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A Call For Memory, Clarity, and Confidence

January 29, 2017

A CALL FOR MEMORY, CLARITY, AND CONFIDENCE

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR

January 29, 2017 (Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany)

 

Micah 6:1-8


6Hear what the Lord says:
   Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
   and let the hills hear your voice. 
2 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. 


3 ‘O my people, what have I done to you?
   In what have I wearied you? Answer me! 
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
   and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
   Aaron, and Miriam. 
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
   what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
   that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’ 


6 ‘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? 
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 
8 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?

 

Matthew 5:1-12


5When Jesus* saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

Let us consider the moral, ethical, and social importance of memory.  

 

Memory is the ability to keep things in one’s mind, or to recall them at will (Oxford American Dictionary).  Without memory, we are unable to learn, for memory gives us the power to associate what we have experienced with ongoing events in order to act in effective ways.  

 

Without memory, we risk repeating past mistakes, thereby risking re-injury to ourselves and others by engaging in conduct that caused harm in the past.  Without memory, we are unable to recognize old dangers or old sources of help.  Without memory, we are morally and ethically incompetent.  Memory, for these and other reasons, is a “big deal.”

 

The Hebrew prophets understood the importance of memory.  The passage from Micah bears this out.  In just eight verses, we read God pleading with a faithless society to remember how God has been faithful.  God pleads, through the prophet, with the society God calls my people.  

 

  • God pleads with them to remember how they were liberated from bondage in Egypt.  I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Micah 6:3).
  • God pleads with them to remember they exist because God acted to save them from threats and dangers from powerful enemies.  In a single sentence, God challenges them to remember how Balak, king of Moab, summoned a seer named Balaam and tried to bribe him to curse the migrating people of Israel as they sojourned in the wilderness.  Instead, the seer uttered a prophetic blessing on the migrating people (see Numbers 22-24), and God calls society to remember crossing the Jordan River with Joshua.  O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD (Micah 6:5).

 

This divine call to memory is portrayed in Micah as part of a divine controversy—a lawsuit really—that God is prosecuting against the society.  The irony is that God brings this litigation, according to Brett Younger who teaches homiletics (preaching) at McAfee Theological Seminary in Georgia, when the temple was crowded and giving was over budget for the first time in years.  But as anyone learns who reads the early chapters of Micah, the prophet recognized that religious prosperity can co-exist with injustice and social oppression.  

 

The divine lawsuit against the society called on creation to be judge between God and the society.  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 (Micah 6:1-2).  In this courtroom, God testifies against the society.  God indicts a society stuck on its religious rituals and symbols.  God remembers what the society has chosen to forget—that the people have been saved by and for God, not by and for themselves.  

 

The passage from Micah shows that humans need prophetic reminders about the profound difference between religious ritualism and righteousness (justice).  A society is not made righteous (just) based on the number and size of the houses of worship one can count in it, nor by the size of the crowds attending worship services.  So the prophet voices the response to the divine indictment.  The society wanted to know what more did God want?  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? [Micah 6:6-7].  

 

The answer to that question appears at verse 8.  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 6:8]  Injustice is not corrected by rituals, but by right relationships!  We do not become a just society by building monuments to our religious pride (or prejudice), but by being in right relationship with God and others.

 

This passage reminds us that we can forget what we’ve lived.  We can become unjust people because we forget how we’ve been delivered, liberated, made free.  We can have failed memory.

 

We can also become unjust because we have faulty memory.  Who among us has not forgotten to do something we promised to do, but incorrectly thought we had done it?  

 

And, we become unjust when we engage in acts and processes involving memory fraud.  

 

The day after President Trump took office he shamelessly lied about the size of the audience that attended his inauguration.  Yes, Mr. Trump lied.  He was not mistaken about the facts.  He simply, and brazenly, declared something to be factually true that he knew, and had every reason to know, was false, meaning untrue.  Then his press secretary, Sean Spicer, angrily scolded the White House press corps for exposing the falsehood.  To making matters even worse, White House counselor Kellyanne Cooper declared last Sunday on Meet the Press that Spicer had asserted “alternative facts.”  

 

This is how oppressors hijack, falsify, and “spin” facts to engage in memory fraud and defend oppression.  They resort to propaganda, and dare people to confront, condemn, and denounce them for deliberately distorting truth.  When they do so, the lesson from Micah shows we have a divine obligation to stand up, speak out, and protect the moral and ethical importance of truth when it comes to memory.

 

The familiar lesson from the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 clarifies something else.  Here Jesus imagines what an ideal community looks like to an audience of people colonized by the Roman Empire.  His audience lived under military occupation.   Although the people who heard Jesus speak were free to practice the religion of their ancestors, their religious authorities had distorted the meaning and message of their faith tradition to the point that ritualism and personal prosperity were considered more important than justice.  

So Jesus pronounced God’s blessings on people who are poor in spirit, people who grieved by the oppression they see and experience, and people who are meek rather than vicious.  Jesus pronounced divine favor for people who hunger and thirst for justice in an unjust society and world, people who are committed to showing mercy in an unforgiving society, and people loyal to God’s love and rule in a time of idolatry to self.  

 

Jesus, not Roman Emperors or religious materialists, declared the blessings of God for people committed to peacemaking – rather than peacekeeping—in a society and world made brutal and dangerous by addiction to violence and conflict, and people who are persecuted because of their commitment to equality and fairness.   

 

The Beatitudes make clear what the lesson from Micah expressed.  Favor with God is defined by the relationships we have with people around us.  We cannot pray and sing our way around the declarations by Jesus that the living described in the Beatitudes are the indications we are in right relationship with God, right relationship with others, and right understanding of what it means to be part of the Beloved Community.  

 

The Beatitudes proclaim with clarity the kind of living people do who love God fully and people who love neighbors as themselves.  This, according to Jesus, is the way of justice.  Notice that Jesus said nothing about wealth, privilege, or any of the other popular features of what now passes for the prosperity gospel.  

 

Finally, Jesus assured his audience that Beatitude-living would be controversial, unpopular, and risky.  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 gad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  [Matthew 5:11-12]  Let us ponder these assurances closely.

 

Jesus assured us that people who live with subversive humility, extravagant hospitality, and self-less generosity will be unpopular.  

 

Jesus assured us that they will be targets of vile messages and false accusations.

 

Yet, Jesus assured us that people who live for justice are blessed of God, meaning they are favored by God despite the harsh treatment they experience from other quarters.  

 

We are assured, by none other than Jesus, that following his path of humility, hospitality, grace, and justice puts us in company with the prophets of old.  Let us, therefore, remember we are God’s people.  Let us live with clear-eyes and pure hearts to present the grace, truth, mercy, peace, justice, and hope of God in every interaction.  Let us claim the blessed assurances from Jesus that this is the living that brings glory to God.  

 

Amen.

 

©Wendell Griffen, 2017