Meg Peery McLaughlin
“A Trial at Every Turn”
February 2, 2020
Micah 6: 1-8
Each week in staff meeting, we read the text for the week.
It’s a way for us to center ourselves in the story
and get to know each other better in our conversations.
This week’s text, Micah 6:8 is a favorite.
I wonder how many of you know it by heart.
I wonder how many of you are singing a song you
learned in camp in your head right now.
What does the Lord require of you,
but to do justice,
and walk humbly with your God.
Scholars call it: the Golden text of the Old Testament
There may be no better summary of the neighborly ethic voiced by the prophets, codified in the commandments, and incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth[i].
When we read it in staff,
I began at verse 1,
and after reading it, around the staff circle I heard things like:
I love that text but never knew that’s how it started.
It starts in a courtroom, with the prophet Micah calling a trial to order.
God has brought a case against the people.
You may be seated. Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
3 ‘O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’
6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
8 He 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?
Jarrett has a habit of making the same jokes over and over again. You’ll learn this.
Whenever he is lamenting the tyranny of his inbox,
pining away for what ministry was like in the days before email,
he jokingly suggests that he “saddle up his horse to go visit Elder Jones
whose got the consumption.”
I don’t even exactly know what consumption is,
but what I know is that we do have email,
and we are pastoring in a time when we have the coronavirus.
This is an interesting time to be the church,
and not just because of this recent outbreak,
but because of the welfare of the nation.
It’s an interesting climate in which to proclaim the gospel.
When I saw that this week’s text was Micah, I was excited.
But then I remembered how verse 8 comes after all the mess about the trial, and the witnesses, and the drama.
And my heart sank. Really? A trial? A trial at every turn. Only three times in the history of our nation
has the senate been in a trial like this one.
And this one, is of course, unique in and of itself.
As Karl Barth implored us, Christians are to read the bible in one hand
and the newspaper in the other. Just last week in our affirmation of faith,
we declared that Jesus was Lord, that
ultimate sovereignty belongs to Jesus Christ in every sphere of life.
Of course that includes our worship lives, our spiritual lives,
but also personal lives, work lives, economic lives. . . .
surely that includes the life of the polis, which is to say our political life.
And right now, that sphere is a mess:
our President is on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors.
People, good church people, get really anxious about this,
for they don’t want their pastors “getting too political”
but what they mean by this, I think, is that they don’t want the church to be partisan.
And hear me: I agree. It is not my role to tell you how to vote.
And I know that we are all tired and tender right now.
When Michelle Goldberg’s Op-Ed[ii] came out in the NYTimes last month,
she coined the term “Democracy Grief.”
It struck a chord, for parishioners far and wide,
filled my inbox with links to her article.
By Wednesday the trial will be over and we can all assume what the verdict will be,
and I don’t know what that will do to the grief, if you have it,
but here is this Word,
which always has something to say.
It begins with a summons to – an even higher court – a cosmic court.
The people have breached covenant with God,
In this court there is no vote about whether to call witnesses,
the witnesses are just there:
the mountains and hills the very ground on which we stand.
For it was on a mountain–Mount Sinai that God said
“If you people obey me fully and keep my covenant,
then you will be my treasured possession.”
And it was by a mountain where the people said
“we will do everything the Lord has said.”
The mountain is where the law, the 10 commandments, were given,
carved out of the stone of that same mountain.
The very foundations of creation are the ones to testify
what the relationship between God and the people was to be
and what high crimes and misdemeanors have undermined that relationship.
God begins the trial
not by condemning the people outright,
but by imploring Israel to state what God has done to provoke them to such behavior.
I almost detect a note of sadness in God’s voice.
We used to be so close – what happened to us?
What have I done to you? Answer me! How have I wearied you?
And then God reminds them
of who God is:
the one who freed them from slavery
the one who raised up leaders to guide them
the one who at every step of their journey has worked for their welfare.
So, why, God asks, why are ya’ll acting like this?
When the people answer, I can’t help but hear the sass in their voice.
What do you even want from me, God?
What should I bring in worship to restore my relationship?
Shall I come with burnt offerings with calves a year old?
In the worship life of ancient Israel people would present gifts to the priests,
giving back to God what they believed God had given to them.
It was a way to express their close relationship with God and seeking to deepen that bond—like our offering, in many ways.
Unlike our practice, many times it would be a burnt offering,
the gift would be transformed from the ordinary realm to the transcendent one.
Scripture tells us that God received the smoke of burnt offerings as pleasing odor,
and there was a sense of communing with God in these moments.[iii]
So at first the people’s response is pretty routine stuff.
But then with each minute of the trial
the suggested sacrifices dramatically escalate both in value and quantity,
a nasty exaggeration of what God expects:
Would you be happy with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Come on!
And the last suggested gift— shall I give my first born? —intended to astonish—
reaches far beyond the bounds of any acceptable sacrifice.
It was a condemned practice.
At the end of the arguments, I imagine God boiling over with exasperation.
Michelle Goldberg would need to coin a new term for God’s kind of grief.
If this were like every other court in this world – what comes next is the verdict and the sentencing[iv]. But this court is not of this world…and in a surprising turn there is no verdict, no punishment. Instead there is a teaching.
God has told you what is good.
And what does God ask that you to bring? only yourself.
A self of a certain character.
One who does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly.
The courtroom becomes a classroom.
If I understand the text, what matters more than God being vindicated,
is God shaping God’s people into who they are to be.
The very best version of themselves.
People who don’t just admire justice, but enact it.
People who love kindness:
are vulnerable enough to receive it and courageous enough to risk it.
People who stand not on the backs of others, on entitlements or egos,
but on the dusty ground and know that they do all of this, not by themselves,
but accompanied at every step by a loving God.
Last month I did Harvey Hamrick’s Memorial.
He taught countless pediatricians how to care for sick children.
His career was distinguished.
I’m so glad our youth choir had a chance to carol to him before he died.
As he was dying, his thoughts were not on his career,
but on where he learned his character:
a boyscout camp in the hills of Western North Carolina,
where he said he learned what it meant to be a human.
Where did you learn to be a person of character?
To do right even when it is hard.
To be kind even when the world is mean.
To walk humbly when despair would have you give up.
It took years after the trial of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954,
for southern schools to integrate. We know the story of brave Ruby Bridges who at 6 years old walked with federal marshals, past screaming crowds including one woman holding a black baby doll in a coffin, to go to school.
She was her teacher’s only student.
Barbara Henry, writing about that year, said “how beautiful was moment when I took Ruby’s hand from one of those seemingly human towers, and together we left the old order of segregation and began our mission, alone and together[v].”
Ruby Bridges would later say that Barbara Henry looked like all the people who were standing out in that mob. And yet she was nothing like all the people standing out in that mob, because she had agreed to be her teacher.
Of course, the most important lesson was not what she wrote on the chalkboard – it was what she showed in her heart[vi].
here in the stories of this holy book
and here in this water
and here at this table
we are shown the heart of God.
And it seems to me – no matter how may degrees you have –
we can always continue to learn, always.
There will be trials at every turn.
Sometimes the verdicts will go like we want them.
Sometimes the sentences will be just. Sometimes they won’t.
There will be all manner of grief.
But he has told us what is good.
So in every single sphere of life
we are to bring ourselves
our very character
over and over again
as those shaped by the God’s own heart—
The kind of people who Do justice
and Walk humbly with God.
Court adjourned – Class dismissed!
[i] Andrew Foster Connors, Feasting on the Word
[ii]Michelle Goldberg “Democracy Grief is Real” December 13, 2019 Op Ed in the New York Times
[iii] William K. Gilders, “Sacrifice in Ancient Israel”, [cited 31 Jan 2020]
[iv] For example in Micah 6:16