February 1, 2011

He has told you, oh, Mortal...

4th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Axl Heck -- "What is it that you want from me?"
Mike Heck -- "How about dinner with your parents."

God tells us in Micah what is required of us. The question is how much we are going to welcome God as our partner and our strength on that journey.

Click here for the audio and here for more images from "The Middle."

Micah 6:1-8

One of my favorite TV shows right now is “The Middle.” It’s on ABC, Wednesdays at 8pm, and while they did not pay Christ Church or me for this publicity, I’m going to give them a plug anyway.

It stars Patricia Heaton (from “Everybody Loves Raymond”) and Neil Flynn (he was the janitor on “Scrubs”) as Francis & Mike Heck. They live in Orson, Indiana, and are the parents of three kids: A very moody high school-age son, a clumsy and awkward middle school-age daughter, and a bookish elementary age son. All three kids have their own quirks, and all three drive their parents crazy. (But I’ll come back to that in just a minute). Each of the three kids (Axl, Sue & Brick) has their own expectations and needs and demands on their parents. They want their parents to be there for their every whim, beck and call, but they also want to make sure it’s on their own terms and not Mom & Dad’s terms. This, of course, can and does drive the parents daffy, as any one who has parented or otherwise worked with children age, say, 2 and up can attest.

Lest you think I’m setting up these two parents as flawless victims, I am not. They certainly have their own quirks that drive their kids crazy, often justifiably. But I want us to hang on this image from “The Middle,” and these three distinct young people, beloved offspring of their parents, and the demands and expectations of and from their parents.

By the time we get to the 6th chapter of Micah, the prophet has declared what tragedies would befall Israel for turning away from God, promising that things will get better after the difficult times have passed. Like the works of most prophets, Micah’s book ends with images of hope, and it is hope that has the final words. Chapter six, especially here in the eight verses of today’s reading, is a conversation between God and Israel. The voices in this passage are those of God, Israel, and Micah. God starts the conversation. Israel quips back, and God responds, through Micah, with the simplest and yet most poignant of answers.

God starts off by saying, “What have I done to weary you?” You can almost hear the exasperation in God’s voice and yet, like so many parents, the source of that exasperation is not the child’s actions, but the love the parent has for the child. God reminds them of their own salvation history, periods where God was closer and God’s activity is seen more clearly. God has done all these things and yet asked for seemingly so little in return.

There was this one particular episode of “The Middle” where the parent had bent over backwards and driven Axl all over central Indiana. Axl, in return, cannot be bothered to speak to his younger sister in public or even sit down for dinner with his parents. Axl says, in a voice dripping with teenage angst and rebellion, “What is it that you want from me?” His dad looks him dead in the eye and says, “How about dinner with your parents?”

In a similar way, thousands of years ago, a prophet recorded the words of a pesky and ornery people who said to their God, their creator and their redeemer, “What do we have to do to make you happy? More oil? More money? More sacrifices? Our first born?”

In the midst of this outcry comes the voice of Micah to answer the people:

“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?”

And what, really, does the Lord require of us but to do those three things?

Justice, or the word we’ve translated as “justice,” has a little bit different connotation than what modern America may be used to, especially if you grew up with John Wayne or Bruce Willis movies. Justice is about fixing the wrongs so that humanity can be in right relationship with each other and with God. If things are out of step or out of sync with my neighbor, then I am out of step with my God as well. Jesus is abundantly clear who our neighbors are. Justice is this dynamic concept that no only calls but requires the people of God to work for fairness and equality for all, particularly the powerless and those without anyone else to speak with them.

The word that we’ve translated as “kindness” is hesed in Hebrew. It is one of the most common words in the Old Testament, especially among the prophets. It is also used in scripture to describe “faithfulness” or “loyalty.” It’s one of Jeremiah’s favorite words to describe God and God’s actions.

God calls u and Israel to love God as God loves us. It’s not enough to maintain kindness and loyalty out of a sense of duty or fear of retribution. If we love God, then we cannot help but love our neighbor. And if we are striving to be in right-relationship with God, then we will walk with God. Some scholars have suggested that the word “humbly” could also be understood as “carefully.” So if we are walking with God, then we are careful to put God first. Our journey thought this life is very easily seen as walking with God as our constant companion.

Daniel Simundson is a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, and he writes regarding this passage:

“These key verses from Micah are about lifestyle, one’s total outlook on life and one’s ethical values. They reject the simplistic notion that there is one thing that (they or us) can do to make things right between God and the people.”[1]

While there is not one thing, there are several things, beginning quite possibly with a daily prayer that we want to walk humbly with our Maker each day, and a prayer that asks God to help us be more faithful and love kindness more today than we did yesterday and more tomorrow than we do today. It’s a prayer that asks God to help us return things to right relationship with God and our neighbors.

God has called and empowered us through our Baptism to all those things. The question is how much we are going to welcome God as our partner and our strength on that journey.

Like most good sit-coms, “The Middle” almost always ends with some heart-warming moment of family unity. Rarely do they get there without some major strife. The prophet Micah’s book ends, not with a rosy turn-around of God’s people and the cancelation of God’s anger. But it ends with a renewed covenant of faith and faithfulness between Israel and God, and the knowing that God will be with them to help them do those things that the Lord requires. It’s the same promise that remains for us today and tomorrow and next week.

“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?”


[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume VII, Abington Press, Nashville, p. 580, 1996.

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