Justice and God's requirement

November 16th, 2015

With what shall I come to the Lord and bow myself before the God on high?
Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves?
Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

— Micah 6:6-8

I don’t think I will ever forget that day as long as I live. It was a sweltering July day in the heart of Brooklyn. For most of the week we had tried to stay inside under the old ceiling fan and worn out window unit. Really, the only thing we had the energy to do that week was watch and discuss the unfolding murder trial playing out on television. Almost 17 months after shooting Trayvon Martin to death, it looked like the overzealous neighborhood watchman was finally going to have to answer for what he had done.

We had watched witness after witness come forward, and the jury had been deliberating for a few days already. Since it was a Saturday we figured the jury would rest a couple of days and start back at it on Monday morning… but we were dead wrong. That Saturday afternoon we heard the news. I think maybe I read it on somebody’s Facebook timeline first and then, halfway in shock, grabbed the remote control and the laptop at the same time wanting to verify the info. And it was true. On the internet, on the television, on our phones. It was true no matter how many times we checked. Zimmerman was a free man, and Trayvon Martin’s parents were going to have to go home that night breathing in that reality.

I could barely breathe while watching the television. And sadly, too often, I still can’t breathe. Much like Eric Garner, when watching my television, or my newsfeed, or the Yahoo news headlines, I can’t breathe. It feels like every week there is another name. Another family. Another rally. Another officer on paid leave. Another fundraiser for his defense. Another exoneration...and then another body.

Television has become hard to watch. Really I should say it a little more strongly than that: life has become hard to watch. These trials are getting to be too much. So much so that, some days, I’m tempted to act like a child who doesn’t want to go to school. I’m tempted some days to just pull the shades down over the windows of life and pull the covers up over my head and hope that it will all go away. Because it’s too much.

Young men shot to death on the way home from the store or in parks as they play with toy guns. Women showing up dead in jail cells and little girls slammed to the ground, by hyper cops, in their bathing suits at pool parties. And then the too familiar scenes of police chiefs swearing a full investigation, which by this time has become almost laughable. It’s too much.

And sometimes because it’s so hard to watch head-on, I’ve fallen into the habit of turning my eyes and heart away as if that somehow changes anything. There are days when the blood and pepper spray and nooses and chokeholds and press conferences and acquittals are just too much. And I’m ashamed to say that too often instead of reading the headlines, internalizing the pain and speaking on the evil, sometimes because it’s so much, instead of all of that, I just placate myself with Jesus.

Sometimes I just mumble “uhn uhn uhn” or “Lord have mercy” or some other half-hearted phrase, and then bury myself deeper and deeper into nice, holy things to get my mind off of it all. Read Scripture. Work on a sermon. Wrap myself up in busy work so as not to hear the cries and see the blood. Simply because I’m tired of watching the trials and then weeping over the verdict, tired of seeing evil prevail. So it’s away from the courtroom and the news story that I run, that so many of us run.

But then the prophet Micah whispers in my ear from the pages of Scripture. And somehow, even though I am trying to run from the courtroom scenes that haunt me, it is clear that God is actually sending us right to a courtroom scene of God’s own making.

You see, this chapter of Micah that confronts us is actually set in a “spiritual courtroom.” God has called a trial to order to get to the bottom of the behavior and lifestyle of God’s people. The people of God, and even many of the priests and kings that are over the people, have been rejecting the kind of lifestyle that God has set forth for them. Greed, idolatry, slothfulness, injustice against the poor and the powerless: the people have been running wild and in this chapter God is bringing them up on charges for it, placing them on trial for the disobedience.

If we go back to verse one, we will see that the Lord’s message through the prophet is “Rise and plead your case before the mountains and let the hills hear your voice.” The Lord is issuing a subpoena to the people of Israel. God is requiring the people to own their sin, to admit their shortcomings, to answer God’s charges. God has had enough, to the point that God has called creation to the stand. God has called the mountains and the hills to be witnesses for the prosecution. And so it looks like the people are in trouble!

Imagine God calling the mountains to testify about how the people are going into the mountains and sacrificing to idols. Or calling on the very ground to testify to how much blood has soaked it in senseless warfare because of pride and love of power and money. God calls the very creation to make the case against sinful humanity. But, and this is what messes me up… the case doesn’t end in a solid conviction and punishment.

The reason is that instead of God simply passing a sentence, God decides instead to offer a chance for the people of God to pay restitution. And this is where the people are thrown for a loop over in verse 6, because God is willing to accept their restitution… but not in the way that they expect. The people wonder if God is going to require them to give burnt offerings or slay animals. But that isn’t what God requires, says the prophet. The people wonder if God wants them to sacrifice rams or to give rivers of oil as ritual sacrifice, but that alone isn’t what God requires, says the prophet.

In short, now that God has exposed what’s wrong in their hearts and their society the people have turned to trying to be religious enough and do religious-enough acts to get God to fall back. “We don’t have to change anything: just burn some animals, just make sacrifice, just say ‘Lord have mercy’ and ‘uhn uhn uhn.’” Just keep on doing our rituals and maybe somehow we can fix this without really changing anything...

But God isn’t having it. God isn’t satisfied with the half-hearted attempts to buy or sacrifice our way out of trouble. That’s too easy. No, God says I require something deeper than your coming to Church and learning scripture and giving alone. When God gets ready to lay out the fullness of true religion, God speaks through the prophet and says “He has told you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

And herein is the point. God comes for our whole lives and requires that our lives change the world. That hasn’t changed nearly three millennia later. What God is calling for is not just a certain faithfulness in and to Church, but a certain kind of action in the world once we leave the building. Yes, God has laid out that the people of God ought to maintain the house of God, but Scripture also makes it clear that God requires something outside of the house too! God calls all of us to act for justice in the world, to love and advocate for mercy for all and to be sure that we are humbling ourselves to care and fight for all of God’s children.

It is what God requires of you O man, O woman. It is not just the call of the politicians. It is not just the call of the megachurch leaders. It’s not just the call of community organizers and young protestors with nothing to lose. All of us have been required. None of us can afford to turn a blind eye to the cries of those who find themselves voiceless or alone or in the crosshairs of evil systems. As Christians, we cannot ignore hell enlarging itself and standing against our children and still claim to be following Jesus. God has a requirement!

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