Texts: Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12
I have recently gotten into the TV show Mad Men. This is a current drama set in the early 1960′s in Manhattan and is based around the life of a man working for a prominent advertising agency. Don Draper lives in a high-powered world where he is always forging a way ahead in business. He seeks after wealth and influence and fulfillment of lust. At the same time, the series paints him as the ultimate success story of realizing the American dream. He has pulled himself out of his poor and shady past to rise to prominence and influence. Don Draper has also gotten a beautiful wife, a nice house in the suburbs, and two kids. But Mad Men also captures the darker side of Don Draper’s “success.” One day, Don Draper’s younger brother reappears in his life. Don has done absolutely everything that he can to leave his poor and shady past behind and will go to all costs to keep it that way. He wants absolutely nothing to do with his little brother, fearing that his reappearance in his life will drag Don down and destroy the life that he has created for himself. When Don is confronted with his brother for the first time, the first words out of Don’s mouth are, “What do you want?” as if his little brother would want nothing more than money or power (since that is what Don himself wants in life). His little brother is taken aback by Don’s question and replies, “I just wanted to see my brother.” All he wanted was a relationship with the brother that he had lost for years. But Don refuses. Instead of welcoming his little brother into his life, or even begrudgingly allowing for his existence, he gets together $3,000, which would be more like $50,000 dollars today, gives it to his brother and tells him to stay out of his life forever. Here’s a spoiler alert: the little brother is dumbfounded and extremely hurt by this response and he kills himself. In this drama, we see a darker side to success, to wealth, to power, and it asks significant questions: To what extent are we willing to go to for these things? What does it cost us to preserve these things once they are “attained”? How much are we willing to do to get what we want? Mad Men paints a picture of the American dream, but it doesn’t sugar-coat it. Today we are going to explore a picture of an alternate dream, and the Scripture doesn’t sugar-coat it either.
What is this alternate dream that Scripture paints for us? Today we heard three different passages from Micah, 1 Corinthians, and Matthew and each of them help us to see not the American dream, but what I would call the “Kingdom dream.” Today, we’ll be looking primarily at the Old Testament passage from Micah. The verses from the prophet Micah provides the framework for us to explore the nature of this kingdom dream. Micah was one of the twelve minor prophets in the Old Testament: pretty much, he was a short-winded prophet. His book is only seven chapters long. Micah was preaching at what I would call at the end of the good times and just before his nation fell apart. There had been years of peace and prosperity. During times of prolonged prosperity and peace, people often forget to worship God, and instead begin to worship the things that peace and prosperity might bring about. In Micah’s day, people were getting caught up in keeping up religion for show or duty, but forgetting the heart of what God wanted of them. When Micah preached, it was just before the end of the good times, just before the fall of Israel and Judah. In today’s lesson from Micah, he is playing the role of accuser before Israel, putting them on trial before God for forgetting what God really wants (and not only wants, but requires) from his people. Listen to v. 6-8 again: “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? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 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?” Micah is accusing Israel before God of forgetting the most basic things that God commands: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Today, these three things will provide us the framework for the kingdom dream.
The first of the requirements is to do justice. What is justice? The word, mishpat, means judgment. It means God’s wisdom, God’s law, God’s justice…that there would be fairness, fair play and equity within the human family. Justice, in God’s world, is not penalty-based. It is not retributive. It is ultimately and fundamentally restorative. God created human beings and all of creation to be in harmonious relationship with him and with one another. God’s justice is delivered so that this restoration can be made possible.
In our country, we often hear the phrase, justice is blind. That is the ideal (even if not reality) for our own justice system. It is intended that everyone be judged fairly and equally, regardless of who they are, without taking sides. Justice being blind. That sounds like a nice idea. But throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we find that God does take sides. Who does God champion? God consistently chooses to side with the poor, the widow, the orphan. God consistently opts to seek justice for those who are on the margins of society. We call this God’s preferential option for the poor. Does this mean that God does not care about the rich? No, of course it doesn’t. God cares for all of his creatures. But God knows that there are inequalities in the world, which are often at the hands of the rich and powerful, whether they are the ones actively and intentionally inflicting injustice upon those without the power, or if they are simply the ones who allow the current structures to remain in place by not advocating on behalf of those who are vulnerable. What God desires is restoration for all people: for both those who are oppressed, and those who do the oppressing.
Do justice. What does it mean that God requires us to do justice? God calls us to side with those God sides with, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to work towards restoring a right relationship between all of God’s people. Sometimes this means speaking up when we see an injustice taking place. Sometimes it means helping someone who is down and out find a job. Sometimes it is empowering someone through the gift of validation and worth. Sometimes it means lobbying for laws to be passed that look to the interests of the marginalized. Sometimes it means becoming aware of how our own wealth or power might be negatively affecting others and being willing to change our own behaviors to correct this. There is no formula for what it means to do justice, and no simple fixes. If justice is about restoration, it often takes complex solutions and a lengthy search for the best course of action. It is not always easy, but it is what God calls us to do if we say that we are his people.
Many of you know that the Bible contains an overarching story that contains a few basic plot points: God creates the world, human beings rebel, God chooses the people of Israel and makes a covenant with them, the people stick to the covenant for a while, people turn away, God pronounces punishment, then God offers grace. Perhaps you also know that in most cases where the people turn away and God pronounces judgment, it is due to the people worshiping false idols. What you may not realize is that almost always a failure to seek justice on behalf of the oppressed is the other accusation paired with worshiping false idols. When we forget who God is, we also forget who our neighbors are. When we forget the restorative justice that God offers to each of us, we forget about seeking justice for those around us. This seeking after justice is the first characteristic of the kingdom dream.
The second characteristic of the kingdom dream is to love kindness, or as some Bible translations put it, to love mercy. Again, like the concept of justice, this takes on a social dimension. Certainly, it can be understood on an individual level, but the sort of mercy that Micah is talking about again is mercy to those who are vulnerable and in greater need. In the Law in the Old Testament, there were specific laws given to the Israelites from God that would help them demonstrate mercy to those who needed it. Two such examples are the Sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee. The Sabbatical Year had to do with agricultural practices. The early Israelite community was an agrarian community. People planted crops and tended animals. They were farmers as most people were then. God gave a law that said every seventh year, they had to let the land rest. This was in part to help the land stay healthy, and today we have practices like crop rotation that do the same thing. But there was more to it than that. In that seventh year, as the land lay resting, orphans, widows, foreigners, and others who were unable to provide for themselves were to be allowed to glean leftover crops from the resting land. Farmers were not to over-harvest their land so that there would be produce that the poor could glean. This was one example of an act of mercy on the social level. During this same year, there would also be a release of all debts that were owed to prevent those who were already struggling financially from going from bad to worse. Now if that is not a merciful act, then I don’t know what is! Can you even imagine what something like that would look like today? I know that I can’t even fathom it!.The other example that I mentioned was the Year of Jubilee. The Year of Jubilee was to occur every fiftieth year, and in this year, all landholdings were to be restored to the original owners. Say a family who was in a bind decided to sell their land to a wealthier neighbor. While this wealthier neighbor would own the land for a time, upon the Year of Jubilee, the ownership of the land would revert to the original family. This helped to maintain a relatively balanced social and class structure. So much poverty today is generational. It is inherited. The Year of Jubilee sought to prevent that sort of thing from happening. This law too, was a law demonstrating mercy. These things sound foreign to our ears, but these are examples of what Micah was talking about when he said that God requires his people to love kindness. God’s people are to seek out ways of demonstrating mercy. We need to begin to imagine ways of demonstrating this kind of mercy in today’s world.
The third characteristic of the kingdom dream is to walk humbly with God. There are two main points from this phrase: we walk first, with humility, and second, with God. In fact, we cannot walk with God unless it is with humility. But let’s look first at the characteristic of humility. A word that is similar to humility is humiliation. Everyone here has probably had a moment in life where they felt totally humiliated. Where they have felt very lowly, where they have wanted to just disappear our of embarrassment. While humility does not take on the connotation of embarrassment, it does take on the quality of lowliness. This does not mean that humility means a self-deprecatory attitude or a low sense of self-worth. All that kind of attitude is is sort of an inverted version of the sin of pride. Instead, the lowliness of humility means a refusal to think of ourselves more highly than we should. It means we are not self-congratulatory. It means we don’t outwardly demonstrate a sense of self-entitlement or inwardly think that we are superior are more deserving than anyone else. God himself exhibits humility, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds us in Philippians 2, Christ, though he was God, did not hold onto that power or consider it something to be exploited. Instead, he humbled himself to become a human being, and not just any human being: a poor, homeless man on the fringe of the powerful Roman empire, who wandered the countryside, and came to face death, even death on a cross. If we look at Christ’s life, we see the humility of God. And if we are to walk with God, we must follow in those same footsteps. So let’s recap: the three characteristics of the kingdom dream, in contrast with the American dream, are to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. This is no small calling, and it is what God requires of us.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear one of the most famous passages of the New Testament: the beatitudes, which make for a hard-hitting start to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Listen to them again: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” These are the words of Jesus himself, the one who exemplified justice, mercy, and humility. We could spend weeks looking at the beatitudes (and we will be looking at them in more detail tonight at The Well worship service if you want more), but they can be summed up in this way: the kingdom of God does not look like the kingdoms of this world. Or to keep continuity with what I have been saying today, the kingdom dream does not look like the American dream. In the kingdom dream, it is those who are weak, vulnerable, lowly, and those who extend hands in compassion towards those who are weak, vulnerable, and lowly who find themselves at the “top.”
So what does this all mean for us today? I have been talking rather abstractly about the concepts of justice, mercy, and humbly walking with God but I haven’t really talked much about us here. What impact does today’s message from the prophet Micah and from Jesus mean for our congregation? What it means is that we need to take a good, hard, look at ourselves as individuals and as a congregation and ask ourselves which dream we are struggling to achieve. It means we need to assess our priorities and compare them to the priorities that God has placed before us in Micah 6:8. It means that we need to look for better ways of pursuing justice and mercy in our community. It means that we need to be walking daily with God so we can be cultivating true humility in our lives rather than false senses of modesty. So I ask you now, which dream are you striving for today?