Testing Our Allegiances
It has been a very full week since we met for worship last Sunday – I could say that it has been full of rest for a University community on Fall Break, full of revelation and speculation for a country experiencing the first public indictments made by Princeton Alumnus and Special Prosecutor Bob Mueller, it has been a week of the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, whose impact is still widely felt, but I really mean that it’s been a packed week of religious observances. On Tuesday was the 500th anniversary of what we recognize as the beginning of the Reformation, Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses upon the door of the Wittenberg Church. The next day was All Saints Day, and later in this service, we’ll acknowledge that with our own tradition of speaking aloud the names of those who have died in the last year. As I was doing some research in the last few days about the lectionary texts appointed for this morning, I learned that these scriptures (scheduled for our consideration by Biblical scholars, not by God!) are particularly chosen for their relevance to the fact that today, Proper 26, is always the Sunday before Election Day in the United States. If I were tempted to disparage this connection between the life of faith and our civic calendar I got over it quickly, realizing that the ancient prophets, evangelists, and our Messiah himself spoke repeatedly and pointedly to the connection between our faith and our citizenship – in particular, our permanent responsibilities to one to another. As we consider these matters today, we find ourselves in the midst of an ongoing biblical conversation of some 3,000 years’ duration.
I occasionally get communications telling me (softly) that contemporary social and political concerns don’t belong in the pulpit. I also get occasional communications telling me that I am wrong, anti-God, and damned for ever referring to contemporary social and political issues from the pulpit. I get many more messages thanking me for doing so at all. Today’s lectionary texts are a reminder that few preachers today, let alone myself, go anywhere near the withering critique of prophets like Micah and of our savior Jesus Christ. Nowhere near. We aren’t like them in authority, even if we hear their calling to us to match their faithful audacity. We’re too scared about alienating people, and we use the idea of humility as an over-convenient retreat.
I’ve been thinking a lot about humility in recent weeks, and here’s where I am with it – humility is about knocking ourselves out 24/7 in the service of God and Christ, all done without any sense of self-promotion. Humility isn’t about being meek, self-abnegating, or mousy. Humility is about strength. Humility is about presenting a determined approach of other-interest in any interaction. Humility is about going into every interaction with another person without needing to use that interaction to build your ego. If you know God loves you, you (and I) can enter any relationship or conversation not needing it to result in self-affirmation but to result in good fruits that may have nothing to do with us. We partake in conversations and relationships not so that we might feel better about ourselves but so that we might lift up the truthfulness of the situation, the needs of those who are hurting, the well-being of all who are involved, and the goodness of God and Christ. This truly is humility – strength, not weakness, in advocacy for God, and in non-promotion of self.
Our texts for today test our allegiances. They ask, “Who have you made your allies? What are your true goals in the interactions that you have? Who is your real audience?” The prophet Micah is one amongst many prophets in his community, and he has a searing message for the others. In the four verses that preceded our reading for today, he tells them that they eat the non-wealthy persons around them like a stew. These other prophets proclaim messages that they know the wealthy and powerful want to hear. They butter their egos, they reassure them that current social arrangements are fine and pleasing to God, while at the same time, they take a fee from these wealthy citizens to provide their prophecy. In our own society is the saying that the one who pays the piper gets to call the tune. Micah is so appalled that fellow prophets, who are supposed to channel what they experience as God’s word to and through themselves, produce utterances that serve their patrons and upend what Micah, and what the whole history of Jewish prophecy, have ever said. Micah believes that they are not sharing the Word of God; they are saying what they think their benefactors want to hear. One commentator I read this past week, reflecting on these words of Micah, makes the connection between the prophet’s situation and those many instances today when rigorous scientific studies are paid for by interest groups. What did the funder want to hear? That incarcerated persons, with the right education and intervention, can become post-incarcerated leaders in their communities, or that they are irredeemable thugs? That money spent on early childhood education helps kids grow to their fullest God-given potential, or that it is a waste of time and money upon those who are congenitally destined to underperform? That money spent on drug-focused law enforcement is better or worse than money spent on drug treatment and rehabilitation? Choose your side and pay your researcher. 2,800 years ago, this was what Micah described. Everything old is new again, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. If anything, Micah, in the heavenly hall of prophets, must be shaking his head at the way we are still making the same hubristic mistakes almost 3,000 years later.
The second, related part of Micah’s prophecy in our text for today has excoriating words for those who oppress the innocent, and for those who oppress all who don’t have the means to pay – to pay for food, certainly, but who also can’t purchase their own representatives in government, who can’t pay for their own prophets, who can’t by airtime when elections come around, who can’t pay for health insurance. Then and now, people pay to play. If you can’t pay, you ultimately lose. You can decide about whether or not this is true today, but 2,800 years ago, the prophet Micah was calling ‘em as he saw ‘em.
And then there is Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior. He described privileged people in his own society who demanded a challenging lifestyle for those who would be faithful, but didn’t actually adhere to it themselves. “Do as I say and not as I do.” They called the shots for others. They were dramatic in their public displays of righteousness, abandoning every law that said to practice faith and righteousness in private, so that you are not tempted to stray from humility.
If you take umbrage at the “political” nature of this sermon, and in particular, if you are dissatisfied with the bent that favors the non-wealthy over the wealthy few, please know that I am preaching the mildest possible version of the message from Micah and from Jesus in our texts for today. I’m probably not the only preacher today – by far! – who used her opportunity to interpret these scriptures to deflect from the punch-in-the-face offered by our texts. I am not proud of myself for this.
But I do want to say that, on election weekend or anytime, the formative texts of Christianity and of Judaism call us to an interpretation of our shared citizenship that is so much more humble than our customary understandings. Humility – we do and say what we do and say not for our own self-aggrandizing but so that all may be lifted up. And the “all” may very well not look like us. Where are our allegiances? With our ego? With those we think are our people, whomever that might be? Or with all people, and especially, as Micah and Jesus challenge us, with those people who are the most expandable? Are they poor? Are they not able to buy the contemporary indulgences that Martin Luther so decried 500 years ago? (Are they, thus, unable to pay for studies that support their business interests or political opinions?) Are they black and brown people whose oppression is loudly denounced and soundly reinforced? Are they the women who are praised as human and professional exemplars of humanity by men who assault them in private spaces? Our biblical texts for today really are about all of this – about every one of us who is on the make, and who participate so subtly in the denigrating of people whose denigration can move us forward.
A theologian friend of mine, Marvin Ellison, has written about all of us who “let their institutions do their sinning for them while they keep up the appearance of having ‘clean hands.’” Micah and Jesus reported on that too – we use every institution of which we are part, including the Church, to keep up the walls that exclude the people we don’t want to deal with. Micah and Christ have a message for you, and certainly me, that is hard to take. I’ve had the guts to speak to only a fraction of it. Discipleship and faith, to them, involve a radically self-unrewarding way of living in the world so that all may thrive, a testing of all our allegiances, and I remain prayerful that we are moving forward together.