Micah 6:1-8 | Psalm 15 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 | Matthew 5:1-12
Watch video: https://youtu.be/HnQ89jZvZD0
In the song we just listened to – “Getting Ready to Get Down” – Josh Ritter tells the story of a young girl whose parents and pastor are beginning to worry about her. Apparently, she isn’t fitting “proper Christian girl” mold, so they send to a “little Bible college in Missouri” thinking a Christian education will straighten her out.
Much to their surprise, her time with the Bible hasn’t made her a better fit for American society. On the contrary, she’s worse now than she was before! She’s come back “sayin' she knows a little bit about every little thing they ever hoped she'd never figure out.” Studying the Bible hasn’t saved her from the world, it has propelled her into it. She hasn’t emerged from Bible school scrubbed clean and sanitized, she’s coated with the dust of the world, just like Jesus was when he sat on the mountain to pronounce a blessing on all those down and out misfits in Matthew 5.
The world of her parents and pastor, the world many of us also grew up in, confused Christianity with nationalism, “Talkin’ bout love like it’s apple pie and liberty,” but the love she found in Scripture taught her “to be good to everybody, be a strength to the weak, a joy to the joyful, be the laughter in the grief, and to give your love freely to whoever that you please, don’t let nobody tell you ‘bout the who you oughta be.” The Christianity of her parents told her that Jesus hates her high school dances, but the God she has experienced makes her want to “get down” and dance.
The war between personal piety and a flourishing life with God it seems is always raging, in every generation. It was in Micah’s day. In our reading from Micah 6, Israel’s relationship with God is on the rocks, and Micah tells them how to get back to right relationship. And guess what? It’s not through personal piety or ritualistic sacrifices. Micah asks, read Micah 6:6-7. The answer, of course, to these questions is no. The only one of these options that seems plausible is the first: perhaps God wants them to sacrifice a few year old calves, but Micah doesn’t dwell on that long, so the answer must be no. He then resorts to preposterous sacrifices, asking if God wants thousands of rams, or if God wants ten thousands of rivers – not gallons, rivers – of oil. Lastly, he asks if God wants them to sacrifice their own offspring, which, of course God would never want, as made clear in passages from Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
No, personal piety is not the answer. It’s not about keeping the rules or looking the part. Instead, this is what Malachi says God wants: Read Micah 6:8. That sounds a bit like “being good to everybody, being a strength to the weak, a joy to the joyful, being the laughter in the grief, and giving your love freely.”
But it’s hard to quantify and gauge that kind of righteousness. How do you judge whether someone is walking humbly with God? And how humbly are they walking? Could they be walking more humbly? No, no, it’s so much easier to offer sacrifices. You can count sacrifices. You can count how many times you went to church or how many mornings in a row you read your Bible. But doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God. You can’t quantify those things. That’s more like a mindset, like a way of being in the world. That’s too hard to assign a point value to.
And what’s more, this way of being might get you into trouble. It might take us outside the narratives of purity and civility that we’ve been taught to abide by as good American Christians. We might end up like the woman in Josh Ritter’s song: “damned by popular opinion.” We might end up like Jesus.
We might start being associated with the poor in spirit, and the mourners, and the meek, and merciful. We might start looking, in the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians, foolish and weak to the world, choosing instead the wisdom and strength of God.
Yes, this way of living, this way of being, might get us into trouble. It’s no coincidence that Jesus ends the beatitudes by blessing the persecuted, and he switches from third person to second person. No longer is it “the persecuted” it’s “you” who are persecuted. Persecution is inevitable. If you actually bless the poor, and those who mourn, and do justice, and love kindness.
And who are the poor? Those who have nothing because they had to flee their home and leave behind everything they owned.
Who are those who mourn? Those who have lost friends and family to violence, and now are being associated with the very people who killed their families. We’re treating the victims of the Islamic State like they are the Islamic State!
What does it mean to do justice, but to care for those who have no home, who have experienced more trauma in their lives than we’ll ever know.
What does it mean to be kind? But to open our doors wide to those who need a home, not shut them out out of fear for our own personal safety.
But doing these things, demanding that refugee lives matter, will get you persecuted.
Josh Ritter’s song captures this as well. Although the song is fun, and he makes light of her isolation, it’s clear that this girl, who has chosen to follow the “sermon on the mount” (he references it in the last verse), that is, the very passage we just heard from Matthew, has been shunned by her family, her community, and even her pastor.
Her love for God, others, and, significantly, herself, has resulted in her being rejected by those she loves. They want a girl who knows her place. They want a Gospel that will domesticate her. But she knows that her place is not in the shackles of purity culture that teach her to be ashamed of her body, or in the lie that a godly woman is a docile woman, but it’s in the freedom that comes from walking with God and dancing with the Spirit.
In vv. 4-5 of Malachi 6 God calls the Israelites to remember all that God has done for them, to remember who they are, to remember that God has always been with them. They’ve forgotten that their relationship with God is a walk. It’s a way of being. A way of being in the world. A way of being in relationship with both God and others. They want to make it about sacrifices and laws, but God says, “No. It’s about justice and kindness and humility.” And all that is rooted in remembering. Remembering who we are in God.
In the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount, who we are is “blessed”. We are blessed. And being a Christian means extending that blessing to others, inviting them into blessedness. Even when that means we get “damned in the popular opinion.”
When you do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, people will call your faith into question. They will call who you are into question. They’ll say, “But you’re not following this law, or your breaking that law. You’re hanging out with those people. Your touching them. Your blessing them. Yes your being kind, but we aren’t supposed to be kind to those people. They’re sinners.”
They said the same thing to Jesus, and Jesus went right on blessing the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the ones who hadn’t attained righteousness yet but were hungry and thirsty for it, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. He ate with sinners, partied with tax collectors, and let sinful women touch him. He visited Gentiles and stayed a week with the heretical Samaritans. All this led to him being, in the words of Josh Ritter, “damned in the popular opinion.”
Living a life that is not dominated by rules but is characterized by love, justice, kindness, and humility will appear scandalous to many because it will quickly push us beyond the bounds of what is accepted. We’ll start “sharing our love freely with whoever that we please,” and our society – especially, unfortunately, much of our Christian society – doesn’t like that. It says love should only be extended to some people – to other Christians, but not to Muslims, for example. When we start sharing our love freely, though, seeking justice for everyone – black, brown, women as well as men, members of the LGBT community, Muslim refugees from Syria and all around the world – we should not be surprised if the first to throw stones are those in the church. The first to come after Jesus were the religious leaders.
I first heard this song when I was road tripping back to Portland with my friend Ryan, who’s a big Josh Ritter fan, and it has become a comfort me in the last few months or so. In many ways I feel like the young woman in the song, whose time studying Scripture did not result in conformity to society and “Christianity” as its come to be known today, but a kind of rebellion to them.
And sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve strayed too far from the faith I grew up with. Maybe I should go back to all the rules. Everything was so much easier, so black and white. I knew who was in and who was out.
But when I read the Gospels, it seems that all Jesus does is turn that in/out system on its head. Telling the Pharisees that prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the kingdom ahead of them. Blessing all the people who are supposed to be cursed and proclaiming woes to the religious leaders who are supposed to be blessed.
In a fun way that you can bob your head to, this song tells me, tells us, that life with God is characterized by love. Love for God, love for others, and, let us not forget, love for ourselves. This song, along with our Scriptures, tells us to recall all that God has done for us, to believe that we are blessed, and that we are free to share God’s love with whoever that we please.
It’s fitting that the song revolves around the idea of dancing, continually returning to the chorus: “Getting ready to get down.” There’s a Greek word used to describe the Trinity: perichoresis, which means “the divine dance.”
Our life with God is not adherence to rules and rituals, but an invitation into the dance, an invitation to “get down” with the Trinity – isn’t that great! – to bring our whole selves, everything – everything – we are, onto the dance floor, to lose ourselves (and at the same time find ourselves) in the harmony of God’s love, to brush shoulders and join hands with the multitude of others from all around the world who have also brought their whole selves into the dance.
What a blessing it is to dance together.
What a blessing it is to get down.