Civic Service Sermon based on Micah 6: 1-8
Politics and religion are often seen as a toxic combination. Secularists argue that religion should keep its nose out of the politics that does not concern it whilst many people of faith contend that faith is about the beyond rather than than the debates of this world.
Many look at times when politics and religion come together with devastating consequences. Think for a moment of religious influences at play in the Troubles of Northern Ireland or look to the theocratic government in Iran where religion is used to stifle both political debate and freedom.
Consider how in Germany during the Nazi era how the so called German Christian movement provided a form of holy oil that gave comfort to that most insidious of regimes. Or look to south Africa where the dominant Dutch Reformed Church offered a theological justification of the sickness that was appartheid. Of course in Germany there were Niemoellers and Bonhoeffers who made sacrifices in the stuggle against nazism at great personal cost, the cost of his own life in the latter case. And of course in South Africa there were the Alan Boesaks and Desmond Tutu's who contributed so greatly to both the theological and political struggles to bring a monstrous system down
I mention these episodes to affirm that whilst the world of faith can sometimes be beneficial in its influence on the issues of the day, it can also be malign. And it is at its most malign when it seeks to dominate in the tradition of the bloodstained Roman Emperor Constantine who following his supposed conversion sought to align the Christian faith with exploitative power structures. Meanwhile the influence of faith is at its best when it is linked to the service mode demonstrated by Jesus who specifically sought to align himself with the powerless, the dominated, the poor and the outcasts.
Jesus was very much influenced by his Jewish background. He knew the Hebrew Bible very well. He knew that the history of the people of Israel was a history with much political conflict. An important part of that conflict was between the Kings and the prophets. Kingship was something that had been permitted reluctantly. and the history of Kingship was pretty tawdry indeed. The Deuteronomic histories of Kings from thetime of Saul going down to the time of the destruction of jerusalm five centuries later was with a few honourable exceptions a history of those who may have started with good intentions but ended up being no better than they ought to be.
This is why the prophets were needed. Whilst court prophets all too often tickled the fancy of their paymasters there were those who dared to speak truth to authority. These were people who looked asked the big questions as to whether society was developing in a way that was true the Divine image. And in a world in which Israel's Kings were all too often seduced by war and violence, all too often part of an elite that failed to justly share the riches of the land, being a prophet was a busy as well as a dangerous calling.
Amongst these prophets was Micah. A man who saw the powerful perverting the cause of justice, he lived about 2,700 years ago. His denounciations of the sins of ruling elites against the poor were colourful indeed likening them to "tearing the skin of my people."
In the scripture we heard this afternoon he puts the ruling elite on trial and finds them wanting. then he goes on to say what God wants and it is nothing to do with the things that rteligion has been reduced to but is now about doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God.
What does this mean for us? To prophets like Micah justice is about fair treatment for all. "Let justice flow like waters" proclaimed Amos. And thge justicew of these prophets is about fair treatment and full inclusion for all people. It is about a bias for the poor, the weak and the disadvantaged. As David Fillingim puts it, "Justice is about restoring the marginalised to their rightful place as full participants in the community."
On this basis our western societies are as much under condemnation as ancient Israel. We have permitted even in the good times a situation in which many are left behind in terms of housing, employment and general living standards. Clever our finance ministers may be but voodoo economics has created a scandal in which over 22 million people in the EU are currently unsuccessfully looking for employment - and that is a figure taken from the notoriously deflated figures of national governments. And meanwhile contibutions to production and caring services alike are denied from being made whilst those denied pay the heaviest price on being scapegoated for problems they never created.
The justice envisaged by the prophets such as Micah mean solidaity with the poor, the homeless, the jobless, the sick in body or mind and those who are old. To fail to treat these people properly and as our equals puts us in dire need of their forgiveness.
As for loving kindness, Micah uses the word "hesed" a word with echoes of God's covenant love for us. This is about the love that goes the whole way and which is rooted in how God treats us rather than in how others treeat us. This is the path of treating others including strangers and those whom we might find strange in a way that does not have to be earned. just as God gives freely to the created order even when failed by that created order, Micah suggests that we are called to be committed even to those who may have brought misfortune upon themselves. Might not this speak of a real reposnsibility to offenders or those who have fallen into addiction or unhealthy patterns of life. The society envisaged by Micah calls for a durability to such people on the lines of that shown to us by God. And whilst charity is not a substitute for economic or social justice, it does have an important role to play in reflecting this Divine compassion.
And finally Micah speaks of walking humbly with God. Now let's be clear that this is not about Uriah Heap "ever so humble" type of attitudes which have nothing to do with being children of God.Instead it is about recognising our limitations. It's about recognising that we are at times tempted to dominate or to look down on others and not just tempted but prone to doing so. We can easily be a contradiction of all we proclaim. More than that none of us are so brilliant that we can in our own strengths build Jerusalem in "England's green and pleasant land." No! We need to appreciate both that our talents come from God and we need God's guidance on how best to use them. In a world that has so manycalls for independence, we do well to recognise that we are dependent on God - a realisation that can help to prevent us being pumped up with notions of our own importance.
20 years ago I brought to an end a four year term as a Town Councillor in Redruth. that term taught me that there was good we could do but equally we needed help in many places. I sympathise with Town and indeed District Councillors when subjected to unrealistic expectations. You can only do your best with whatever limitation are imposed upon you.
But still you have a privilege in both acting and speaking for this town with its commercial life and its public services plus a whole host of community needs and aspirations. In the midst of your busyness I simply invite you to look to the ancient prophets of Israel and to Jesus himself who was in many ways shaped by them. Sure your deliberations will cover a range of issues that were unimagineable in Biblical times. But I believe that prophets like Micah and indeed Jesus himself would whisper to you a simple guidance regarding priorities.
Put the poor and vulnerable first!
Put the poor and vulnerable second!
Put the poor and vulnerable third!
For this is the way of true religion as embodied by Jesus Christ.