Saturday, January 28, 2017

Pride Of Man

Micah and Jesus – two small-town country boys. They lived approximately 800 years apart, yet they and their people, the people of God, faced many of the same challenges: the greed of commerce trampling the needs of the poor, threats from beyond the borders, threats from within, and in the midst of social and economic chaos, people had largely forgotten the essence of how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob call us to live.

So, in the poetry of Micah, the prophetic imagination envisions a courtroom in which God himself will plead his case against his people who have lost their way and placed their trust in idols, in money, in the acquisition, consumption and accumulation of more and more things, and perhaps worst of all believing they can buy their way out of what is becoming an increasingly bad situation by simply offering more and more sacrifices at the high altars in Jerusalem, and in Micah’s time Samaria.

Note carefully who is in the jury box, who is going to pass judgment on humanity: the mountains and the hills and everything and every creature therein – that is, Creation will hear the case against us.

And the Lord God’s opening statement ought to catch our attention as well: “Oh, my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” Which leads into a rehearsal of just what he has done beginning with the Exodus/Passover, Forty Years of formation and entry into a land of Promise.

Earlier the country poet Micah gradually makes a case that being God’s people demands a particular way of walking: “…you shall not walk haughtily (2:3b)…Do not my words do good to one who walks uprightly (2:7b)…For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever (4:5).”

The courtroom drama concludes with what is probably the only verse of Micah with which people are familiar: “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?” (6:8)

Humility. A virtue that seems in short supply in our culture. When I think of humility I recall a Holy Week meditation led by The Reverend William W. Rich. He drew the etymological connection between the words humility, humble and humus. Humus, that rich, dark earth that enriches, strengthens and improves soil for growth and sustenance.

We sometimes think of humility or humbleness as self-deprecating weakness. That is what is called false humility, often feigned to elicit admiration and praise from others. True humility in the Biblical tradition consists of an appreciation of oneself, one’s talents, skills and virtues while accepting that this self, this remarkable self, has been given, endowed to us really, by something or someone higher. The gift of humility is marked by wisdom, honor, the protection of the Lord and peace – shalom, the kind of peace that passes all understanding and includes all people. Humility’s opposites include pride, narcissism, and hubris – that human characteristic of extreme pride or dangerous over-confidence and self-reliance.

A Hindu spiritual leader of the last century, Meher Baba, urges his followers to offer our prayers to God on the altar of humility. He goes on to say, “True humility is strength, not weakness. It disarms antagonism and ultimately conquers it…One of the most difficult things to learn is to render service [to others] without bossing, without making a fuss about it and without any consciousness of high and low. In the world of spirituality, humility counts at least as much as utility."

Some eight centuries later Jesus expands and broadens what it means to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God in what we call The Sermon on the Mount – the first of five such teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. He goes up a mountain just as Moses once ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Word and Commandments of God – 10 suggestions on humble living followed by 603 others. Like many ancient teachers and authorities, Jesus sits down, his disciples before him and crowds from all over the ancient world beyond them – he literally speaks through his disciples to all of us about how to walk upon this earth.

Earth bound humility consists of peacemaking, a pure heart, an ability to mourn the current sufferings of this world, and mercy. Being merciful, wrote Kurt Vonnegut, is the one good idea we have been given so far. Mercy, compassion for others, lies at the very heart of justice and kindness and humility that Micah writes about. Jesus admits to live this way with our God invites all kinds of trouble, but brings the kingdom of heaven into our midst, into the here and now.

I find myself wondering just what the jury will say. Put creation in the jury box today, let God plead his case, and what would the mountains, hills, and creatures of this world have to say about us and our stewardship of the planet? Just how are we walking? And with whom?

I imagine the verdict to sound a lot like these words of Wendell Berry, another country boy, a farmer and poet of the earth, who in one of his Sabbath Poems of 2007 writes,
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
underfoot. Be lighted by the light that falls
freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
and the darkness of our ignorance and madness.

Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
which is the light of imagination. By it you see
the likeness of people in other places to yourself
in your place. It lights invariably the need for care
toward other people, other creatures, in other places
as you would ask them for care toward your place and you.

No place is better than the world. The world
is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
                        [2007 Sabbath Poem VI, in Leavings (Counterpoint, Berkley: 2010) p.92ff]

As in the times of Micah and Jesus, we need still listen to our poets. Amen. 

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