If you open up a Hebrew Bible—what Christians have called the Old Testament—you’ll notice that it is divided into three parts. The first section is called the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Jews, however, group the remaining books differently than we’re used to. The third section at the end is called the Writings. This includes books like the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ruth, Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah. Sandwiched in between the Torah and the Writings are the Prophets—books like Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel; also “minor” prophets like Joel, Amos and Micah. While the Torah is the law, the ground on which holy living flourishes, the prophets are the next most important set of books because they critique Israel’s failings to live in the spirit of Torah.
Today’s first reading is from the prophet Micah, a short and underappreciated book. Like almost all prophets, Micah doesn’t mince his words. He says bluntly that “the Lord has a controversy with his people.” Micah lived at a time in Israel’s history before the exile in Babylon, a time when so many of Israel’s kings had turned their backs on God. The people had lost their way both spiritually and politically. So Micah emerges to let everyone know what God requires. Just what is it that God requires? Micah offers a very clear and challenging answer: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
It’s helpful to pause to consider exactly what this means. Take justice, for instance. The philosopher Aristotle defined justice as fairness in relations between people; in other words, to give everyone his or her due. What Micah says is not necessarily at odds with this, but it also conveys a lot more. Justice in the Bible is deeply connected with who God is, God’s character. Its roots are in the exodus story—God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The litmus test, then, of justice among God’s people is measured by how we treat the poor and downtrodden both around us generally and also in our own immediate midst. And so this means that justice is also inseparably bound to what Micah calls kindness. The Hebrew word here for “kindness” is a very important biblical term that might be better translated as “steadfast love.” It is a kind of self-giving generosity that is relentless and unquenchable. This is to be done, Micah tells us, in a way that can be described as walking humbly with our God. Walking humbly, of course, does not mean strutting about in arrogance, self-sufficiency, autonomy, and self-centeredness. Rather, it’s a total dependence on God—an acknowledgment, first, that God is, and then living in the reality that all we have, and indeed who we are, is divine gift.
Let me suggest that these three things—justice, steadfast love, and walking humbly—are actually different ways of expressing the same thing. We don’t have here three different ideas, but one idea expressed three different ways. To do justice, then, is to embody steadfast love, which is to walk humbly with our God. Micah will not let us get away with compartmentalizing them and prioritizing one at the expense of the other two. All three belong together.
Now, that is a tall order. How many of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, feel confidently that we’re holding down even one of them, let alone all three? While justice, steadfast love, and walking humbly belong together—three sides of one triangle—that might not always be the reality in our own individual lives. For some of us, justice is what gets us up in the morning. That might be all we have time for. For others among us, steadfast love—an unwavering commitment to those struggling on the margins—may be the hallmark of our spirituality. We may not be justice warriors, but we know the names and stories of those who come here for Out of the Cold meals and community lunches and dinners. We take time to sit with them, listen to what’s on their minds. And then there are those among us who seek to walk humbly—as quiet, dedicated people of prayer, not always the most vocal, but always dependable.
Many of you, I’m sure, have heard the forecast that the Anglican Church of Canada is on a trajectory of numerical decline, such that it will cease to exist institutionally by 2040. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated that prediction. I read the other day that the Church of England will be extinct by 2060. These stats are bleak, but they need not get us down. If we heed the words of Micah and do what God requires of us, there will be local parish congregations thriving well into the future, even if the larger administrative and institutional church structures necessarily disintegrate.
What does God require of us as individuals? I’m not sure that each of us is required to embody the perfections of justice, steadfast love, and humility. But we are at least called to be part of a community that is engaged in all three of these things in an integrated manner. I think this Church of St. Aidan can be just that: a community filled with justice seekers, a community of those embodying steadfast love, a community of those walking humbly—not seeking the spotlight. We are all gifted in at least one of these areas.
So I leave you with a challenge: think carefully about what animates you spiritually. Is it a passion for justice? Is it practicing steadfast love, the kind of Good Samaritan love that grows out of deep compassion? Is it cultivating humility through disciplines of Scripture reflection, prayer and meditation? Once you’ve assessed what animates you spiritually, make an effort to connect with people who are animated in a different way. This is how our parish community can become more connected, more bonded, as we seek to take the prophets seriously and do what God requires of us.