The first part of the Micah reading is the alternate lectionary OT reading for the Sunday after All Saints Day. The second part from Micah I included to remind us of the prophets consistent theme. Rarely are the prophets the primary reading, except for some parts of Isaiah and Ezekiel, because they can sound harsh to our ears.
The function of the Biblical prophets was to call the Israelite leadership back into right relations with God, and they did this by speaking to those in power using very clear and stark words. They preached at times of chaos and social unrest – when there was dis-ease and oppression of the many by the dominant few.
Contrary to the way we tend to understand prophecy in our times, the Biblical prophets weren’t fortune-tellers predicting a future event. Their purpose – their call – was to describe to the Jewish leadership the current state of affairs – the way in which God saw current situations and events – and to communicate the consequences of continuing to ignore God’s law and staying this same course.
Let’s hear first from Micah 3:5-12: 5Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths. 6Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; 7the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.
8But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin. 9Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, 10who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! 11Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” 12Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.
Certain patterns are common to the Biblical prophets. They all spoke against the civic and religious powers that governed the day. As a matter of fact, most were killed as a result. That’s the result of pushing against power – it generally pushes back swiftly and hard.
With rare exception, the prophets decried a strict adherence to rigid human social and religious laws and encouraged those governing to return to the laws of God based on loving and fair relationships. Almost universally, the prophets spoke to the powerful about the way they gained power, wealth, prestige and reputation by riding on the backs of the poor, sick, outcast and alien.
In the prophetic books of the Bible, by far the most common perversions are abuse of power and failure to care for the vulnerable, who were many times the majority of the people.
Now listen to a reading from Micah chapter 6:8-12: 8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? 9The voice of the Lord cries to the city (it is sound wisdom to fear your name): Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city! 10Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked, and the scant measure that is accursed? 11Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? 12Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
One of the most memorable of the prophetic messages is from chapter 6 of Micah. “What does the Lord require of you,” Micah said, “but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”
Many of us remember those words with a feeling of warmth and comfort. Those words were delivered within a speech that is notable for its harsh judgments and stark imagery of cultural ruin as a consequence of ignoring God.
The most strident criticism falls on the false prophets – those who govern and claim to be religious and cultural leaders but operate out of self-interest and profit-making. These leaders, who ignore that they are really meant to serve and care for the common good reap, for themselves the most severe of God’s judgments and consequences. It is clear from the prophetic books that all social structures were meant to serve the common good.
Jesus also speaks to the powerful governing at that time and place, delivering sobering prophetic revelations that eventually led to death on the cross. The prophets were for Jesus some of the most important scriptures and they are frequently cited by Jesus to reinforce the message of care, equity and justice for the common good.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to consider what the prophets and Jesus might think of our current social dis-ease. What would they think of a time when the costs for food and basic necessities were escalating beyond the means of ordinary folks and yet multinational agricultural corporations have been realizing record profits?
What would they think of governments being so intermeshed with business that state and federal funds were crumbling because of the stock market?
What would they think of government’s attempts to offset those losses by cutting back on services to the poor, hungry, elderly and sick – by insisting that the very people who rely on government services for survival make the biggest sacrifice?
Consider the cuts being made by the state of New York across the board for services to the poor, with more being threatened. These are services the dominant wealthy do not need, but which ensure survival for the poor.
What would they think of a presbytery’s Budget and Finance Committee attempting to shift funds from outside missions to insider ministries as is happening across this country?
There are, however, more pressing questions that reading Micah and the other prophets prompt. They fall not in the category of pointing a finger at others, but daring to turn that finger back towards ourselves – to move from being accusatory with others towards being challenging of ourselves.
I don’t know about you, but for me it’s a process that begins with me pointing that finger at myself.
I have been an advocate for feeding the hungry – but I am not hungry.
I have been an advocate for solutions to homelessness – but I have a home to live in.
I have been an advocate for people with HIV/AIDS – but I am healthy.
I have been an advocate for the poor – but I am relatively comfortable.
In the economic climate in which I now live, my sense of security and comfort is being challenged. I am left wondering if my call to advocate for the most vulnerable might take a back seat to my own concerns. What do you think?
This situation seems to raise at least three issues:
1. How do we continue to be faithful to our call when our own resources are being stretched severely – when we are as worried about finances as many others and when we are tempted to care most about our own concerns?
2. How can we respond to the current climate in ways that make a real difference for those in our community when the resources available are shrinking?
3. How can we address the issues that concern members of this congregation and the surrounding community without simply burdening each of us with more worries and stresses?
The questions are real for me, as I think they might be real for you. Right now, I have a place to live, food on my table, fuel for my tank and insurance for my health needs. This doesn’t stop me from worrying about what might be around the corner next month.
I feel faithless when I worry about these things and let them overwhelm my sense of security, foster fear in my heart and cause me to be circumspect about putting my money and time where my heart is. I am dis-eased that my own concerns for security and comfort are so important for me – even though I am not in any imminent risk.
I found encouragement when, in the last session meeting, elders brought up ideas about serving community meals and giving Thanksgiving dinners to those who may be without. I am encouraged by the session’s commitment to the Food Pantry, as I am by this church’s support of the Free Reading Program. I am encouraged by the work at the Bible Study in the nursery to be faithful to our call to study and preach the good news. And, I am encouraged by the desire of a 24 year old woman willing to give up her time two Saturday’s a month to serve in the food pantry.
With those responses, I understood yet again the importance of community. I was reminded of Margaret Mead’s famous saying, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I see us as one of those small groups of thoughtful, committed people while at the same time knowing that some of us are being put at risk even as I now speak. A sense of community calls us to be both prophetic and responsive – to find the courage to describe the reality of what is happening around us, and to embrace and care for those who are being most severely affected by it.
I know that I must set aside my own fears in order to do this – and I know how difficult that is. This community, this congregation sitting right here, helps me find that courage. I know that this community cares – I know it because I have witnessed it.
Acts 2: 44-45 says: All that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, as every person had need.
Exodus 16:16-18 says: This is what the Lord has commanded: Gather of it, everyone of you, as much as you can eat; you shall take an omer apiece, according to the number of persons who each of you has in your household. And the people of Israel did so; they gathered – some more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, the one that gathered much had nothing more than their share, and the one that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what they needed.
Karl Marx is credited with saying: From each according to ability, to each according to need. I beg to differ, however. Marx borrowed from the Bible – borrowed a key notion from the prophets and from Jesus.
Being suddenly thrust into very different times and challenges, how do we respond?
I don’t have the answer to that, but I am sure that collectively we can continue to find some. I am sure we have ways we can help those within our congregation who have need, just as I am sure we can serve those in our surrounding community. Together we can overcome our fears and together we can mitigate the threats to those inside church walls and outside.
These are the times that try people’s souls – and their faith. But together, in community, we can be a faithful people.