January 14, 2018: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
This week I decided to revisit some old sermons preached by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956. In one of those sermons, Dr. King preached on the passage from the book of Romans when the Apostle Paul instructs the church “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” It was on a different scripture lesson and in a different day and age, but that sermon has much to say about the ethical vision of the prophet Micah and about our world today. Dr. King began by reflecting on this command:
“’Do not be conformed’ is difficult advice in a generation when crowd pressures have unconsciously conditioned our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo.”[i]
This weekend we find ourselves surrounded by memories and reflections and the importance of Dr. King. And here in Mobile, many have sought to honor his legacy by a weekend full of service and unity within our community. There was the community cleanup day yesterday organized all around town. There’s the First Light marathon today supporting L’Arche and churches each walking a mile in the marathon as a show of unity. There’s the community interfaith worship service tomorrow where we will gather with neighbors in a time of prayer and praise. And of course there are many other events as well, marches, rallies, meals, and celebrations. As impressive as all of this is, the truly powerful part is that this year, for the first time, the leaders of all these organizations have been working together for months to coordinate and plan together. Deep unity behind the scenes leads to visible unity throughout the weekend. I really hope that the world is watching what we are doing in Mobile this weekend.
Anna and I were honored to be part of the planning process for this weekend of events, and when our group met over a year ago we considered what guiding theme would connect the dots of all these different and diverse activities together. What quickly emerged was the final verse of our scripture lesson this morning from Micah 6:8. “Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly with your God.”
“Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God!” There’s a decent chance that some of you have heard that scripture passage before. It’s a favorite verse that many have loved throughout the years for it so clearly and succinctly articulates a biblical ethic that is woven throughout the teachings of the prophetic books. It’s a call to action that is at the same time strongly communal and deeply personal, all about justice in the world around us and relationship with God in our hearts and minds.
These two arenas truly are woven together, the inward life of faith and the outward work for justice. As Dr. King said in that old sermon from the 50’s:
“Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.”i
Yes, many of us know and love Micah 6:8. But, what we may not always remember is that this one verse doesn’t just drop out of the sky as a slogan or cliché from on high. This famous verse comes within a particular historical context in the life of the kingdom of Judah and a literary context inside the poetic book of Micah.
Over 700 years before the birth of Christ, the people of God were worried about the threat of the Assyrian Empire breathing down their neck. Faced with this national crisis, the people were looking for answers and the prophet Micah jumps into the fray with his interpretation of why the kingdom is teetering on the brink of destruction. He says it is because of their unjust “economic practices that exploit the vulnerable and violate the will of God for economic justice” in the community.[ii] Those days of the 8th Century BC were full of greedy land grabbing practice; women, children, and those who could not work being evicted from their homes; unethical political leaders; building projects that exploited cheep labor at the cost of human lives; court systems infected with bribery. It was a broken system, a stacked deck, all designed so the rich could get richer and the poor could get poor.
Dr. King saw a similar connection in his day between international crisis and injustice in our local communities. He spoke of his particular “hour in history” saying:
“Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; and men worship before the false gods of nationalism and materialism.” i
It is into such a broken “hour of history” that the prophet Micah emerges with is message. As we heard in our scripture reading, the prophetic places his audience in an imagined courtroom scene in which the people of God are called to testify in a legal case, a lawsuit, that God has filed against them. They are harshly critiqued because they have forgotten who they are, where they came from, how they are supposed to act, and ultimately, whom they belong to. God says, don’t you remember how I freed you from slavery and provided for you in the wilderness. Don’t you remember that you were once the poor, the oppressed, the immigrant without a homeland. Yet it was I, God, who set your free and set you on the right path. Now in your forgetfulness, you have become the oppressor, you have become the enslaver, you have evicted the poor and the stranger from lands that were not yours to begin with.
The trial continues as the people of God take the stand and in response to God’s testimony against them they ask what they must do to make things right? How can we justify ourselves? What does God demand of us? Sacrifices of animals, of produce, even giving our children to the service of the Lord. Their mind jumps quickly to these outward religious practices but for all they wrong reasons. They have no interest in praising their creator, they are only interested in saving their own skin, keeping their power, preserving the status quo.
Throughout his ministry, Dr. King was pained by the ways that similar patterns are repeated in our day and age—injustice hiding behind religious justification. He said:
“Nowhere is the tragic tendency to conform more evident than in the church, an institution which has often served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless the patterns of majority opinion. The [church’s sanction] of slavery, racial segregation, war, and economic exploitation is a testimony to the fact that the church has hearkened more to the authority of the world than to the authority of God…called to combat social evils, it has remained silent behind stained-glass windows.” i
In response to the empty shell of religiosity, in reaction to the self-serving hypocritical questions of the people, Micah says, No! No, can’t buy God’s favor or hide behind your shallow theology. You want to know what God is like you want to “discern the will of God,” to know what God desires and requires of you? It’s so simple and so so hard: “Do justice—don’t just talk about it, roll up your sleeves to fix what is broken, make real sacrifices of your time and energy, do it, do justice. And love kindness—love people who are different than you, show mercy to your opponents and those you can’t stand, love your enemies, love with kindness. And walk humbly with your God, walk the journey of faith, progress down the wildness roads, listen to the voice of your Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, calling you to move, to walk, to march to a different drumbeat than that of the world around you.
This call to live by justice, love, humility, and faith is very different than the call to conform to systems of greed and power that surround us today. In the heart of that sermon preached to a church that was leading bus boycott, Dr. King reflected on the power of Jesus Christ’s call to us to new ways of life. He said,
“When an affluent society would coax us to believe that happiness consists in the size of our automobile, the impressiveness of our houses, and the expensiveness of our cloths, Jesus reminds us, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things which he possesses. When we refuse to suffer for righteousness and choose to follow the path of comfort rather than conviction, we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When in our spiritual pride we boast of having reached the peak of moral excellence, Jesus warns, “the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.” When we, through compassionless detachment and arrogant individualism, fail to respond to the needs of the underprivileged, the Master says, “Whatever you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Everywhere and at all times, the love and ethic of Jesus is a radiant light revealing the ugliness of our stale conformity.” i
Does Micah’s call to faithful justice and against empty religious sentimentality still speak to our world today? Does Dr. King’s sermon in Montgomery six decades ago still challenge us to examine our conformity to the broken systems we live in? Does God’s requirement to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly still matter? Have we outgrown these demands and progressed beyond these prophetic reminders?
Friends, look around our suffering world, around our divided country, around our segregated neighborhoods, around our sinful lives. What do you see? Our society still acts as if some people’s rights matter more than others, some people’s homes matter more than others, some people’s lives matter more than others. We still desperately need the witness of prophets, both ancient and modern, to call us back to God’s vision of justice, love, kindness, and humility. We still need these prophets to inspire us to put these truths to action so that the Dream might become a reality.
Dr. King concluded his sermon with a pair of questions that echo the choice Micah puts before us and which we must answer ever generation and every day of our lives:
“We must make a choice. Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability, or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum, move to its echoing sounds? Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soul-saving music of eternity?” i
Friends, to which drumbeat will we march? Will we march in the light of God?
To God alone be the glory.
Closing Hymn: “We Are Marching in the Light of God” w/Bryan Ayers (drum)
“…there are some things in our world to which [people] of goodwill must be maladjusted. I confess that I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive [people] of work and food, and to the insanities of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.” i
[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Transformed Nonconformist” sermon in Strength to Love, 8-15.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Introduction to the Old Testament,