of the poor and the powerless had ended up weakening the whole system. Seeking after prosperity rather than the will of God had brought them to the brink of disaster. Micah put a lot of weight on the pronouncement of doom and judgment. Imagine what he would say to us today. About the greed that has led to the mortgage crisis. About the coming of $140/barrel oil to our car crazy country. About our demonstrated preference for cheap clothes and cheap food over the welfare of the workers who process it or the earth that produces it. About the richest nation in the world tolerating a health care system that makes doesn’t take care of millions of poor people, and that bankrupts those who have no insurance. About eating off plates and drinking out of cups ONCE that then become trash FOREVER. About idly sitting by while our government spends billions of dollars on a war and worrying about whether we’ll kick poor old people out of the county home.
Because we don’t live lives of faith full of integrity that make us grow strong and make our communities and our nation and our world strong and safe, there is always the need for that one foot - the foot of judgment and doom - to bear the weight sometimes. Because we need to admit and amend and atone for our spiritual sins and our failure of compassion.
When the doom foot is bearing the weight, it is because God is challenging our most treasured assumptions and pointing out that we, ourselves, are stumbling.
So that’s what Micah’s doing: He’s pointing out that the people are not walking with integrity in the way of the Lord, and he’s offering them a chance to wise up and wake up and get themselves back on the right track.
And then he gets off that foot and follows it up with promises of deliverance, hope and redemption. Every step of doom that Micah stomps down on his hearers’ toes, is followed by a shift to the promise of God’s steadfast and redeeming love. See - after the first two chapters are almost all “Woe to you. You’ve disrespected God. You’ve exploited the poor. “From a harlot’s handbag you have come and to a harlot’s handbag you shall go.” And you know where you go in a handbag, don’t you?
Then - the last two verses of chapter 2 turn it all around. “ “
It’s a quick step. Because chapter 3 is all doom again. But chapters 4 and 5 contain some of the most comforting words and images of God’s peace that can be found in the Bible:
Nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees
and no one shall make them afraid.
The promise of God’s grace and peace is extended, not to a perfect people at a perfect time. It is extended to the people who have just had a wake-up call.
Chapter Six goes back to judgment and accusation - indeed, God takes his people to court, files a grievance against them for forgetting him after all he has done.
And the verdict is - guilty! Guilty of excessive wealth, violence, lying, cheating - the works. (Micah 6:14-15)The sentence: You shall eat and not be satisfied. You shall put away, but not save. You shall work, but not enjoy the fruits of your labor. If that doesn’t describe a whole lot of living, I don’t know what does. (Repeat if necessary)
Then - again, the other shoe drops - and God again assures us that at the very heart of his character and personality is not anger and vengence, but compassion and steadfast love. v. 18 - who is a God like ours, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the those who remain true? God does not retain his anger forever because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; and will (get this dancing language!) tread our iniquites under foot. God will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.
Back and forth, doom and deliverance, sin and salvation, first one and then the other. Don’t we ever just get to rest in the grace? Well. Not in this life. I don’t think so. We don’t ever become the people God created us to be. The older I get, the less I believe in progress. But the more I believe in God’s grace filled dance.
What this means for us is that the judgment that we so hate to hear is not the final word - but a necessary prelude to a new understanding and appreciation for God’s grace.
For Christians, that new understanding of God’s grace and forgiveness became complete in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What Micah has a vision of in a poetic way - the word of God emanating from Jerusalem, a Shepherd who gathers his people like lost sheep, and leads them to salvation, a King who rules with equity. . . Micah’s prophecy grows out of his knowledge of God’s loving heart. And 300-500 years after Micah’s book was complete, the time came for that loving heart to beat in a human chest. God to become incarnate in Jesus Christ, who embodied both God’s judgment and the fullness of God’s love for us, his people.
One step and then another. The pronouncement of doom and the promise of deliverance. It was a dance that carried him from the cradle to the cross, and beyond death, back to life again.
And at every step along the way, he beckons us to join him in this divine dance.
One more dancing story: Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I had a boyfriend who did dance. He asked me to go dancing and I said yes, and when we got to the place, the couples out there on the floor were doing real steps, and doing the over and under, throw the girl our and reel her back in thing. They were dancing. And I said, “You know, I don’t know how to dance like this.” And he said, “That’s OK.” And we went out on the floor, and . . . I did NOT know how to dance like that. And after about 30 seconds, my partner stopped and held me at arm’s length and said, very loudly, so as to be heard above the music, “Let’s get something straight: When two people dance, only one can lead. And that person is going to be me.” And, lo and behold, once we got that straight, I found that I could dance.
And that’s something to keep in mind when you put yourselves into God’s arms and join the dance. If you let God lead, wonderful things can happen.
I love the Shaker hymn, which isn’t in the hymnbook - but you know the one I mean: Dance then, where ever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance, said he, and I’ll lead you now, where ever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.