Summary: We all know Micah 6:8, but there's a lot more to the message than just a T-shirt slogan.
In the marathon subculture, T-shirts are everything. As a runner, you become a billboard for 26 miles, or 13, or 6, or in my case 3 miles. When I participated in my first 5K, I had to wear the shirt provided by my gym (since they paid the registration fee), but most of the time, each runner chooses. At the Sedona Turkey Trot, a wore a T-shirt which pictured a woman wearing a robe and stole with the caption, “Girls can’t what?!” One of the men in the race was wearing a shirt that was blank on the front, but on the back it said, “I am 50 years old, have type 2 diabetes, am 75 pounds overweight, and am ahead of you!” Oh, how I wanted a shirt like that! In one 5K, I wore a shirt with words from our First Lesson, “Act Justly, Love Kindness, and Walk Humbly.” Even in Sedona, where Christianity is not the majority, I received a lot of compliments, because, whether or not you believe in God, or whether you know that it is a quotation from an Old Testament prophet, it’s a great slogan.
The time when our lesson from Micah was written was a tense time. Yet another covenant had been broken, and the nation of Israel was on trial. At the beginning of the reading, we are told that the mountains and the hills are the witnesses of what the people had done (again).
God had been there for them, but they had forgotten. When things were going well, they were no longer praising God and telling God’s story. In choosing not to remember their own struggles leading up to liberation, the people grew complacent, apathetic. They had become a people willing to bargain, to bribe, even trying to buy off God. They talk among themselves as they cleverly come up with a calculated scheme. “With what shall I come before the Lord?’ (In other words, with what shall I buy off God.) “Surely God will take my burnt offerings, my young calves. Certainly God will be pleased with thousands of rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil, my firstborn for my transgressions.”
To that, Micah eloquently responds, "What does the Lord require?" Or maybe it is more in his prophetic voice, "HELLO?! Can you hear me now? Are you paying attention at all? God has already told you what is required. Get a clue.” His desperation doesn’t translate well from Hebrew to English, but it’s there.
We miss this when we just read verse 8. That’s the verse that gets printed on those t-shirts and coffee mugs and Facebook posts. When we take that verse out of context, we make it sound like a sweet half-time commercial voiced by a twenty-something famous actor with a full orchestra accompanying him. They are beautiful stirring words, and there’s nothing wrong with following them, but Micah was a radical prophet. He took the messages from Amos and Hosea and Isaiah and made them timeless, but he’s screaming at the top of his lungs to people who have forgotten God and their promises to God, and they’re not paying very close attention.
It was the 8th Century BC, and Micah was a small town boy who spoke for the poor farm workers who were suffering at the hands of the land owners. When he saw injustice, he courageously named it, risking everything because he was not in a place of power but rather right in the midst of the situation. Most leaders of the time were focused on their own comfort and power. Because of that, Micah knew that justice would not come from the state or the structure in power. Real justice must arise out of the people themselves as they face the choice of either heading down the path toward the end or daring to envision change and then gathering the strength and courage to make it happen. Much as it is a T-shirt slogan, “doing justice” isn’t a romantic ideal or an abstract concept. It is also almost never an individual pursuit. Mother Teresa was the exception, not the rule. Justice requires that we work together.
And coming together is excruciatingly hard work. It is, in the words of last week’s sermon, about unity without the need for uniformity. It is about not only seeing and naming a problem but also about finding alternatives to make things better. Justice is able to disrupt, dismantle, and disarm broken and failing systems when cynicism or apathy or complacency don’t get in its way.
Through doing justice, we are able to come to an understanding that everyone matters. And from there, kindness and mercy follow as closely as they do in Micah’s words. We can see all kinds of injustices, tragedies, atrocities, but seeing it is not enough.