In October of 2014 the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and the Public Life released a report about the growth of the religiously unaffiliated in America called “ “Nones” on the Rise.” The report states:
“The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continue to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — are religiously unaffiliated…
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics…as well as people who say they have no particular religious affiliation…
This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.”
In October of 2015, Diana Butler Bass released the book, Grounded: Finding God in the World—a Spiritual Revolution. She tells the story of meeting a woman she describes as a successful executive on a flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles.
“After she told me about her work, she asked, “What do you do?”
I replied that I write about religion and spirituality.
She laughed, “‘Religion’ isn’t a very popular word, is it?”
“I used to be religious,” she explained. “I grew up Catholic, but left the Church [over scandals]. The Church doesn’t make much sense as it is now. But I still believe in God. I’d say I’m a spiritual person.”
“Lots of people tell me that they are ‘Spiritual but not Religious,’” I said, laughing a little. “what do you mean by that? Who is God to you?”
She shared with me how she found God in nature, in her relationship with family, friends, and neighbors, and in the work she does in the world. She told me how God was present to her through…serving hungry people at a local shelter…occasional attendance at an evening jazz service…and offering hospitality toward those in need.” (Bass, Diana Butler (2015-10-06). Grounded: Finding God in the World-A Spiritual Revolution (p. 16-17). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
I have had a number of conversations that echo this same sentiment of spiritual but not religious. So if this person that the author met is representative of the rising “nones” in America who are disinclined to say that they are religious, what does it mean to be a religious person?
The Pew Report does indicate that for those who say they are religiously unaffiliated, they are not “uniformly hostile toward religious institutions.”
“They are much more likely than the public overall to say that churches and other religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics. But at the same time, a majority of the religiously unaffiliated clearly think that religion can be a force for good in society, with three-quarters saying religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds (78%) and a similar number saying religious organizations play an important role in helping the poor and needy (77%).”
The question of what it means to be a religious person has, perhaps, plagued humanity for longer than we’ve been keeping track, which is why we’ve reduced man’s quest for meaning to the caricature of a person climbing a mountain to ask the computer for the answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything—which, of course is 42—now we just have to discover the question to the answer.
Is a religious person one who goes to the local shrine or temple and makes the appropriate offering, claps their hands, and rings the bell to alert the deity of their request? Or maybe the religious person is the one who attends church each Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night? Or maybe its the one who prays five times and day, gives alms, fasts and makes pilgrimage?
Or maybe you’ve heard the saying, “If going to Church makes you a Christian, does that mean going to a garage makes you car?”
Today’s text from Micah is all about religion because Micah has been tasked with calling Judah on the carpet for their careless religiosity.
The passage today is broken into sections that announce God’s trial of the people of God, the history of God’s saving work on behalf of the people of God, the people’s questions to God and then Micah’s response to the people on behalf of God.
First is the call, perhaps to Micah, to present God’s case—the mountains, some say, are representative of the patriarchs and the hills of the matriarchs. Others simply say that Micah is to present God’s case to the foundations of the world. Let every person and every thing hear what God has to say. It’s not fun, in fact is pretty embarrassing when you get called out. It’s like when you were in school and you hear, “Tom Brady, please report to the principal’s office,” and the whole class is like, “Ooooooooooooo. You’re in trouble!”
Maybe that’s why nobody cares for prophets. Micah rolls into town, or Isaiah pops up in the city square, and everyone’s thinking, “Oh man, who messed up this time?!?” But that’s what prophets do. They hold the people of God accountable to the identity they have been given.
It may seem to be bit of a stereotype, but what happens when a spouse forgets the date of their wedding anniversary? Lord have mercy, right? Why is that? Is it that the date is so important or the actual number of years you’ve been together? Maybe. Maybe. But more important, I think, is that we are forgetting an important moment in our story with our spouse.
Micah starts with an accusation that the people “seem to have forgotten their ‘story’ and in doing so, have forgotten their saving God.” He starts with the Exodus and then reminds them of the two moments during their wilderness journey when they were rescued from Balak, King of Moab, by a foreigner seer named Balaam. Balaam was tasked by Balak to curse Israel, but every time he tried to curse them he blessed them. God then reminds Israel of their crossing into the promised land led by Joshua, from Shittim to Gilgal.
While some may hear this as the angry manager of the movie star or rock star that has forgotten their humble beginnings, that “I made you!” kind of accusation, the tone of the text is really as pleading question, “How could you forget?”
But it’s no strange thing that people forget God, or live in ways that are less faithful, when things are good. We are inclined to search God out, and step up our faithfulness, when things are going bad, though. One article written in 2002 asked, “What Ever Happened to…our religious fervor?”
In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, Americans packed churches, synagogues and mosques. Some wanted to find answers for evil. Others sought solace among family and friends. But experts say attendance quickly dwindled; pews thinned within two months.
For the most part today, it’s worship as usual.
The increase “did not hold true,” said Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. “It lasted for a few weeks and that was it.”
And many scholars think that for Judah, life was good. Very good. And while they may not have forgotten God, they were certainly forgetting their story and what their religious life called them to.
According to one: “Micah looks beneath the surface of Judah’s society and sees fundamental flaws that will result in the nation’s downfall. Greed and dishonesty permeate the nation, and the result is a compromised legal system, a callous disregard for the poor and an unethical business practice. Ironically, all this takes place while Judah publicly professes to be faithful to the one true God and to the divine law handed down to the people during their wilderness wandering.” (Jan Knight, “Entry Point to Micah—What God Requires” Spiritual Formation Bible. (p. 1222) Zondervan, 1999.)
Another scholar describes how Judah was in the middle of a revival. “The temple was crowded. Giving was over budget for the first time in years, but Micah knew that something was wrong. Israel was arrogant and uncaring…They are religious, but their idea of what religion means is far from God’s hope for them. They think religion consists of worshiping ‘correctly’ and staying away from those who do not.” (Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective on Micah 6:1-8.” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.)
But from what Micah says, what God says through Micah, worship calls us back to our story, and helps us remember our identity. So God calls Judah on the carpet, calls for them to remember their story and in remembering their story, they’ll recognize the gracious acts of the Lord.
Judah’s reply is so perfectly…human! They ask—or in the trial, Micah asks on their behalf: “What do I do to fix this?” In verses 6-7 they ask soul-searching questions, atonement questions that build upon one another in ironic exaggeration. Burnt offerings, calves a year old? Those we’re already giving! What about thousands of rams, myriads of oil (ten thousand rivers of oil?) We can find a way to do that! The build up is like they’re saying, “I’ll do whatever it takes to make this right! I’ll give you whatever you want! Anything! Just ask! Tell me! Anything!”
Okay. Okay. Calm Down. Here’s what I want. I’ve told you all along. It’s always been part of the story.
“O mortal, O human, the Lord has told you what is good:
Do justice, love goodness, and walk modestly with your God.”
In this passage Micah joins a tradition where “each of the prophets further encapsulates the Torah into fewer and fewer principles. When Micah came, he summed up six hundred and thirteen commandments in three principles.” (Babylonian Talmud)
And one rabbi says, “In a deeper vein, he (Micah) espouses the promise of ethics over ritual. The goal of genuine religion is not to mollify G-d with escalating number of sacrifices…” (Rabbi Ismar Schorch)
Do justice. Love loving-kindness. And walk humbly, walk modestly with your God.
Where, in other prophetic traditions, the people would be greeted with a judgment and verdict of guilty with sentence to follow, “The Lord, speaking through Micah, moves beyond polemic against…cultic custom into moral teaching.” (W. Sibley Towner, “Exegetical perspective on Micah 6:1-8” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.)
Another prophet, Hosea, says to Israel on God’s behalf: “I desire mercy not sacrifice; and acknowledgment of G-d over burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
When we find ourselves in those moments when we know that we’re wrong, when we know that our life needs change, it’s so much easier to sacrifice something, (our tears at the altar rail, our money to assuage our guilty conscience.) We bring gifts to spouses or children when we know we’ve been harsh or distant and we want to make things right.
What G-d desires, what the image of G-d in each one of us desires, is so very simple: Love. Love lived out justly; love of mercy; love of humbly walking with G-d.