January 15 | Boiling it down





Sermon | Boiling it down
Text: Micah 6:1-8
Speaker: Joel Miller

Every fall I teach an Inquirers class for folks new and new-ish to the congregation.  Part of the class is getting to know one another.  I invite participants to share briefly about their faith journey – where they’ve been, what kinds of experiences and questions they bring.  Each session begins with a couple of these before getting into the topic of the day.  One Sunday this fall, just last month, a participant said something to the effect of “Well, my faith has gotten real simple.  Basically two things.  1. Pay attention.  2. Love.  He had more to say, but after decades of being immersed in church and religious life, that pretty much summarized where he was at in his faith.  Pay attention.  Love.

It reminded me of that short but deliciously sweet poem by Mary Oliver which goes like this:   

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Mary Oliver had a lot of profound things to say in her poetry, but when considering what all might be involved in living a life in which one is actually alive, it was a short list.  Pay attention.  Be astonished.  Tell about it.

When it comes to boiling it down to what really matters, the prophet Micah is all about it.  Micah lived in a time when things around him were already getting narrowed down in a different sort of way.  He’s one of the old school prophets, back when the Jerusalem temple was still standing, back when Judah was still an independent nation.  The editors of the book that bears Micah’s name introduce his words in chapter 1 verse 1 by writing, “The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah.”  Each of these kings were direct descendants of David, a line that will stay unbroken until over a century after Micah. 

But in Micah’s lifetime things are already beginning to crack.  The ancient Assyrian empire was starting to patch itself back together.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital Samaria became one its victims in Micah’s lifetime, in the year 722, its leaders and inhabitants deported and resettled around the resurgent empire, other people brought into Israel and resettled there.  It was a policy of obliterating local cultures to prevent future rebellion that proved remarkably effective. 

The Assyrians didn’t conquer Jerusalem, but they got close.  Still in that first chapter, Micah names different towns around Jerusalem that had fallen to the Assyrians 20 years after Israel’s fall.   

“For this I will lament and wail; I will go barefoot and naked; I will make lamentation like the jackals, and mourning like the ostriches.  For her wound is incurable.  It has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem.  Tell it not in Gath, weep not at all; in Beth leaphrah roll yourselves in the dust.  Pass on your way, inhabitants of Shaphir, in nakedness and shame; the inhabitants of Zaanan do not come forth; Beth-ezel is wailing and shall remove its support from you.  For the inhabitants of Maroth wait anxiously for good, yet disaster has come down from the Lord to the gate of Jerusalem.” (Micah 1:8-12). 

In all, 46 of these fortified Judean towns had fallen.  Jerusalem and its temple still stand.  But for good reason, they feel that disaster was closing in on them, at their very gate. 

Micah is writing during a time of crisis, and times of crisis have a way of separating out the essentials from the nonessentials.  They have a way of highlighting what matters most, and what doesn’t.  As Tim Robbins’ and Morgan Freeman’s characters say, locked within the gates of Shawshank State Penitentiary, It “comes down to a simple choice – get busy living, or get busy dying.” 

From Micah’s perspective, the leaders and people of Jerusalem had chosen the latter. All around him Micah sees signs of death.  He criticizes the wealthy for seizing their neighbor’s fields.  He has graphic words for the religious and political leaders, accusing them of tearing the skin off their people and breaking their bones, canabalizing their kindred for their own gain.  Even his fellow prophets don’t get a pass.  Micah accuses them of crying “Peace” whenever they have something to eat, while declaring war against those who put nothing in their mouths.  Chapter 6, which we heard today, is set up as a lawsuit, with God as the plaintiff calling the mountains and hills as witnesses against the people. 

When things are going bad it’s perhaps natural to be critical.  It’s easy to call other out in a crisis.  It’s more difficult to take a deep breath, call everyone together, and say, OK, folks, now this is all that matters right now.   
And this is how Micah ends that lawsuit – with words that boil it down to the bare essentials. 

Micah says: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”  Micah 6:8

It’s not necessarily a formula for beating back the Assyrians.  But it is, in the words of Mary Oliver, instructions for living a life.  In the words of Shawshank’s Andy and Red, how to get busy living.  As a person.  As a community. 

And not just being technically alive not dead.  But being creatively, intentionally, meaningfully alive.  What Jesus would later refer to as abundant life.

When our congregation was doing the 12 Scripture Project a number of years ago – boiling down the whole Bible to 12 central and guiding scriptures – the result of which are still, yes, still, hanging in the foyer, Micah 6:8 was one of them.  When we were deciding which scripture to put on our church T-Shirt and banner, which I guess was our 1 Scripture Project, this was the one. 

Do Justice.  Love Mercy.  Walk Humbly.

If the Bible were 40 gallons of sap tapped from the maple tree of life, Micah 6:8 is what you get when you boil it down to one gallon of sweet, delicious syrup. 

It’s such a nice summary it’s a bit surprising it didn’t make it into the New Testament.  The spirit of it is certainly there.  Jesus tells the Pharisees to go and learn the meaning of “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” a quote from the prophet Hosea, his version of boiling it all down, roughly a contemporary of Micah.   Jesus himself will be asked to name the most important teachings of the Torah, for which he has a ready answer.  Love God will all your being, Deuteronomy 6, and Love your neighbor as yourself, Leviticus 19.  That was Jesus’ two scriptures project, which is still hanging up in the gospels and aging well.  

The Apostle Paul has his own version of this in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13.  After having written about speaking in tongues, and prophesy, the mysteries of faith, Paul says it’s all just clanging symbols and nonsense if we don’t have love.  He goes on to fill out what he means by this singular word of love – it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,  endures all things – something every committed relationship aspires toward. 

I’m thinking that these summaries of faith, of what matters most, are hard earned.  When Micah sees the foreign invaders closing in around him, the periphery of Jerusalem gone, he closes in on what it means to be a people of God.  Jesus and Paul speak in contentious environments, both having been through the fires of wilderness transformation, now seeing clearly what others see as through a foggy window.     

And I think this is how it works for us as well.  These convictions are hard earned, learned through whatever life brings our way.  When a parent with a traditional worldview has their kid come out to them, their own crisis of faith becomes a Divine gift to strip everything down to love and mercy.  I’ve seen this happen many times.  When you form a friendship with a person of a different religion and feel that warmth and bond as more vital than religious difference, there’s something very real going on.  Some kind of spiritual education is underway.  When the cancer survivor or the traffic accident survivor who has faced down death comes out on the other side with more life ahead of them, things can get real simple.

It’s why we use the language of death and resurrection to talk about how the faith journey works.  When you’ve passed through death, you’re ready to get busy living, and living is suddenly not all that complicated.   

In a time when you can get paralyzed in the grocery store aisle trying to figure out what kind of bread you want to buy.  Or when you can spend untold hours online narrowing down your options for the laptop or lamp or flashlight with all the features you’re looking for and the best customer reviews.  In a time of beautiful, chaotic, and sometimes confusing religious and cultural pluralism.  It’s nice to have the core of what matters most boiled down to one or two or three things.  And the nice part is you don’t have to be original about it.  It’s already there. 

Love.  Love God, neighbor, and self. Love and Pay attention.  Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.

These are all synonyms for what Micah was getting at and what we pray we can be about: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.