It started out as innocent game. Two rows of children separated by a large field. The children of each row would hold hands and each team would alternate, calling out a child's name from the other side to run over with the attempt of trying to stop the child from breaking the row they had formed. "Red rover, red rover!" the children would yell. "Send so and so over." Being one of the smaller children in my class, I watched, I waited, and I wondered what the point of the game was. Was it to show one's strength by breaking through with the sheer force of one's body? Or was it to be caught unable to break the chain only to be made aware once more of one's own weakness? As I held tightly, grasping to the hands of my elementary school classmates, I was not sure which would hurt more, attempting to sustain the weight of a kid running full speed towards us--the odds of that happening were mathematically pretty slight--or having to face my fellow classmates if and when I had let the kid break through. Neither choice was a good one, and yet at a young age I had not quite figured out that within each of us is the power to not play the game, to dare to break the rules, to go against the flow. Ohhh, but how to bring that conscience to awareness.
As I saw the kid racing right towards my side of the line, the thought of screaming, "Bloody murder!" did cross my mind. I knew this was not going to be a pretty sight; I let the moment pass and then it happened. "Red rover, red rover, sent that slanted-eyed Asian shrimp over!" I did my best to muster up enough courage and strength, and yet all I could feel was the fear within me and in a way the fear all around me. A part of me longed to break a wrist, any wrist. A part of me longed not to run over to the other side at all. And in my dilemma, amidst the tension, I remember whispering to myself, "Red rover, red rover, dear God, what do I do now that I am called over?"
In our scripture passage, the air is tense for God and the people of Israel are in the middle of a lawsuit. They have come to court to see who is at fault in their fractured relationship. The mountains and the hills are to be the witnesses. A controversy with God? Probably not a good place to be in, especially if you are the one who has broken the covenant. "O, my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you for I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery? I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam" (Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo, and Princess Leia) so that you might know the saving acts of God."
But you have forgotten. Your memories have become hazy. You have grown forgetful in what had been given to you as a gift. In choosing not to remember their own exodus and the struggles leading up to liberation, the people grow complacent seeking now to possess, and we begin to see what the prophet Micah saw. A people willing to bargain, to bribe, and to buy off God. The people talk amongst themselves as they cleverly come up with a calculated scheme. With what shall I come before the Lord? 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, and like the Lorax who dares to speak for the trees, Micah eloquently responds, "What does the Lord require?" Or maybe it is more in his prophetic voice, "WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE? HELLO, IS ANYONE OUT THERE LISTENING?? HAVE YOU HEARD ONE WORD I HAVE SPOKEN? DO YOU SEE THE INJUSTICES ALL AROUND YOU? WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE?" A gracious and poetic way of saying perhaps, GET A CLUE--WILL YOU? For God has already told you what God requires.
I must confess that I have been troubled by how the church has all too often taken the poignant and radical words of Micah, which he gets from Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah, and makes the words come out sweet, breathy, as if at any moment we expect music from a violin. And though I may be mistaken, when I read the book of Micah, he is not a happy camper.
So who was this 8th century prophet anyway? All we know about Micah is that he was from a small village, Moresheth, a prophet who spoke for the poor farm workers who were suffering at the hands of the powerful landlords. Micah was the voice of the worker and that of common everyday people. He saw the injustice that was going on in society, was quite willing to name them by their right name and felt called to address the ones in power and to speak against evils that were no longer tolerable.
Micah was not removed from the suffering and plight of his people. He was right there in the midst of it. Micah knew that justice would not come from the state or the power structure for most, if not all, of the leadership were preoccupied and caught up in matters of comfort, prosperity, and security. Justice, as history has shown, arises out of the people themselves, who having been alienated from what belongs to them, if not already taken away from them, either begin down a path of death, or somehow by God's grace, dare to envision change, new ways of doing things and different and dynamic alternatives to their current unjust conditions. What does the Lord require but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. To do justice is not a romantic ideal nor an abstract concept. Rather I have found justice is excruciatingly hard work. For it asks of us as a people to work together, to truthfully critique the present unjust system and to find new alternatives to change the system. It also involves the wealthiest nation in the world to give back what never belonged to her. Justice is able to disrupt, dismantle, break down, disarm, and transform systems and people when we dare to see what is really happening here and around the world without growing cynical and closed off. Because we are able to come to an understanding that every human being matters, that God matters, which is why doing justice is so closely intertwined with lovingkindness. We can see all kinds of injustices, tragedies, atrocities, but seeing it is not enough. For it is in seeing the injustice and being moved in doing something about it that we dare to change what is unjust.
The Good Samaritan who dares not pass by another human being, even when that other was considered an enemy. The father of the elder son in the prodigal son who did not choose one son over another but found his two arms wide enough to embrace both his sons. Mary and the other women standing at the foot of the cross no matter how painful and frightening. Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah weeping together in their grief. The woman with her alabaster flask who broke it open and poured it out without holding back and Jesus who wept, prayed, broke bread, touched, and healed the people are real flesh and blood examples of lovingkindness, loving tenderly, loving steadfastly.
And yet in our society, to love kindness does not come easily. Perhaps this is because loving tenderly involves one knowing confidently one is loved and is able to take the risk to be moved, to be vulnerable, and to be able to see another person's suffering as one's own.
Charlie understood this. Charlie was one of those kids who the Sunday School teachers just could not get ahold on. When it came time for the Christmas pageant, the teachers thought themselves wise to give Charlie a simple part. Charlie would be the innkeeper. This would mean saying, "No room" three times. The night of the pageant two of the children dressed as Joseph and Mary came to the inn. "No room," said Charlie. The couple knocked on the door a second time. "NO ROOM!" Charlie repeated. Banging on the door even harder, desperately seeking space for themselves and their new baby, Joseph and Mary pleaded with the innkeeper, "Please, is there any room in the inn?" Moved with compassion, Charlie forgot his line. "Oh," he said, "why don't you take my room tonight?" The pageant came to a complete halt. Some parents were upset. They had spent big bucks on their children's outfits. But for many who had come in the spirit seeking the presence of God, Charlie's words of kindness had taught them something about loving tenderly. To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Truth to tell, I often think I know what to walk humbly with God is not--more so than I grasp what to walk humbly with God is.
For instance, to walk humbly is to neither to have your nose up in the air nor your shoulders slouched over your feet. To walk humbly is to not exalt yourself, to not worry or be bothered by other people's opinions of you. To walk humbly is not to be above someone or below someone, but rather with someone. It is not thinking you can do it all on your own, carrying the burdens upon your limited human shoulders. It is not forgetting you are human. It is not living without grace. It is not playing God. So maybe walking humbly with God is about paying attention, paying attention to who we are and what is around us, listening to the cries and the stories of other human beings as well as to our own stories waiting on God. It is as Micah said, "I will wait on God and God will hear me. Then when there are wars and bombings in Kosovo, Iraq, in the Middle East, human beings will gather around the world, talking with one another, having discussions, getting to know each other, praying together, and standing up to say, "No more! No More!"
Red rover, red rover, dear God, what do I do? Red rover, red rover, what can we do? Begin breaking the chains of injustice and war for if we do not choose life for all people--men, women, and children--not just a select few, it's all over.