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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

PRAYER / WORSHIP: Homily Notes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

2013 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

“Where do we go from here?”
Sermon Notes on Micah 6:6-8

By Michael E. Livingston
The Rev. Michael E. Livingston is the Director of Public Policy and the Washington Office of Interfaith Worker Justice.  He is a clergyperson in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a former President of the National Council of Churches.

“Where do we go from here?” This provocative question is proposed by our friends from the Church of India for study and reflection during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The week includes the annual celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. We owe a debt of gratitude to our friends from India for the selection of this profound text and the challenge to explore where the text leads us in the context of our volatile and complex world.

1. In recognition of two central features of this week, the occasion of the celebration of the birthday of MLK, Jr. and India as the home country of the people of faith who have chosen our text, I am going to provide quotations from a collection of MLK, Jr.’s speeches and sermons titled All Labor Has Dignity, and from Walking with the Comrades, Arundhati Roy’s searing book on the collusion of the Indian government and the forces of global capitalism that keep one particular rural community in India in extreme poverty. I must also confess my bias to use as a filter the substance of my professional focus on poverty and in particular the plight of the worker in our nation and world.

2. The chosen text is Micah 6:6–8:

6 "With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?7 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?”8 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?

First, some thoughts about the text.

3. We don’t know much about Micah, but we do know that he was from a small rural village, Moresheth. He spoke for poor farm workers suffering from the oppression of powerful landlords who had little regard for their humanity. Micah used his voice for the worker, for common everyday people. He didn’t just look at injustice in society, he shouted against it, he named the hypocrisy he witnessed and spoke truth to power. Piety masquerading as true faith was intolerable to Micah.

4. What about that word “Require?” Rev. James Howell, pastor of the Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC points out that a more subtle rendering of the Hebrew word translated as require suggests:

“...undertones of affection…” even “the healthiest sort of dependency, as in ‘the child requires his mother’s love…There is a mood of seeking in darash; lovers seek each other out, and a shepherd seeks his lost sheep…. So when the Lord ‘requires’ justice, kindness and mercy, it isn’t that the Lord “insists on” or “demands” these things. God seeks them, yearns for them…” (The United Methodist Reporter, June 13, 2012)

5. About the Hebrew word for justice in this text, Howell says the emphasis isn’t on fairness or a more artificial balancing of good versus evil, rewarding the one and punishing the other. The meaning has more the sense of envisioning and creating a world where a deep enriching community is formed because members of the community share of the resources that God has given not to a few, but to all.

6. Would a just God be satisfied with the form of religion, with the practice of ritual in the absence of humility before God? Would a just God be satisfied with the practice of ritual in the absence of care for the poor farmer? Would a just God accept animal sacrifice and empty words in the absence of acts of loving kindness toward workers in the fields? Micah didn’t just say no, recalling Amos, Isaiah, and Hosea, he said you know what God requires so don’t pretend you don’t.

7. We should be careful not to settle for a sentimental understanding of justice as charity alone. Charity is important—even essential in a nation and world of so much deprivation. The millions of hungry and homeless people wandering the earth as refugees or living in squalid camps for months and years on end need the kindness, the charity of those more fortunate. God bless those who are able to give of their abundance to ease the pain and suffering of others. Justice requires change beyond charity. Structures and systems that create and sustain deprivation, endless wars, and global economic forces that seek new markets at all costs in the ruthless pursuit of profit must be changed.

8. Later notes will illustrate the necessity for compassion (loving kindness) and justice, but what about humility? In a sermon in 1889 Charles Spurgeon preached about the injunction to “…walk humbly…” One could easily miss the subtle contrast in the text to the question the prophet asks: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself…” What Micah later claims the person of faith knows is to “…walk…” humbly with God. Walk implies action, movement, and progress. To go backward is to risk the sin of pride or to be sidetracked by nostalgia or regret. To walk, to move forward is to invite the humility progress against especially difficult odds inspires and instills. And surely progress, moving forward against the terrible odds faced by so many in our world is a more faithful response to God than ritualized bowing.

9. “Where do we go from here?” begs a prior question: Where is “here”? Before we know where we ought to go it makes sense to understand something about where we are, about our context.  And again, I want to focus on the most vulnerable among us, the growing numbers of people in the United States and in India who do not have the means to take good care of themselves and their families and the systems, political and economic that maintain this status quo. The world is not simply a vast place where individuals come and go in splendid equanimity. It is a deeply divided environment polarized by history, by race and nation, by religion and region, by the control and exploitation of natural resources. Christians believe this earth was created by and belongs to God, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” Psalm 24.1

10. Minimum wage in the United States today is $7.25. The last year congress passed legislation set in motion triggers to raise the wage to its present level was in 2007. Senator Harkin of Iowa has a bill to raise the minimum wage to $9.80 but there is no hope this bill will be passed anytime soon. Why $9.80? It has nothing to do with keeping pace with productivity or the actual needs of American workers. It is because crossing the $10 “barrier” is simply too high a political leap. Where do we go from here?

“Labor and the civil rights movement, the unemployed, the aged, and elements of the church world can unite for a dynamic crusade for a two-dollar minimum wage covering all who work, not merely some. A public works program that will level ghettos, create fine housing for the millions now living in fifty- and-sixty-year-old tenements, build new schools, hospitals, recreation areas, will do more to abolish poverty than tax cuts that ultimately benefit the middle class and rich.” MLK Jr. (This and all quotes attributed to MLK Jr. are taken from All Labor Has Dignity, edited by Michael K. Honey, Beacon Press)

The Fair Minimum Wage Act last raised minimum wage in 2007, raising it from $5.15 per hour to $7.25 per hour. In reality, however, minimum wage has fallen by 25% in real dollars since the early 1970s when considering inflation.

11. In India, about 350 million people, one-third of the population, live below the poverty line. While new measures to set the poverty line are controversial, resulting in lower levels of population, we can agree that 350 million people living in poverty is a staggering number of children of God. Writes Roy:

People are engaged in a whole spectrum of struggles all over the country – the landless, the homeless, Dalits, workers, peasants, weavers. They’re pitted against a juggernaut of injustices, including policies that allow a wholesale corporate takeover of people’s land and resources. (Walking with the Comrades, Arundhati Roy, Penguin Books)

12. CEOs of the 50 companies employing the most low-wage workers make an average of $9.4 million per year; 450 times that of a full-time worker making $10 per hour. Wal-Mart workers can’t afford health care, their hours are kept below full-time and their schedules don’t permit them to seek other employment. The low prices shoppers come at the high cost of management taking advantage of those whose labor make those wages possible. Where do we go from here? King suggests something of the spirit a person of faith ought to have in the face of the inequalities and injustices that abound in our nation and world:

But there are some things in our social system to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I suggest that you, too, ought to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence. I call upon you to be maladjusted.” (All Labor Has Dignity, MLK, Jr.)

13. In the name of development and progress, Roy maintains that the government of India has sacrificed its own people in order to accommodate the appetite of “modern development” and those who profit from it; profit over people:

Each time it needed to displace a large population – for dams, irrigation projects, mines – it talked of “bringing tribals into the mainstream” or of giving them “the fruits of modern development.” Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people (more than thirty million by big dams alone), refugees of India’s “progress,” the great majority are tribal people. When the government begins to talk of tribal welfare, it’s time to worry.

14. Income inequality in the United States is staggering, the worst it has been since the great depression in the last century. In the world at large, the poorest among us live off of no more than $2 a day. Can we even begin to imagine that kind of deprivation?

By the millions, people in the other America find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.

In the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and done and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. (All Labor Has Dignity, MLK, Jr.)

15. Where do we go from here? King suggests a notion so radical I hesitate to include it here. I do because perhaps it is precisely the radical option that best mirrors the broad and expansive compassion, grace, mercy, and love of God.

Now, what we’ve got to do . . . is to attack the problem of poverty and really mobilize the forces of our country to have an all-out war against poverty, because what we have now is not even a good skirmish against poverty. I need not remind you that poverty, the gaps in our society, the gulfs between inordinate superfluous wealth and abject deadening poverty have brought about a great deal of despair, a great deal of tension, a great deal of bitterness.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most revolutionary. The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed annual income.

16. King proposes not simply that we raise the minimum wage for workers, but that we guarantee a minimum income for everyone. Can we even begin to imagine that something like this is what it might mean to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?”

17. Let me close by sharing with you a story from a sermon by PC(USA) pastor, the Rev. Angela L. Ying:

Charlie was one of those kids who the Sunday School teachers just could not get a hold on. When it came time for the Christmas pageant, the teachers thought themselves wise to give Charlie a simple part. Charlie would be the innkeeper. This would mean saying, “No room” three times. The night of the pageant two of the children dressed as Joseph and Mary came to the inn. “No room,” said Charlie. The couple knocked on the door a second time. “NO ROOM!” Charlie repeated. Banging on the door even harder, desperately seeking space for themselves and their new baby, Joseph and Mary pleaded with the innkeeper, “Please, is there any room in the inn?” Moved with compassion, Charlie forgot his line. “Oh,” he said, “why don’t you take my room tonight?” The pageant came to a complete halt.

The world has to figure out how to make room for the poor; how to shake out of our paralysis and with our whole strength confront the forces that enslave our brothers and sisters in the deepest poverty and embrace even the most radical ideas to heal the wounds of the world.