The Rev. Dr. Braxton D. Shelley (right), Stanley A. Marks and William H. Marks Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute; Assistant Professor of Music in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Sunday sermon June 28, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Professor Stephanie Paulsell)
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer, because they are hard.
Alongside the social and political movements that shaped 1960s America, there was a technological agenda, whose audacity stretched the limits of collective imagination. I speak of the national determination to go to the moon. In a 1962 speech at Houston's Rice University, President John F. Kennedy offered one of the most instructive pieces of executive oratory to emerge from that effort. On that sunny afternoon, President Kennedy declared that, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Kennedy's poetic turn of phrase names both the difficulty that attended their historical pursuit, and the challenges that are our contemporary concern. Nearly 60 years after the aforementioned speech, interplanetary travel, the remarkable, is far from unthinkable. Yet after all this time, after all these years, America remains stuck, grounded by a set of all too familiar problems.
After all this time, the armed agents of many local governments still behave unjustly. After all this time, strange fruit still swings from trees in the American South, West, North and East. After all this time, though we've got smartphones and iPads, Zoom, and self-driving cars, America is still stuck short of scripture's demand that we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
If it were easy to do these things, surely by now, we would have done them. If it were easy to dismantle systems of inequality, to disrupt legacies of hypocrisy and to rethink the nature of society, surely by now we would have done it. But this work is not easy, certainly not as easy as its alternatives. Not as easy as predicting, as some have, that racism will vanish, quickly and on its own. Not as easy as obeying one recent writer's suggestion to just, hit the delete button, to ignore a message's hateful content, and its dangerous implications. Although these things might be easy, this kind of action, or should I say inaction, is not what this moment requires. The only things worth doing in this time of crisis are those things we do precisely because they are hard.
The reading from Micah's sixth chapter shined light on our predicament. In many ways, this sixth chapter ties together the whole of Micah's prophetic argument. A message that can be summed up in three simple words. Society is broken. Like the other profits of the eighth century before the common era, Micah wrote out of an abundance of outrage. Micah was concerned about what he saw. Concerned about the social and political upheaval that produced intensified forms of economic, social and legal inequality. Micah was worried about systems and structures, about hegemonic forces that prioritize profit over human life. Micah vented a righteous indignation with judges that could be bought, with priests that could be paid. Micah was furious about religious displays that paraded opulence instead of piety, that turned rituals into props and faith into folly.
As Micah's sixth chapter opens, God, through the prophet, files a formal complaint against the people God had called and claimed. God lodges a covenant lawsuit, alleging that these folks were in breach of contract. To the mountains and terrestrial foundations, which had been called as witnesses, God spoke, reminding them of the gifts, graces, forbearance, and protection that this people had received. In so doing, God asserts that these acts of faithfulness make injustice all the more unacceptable.
Then, in view of these grave charges, the accused speak, offering what seems to be a generous settlement, a fitting remuneration for the aforementioned claims. In his biting verse, Micah asks if God would accept thousands of rams, rivers of oil, or even the sacrifice of one's first born as payment for the people's misdeeds. Three grand offers that show how religious rituals had been co-opted by a new political economy.
God's defiant response makes it clear that not even the most extravagant performances, offered in the liminal space of worship, can make up for a year-round investment in the iniquity of injustice. Instead of rams and oil and blood, God's desire is made plain in this prophet's most famous line. "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what doth the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God."
My friends, I'm struck by this interaction, by this negotiation, if you will. I'm gripped by the people's offer and by God's counter. God, through the prophet says, "Keep your rams, keep your oil, please don't bother your children. Instead of giving me what you want me to have, how about giving me what I want? And here it is. I want you to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly."
I find it most instructive that instead of extravagant gestures, God asks for justice. Instead of ostentatious actions, God asks for mercy. Instead of grand exercises of deceptive piety, God asks that the people learn to walk in humility. The contrast between what is offered and what will be accepted is the point I want to press. Because the fact that God prefers justice and mercy and humility over extravagant displays of religiosity, suggests that these things have a value we cannot afford to miss. God's preference suggests that it would be easier to give the rams, to give the oil, to give the sacrifice, than it would be to open one's self up to the kind of radical internal transformation that justice and mercy and humility demand. God asks for these three simple things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
But to say that God asked for these things is to underestimate the message of the text, because Micah is emphatic that these are not just things God wants or desires. No, these are the things that the Lord requires. These requirements, you know, are not optional. They are not simply things that would be nice to have. Requirements are demands. Conditions without which there can be no agreement. Requirements are set because without compulsion they'd likely be denied. Requirements make it more likely that we'll do the things that are hard. And that's why justice and loving mercy and walking humbly are the things, things that the Lord requires.
Doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly, these awesome callings are hard to do, because they are opposed, resisted, defied by forces like hate, individual selfishness and collective greed. They are hard to do because they run counter to well-practiced, deep-seated patterns of disregard. But the fact that they are hard to do is also evidence that they are worth doing. Evidence that in so doing, we fight back against the ugliest parts of our nature. These things are hard and that their difficulty is the reason why they are the things that the Lord requires.
I mean, imagine Micah's context. Imagine the powerful forces that combined to oppose fairness in Micah's day. Imagine the engines of inequity that drove the poor from their land, robbed widows of their possessions, turned exchange into extortion. It was in the face of this systemic inequality that the Lord issued a requirement that the people do justice. And this same demand confronts us today. Our calling is to do justice. Doing justice means living as if every soul has intrinsic value, especially those that do not look, live or love like you. Doing justice means that profit not be our only principle. That comfort should be our last concern. That the only thing we get to hate, is hate itself. Our path to a better future, it depends on doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly, with our God.
Now is a good time. A time for choosing. Choosing whether to settle for the appearance of good or to strive for the common good. Whether to soothe well-earned guilt with mere thoughts and prayers, or to put one's body, mind and resources on the frontline of a worthy fight. Whether to do just enough to signal virtue or to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly. I'm so glad that these three are linked in Micah's verse, because their conjunction clarifies that justice and mercy, fairness and kindness, are not achievements. They are not trophies. They are not tasks on a to-do list or lines on a curriculum vitae. Justice and mercy, they are a walk, a pursuit, a process, a journey. No one action can provide them. No one election can secure them. No one metric can contain them.
Justice is a walk that prevents the counter walk. Mercy is a pursuit that precludes indifference. Humility is a lifestyle that avoids complacency. Doing justice and loving mercy, they depend on walking humbly. They depend on living under the weight of these three questions. These three standards that offer an ongoing interrogation. Three questions that demand that we check in from time to time. Asking ourselves, am I searching for solutions? Or, am I part of the problem?
To be clear, it's so much easier to perform piety, than to do justice. So much easier to imply solidarity, than to love mercy. So much easier to celebrate doing the bare minimum, than to commit to a lifelong path of transformation. But in the final analysis, sincerity and accountability, they have a value that is truly incalculable. In fact, sometimes justice and mercy and humility can have their deepest impact when their expression is hidden from public view. When their weight is brought to bear on a lending decision, in a tenure committee, during a jury's deliberations, and in the other spaces where the covenants of power and privilege could so easily work to perpetuate injustice.
Now is a good time to do this hard work, of leading and listening. The hard work of building and breaking. The hard work of critiquing and constructing. Protesting and producing. The hard work of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly. Doing justice is hard because justice is jealous. Justice takes up a lot of space. Justice doesn't leave room for injustice. Justice requires a structural commitment to undoing the ills of the structure. Justice can be a hard pill to swallow because it confronts our well-meaning selves with the truth, that we are not yet what we ought to be.
And now let's be real, who wants to hear that? Who wants to see that? Who wants to be confronted with that? If justice was an elective, justice would have an extremely low enrollment. That's why justice is what the Lord requires. And I'm worried, my friends, that the pursuit of justice is too often subjugated. Too frequently relegated to the margins of our endeavors. There, justice becomes a nice addition to a full agenda. A compassionate contribution to a full program. A benevolent supplement to a full platform. But justice is not justice if it is not at the center. I said, justice is not justice if it is not at the center.
Justice is not an addendum, an appendage or an appendix. Justice cannot be saved for a coda. Justice must be the primary thing. Micah says that these things are not options, but that they are what the Lord requires. Requires that we do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God. I mean, what merits teaching, more than justice? What warrants preaching, more than mercy? What demands practicing, more than humility? If we're not teaching justice, what are we teaching? If we're not preaching justice, what are we preaching? If we're not practicing justice, what is our practice? If we're not doing justice, what are we doing? What are we doing for the hurting? What are we doing for the helpless? What are we doing for those who haven't got healthcare? What are we doing for the homeless who sleep every night on the border of this campus?
Doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly, these are our high callings. While we should be honest and forthright about the difficulties we face, we should also draw strength from the fact that we've done hard things before. It was hard to struggle against slavery, to strain after suffrage and to combat Jim Crow. And it will be hard to get justice for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and all those trampled by the new Jim Crow. And that is the reason we ought do these things. Not because they're easy, but because they are hard. The question for all of us is, what will you do?