Requirements of Grace

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA

November 13, 2022

Micah 1:2-5; 6:1-8

Introduction to Worship: 

Today we are hearing from the Prophet Micah, who talks about what is required of us in our lives of faith. Before we look at what he says, let’s start with what Mary Oliver says is required of us in life too, from her poem, Wild Geese. 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Sermon: 

Micah is a prophet who we know mainly for that last verse we heard. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. 

And we’ll get to that verse in a minute. But first. Micah stands in a solid line of Hebrew prophets. He poetically spells out a powerful message of both judgment and hope, as his contemporary prophets did. He wrote at the same time as Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, but Isaiah critiqued things from a position inside the palace and the halls of power. Micah was a commoner, from the town of Moresheth-Gath, a small town in SW Judah. Isaiah would have been a member of Calvary. Micah would have been a member of a much smaller congregation in a rural community—but close enough to see the problems of San Francisco, I mean Jerusalem, and to have some opinions about those problems. 

He prophesied during the time of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, from the mid 700s BCE to late 600s BCE, and witnessed the fall of Samaria in 722 and the siege of Jerusalem in 701 by Assyria. 

This was a time when people knew challenge. And heartbreak. And loss. And Violence. And fear. And people took the sadness, grief, and confusion about the trials in the world and turned on God, blaming God for their troubles, wondering if the offerings they’d made had been rejected because they weren’t fancy enough for God or something. 

This prophecy is written as if God is in a trial against the people of God. 

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
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.

This story is a reminder that while it is always fine to complain to God, and to offer our worries and doubts to God, it might be problematic to complain about God.  God hears the people’s complaints and says, ‘okay, I will be a witness against you. You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!’

 For lo, the Lord is coming out of his place,
and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
Then the mountains will melt under him
and the valleys will burst open,

like wax near the fire,

I don’t know about you, but I don’t ever want to hear God talk about melting mountains like wax because of something I’ve done.  We could hear this prophecy and think of other people we’re sure are angering God today. The news is full of them. 

But it turns out we aren’t called to point out other people’s problems to God. It’s above our pay grade, as it were. I hear these words of Micah and realize I too have broken God’s heart during my life. I mean, I try to be a decent human being, but I’m a human being and we often do what we wouldn’t ever want to do, to paraphrase Paul in the letter to the Romans: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

To be human is to sometimes be spectacular and kind, but also sometimes to make mistakes. To be human is to love each other and to hurt each other. 

We are imperfect people who rely on grace. The grace we give to each other when our closeness leads to conflict, when our miscommunication leads to misunderstanding, and when our fear leads to lashing out. In healthy relationships, we give and get grace in equal measure. 

We are imperfect people of faith who rely on the grace of God.  And the fathomless mystery of God means that God chooses to be for us, that God is on our side, not because we could somehow be perfect and earn it, but because that is who God is. 

And for Micah, the people had forgotten the order of grace. When God’s grace seems our due, we don’t know how to process tragedy and challenge. Let’s think about that for a minute.

If we think we have earned God’s bottomless cup of grace, then how could we make sense of life when bad things happen to us—when Assyria invades, when we lose our job, when the economy crumbles, when cancer strikes? 

You can hear that from some TV preachers, who will tell you that some tragedy in the news cycle happened because people were unfaithful, and that is usually defined as not going to the right church, or voting for the wrong candidate. Also, send them your money and you’ll avoid future tragedy. But the prophets in scripture witness against false prophets, people who lead the people astray. 

In chapter 3, Micah says this: 

Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry ‘Peace’
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
who put nothing into their mouths.

Its rulers give judgement for a bribe,
  its priests teach for a price,
 its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the Lord and say,

   ‘Surely the Lord is with us!
 No harm shall come upon us.’
 Therefore because of you
Zion shall be ploughed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
 and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

The truth is, things happen. Being faithful to God doesn’t keep us from the consequences of our actions, or from the consequences of other people’s actions, even. Micah reminds the people that faith isn’t about some kind of magic protection from harm. Faith is about journeying with God through the complexities of life. 

In this courtroom saga Micah lays out, God calls on the mountains and the hills to be witnesses. Which suggests to me that if we want to see the work of God, we need to have a long view of history. God didn’t call mayflies or other short lived creation to bear witness. God calls on the mountains. When we are in the middle of things, we can’t always see where we are or what’s happening. 

From Justin’s backpacking trip this summer in King’s Canyon/Sequoia parks.

But God’s grace is present is with us through it all—the celebrations, the sorrows, the invasions, the conquering victories. And it isn’t something we earn, but it does come with requirements. 

If we want to live as God’s children, recipients of grace and mercy, we are then to reflect that out to the world.  We can’t receive grace without sharing it. 

As Israel starts to hear God’s opening statements, they get nervous and a little worried. This case is not going well for them. 

So they talk about offerings. What kind of offerings should we bring to God?, they ask in chapter 6. They start small—burnt offerings and calves? Then it escalates to a somewhat absurd level: thousands of rams and tens of thousands of rivers of oil? 

And then “shall I give my firstborn child for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

They don’t get it. 

And I don’t think they have any intention of following through with that level of response to God. 

And I’m sure God knows that too. And so Micah replies with his most famous verse ever. 

God 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?

What Micah offers the people is a brilliant response to their courtroom shenanigans. God doesn’t want all of your oil, livestock, and firstborn children as offering. God wants YOU. 

Your life is the offering. How you live your life is the requirement of grace. Are we doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God? 

We aren’t called to talk about justice and then turn our heads when we see injustice and cruelty. We are called to be active doers of justice. How we live. How we vote. How we give of our time and treasure and advocacy. Justice is one of our orientations to life. 

Kindness is a translation of the Hebrew word “hesed”. Hesed is a multivalent word. It is the covenant love and mercy God shows toward God’s people. It is the deep love spouses have for each other. It isn’t kindness in the shallow level meaning the word can have in our context—where someone is nice in their words, but not caring in deep relational ways. This kindness is a big action verb. 

Walking humbly. To walk with God is to be aware that we are on the journey with God at our side every step of the way. We don’t just come to church on Sunday for an hour and then forget God is with us the rest of the week.  As Cameron Howard, one of the commentators on this passage wrote: 

“Right relationship with God is an ongoing, seven-days-a-week orientation to life, one that prioritizes the well-being of the neighbor, making a life of worship also a life of doing justice, loving with generosity and fidelity, and journeying in humility with God.”

Of course some days will be better than others in our journey. Think of any long hike or walk you’ve been on. There are stretches when you don’t even notice you’re moving, and there are others where each step is effort. Life is like that too. 

And remember that God was making his case to the mountains, to the part of creation that took a long time to be created, from the depths of the earth, minerals coming together to create rock, the earth’s plates slowly moving, uplifting mountain ranges into the sky over millennia. Our lives don’t last as long as a mountain range, but we see our journey of faith better if we take a longer view. 

As many of you know, last week, my family gathered in Spokane for my mother’s memorial service. And as we reflected back on her life, we were able to see bigger patterns of love, compassion, and service than maybe we might have seen on any given day when we were in the middle of it. My mother wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. I’m sure you can picture this in the lives of the people you’ve loved. When you live a life as Micah calls us to—as an offering to God, full of justice, kindness, and humility—it shapes you and directs your path. 

In front of my childhood home last week

That’s what the Lord requires of us. Let’s be people who seek to journey with God, working for justice, being fierce practicers of kindness, and trusting that God is at our side, all the way. 

One thought on “Requirements of Grace

  1. >>If we want to live as God’s children, recipients of grace and mercy, we are then to reflect that out to the world. We can’t receive grace without sharing it. << These words resonate with me. I taking them with me this week. and sharing them wherever I go. Grace and mercy.

    Liked by 1 person

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