The Good Fight

Scripture:  Micah 6:6-8

There are a lot of reasons why the music group Van Halen can be considered rock and roll legends.  They were on the forefront of developing a hard rock sound starting in the 1970s, and they set the blueprint for concerts that were arena filling spectacles.  The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, and their legacy will continue to endure.   One of the more esoteric parts of that legacy is one of their contract riders for live shows.  Van Halen had an infamous and widely known contract stipulation that M&M cadies had to be available in multiple areas back stage and in each bowl of candy all of the brown M&Ms had to be removed.  A lot of celebrities have followed in Van Halen’s footsteps and introduced odd contract stipulations.  Some of these are indulgent and inconvenient for others such as actor Samuel L. Jackson’s insistence for a contractual obligation that there be time in the filming schedule for him to play golf every single day.  Then the demands of other entertainers get truly bizarre such as some of the riders insisted on by singer Mariah Carey such as drapes in all rooms backstage, decorative plants that were exactly eight feet tall, and all bathrooms using a very specific shade of pink toilet paper

Perhaps some of these demands are power trips.  They are made strictly because they can.   However, for Van Halen and their M&Ms requirement they had a very specific reason for doing it. Because Van Halen’s live shows were such events they had a lot of rigging, electrical, and other technical specifications that had to be met.   In his autobiography former front man for the band David Lee Roth pointed out that the M&M requirement was embedded in the technical requirements.  If they arrived to the venue and found the M&Ms as requested then they knew the promoter had thoroughly read the contract and if they enacted this small detail then they could reasonably assume all of the technical aspects had been safely taken care of.  Again in his autobiography, Roth recounts a time when brown M&Ms were present, and sure enough the technical aspects were not considered.  The stage layout had a high weight requirement and the venue had not accurately prepared for that and before the show even started the stage was sagging under the weight of it all.  All contract rider demands may not have a greater purpose, but Van Halen had a way to ensure everything had been properly considered and the show was ready to go.

I think this morning’s scripture serves a similar function.   It list three requirements from God:  to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.  The use of the word require in this scripture can be a bit misleading.   In order to be loved by God, in order to be forgiven, or in order to be saved we are not required to do these things.  If that were true then we would be essentially earning God’s love and forgiveness by jumping through hoops. God’s love and forgiveness is a free gift offered to us without price, so this scripture does not list requirements for that.  Rather, the requirements listed here are a bit like the brown M&M stipulation.  They are a check to see if we have taken the time to understand what it truly means to follow God.  This morning’s scripture tells us what is good.  It sums up what a life changed by grace looks like.   The requirements in this scripture are not a pre-requisite for God’s love but if we ae living them out then it is evidence that we truly understand just what God’s love and grace is truly all about.

This morning’s scripture comes from the prophet Micah.  Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah.  This was a time when the Israelites were divided into two kingdoms.  The southern Kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel.  Micah was based in the southern kingdom but his prophesying applied to both kingdoms.  This morning’s scripture comes from a section that was specifically addressed to the Northern Kingdom.  The Northern Kingdom was lost in idolatry.  Archeological evidence from this era show that the people of the northern kingdom treated the God of their ancestors, the great I AM, as just one of many possible deities one could worship.  The sixth chapter of Micah has God laying out his charge of idolatry against the people of the northern kingdom, and verse six begins with their rhetorical response.  Verses six and seven, which list increasingly greater sacrifices, are basically asking how much do we have to sacrifice to balance the ledger?  It is essentially asking, what are the steps we have to take, what are the hoops we have to jump through, in order to earn God’s favor and love.

God’s answer in verse eight, points out right away that this is the wrong question to ask because God’s love is not something to be earned or bought.  This scripture joins the witness of a lot of the bible.  God is not interested in sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice.  God is not interested in ritual expressions of worship that our transactional.   We cannot earn or buy our way into God’s favor.  What does the Lord require of us?  God has already shown us what is good.  What God wants is a relationship where God is our God and we are God’s people, and as God’s people we live the way that the whole bible testifies to.  We live with a changed heart where we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

Acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God are the natural expressions of a heart changed by God’s love.  These actions are not taken to earn God’s favor, but rather they are taken because we have already accepted God’s favor, love, and forgiveness and that love has changed our lives for the better.   Just like the brown M&Ms were a test if the contract was read, the requirements listed here are a measuring stick to how well we allowed God’s love to change our hearts and lives.   So if we hold up this scripture as a measuring stick to our own lives, how well are we doing at being God’s people and living the way that God believe is good?

To answer that question we have to define what these requirements mean, and I think it is easier to do that in reverse order.   When it comes with walking humbly with God, the key is on humility.  To be humble is to refuse to think of ourselves as more important than we are.  So walking humbly with God means we do not allow our faith to be a reason to look down on others.   A barna research study found that 90% of non-Christians see Christians as judgmental.  A Christian viewpoint is not “I am better than you and you know it”, yet that is what nine out of every ten people outside of the faith think we believe.  When we walk humbly with God we breakthrough that misconception because walking humbly with God means that we do not act in a judgmental, condemning, way towards other people just because we are people of faith.  In fact, if we are walking humbly with God our attitude should be just the opposite.

We are saved by grace in faith through Jesus Christ, but that does not make us inherently better than anyone else.  Jesus is not our personal savior.  The grace made available on the cross is for everyone. We all are in equal need of a savior.  The ground at the foot of the cross is level and we all stand in equal need.  We cannot think of ourselves as more than others because we are all in the same need of grace.   Believing this is what it means to walk humbly with God.

One of the ways that we live out walking humbly with God, the way we put the belief we are all in need of grace in action is through acting justly and loving mercy.   These two go hand in hand. Throughout the bible we see that God is both a God of justice and God of mercy.  We act justly when we stand for what is right, but we cannot do that in isolation.   We must also love mercy, which means we love people.  We treat others with the same kindness, patience, and grace that God treats us with.  As Saint Thomas Aquinas once wrote justice without mercy is cruelty.

In our Wesleyan tradition we have a special word for the action we take when we try to walk humbly with God while being motivated my mercy and seeking to advocate for justice.  We call it social holiness.  Social holiness emphasizes the great command Jesus gave to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Social holiness is when we both act justly and love mercy.  Social holiness is when we work together as a community of faith to meet the needs in the world around us.  We do this through what John Wesley called acts of mercy.  Acts of mercy are actions that tend to be in response to injustices in the world around us:  Clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick.   For Wesley acts of personal holiness and acts of social holiness were deeply connected.   In his book Responsible Grace Wesley historian and theologian Randy Maddox points out that for Wesley “works of piety like worship-which express responsive love for God- would deepen our love for others, while works of mercy would deepen our love for God.”  In other words walking humbly with God and loving God should lead us to love others by acting justly and loving mercy and likewise loving others should lead us to more greatly love God.

Social holiness has long been a Christian practice and it deeply embedded into the DNA of the United Methodist church.  When communities of faith seek to practice works of mercy together it often leads them to seeking to address systemic wrongs or injustices in the world.  Pursuing social holiness out of a love for God, often leads to pursuing social justice out of a love for others.   This is true for the people called Methodists.  Our Book of Discipline records, “The United Methodist church has a long history of concern for social justice.”

I think there is a key quote from the Lord of the Rings that helps define what social justice is and why it is important.  In Lord of the Rings two hobbits, Frodo and Sam, are tasked with carrying a magical weapon to a volcano to destroy it.  They are carrying this weapon, the one ring, to Mount Doom, and they are beginning to realize how hard their task is and how much opposition that is ahead of them.   Things seem bleak and nearly impossible, but Sam offers a glimpse of hope when he says, “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

Activism for social justice is simply fighting for the good in this world.   The world is fallen and broken by sin.   Yet through Christ, the light of God has come into the world.  The light of Christ, the grace of God’s love is a good in this world worth fighting for.  This light is redeeming the world, the whole world, one soul at a time.    As Wesley stated a love for God and a love for people are connected.   In this passage from Micah God is making clear that the way God wanted the Israelites to express their love for God was not through religious ceremony but through the compassion they displayed.  They were to love God by loving others.  This is what God requires from us, when we seek to love others by advocating for justice from a place of mercy, then we are walking humbly with God.  We are demonstrating a heart and a life that has been changed by grace. This morning’s scripture from the Old Testament prophet Micah is a call to social holiness and a demand for social justice.

Social holiness and social justice are essential to the gospel and it is part of the primary purpose of the church.  Seeking greater justice in society for all peoples is how we act justly, lover mercy, and walk humbly with God.  It is how meet the needs around us and transform this world.   The deeds and good works we take part in do not earn us salvation and forgiveness of sins, but rather they are the manifestation of a vibrant and active faith.

As Christians we are follower of Jesus.  Jesus met the real needs of the least advantaged and marginalized.  Anyone who takes following him seriously must do the same.   There are hungry people in our community that need to be fed, there are people in need of clothing in our community, there are marginalized and forgotten people in this community who need Jesus and need to know God loves them.  The simple reality is that a bumper sticker that says “Jesus loves you” is not going to do it.   We need to show them that God loves through how we love them.   This is what the Lord requires of us, this is how God knows we are beginning to understand just what grace is all about.  So may you love others through your actions.   May you act justly.  May you love mercy.  May you walk humbly with God, and may you fight the good fight, because it is worth fighting for.


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