Micah 6.6-8 | October 18, 2020
Pastor Ken Larson
Here is a story that might seem offensive, but please reserve judgment until you hear it all. Two older men were good friends and had belonged to the same Covenant church for many years. Mr. Lee and Mr. Dahlberg were both children of immigrants who had come to America several generations earlier. Mr. Lee’s family came from China and Mr. Dahlberg’s from Sweden. One day they were talking and out of the blue Mr. Dahlberg asked his friend, “So tell me, why did your people bomb Pearl Harbor?” Mr. Lee was taken back by the accusation and replied, “But that was done by the Japanese and I’m Chinese.” Mr. Dahlberg then said, “Japanese, Chinese, what’s the difference?” Mr. Lee thought for a moment and then asked, “Well you tell me why Swedes sank the Titanic?” His friend was dumbfounded by the question and said, “That ship was sunk by an iceberg, not Swedes.” To which Mr. Lee said, “Iceberg, Dahlberg, what’s the difference?”
My ethnic heritage is mostly Swedish and I can attest that I’ve known some Swedes who were about as smart as an iceberg. Truthfully, though, we are all descended from a particular ethnic and cultural background, and it’s OK to be proud of your heritage. In one place where we lived there was a small city nearby with a large Dutch population. Shops in that town that sold T-shirts which read, “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.” Such ethnic promotions are mostly done in a good spirit. Problems arise, though, when we actually begin to believe that OUR group is smarter or more capable or more industrious those OTHER groups. It’s understandable that people feel comfortable with those who share their background, but it’s harmful when it leads to suspicion or criticism or harsh treatment of others simply because of their ethnic background, skin color, language or religion.
In our country most people will say that everyone should be treated fairly and equally. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that we are all created equal and are “endowed” by our Creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even little kids have an innate sense that they should be treated impartially. When one thinks that a brother or sister has gained an uncalled for advantage they’ll say, “That’s not fair!” When an individual or group in our society believes they have been denied opportunities or access, cries of injustice rise up. It would be wonderful if everyone heeded these words of Jesus, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7.12) Sadly that doesn’t always happen. When it doesn’t, what do we do?
For the past month we’ve been talking about how to pass on a “Sticky Faith,” to the generations behind us that stays with them throughout their lives. Today’s focus is “Justice.” Any talk about justice makes some people nervous, because they only see it through a particular lens. Some take the word justice to mean getting the benefits that are due to them as members of free society – to be treated fairly on the job, travel freely without harassment, vote in elections or purchase a home in any neighborhood they can afford. Others mainly think of justice in terms of punishing those who do wrong. If someone commits a crime they should be penalized for their misdeeds. Who is right? Both are correct for these interpretations are flip sides of the same coin of justice.
This is a huge issue for younger generations who are acutely tuned in to claims of inequality. A few months ago we witnessed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests which erupted all over the country. People were rightly outraged not just at that particular event, but for the long history of mistreatment that people of color have experienced for hundreds of years. This is not an issue about which God’s people can be passive. Faith cannot just be about “me and Jesus” – it has to be about all of us together and Jesus, and how he wants to be at work through us to lift up the poor, encourage the broken, and defend the oppressed. Justice is our concern because it is a core characteristic of God. We heard the voices of the prophets this morning that consistently called out the people of Israel for unjust actions that hurt others. When Jesus began his public ministry he framed it with the of the prophet Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.18-19)
How can we pass on this kind of faith to our kids? Let’s look at Micah 6.1-8.
Micah was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. His ministry occurred during a time of great political turbulence, from approximately 740-700 BC. The superpower of the day was the Assyrian Empire which was always a threat to overrun the small Hebrew kingdom of Judah, and yet Micah’s main focus was rampant social injustice not international intrigue. His nation hoped God would protect them for outside forces, but Micah told them that unless they pursued personal holiness and took care of the powerless, no divine help would be forthcoming. In fact, he said, God might even use a foreign power to discipline them for their disobedience. The prophet was specific about the people’s sins which included idolatry, nobles who seized land from the poor, widows unjustly evicted from their homes, dishonest scales used in business, rulers who demanded gifts, and judges who took bribes.
God expected better behavior from his people, but he wasn’t looking for a ritualized response. More worship or increased sacrifices would not substitute for an attitude of the heart that led to action. Verse 8 called Micah’s contemporaries – and us – to act justly toward everyone we encounter, seek justice for those who are wrongly treated, be as merciful toward others as God is with us, and walk humbly with him.
How do we live that out? I’ll be the first to say that the Lord wants us to worship regularly, serve others consistently, and study his Word intently. We must also be concerned about justice because there are too many instances where people are pushed around, threatened, intimidated or denied equal rights. This is often generated by antipathy toward those in the minority who don’t look or talk or dress like those in the majority. How do we address such inequities? I believe we can pursue justice on several levels.
Is there a way economic injustice through your work? A man in New York City was challenged in church one Sunday to do just that. He was a buyer for a company that owned a factory in Madagascar that made jeans. They bought pants from the factory for $1 per pair and sold them for $100 per pair. This buyer knew those factory employees had difficult lives even though they had a steady job. So he contacted the managers of the operation in Madagascar and asked what it would cost to help their workers pay their children’s school fees, have more reasonable work hours, and access better housing, health care, and sanitation. The answer he got back was that adding these benefits would quadruple the price for the jeans – to $4 dollars a pair! The buyer authorized these changes would still bring a huge profit margin on each pair of jeans to his company and make a huge difference to those factory workers. Here was a follower of Jesus who leveraged his position for the benefit of the poor. (P. Borthwick, Western Christians in Global Mission, IVP, 2012, pp 54-55) When younger people see God’s people living out their faith in such a practical manner, it sticks with them.
We can pursue justice in the community. Ten years ago I met Chris Lambert who pastored a small church in a blue collar suburb of Detroit. His congregation was concerned that people on limited incomes have affordable housing, so they decided to build a modest home for a single mom and her three daughters. They got their city to donate a lot, secured material donations from contractors and material providers like Home Depot, signed up their own people to do the work, and then built the whole house in six days. They then started a distinctly Christian non-profit organization called “Life Remodeled” to organize future projects. Other churches were invited to build a house in their community. Then Life Remodeled set their sights on projects that would help more people at a time than just one family. Since many schools in the city of Detroit are deteriorating, they made a proposal to refurbish Cody High School. They partnered with the school district, major companies like Ford and General Motors gave money and signed up their people to help. Thousands of volunteers were involved as the school underwent a complete renovation in six days. While some crews worked inside the school, others went to neighborhood homes cleaning up yards, repairing broken windows and doors, and helping wherever they could. It had an amazing effect on the students, staff and the whole area. Over the next year neighborhood crime dropped significantly. Since 2014 Life Remodeled has refurbished four schools, beautified 1600 city blocks, repaired 188 homes, put 66,000 volunteers to work and raised $31 million dollars worth of material donations and monetary contributions. In addition to the physical work, when people from different work places, economic levels, churches and races all rubbed shoulders with one another, working on a common goal, greater understanding and respect was the result. All this began with a church less than half the size of First Covenant. This church, too, has engaged in community based ministry. The Fusion program hosted kids every week from the middle school across the street. We support Hope and Harbor, a ministry to the homeless in Red Wing. These are wonderful examples of bringing care and compassion to others. When younger generations see faith at work like this, do you think they’ll take notice?
We can pursue justice through work and in the community, but our individual response is crucial, too. I’ve just finished reading The Third Option, a book by an African American pastor and author named Miles McPherson. He played cornerback in the NFL and now leads a large, ethnically diverse church in San Diego. In the book he writes about the very human tendency to see those who are like as your “in group” and those who are different as an “out group.” When your children or grandchildren, when the students and young adults within our church hear you talk about one or more individuals from your “out group,” what do they hear? Do you use generalizations or stereotypes to characterize them? It’s very easy to lump people together and forget that even within a specific ethnic group there are huge differences. Did you know there are 150 different sects in Islam? Do you realize that people from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico are culturally distinct in what they eat, how they see the world, and use different Spanish expressions and even dialects? Researchers have found that we are far more likely to treat those from our “in group” positively. We give them the benefit of the doubt, are more patient, more gracious when mistakes are made and far more likely to help. Just the opposite is true for those in our “out groups” – we are less patient, less gracious, less likely to give aid, and less prone to grant the benefit of the doubt.
So how can we work on this every day? I like Pastor McPherson’s idea that the antidote to all this lies in “honoring” every person we meet. Why do we do this? Because every person on this earth, regardless of their background or language or color or culture or religion is made in the image of God. They are all worthy of my respect and courtesy and kindness. None of them deserves to be categorized or looked down on or demeaned by racial slurs. To honor another means I don’t assume I know what they think or believe but I make every effort to understand them – what they hope for, where they have come from, and what they have experienced.
Our openness to others must begin with those in the body of Christ. St. Paul wrote in Galatians 3.26-28, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Whether a sister of brother comes from Vietnam or Kenya or Guatemala, we belong to one another in the Lord. We can learn from one another and help one another and together make a difference in this world for Jesus’ sake. Our unity doesn’t depend on color or ethnicity or gender or economic status, but on the fact that we are forgiven sinners who alike have experienced the grace and forgiveness that came to us through Jesus’ sacrifice. When we understand that we all stand in the shadow of the cross, we will seek justice for all those who have been denied or mistreated or turned away. And when our children and students and young adults see that in us, they’ll be encouraged to follow our example.
I invite you to join me in this prayer, which reflects the eternal perspective of God’s Word: “God, you have given me your image. It’s eternal, it’s alive and it comes with responsibilities. You have also given this same image to every other person in the world. Since your image is in me, I am called to acknowledge and honor every person I meet. I will look for your image in them and will honor it as eternally valuable. Amen.” (adapted from M. McPherson, The Third Option, p. 44) May this be our prayer every day. AMEN