June 10, 2018
click here for the bulletin
What do we do now…?
I want to go back to something I said last week: Our futures—our own, the future of our congregation, our community, our country, even the future of our planet—all of these are uncertain. We live on the edge of a lot of unknowns and we are understandably anxious.
And I said the task before us today—we, the living Body of Christ swimming in this sea of uncertainty—is to practice bringing our anxieties and our fears into conversation with our faith. We need, I said, to let our fear be held within our trust.
Because the unknown turns out to be one of those “thin places” where our anxiety meets the trust that God offers us, walking in to the unknown—into all this uncertainty, can be a deeply spiritual experience. In this thin place, fear meets grace, and the two begin to talk; they begin to dance together.
“There is no fear in love”, St. John said. “Perfect love overcomes fear”. Love Wins, always. Love and trust are both gifts from God and when we possess—or, rather, when we are possessed by, these gifts they transform our fear; they hold our anxiety, keep it safe, give it comfort.
Trust makes it possible for us to live without fear—or at least with much less fear, in fearful and uncertain times. Trust—this confidence in the goodness and grace of life in God’s Creation, makes justice possible. And justice is the theme we will be exploring here for some time to come.
To do justice, in the broadest sense of that word, means to do the right thing for all people at all times and in all places. Justice means doing whatever has to be done, spending whatever has to be spent, to make sure every person on earth is safe, sheltered, well fed, educated and employed.
Justice is a very big job.
In a world wracked by fear and anxiety, as ours is, it is an impossible job. In a world, like ours, where we fear that there can’t possibly be enough for everyone, where we believe there must be winners and losers and where we are determined to be among the winners, it is a monumentally impossible job.
But it’s a job that needs doing. The Kingdom of God, I said last week, needs us—our little community here in Mt Vernon, and millions like us, to do this; to let our fear be held in our trust. To so trust God’s grace that we give ourselves wholeheartedly to the work of justice for our neighbors and our planet.
Now I was going to start this week by talking about instances of injustice in our world and look at how the church has at times worked against injustice and at other, less fortunate times, has been an actual agent of injustice. And we will get there eventually, I suppose; but this won’t be that day. I don’t think we’re ready yet. First we need to think more about what, exactly, justice is and what it looks like.
Many years ago now I read that US Treasury agents—the people whose job it is to sort out real money from counterfeit money, spend almost no time at all studying counterfeit money. They spend no time with the fake stuff. Instead they spend all their time with genuine money, studying it in minute detail. That way, when they do see the fake, its “fakiness” jumps out at them; it can’t be missed.
Understanding—and doing justice works the same way. If you spend all your time contemplating the right thing to do, when you find yourself, or someone else, doing the wrong thing, the “wrongness” will jump out at you. And more often than not, you will then know what to do about it, too.
That’s the method I want to employ in our study of justice; which brings me, at long last, to our 2nd Scripture reading for today. This is from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, chapter 58 of his book, and is one of the preeminent word pictures in the Bible showing us what justice looks like. I’m reading mostly from Eugene Peterson’s translation called The Message:
Isaiah 58 The Message
1-3 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
face my family Jacob with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’
The people were aware, you see, that there was something wrong with their worship and their religious life. They thought they wanted the right thing and they were “busy, busy, busy” about their worship and church work. But their prayers were bouncing off the ceiling. Life in their villages and in their country wasn’t going the way they thought it should. Isaiah is imagining here what God would say about their busyness.
“Well, here’s what’s wrong:
“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ (and everything else you do) is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You (worship), but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting (and worship) you do
won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is (what) I’m after:
a day to show off your humility?
To put on a pious long face
and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that (worship),
a fast day that I would like?
An here God gets practical and addresses the real world situation:
6-9 “This is the (what) I’m after (God says):
break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed, cancel debts.
God isn’t too happy with employers who exploit workers with low wages and long hours. You might way God is in favor of a living wage. And the oppression of undocumented immigrants—hiring them into virtual slavery knowing they can’t afford to complain—Maybe God isn’t too keen on that either.
What I’m interested in seeing you do (God says) is this:
share your food with the hungry,
invite the homeless poor into your homes,
put clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
be available to your own families.
I wonder—did Ben Carson read this before he decided to raise rents by 20%, or more, on poor families in public housing? Did anyone in congress read this before they decided this year to cut food assistance to millions of poor American children after giving millions and millions of dollars in tax cuts to the already wealthy?
God cares about these things, Isaiah is telling us. And the world doesn’t work the way it should when we get it wrong.
When we get it right, on the other hand, this happens:
Do this—(feed and house and care for those in need) and the lights will turn on,
your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness (your “right doing”) will pave your way.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’
God cares about these things—about food and housing and fair employment; especially for those people who live at the bottom. And not just then, but now; not just there, but here and everywhere in the world. God cares about justice. A lot!
And this is what justice looks like:
9-12 “…get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about “other people’s” sins, (Pay attention to your own, in other words)
(Be) generous with the hungry
give yourselves to the down-and-out, and
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
(You’ll be what Jesus called “a city set on a hill”)
I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
(A full life in the midst of our anxiety and fear)
firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
Justice, you see—at least as God desires it, has some real world, concrete effects. Justice isn’t a theory; it’s a practice; a way of life. It’s a way of running a church—or a business or a state or a country. Justice—doing the right thing for all people all the time, is the way God wants the world to run. It’s the way God wants us to run the world.
It’s hard to imagine, I know. I can barely imagine it and it scares me, to be honest, to think what actually living a just life would mean to my own life.
But we have to think about it. The world needs us to think about it because, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “True peace is not the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice”.
There will never be peace without justice.
Which brings us back to where we started—because there will never be justice until there is trust; until we enter that thin place where trust—that gift of God’s grace, can hold and comfort our anxiety and fear. Until we enter that place where, trusting in the abundant goodness of Creation and Creation’s God, we live as though there is enough for everyone—because, in fact, there is enough for everyone.
None of this is easy, of course. But remember, in God’s world, the difficult is far from impossible. Trusting God, we do what we can.
“It is not possible” Bryan Hehir said, “to create a world in which no innocent people suffer, but it is possible to create a world in which fewer innocent people suffer.” And that’s a start. We find those places where our time and energy and money—and our voting, can make a difference; and we do those things.
Justice isn’t an idea.
Justice is a way of life.
I love a good quote. I love it when smart people say smart things in clever ways. I always wish I had been the one to think of it. So I’ll leave you with this quote from Cardinal Jaime Sin who was the archbishop of Manila, in the Philippines, during the nonviolent overthrow of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos:
“Strength without compassion is violence.
Compassion without justice is sentiment.
Justice without love is Communism.
And…love without justice is baloney!”
To that I will add my own un-clever, but hearty, Amen.
on summer hiatus