Caleb Kormann Convivium Reflection

Caleb Kormann reflects on Micah at Convivium on November 7th, 2019

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November 7, 2019

The main character of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood is a young man from Tennessee named Hazel Motes. Hazel is haunted by Jesus Christ. For him, Jesus is a “wild and ragged figure moving from tree to tree in the back of his mind.” He wants absolutely nothing to do with Christ. So much so, in fact, that he founds his own religion titled “The Church Without Jesus Christ”. As a young boy, Flannery O’Connor writes in the first chapter, “there was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” A few pages later Hazel, now 22, is taking a taxi to visit a prostitute whose address he found scrawled on a bathroom stall. Based on his hat and a certain look in his face, the taxi driver mistakes Hazel for a preacher. Furious, Hazel corrects him, snarling, “Listen: I don’t believe in anything.” The driver replies with disgust: “That’s the trouble with you preachers; you’ve all got too good to believe in anything.”

We might think of the prophet Micah as Israel’s taxi driver: “That’s the trouble with you Israelites; you’ve all got too good to believe in anything.” Throughout the book of Micah, the Law thunders judgment on the sins of Israel. To meet the gaze of this text—to be read by this text—is to lament the darkness in our heart and in this world; all that is ravaged by vice; all that is ugly in us; all that we mangle and mutilate; all that is riven by lack and loss. We lie and lash out. We deprive and withhold. We invert and misorder ourselves and the structures of our world. We rarely and barely care for our neighbor or our Lord. As my Anglican tradition has it, “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

I think we misread Micah 6:8, the one about doing justice and loving mercy that we like to stitch on pillows, when we fail to grasp that it is the terror of the Law’s judgment. It’s less inspiring, more horrifying. In context, the fundamental meaning is that we have not done justice or loved mercy or walked humbly with our God. The preceding verses ask, rhetorically, whether the Lord will be pleased with burnt offerings, thousands of rams, or a firstborn child “for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul.” We have not done what the Lord has required, and I think if we want to feel the text we need to feel that terror. I begin with Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes because I think our text would have us not avoid Jesus by avoiding our sin—that is, by being too good to believe in anything. Our text assumes a desperation that reaches for the garment; that is lowered down through the roof; that feeds on crumbs falling from the table; that streaks down dusty feet in rivulets of tears.

Just and only here, in this bitter winter and these ashes, are we met by the glad tidings. I can’t improve on the literary beauty of our text: “Who is a God like thee, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger for ever because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion upon us, he will tread our iniquities under foot. Thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as thou hast sworn to our fathers from the days of old” (RSV).

These are the final words in the book of Micah because, it might be ventured, they are the final word spoken over every human life. It is not the judgment of the law, what we have done and left undone, but the liberation of the glad tidings, what has been done for us, that is the final word spoken over you, and me, and all of us. The incarnate Lord has been crucified under Pontius Pilate, and on the third day has risen from the dead. Our sins are forgiven, death has been vanquished, and we will be made beautiful. The face of God is Jesus of Nazareth, and as Micah prophecies, this God pardons iniquity, passes over transgression, and delights in steadfast love. To be met by the eyes of this God is to be met with mercy, always and ever, no matter what. I don’t have anything more interesting, urgent, or needful to say than this—nobody does. All our daily failures are met by nothing else than the crucified Mercy that the Lord just is: “He will again have compassion on us.” The Lord is not angry with us; what we have done and left undone has been cast into the sea. The final word over our lives is the enfleshed Word. To borrow a line, it is this final word of mercy that “stirs tigers in our blood and sets our feet to dancing”. In this final Word you and I have been forgiven; you and I are loved.