This sermon was preached at Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Sunday, January 22, 2017. The text was Micah 6:1-8.

The setting is a courtroom. The defendant is Israel. The witnesses are the mountains and the foundations of the earth. The plaintiff, prosecuting attorney, judge, and jury is God Almighty. There is no way in a million years I would trade places with Israel in this situation.

This is how Micah chapter 6 begins. We gather that the Israelites have been complaining against God; but when the time comes for the trial, Israel and not God is on the defense. The tables are turned. The evidence is in.

The people have accused God of not caring for them, but God presents Exhibit A—the exodus, when God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Exhibit B—the story of Balak and Balaam in Numbers 22, when God prevents a Moabite king from attacking the Israelites. Exhibit C—a reminder of God’s providence at Shittim and Gilgal, where the Israelites camped after major milestones in their wilderness journey. Yes, I did have to look up Exhibits B and C. All of these are markers of the history of God’s providence for God’s people.

The case was closed before the opening arguments. There was no “innocent until proven guilty.” Israel was guilty from the outset. She would plead the fifth. There would be no appeal.

Yet if we take a closer look, this case isn’t as open-and-shut as it might seem. Turns out God would not be a great prosecuting attorney, or an impartial judge or jury, for that matter. God is too invested in the outcome of the case. God cares too deeply for the defendant.

I’ve been called for jury duty once. I was excited to be participating in our justice system and doing my civic duty in such a direct way. I was assigned to a criminal case, which sounded exciting. But when we walked into the courtroom for jury selection, my stomach dropped. I knew the defendant. Needless to say, I was dismissed from the jury.

God would be dismissed from any jury ever, because God knows and loves and is biased toward every one of us. Even in this courtroom setting, God sounds more like a disappointed father than an impartial judge. Which can be worse—“I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.” God cries, My people. My people. God desperately wants us to understand and uphold the law, for our own good.

Micah tells us what the Lord requires. It might be tempting to treat Micah 6:8 like a checklist, but if we’re looking for minimum requirements, we won’t find them here. Something much deeper is at work. When we talk about what the Lord requires, we are using that verb in a different way. It’s more like how we require food, water, and shelter to survive. What we require is what we need to live.

Survival might sound like a low bar, but for me, that means these things Micah is urging us to do and be about are integral to our humanity. Justice, faithful love, and humility are as vital as our hearts or lungs. The Lord requires these things not just from us, but for us, for our sake.

The question Micah asks—“What does the Lord require?”—it isn’t a test; but if it were, it would be an open-book test. God has told us what is good. Not what is great, not what is fair, not what is safe, not what is successful or profitable or efficient. What is good.

God has told us what we need to live, what God longs for us to have and do and be. Not only that, God has shown us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My dad wrote a book about Micah 6:8, and he says that God cares about this so deeply, wants so badly for us to live the life God intended that on the cross, “God is literally dying to show us what is good.”

Not just what is good on the surface but what is good deep down. Not just what is good in a moment of worship but what is good in our everyday lives.

My favorite Christmas story is an old children’s book called Why the Chimes Rang. It tells the story of Pedro and Little Brother, two boys who travel a long way to be at the Christmas Eve service at the great church nearby. Legend has it that the bells, high up in the church’s tower, make the sweetest sounds you’ve ever heard.

But the bells haven’t played in many, many years. Local lore says they ring whenever an offering worthy of the Christ child is placed on the altar. But the people have gotten lazy with their gift-giving. Having been so long since the bells were heard, people have made it almost a competition to see whose gift will earn the sound of the Christmas bells.

On the way to the service, Pedro and Little Brother come across a woman who had fallen in the snow. Seeing that she was sick and would not survive long on her own, Pedro tells Little Brother to go on without him—but he sends with him a coin, all the money he has, money he had been saving for a long time, as an offering to the Christ child. As Pedro rubs the sick woman to keep her warm while blinking back tears, Little Brother goes on to the church.

The service is splendid. The music is incredible. The organ and the choir soar. The gifts are beyond imagining. Wealthy people bring forward baskets of gold. A writer places a book he had been working on for years on the altar. Then the king himself steps forward, takes off his crown, and places it on the altar. The crowd hushes, thinking surely this would make the bells ring—but all they hear is the wind whistling through the tower.

The final hymn beings, but the organist suddenly stops. The congregation goes silent and strains to hear. There, floating from above, is the sound of the Christmas bells. It is more beautiful than any music anyone has ever heard. But they can’t find who had given the great gift that had set them swinging. They hadn’t noticed Little Brother slip up when no one was watching and place Pedro’s coin on the altar.

I love this story because it reminds us that it is not an elaborate or extravagant gift that brings God pleasure—it is the daily habit of sacrifice and compassion. It was this habit that led Pedro to miss the service he had so been looking forward to in order to stay with a woman in need. All the pomp and circumstance, the grand gestures and over-the-top offerings were meaningless compared to the quiet, simple action of two little boys who were poor in things but rich in heart.

So it is in Micah chapter 6. When asked what the Lord requires, we hear suggestions of similarly over-the-top offerings—thousands of rams, torrents of oil, the very fruit of my body. The implied question here is, “Is there anything I could bring to earn God’s favor?” I can just hear The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” playing in the background. In fact, it’s enough to make you suspicious. It’s like when coming home to flowers from your husband means he’s about to be in the doghouse. When the rest of our lives doesn’t please God, our offerings don’t please God, either. What is pleasing to God is that we do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly.

It’s a theme throughout the writing of the Old Testament prophets that right ritual does not matter without right practice. The act of worship itself does not matter to God without right relationship.

In the early chapters of Micah, the case God brings against Israel includes accusations that they are destroying the land and seizing fields and houses; they are taking advantage of women; they are promoting false prophets and corruption in religious practice and in the justice system.

Because of all of this, no offering could make things right between them and God. They daily break that most important relationship by failing to be in loving relationship with one another and with creation. The most beautiful worship service means nothing to God if justice, love, and humility do not reign the rest of the week.

One of the most famous instances of this in the Old Testament comes in Amos chapter 5. God says,

I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
[…]
Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Without justice and righteousness, our hymns and anthems and prayers are nothing but noise to God. They do not redeem us, because they ring hollow. But if we have justice and righteousness, whether we are three people with an out-of-tune guitar or a thousand people with a grand pipe organ, our worship will bring a smile to God’s face.

From time to time I will hear people express anxiety about social issues being brought up in church. It absolutely does get tricky in relation to politics, especially these days, but what I tell people is that I don’t know how to preach the Gospel without talking about social issues. Jesus cared deeply about the poor and the oppressed, about matters of state and matters of justice. The Old Testament prophets saw the very validity of worship as dependent upon the presence of justice in society and in everyday life.

Of course, there are different ways to look at justice. Sometimes we think of justice as fairness, retribution, getting even. The Israelites often saw it this way—the phrase “an eye for an eye” comes from the Bible, after all. But God operates on a different definition of justice. In Micah and elsewhere in Scripture, to do justice is to have compassion, to care for the vulnerable.

The mark of a just society is when the poor, the weak, the widow, and the orphan are provided for. In today’s world, when we ask whether a nation is just, we don’t start with determining how closely they adhere to a tit-for-tat system of fairness; we start by looking at whether the most vulnerable among them are protected.

And we remember that as we do justice by caring for the vulnerable among us, God does justice by meeting our vulnerability and sinfulness with love and grace. If God were to enforce justice as in getting even or being fair, none of us would be here. God’s justice responds not to our deserving, but to our need.

So God calls us to do justice. And God calls us to “embrace faithful love.” Maybe you’re familiar with this verse and have heard this part as “love mercy” or “love kindness.” The reason we get so many different translations is that the Hebrew here, annoyingly, doesn’t map directly on to any one English word. In cases like these, I think it can be helpful to use a few different versions to give us a fuller understanding of what the text says.

Some Old Testament scholars say the phrase means “covenant loyalty.” A covenant is an unconditional, mutual bond. It can’t be cancelled like a contract. It’s the kind of relationship God has offered to God’s people throughout salvation history.

The word that most readily comes to my mind when thinking about this part of Micah 6:8 is “mercy.” I like it because mercy is when would be justified in harming or punishing another person but decides to have compassion instead. Mercy, by definition, cannot be earned. As with God’s justice, mercy responds not to our deserving, but to our need.

But mercy also assumes an unequal power dynamic. The person offering mercy has all the power while the one receiving it has none. This works fine for our relationship with God, but when it comes to other human beings, mercy can be tricky. If we from a position of power offer mercy to someone who is powerless, we might actually reinforce an unequal status quo even as we offer compassion. So “mercy” works when we’re talking about our relationship with God, but perhaps kindness or faithful love is the translation we should use when we’re talking about relationships with one another.

God calls us to do justice, to embrace faithful love. And God calls us to walk humbly with him. There are two parts to this call: the walking, and the humility. Walking requires movement. This is not a passive event. Following Christ means actually going somewhere, getting up and getting moving. We walk, we go, we come before God.

And we do so with humility. We get confused about humility in our society. You may have heard the saying, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” We need that reminder because sometimes we think that humility means self-deprecation. But that’s humiliation, and they’re not the same thing. Henri Nouwen says this:

“…humility is really the opposite of self-deprecation. It is the grateful recognition that we are precious in God’s eyes and that all we are is pure gift. To grow beyond self-rejection we must have the courage to listen to the voice calling us God’s beloved sons and daughters, and the determination always to live our lives according to this truth.”

When we walk, we go, we come before God, we come as sinners, broken and far from perfect. We come not with the arrogant thought that our merit will save us; we come throwing ourselves on the justice and mercy of the God who walks with us every step of the way. We come with the confidence that we are children of God and with humble gratitude for this truth. God’s invitation to walk with us is extended not to our deserving, but to our need.

Glennon Doyle Melton says: “I am confident because I am a child of God. I am humble because everyone else is too.” These things we’re asked to do are about us and about others and all creation. We walk humbly, and we walk side-by-side, not only God but also with all our brothers and sisters in the family of God.

I said at the beginning that this verse isn’t a checklist, and it’s not. Next week, we start a sermon series called “So You Want to Go to Heaven?” I suspect you’ll find that there is no bar to reach in order to get in to heaven. But Micah 6:8 can be a litmus test for our lives today. If we are questioning whether something we are doing aligns with God’s will, we can ask ourselves—is it just? Is it said or done in love? Is it said or done in humility?

This works for things going on in the country and in the world as well. There is much debate about how Christians should interpret and respond to national and global events in these times—but in my observation, much of what comes out of those conversations either has little to do with Jesus or makes the situation far too complex. It’s really very simple, if not easy. If we want to know whether what we’re hearing on the news fits with God’s will, we can ask ourselves—is it just? Is it said or done in love? Is it said or done in humility?

Yesterday, as I finished up this sermon, I had some unexpected inspiration and encouragement. My Facebook feed was full of pictures from Women’s Marches across the country, and I saw no fewer than three signs that bore Micah’s words: Do Justice. Love Kindness. Walk Humbly.

It warmed my heart to see the words of this 8th century BC prophet resonate with people in 2017. But it also left me with a challenging question: how? How do we do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly? How, in a time so politically charged and polarized, do we as Christians rigorously apply the categories of justice, love, and humility in our daily lives?

There are two parts to this question of how. First, what does it look like to do what the Lord requires? As with so many things, there are different ways of living out and applying these words. My ways of doing justice, embracing faithful love, and walking humbly may look different from yours. Applying Micah 6:8 might lead one person to travel to the slums of Haiti and another to volunteer at the food pantry at our Loaves & Fishes community ministry. It might lead me to work with other clergy and staff on developing a relationship with an African-American Methodist church in town and you to take a casserole to a friend who’s been in the hospital. All of these things and much more can embody justice, love, and humility.

But the second part of the question of how is even more important: where do we find the strength to pursue justice, love, and humility, broken as we are? In the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” Charles Wesley speaks of “our bent to sinning.” We are literally inclined, bent toward sin. To do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly requires force applied in the opposite direction, a strong push to bend us away from sin and toward the good.

We do not have the strength to do this ourselves. The “how” of Micah 6:8 comes down to one thing and one thing only: God’s grace. There’s a reason I have repeatedly emphasized that God responds not to our deserving but to our need—this is just how grace works. It’s like the old hymn that says, “How marvelous the grace that caught my falling soul—he looked beyond my fault and saw my need.”

By definition, we cannot earn God’s grace. No offering we would bring, no matter how extravagant, can accomplish a fraction of what surrendering to grace can do. Not even our doing justice, embracing faithful love, and walking humbly can earn God’s approval. These things are not done to acquire God’s grace—they are done only with the help of God’s grace, as a response to God’s grace, as a joyful overflow of God’s grace given to us. Doing justice, embracing faithful love, and walking humbly are, simply put, grace in action.

We might be tempted to pray that God would help us understand how to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly. But that would be putting the cart before the horse. Our comprehension is not the how; God’s grace is the how. Instead, let us pray as the final verse of a hymn based on this passage prays:

How shall our life fulfill
God’s law so hard and high?
Let Christ endue our will
With grace to fortify.
Then justly, in mercy, we’ll humbly walk with God.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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