Pastor Emily Hartner:
“I have a bone to pick with you.”
That’s the way my 12-grade English teacher began our class one day.
The whole class–and I mean everyone–had copied each other’s homework.
Another one of our teachers found out and let our English teacher know.
And so she started the class by indicating that we had a serious and lengthy conversation ahead of us–one that was sure to convict us.
Well, we would soon find out, as if we didn’t know already.
She was disappointed in us, believing we were better–smarter, even–than that.
“A bone to pick.”
It’s a phrase that calls to mind the image of a dog chewing on a bone for what seems like an eternity.
If you have a dog, and have given him or her a bone, you know that even the synthetic kind can keep dogs occupied for quite a while.
It’s not a quick, once-and-for-all kind of thing.
It goes on and on and on.
Well, our passage from Micah today begins similarly to our English class that day: “The Lord has a controversy with his people.”
God’s got a bone to pick.
We’re not so sure.
There is no accusation, no defense.
Though it is clear that the relationship between God and the Israelites has been wounded, it’s not exactly clear what they did.
God wonders what God has done to contribute to the problem, but can’t seem to figure it out, making a list instead of the many ways in which the Israelites have been blessed.
What did they do?
It’s that question that wouldn’t leave me alone this week.
And what did God say to provoke such an effective confession (because they do readily admit to a ‘transgression’).
I wonder this because, while I can say our prayer of confession by heart on Sunday mornings and admit that “I am truly sorry and humbly repent,” when it comes to day-to-day living, I don’t want things to be my fault.
In fact, I live in a society, with a culture and politics, that teaches me not to take the blame for anything.
“She passed me the homework.”
“He said I could copy it.”
“Everybody else is doing it.”
“The devil made me do it.”
“Why should I help if they’re not willing to help themselves?”
We shouldn’t be so surprised at this response.
After all, it is an age-old problem.
“The woman gave me the fruit.”
“The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
So what’s the difference here?
Why are the Israelites so quick to take the blame?
Well, with a little digging into the text this week, I think I may have discovered it.
I was particularly intrigued, you see, with God’s reference to “what happened between Shittim and Gilgal.”
Shittim and Gilgal are places on either side of the Jordan River–Shittim is on the East bank; Gilgal on the West.
When God asks them to remember what happened between the two, God’s probably thinking about having guided them across the Jordan and into the Promised Land.
Certainly, that’s where our modern-day ears go as well.
It’s the final item in God’s list of the blessings given to Israel, reminding them that they are God’s chosen people.
But I don’t think that’s the only thing the Israelites heard at the utterance of those two locations mentioned.
Of course, they would have remembered crossing into the Promised Land (how could they not?), but these two locations had some other, less glamorous meaning for them.
They are both places where the Israelites are said to have bowed to worship other gods.
When God mentions those two places, they wince a little bit, remembering the places where they really messed up.
Is that very deep transgression, the one that violates that very first commandment, is that deep transgression the one that leaves them almost begging God for a way to make amends?
It may be.
But you know what else?
It’s okay because whatever happened between Shittim and Gilgal is twofold–it’s the place where the Israelites messed up, but also the very place where God saved.
The very symbol of Israel’s transgression–that which happened from Shittim to Gilgal–is the same symbol of God’s goodness–how God led the Israelites from Shittim to Gilgal, across the Jordan and into the Promised Land.
The word of God both convicts and gives hope, in one single breath.
Here’s how the word of God worked on me this week.
This passage today from Micah includes the very beloved “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
But I was reflecting on this–justice, kindness, humility–at the same time it was decided to cut the number of refugees our country will receive in 2017 to half of what it was in 2016.
There was the rub for me, the thing that made me wince, the conviction.
I can’t look at the images that come out of Aleppo or remember the conversations I had at our dinner in the fall hosting St. Sarkis Armenian Orthodox Church, conversations with people whose families had been Syrian refugees, and not feel convicted by this text, and not feel that we have, like the Israelites, collectively violated one of God’s requirements.
Does God have a bone to pick with us?
But here’s the thing.
The very Word that convicts is also the very Word that saves.
The Word of God that reminds us of our transgressions is the same Word that reminds us of God’s goodness.
With one single breath of the Word of God, we’re also reminded of God’s justice, and God’s kindness, and God’s humility–the very things that save our world.
Our one true hope.
It’s no coincidence that the symbol of what both convicts and saves the Israelites is a river, for certainly our symbol is a river as well.
It is our baptismal river that reminds us both that yes, we’re better than this but that also it is God’s goodness that wins in the end.
That’s why, if you look at p. 94 in the front of your hymnals, you’ll see that there are two options for the beginning of our worship service.
One is the Confession and Forgiveness, which is our practice.
The other, is the Thanksgiving for Baptism.
They function similarly–reminding us simultaneously of our flaws and sins and also of God’s goodness.
On either side of the river, there is a place of sin, but flowing in the midst of those places marked by sin, there is a river of goodness.
Our baptisms remind us that God is the one who does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly with us.
And that means that we’re freed to live reflecting God’s own justice, kindness, and humility.
Why are the Israelites so quick to take the blame here, without even a clear accusation?
Well, maybe they’ve messed us enough times by now to know that it’s never the end and that, perhaps in the confessing itself, they open themselves up to further blessings from God.
They’re reminded of who they are and given another chance to act like it.
We are God’s people.
As such, God will be pickin’ bones with us our whole lives.
It’s a lifelong struggle, gnawing on that bone with God over and over and over again,for we live in that place, between Shittim and Gilgal, a place marked by both sin and blessing.
In that place, this place, and as God’s people, it is our job to confess our transgressions, and perhaps not only ours, individually, but collectively, to receive God’s forgiveness, and to grow into the fullness of Jesus Christ.
It’s a fullness marked by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.