Epiphany 4, January 30, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore
It seems that in the time of the prophet Micah there was an especially gifted shepherd named Ishmael. By his special skills and not a little finagling and horse-trading he had managed to bring into his flock a whole line of really special animals. The rams were big, burly and masculine, the ewes were dainty and feminine, and the lambs they produced were almost always perfect. This worked greatly to Ishmael's advantage. Since he had managed to get a corner on most of the good breeders in the land, the rest of the shepherds of Israel didn't have quite the same quality in theirs. Seeing as the law required that for sacrifices one had to bring a lamb without blemish, this gave him quite an advantage at the temple.
Soon, however, his neighbors began to come by before the time of sacrifice to ask a favor. Would he trade of his fine lambs for one of their older, yet perhaps not quite so special lambs? They truly had nothing to offer, and everyone knew that Ishmael's lambs were of the best quality. In fact, there was buzz that the Almighty had specially blessed Ishmael, so that a lamb from his flock would garner more merit, more favor, perhaps even a special place in the heart of the Holy One of Israel. But what use had Ishmael for another lamb of poorer quality than his own? He instead named a price. Not just any price, but a price that reflected the perfect nature of his lambs. Reluctantly, his neighbors lined up outside his tent. Quite soon Ishmael was taking quite a bundle of shekels to the bank every week. He looked forward to the times of sacrifice, because they tended to suit him quite well.
One day he ran out of lambs truly without blemish. There was still one neighbor at his door. He agreed to sell him one with a tiny spot just under his left front leg where the Levite who certified the animals was not likely to notice. But the Levite was good to his job. "Where did you get this animal? It is an outrage to the Lord!"
"Ishmael sold it to me for half price," the man admitted.
"I'll have a word with Ishmael," replied the angry Levite, but since the man had truly nothing else to bring, not even two young pigeons, he let him through. "No guarantees with the Almighty, now, you know."
When the Levite met with Ishmael they had a little chat. Over the best wine that Ishmael had to offer (and not just a little of it,) they struck a deal. The Levite's eyes would be blinded to certain insignificant blemishes by a certain quantity of wool delivered to his tent in the middle of the night. Soon the Levite was also looking forward to the times of sacrifice. And with time most of the priests were in on it as well.
This all went along quite well for some time, until the pesky prophet Micah came along. Prophets never have any fun. Their business is usually to ruin things for folks. Sure enough, Micah is true to his nature. "God doesn't want any more sacrifices," he declares.
"What?! No more sacrifices?" Ishmael went and had a little talk with him, the Levite had a talk with him, too. All the neighbors had a talk with him… But he was resolute. He could not change the word of the Lord.
"Well, what are we to do?" They all asked.
And Micah replied with the enigmatic words the Lord had given him, "Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God." Didn't really help a thing… Who can make money doing that!
But it is true, God is the great leveler. When things get out of whack, when the point gets lost in the shuffle, when the tail starts wagging the dog, the word of prophecy always says: "Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God." In the Epistle lesson today St. Paul argues clearly for the leveling action of God. The powers of this world don't hold a candle to God, he argues. God's weakness is stronger than our strength, God's foolishness is wiser than our wisdom. Therefore, the Cross is a stumbling block to those who count as the world counts, but salvation to us who are "weak and foolish." The Cross is the great leveler. On it God did justice. On it God loved kindness. And on it God walked humbly with us.
Now this is a scary thought, but maybe there are situations in our world that really need a similar sort of leveling. Truth be told, there are a number we could touch on, but let's go with something far away, that deals with people we don't know. It used to be that farmers produced vegetables and took them to market to sell to consumers. With time and modernization things have changed a bit. We now no longer buy in the market directly from the producer, we buy our vegetables from the racks in the supermarket on which they are laid out all nice and pretty and where they get watered every two hours with a fine spray. They cost more, but then, we earn more now and most of us can afford them. But they've been a few places before they got there. And not all the steps are as pretty as the final one. It is current practice in the southern tier of states for large vegetable packing companies pay off the INS to let them bus in illegal workers from Mexico to whom they pay substandard wages. These workers process the vegetables you and I purchase in Wal-Mart and HEB. It allows the packers to price their goods below what local producers have to charge. And we appreciate the convenience and low prices.
(Well, maybe not so far away after all…) Like the sacrifices in the time of Micah, perhaps our economic offerings to the corporate gods no longer obtain for us the redemption they once did.
How would God have us level this situation? How about if we go back to the basics? We do justice: Short-circuit the economics that make commercial packaging of vegetable pay by buying from local growers and paying them directly what they need to charge. And we love kindness. We make it easy and legal for our neighbors to the south who need work to come and work, and pay them a living wage for their efforts, we help the packers to reinvest in more legal, effective, and earth-friendly ways of making a living, and we work to improve the economic situation south of the border so they can also make a living wage in their homeland. And finally, we walk humbly with our God. It will cost us something, for sure. Locally grown produce is more expensive, and concerning ourselves with the economic welfare of our neighbors is a chore, but who said doing what was right was always going to be easy? Lord knows we CAN afford it!
Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. It seems Jesus got the jump on us on this one, too. In the beatitudes we get a snapshot of a leveled community, one in which the power structures of the world no longer hold sway, one in which the un-powerful are cared for in special ways, because they require grace, and the powerful receive the grace of caring for the un-powerful, because they, too, require grace. Foolishness to the world, yes, but to us the saving power of God.