If you find yourself averse to controversy, you may want to brace yourself.
I say this, not because I plan to rehash this past week’s news, nor do I desire to pummel you like a political pundit, but because the lectionary propers today refer to a controversy between God and humanity. The controversy is not mine, but ours together with God.
“Rise, plead your case,” counsels the prophet Micah, “for the Lord has a controversy with his people.”
So, just what is it that has caused God to take a stand against Israel, what has spurred this trial between God and God’s people?
Well, for starters, it seems as though God’s people can be rather forgetful, ungrateful even. “I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery…that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” All this, and yet they had neglected God’s essential requirements to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
It is the absence of justice, kindness, and humility that has caused this controversy with their Creator. The prophets took Israel to task for their indifference and maltreatment of the poor and vulnerable. They cautioned the leaders of Israel concerning the dangers of dubious political alliances. They urged the people to remember that God had chosen them, not at the exclusion of all others, but so that they might in turn become a blessing to all nations.
They had forgotten this, but God wasn’t about to let them forget it.
I don’t know about you, but as I hear these ancient words they seem to resonate with new relevance this day. It’s enough to make one wonder: what atrocities do we witness in our own time due to injustice? What harm is done in the absence of kindness? What feuds are fueled by pride and lack of humility? There is no shortage, I’m afraid to say.
This past week a colleague reflected that while we in the church commonly busy ourselves with bible study, we too often forget about bible doing – the manifestation of justice that God requires.
And the prophet Micah makes it abundantly clear: empty acts of piety do not interest God in the least. A thousand burnt offerings will not make up for lack of justice, tens of thousands of rivers of oil cannot replace kindness, all the fruits of our labors are no substitute for walking humbly with God. This is the controversy that is distressing to God.
The Apostle Paul, too, as we read in his First Letter to the Corinthians, was no stranger to scandal. Many who heard the message about the cross found it either foolish or a stumbling block. The concept of a crucified Christ was simply inconceivable to those who were accustomed to places of privilege and power. Jesus, who had been a refugee, Jesus who was homeless, Jesus the convicted, crucified criminal is an awfully scandalous image of a messiah.
And again it causes me to pause and ponder, what is it that is scandalous about our faith today? What is it about following Jesus that is controversial or costly?
Is it that, for the Christian, fear can never lead us to close our doors to those in need? Is it that for the follower of Christ we must always place God first, and not country? Is it that we will sometimes find ourselves at odds with the powers and principalities of this world? What is it that is costly or controversial as we seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?
That brings us, I think, to the critical difference between what the prophet Micah calls kindness, and what we sometimes substitute in its place – pious politeness. Kindness and pious politeness are not the same thing.
The “gospel” that is often displayed in white middle class culture is what I would call the gospel of being nice. So prevalent is this distortion of the gospel that sociologists have even given it a sophisticated name: Moralistic therapeutic deism. Now that’s a mouthful, I realize, so let me explain: Moralistic therapeutic deism is a term first coined in a hallmark study called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. In it sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton describe the predominant characteristics of popular religion in America at the turn of the twenty-first century:
Moralistic, meaning religion is primarily about being good.
Therapeutic, meaning the purpose of spirituality is to help us feel better about ourselves.
Deism, meaning that God is really quite distant and uninterested in human affairs.
Now understand: there is absolutely nothing controversial or scandalous about being good, feeling good, and kinda sorta believing in God. Nor does this have anything to do with the gospel. This is not the faith of the Prophets or the Apostle Paul or Jesus of Nazareth. Moralistic therapeutic deism is about playing it safe, risking very little, and above all being nice.
But the kind of kindness God requires is not the same as merely being nice. While it may not be polite to ruffle feathers and rock the boat, is it really kind to maintain the status quo at the expense of those who suffer? Were the prophets persecuted, the apostle Paul jailed, and Jesus Christ crucified just for being nice?
Were the gains of women’s suffrage or civil rights brought about by nice men and women who stayed in their place and did as they were told? Or were these people fueled by faith and the pursuit of justice?
My friends, I cannot pretend to be an expert in political policy, foreign or domestic. But I can tell you that those who so often love to quote Leviticus to condemn all manner of things, well, they are all of a sudden silent about passages such as Leviticus 19:34
“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
And this silence is deafening.
I will not presume to tell you what to think as an American, but as followers of Jesus we must strive to love our neighbors as ourselves, provide for the orphan and the widow, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and visit those in prison. This is what God requires, and this is what justice does.
Our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, once said “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” I would add to that Cornell West’s wise insight, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And I think the prophet Micah would conclude “If it’s not about doing justice and loving kindness, it’s not walking with God.”
The Rev’d Brad Landry
Epiphany 4a (2017)