Wesley Allen: Hey! Who's On Trial Here?

We Americans love a good trial. We watch courtroom dramas on TV and in the movies. I personally have watched all 800 of the John Grisham movies.

But we don't just watch fictional trials. Real life trials entertain us, too. Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, Kobe Bryant, Bill Clinton, O. J. Simpson, Leopold & Loeb, the Lindberg Kidnapper, the impeachment investigation. Heck, we even have Court TV that treats trials like sports events with play-by-play commentary and trial round-ups throughout the day. Those trials aren't enough for us though, so we create The People's Court, Divorce Court, Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, Judge Mills Lane, Judge Joe Brown, and Judge Hatchett. Trials entertain us.

Of course, there are times when historical trials move us in a way that moves us beyond entertainment. Sometimes, even though we're observers, trials make us question our core values and our very understanding of what is right and wrong in the world: Watergate, Brown vs. the Board of Education, Nuremburg, Scopes Monkey Trial, Amistad, the trial of Galileo, and of course, the trial of Jesus. Trials have always moved humans. They challenge us, call us to question who we are and what values we hold dearest, and to change what we do.

Today's lesson from Micah is just such a trial. The text opens with the bailiff calling the court to order and inviting the two parties forward to argue their cases before the jury:

Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
    and let the hills hear your voice.

The mountains are the jury? Why mountains? The reasoning is clear in the bailiff's instruction to the jury:

Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD,
    and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with God's people
    and will contend with Israel.

Since the participants in the case are God and God's people, the mountains are the perfect jury - with their foundation on earth and their peaks stretching up to the heavens, who could better serve as mediators between the human and the divine?

Court has been called to order, the jury instructed, and now the plaintiff steps up to offer an opening statement. The plaintiff is God, and God is suing Israel:

O my people, what have I done to you?
    In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
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.
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.

It is a case about breach of contract. God presents evidence to show that there is no fault on the divine side of the covenant. "Didn't I rescue you from Egypt? Didn't I bring you into the Promised Land and protect you from armies lined up against you?" And what comes next is not stated, but it's not stated very loudly: "I kept my side of the covenant, but the people have not lived up to theirs." That's what this case is all about.

But the people will not be accused without mounting a defense. Then next comes the lawyer for the defense. Israel's attorney stands up and declares to the jury of the mountains, with as much sarcasm as humanity can muster, that the people have indeed lived up to their side of the contract:

With what shall I come before the LORD,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before God 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?

The argument for the defense is that Israel isn't the problem, God is. God is a jealous, greedy God who always wants more. If regular sacrifices don't please God, how many will it take? Thousands? Ten thousands? Soon, God is going to calling for human sacrifice and want us to slay our babies.

The mountains leave the courtroom to deliberate, but it doesn't take them long to return to the jury box. They've considered the arguments of both sides and pronounce their judgment. It is against the defendant: Guilty. And the "fore-mountain" says,

The LORD 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?

The defendants misunderstood all along. It wasn't about sacrifices. God's complaint was about ethics. Case closed.

Some of my students worry that too much of seminary is abstract and they're always on the lookout for things that are immediately useful. Sometimes when they hear something in class that they think is useful in this way, they'll say, "Well, that'll preach!" Years ago, when I was studying this text for a sermon, it became clear to me that this was that sort of text. It'll Preach! with a capital P and an exclamation point. And let me tell you, I was ready to do just that. I was ready to preach this Micah text. I was ready to let the jury's declaration loose on the extreme Christian right whom I saw as claiming to have cornered the market on "moral values" while failing to invest anything more than pocket change in social ethics.

But then, darn it, I made the mistake that other students of mine make in middle of preparing a sermon: I talked to a seminary professor about what I was doing. It was Dr. Lisa Davison who teaches Hebrew Bible at Phillips Theological Seminary. She took a perfectly simple, straightforward idea I had and made it complicated. I told her about this sermon on Micah 6 that I was working on - now, mind you, I'm just making small talk, just giving information, not seeking advice, but that never stopped a professor from putting in his or her own four cents - I told her I was working on Micah 6 and she said, "Oh, that's a great text, but I think all the translations have it wrong. It's not that God demands us "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." The Hebrew is stronger than that. She said, "A better translation is that God requires us 'to make justice happen, to love passionately as God loves, and to remember that, although we are not God, we are God's very own.'" Suddenly, I began asking myself, "Hey, hey! Who's on trial here? I'm supposed to be an observer of this trial!" You see, what I had wanted to do was to lament other Christians that I don't think share my level of concern for justice, but now I'm hearing in this translation that being "concerned" for justice isn't enough. I mean, there's a huge difference between "doing justice" and "making justice happen." It's one thing to live your individual life justly - to be honest in business dealings, to volunteer in a homeless shelter, to treat people as equals regardless of who they are. Those things are good, but they're not the same thing as making justice happen. They're not the same thing as taking our corrupt systems in society and somehow making them just. Who's on trial here?

When I was in campus ministry years ago, I was struck by the fact that the students who were most active in trying to bring about social change for the better didn't participate in religious life activities on campus at all. These were the students who led teach-ins about sweatshops making all the clothes we bought in the college bookstore. These were the young women and men who protested at the School of the Americas each year.

These were the students who protested outside the administration building with tape over their mouths to force the university president to issue a statement following the violent death of Matthew Shepherd.

These were the students who negotiated with the university's board of trustees to secure that at least a portion of the school's endowment be assigned to socially responsible investments.

And these were the students who never darkened the door of the church. When I asked them why that was, these nineteen and twenty year-olds said they didn't see the church as relevant for society anymore. They said the church had sold its soul in order to make people in the pews feel better about themselves instead of making the world a better place for all. And I, as their chaplain, responded to them, "Hey! Hey! Who's on trial here? Just a minute!"

Well, they knew who was on trial. It's me. I'm a nice, decent person, at least I think so, but this text from Micah says that God requires more than decency, indeed that God requires more of us than just being concerned about justice. Being concerned about justice is nice, but nobody changed the world to look more like God's reign just by being nice. To make justice happen, I must do more - I must be more - I must become more. And those young people were right, at least partially. The church should equip and challenge us to make justice happen.

A few years back, I went to Memphis for an academic conference, and one of the things the organizers had planned for us was a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum. It's housed in the Loraine Motel. As you walk through the winding hallways of the museum, you see photos of protests in Berkley, California, you push buttons and hear recordings of great speeches and powerful spirituals, you read "White only" signs, and you stand in the exact spot on the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fell when he was shot.

At one point early in the tour, you get to walk into an old restored bus from Montgomery, Alabama. Holding onto that cold, metal rail and climbing up those rubber-padded steps at the front of the bus, I was filled with both pride and shame at the same time. Being there seemed an appropriate way to honor those African Americans who boycotted the bus system over seventy years ago in my home state, but I also remembered how people with my skin color treated those people back in those days. And when I had stepped all the way into that bus and looked toward its back, I saw a sign inviting visitors to sit at the very row where Rosa Parks sat on the bus when she refused to "move on back." When I sat down there was sort of a familiar feel to the seat. A little uncomfortable, but familiar. But I couldn't quite put my finger on what the seat felt like; I just knew that I'd felt that kind of seat before.

Anyway, I sat there in that ordinary, smelly ol' bus and noticed a button you can push. There are buttons all over the museum that start recordings about this or that. So, I pushed this one and waited to hear a narration about Rosa Parks and the boycott start up. But instead, a voice from the front of the bus somewhat-politely (well, only somewhat) told me to move to the back of the bus to make room for others who are getting on. A second later the voice was louder, angrier, full of disrespect and hatred, ordering me to get to the back. Another second later the voice is shouting, calling me names, and threatening that if I do not move now, the police will be called and cart my sorry carcass off to jail.

And sitting there, in that museum bus, with nothing but a tape recorder yelling at me and a memory of those who found strength in God to say, "No more!" to suffering, injustice, and oppression, I understood the difference between "doing justice" and "making justice happen." And at that very moment, I also remembered what that uncomfortable seat felt like - it felt just a little bit like what a church pew is supposed to feel like.

Let us pray.

God of hope, you indict us when we break our covenant with you by failing to make justice happen in our world. But we know that your judgment is really the gift of calling. Help us to hear that calling by granting us a vision of your reign on earth. Give your church just one ounce of your strength to empower us to join you in ridding the world of oppressive structures that cause suffering for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We pray in the name of the one who conquered even the oppressive power of death, Christ our Savior. Amen.