Have you ever heard someone say something like this: “There’s so much pain out there. I suppose someone’s got to address it, but why should I have to do it? I mean, I’ve got my hands full right now, what with working 60 hours a week and my family and all. Besides, I’ve worked hard to get what I have. Why shouldn’t be able to enjoy it?” That’s what might be called the “I’ve Got Mine” theory of social justice: I’ve got mine; let someone else take care of the world’s problems. It’s not much of a social justice theory, but I hear it a lot.
How about this one as an alternative? “Yes, I know. The world is full of injustice and all. It needs to be corrected, but that will take a better person than I. It will take a Martin Luther King, Jr., a Gandhi, a Mother Theresa. Maybe all three rolled into one. I can’t to that; I’m just an ordinary sort of person” That’s the Great Healer Theory of social justice: It takes a few great people to make a difference, and since I’m not a great person, I’ll wait for one to come along and follow that one. In the meantime, there’s not much I can do. Again, not much of a social justice theory. But I’ve heard it.
A variation on this theory is this: “There’s so much to do I wouldn’t know where to begin. I need someone to tell me. In the meantime, all I can do is wring my hands.” That one at least has the merit that it does not pretend to be anything but an excuse for not getting involved. Still, it has precious little to do with social justice. And it won’t heal any of the pain the world.
The church often uses guilt as a way to motivate people into action. “How can you possibly just stand there and do nothing? The world is falling to pieces all round you, from famine to racism. And if you don’t do anything about it, you are as guilty as those who perpetuate the pain, because your inaction allows the pain to continue and grow.” I know you’ve all heard some version of this. I’ve even preached it on occasion. It has the great virtue of getting a fair amount of social justice work started. Guilt really can motivate people. But there has to be something better, something that really will motivate people to get involved and touch the world with the loving compassion that Jesus demonstrated. This morning we will think about this as we read a word from a Hebrew Prophet.
In today's reading, God and the people of Israel are in the middle of a lawsuit. They have come to court to see who is at fault in their fractured relationship. Israel has ignored God. The people have forgotten how God saved them from the land of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. In choosing not to remember their own exodus and the struggles leading up to liberation, the people grow indifferent. They are all too willing to bargain, to bribe, and to buy off their neighbor and their God. On the stand, Israel comes up with a clever defense. “What can we bring before the Lord to make up for what we’ve done? Maybe God would be happy if we took a valuable yearling calf and sacrificed it. No. . .God will want more. Maybe we should raise the value by sacrificing not one, but a thousand rams, and then smother it with rivers of precious olive oil. Then would God be pleased? What if we sacrificed our firstborn children to pay for the sins of our souls? Then would God forgive? Tell us the cost, and we will pay.”
The urgent cries of Israel don’t sound very different than our own laments today. We mess something up, and we have an urgent compulsion to clear our consciences. We want a sign that God forgives us and still loves us. We cry, “God, what do you want from me. What can I do to make up for what I’ve done? Will you be happy if I promise to go to church every Sunday for a month? How about a year? What if I make good on my stewardship pledge? I’ll even put a little extra in? Then would you be pleased, God? How much do I need to give in order to secure your love? Do I need to find the people and things that are most valuable to me and offer them to you, Lord? Then would you forgive? Tell me the cost, and I will pay.” WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE?
Micah gives a surprise answer. If we think we can buy God’s love, then we have missed the point. God doesn’t want stuff. God wants you. God doesn’t require sacrifice of physical objects. God wants your heart. Micah says that if you want to experience God’s presence, then do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility with your God. Let’s think about this for a minute.
First God says do justice or do what is right. God cares deeply about people and how we treat one another. If we could see the world through the eyes of God, we would be looking through eyes of compassion. God cares about our needs, our hurts and brokenness. In Micah’s day, most of the county’s leaders were caught up in their own comfort and prosperity. But Micah saw the suffering of the general population. He knew that justice would not come from the state or the power structure. Justice rises from people who dare to envision dynamic alternatives to their current unjust conditions. To do justice is not a romantic ideal nor an abstract concept. Rather, justice means hard work. A life of justice asks us to work together, to analyze the present unjust system and to find ways to change the system. Justice is able to disrupt, dismantle, break down, disarm, and transform the world when we dare to see what is really happening without growing cynical. Living a life of justice means being willing to risk seeing another person’s suffering as our own.
Doing justice is hard because it means that life has to change. And many of us have a strong allergic reaction to change of any kind. We also have a strong revulsion to the church getting involved in politics. The important decisions in our time – whether there will be peace or war, freedom of totalitarianism, racial equality or discrimination, homophilia or homophobia, food or famine –all these are political decisions. Not every political issue of the day demands a decision from the churches. I don’t think churches should pursue political goals that are self-serving. I hate to see Christians try to legislate their convictions on divorce or abortion into sate and federal law. I hate to see Christians fight the ACLU to keep crèches on public greens, or prayer in schools, or evolution out of schools. I love to see Christian speak up and act up on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, to fight for housing for low-income families, for decent health care for the aging, for fair treatment of all people. Jesus pointed to the outcasts of the world—those who were handicapped, those who were poor, those who were in prison, those who were considered “the least”—and said, in effect, “Those people are just like me. If you love me, then you will also love them.” Anyone can love the healthy, the successful, and the glamorous. There’s little nobility or courage in that. But God calls us to a higher standard—to love and serve the world just as he does – to understand that when one suffers, we all suffer. When one person is given dignity, we are all brought a little higher. In these times that are neither safe nor sane, I love to see Christens risk maximum fidelity to Jesus Christ when they can expect to see minimal support from the culture around them. The churches have to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. But they also have to remember that the answer to homelessness is homes, not shelters. What the poor and downtrodden need is not piecemeal charity, but wholesale justice.
Micah also mentions kindness. Showing kindness means choosing to recognize and respond to the needy among us. In his book, The Power of the Powerless, Chris deVinck wrote about his brother Oliver who was severely handicapped, blind, and bedridden. No one was sure whether Oliver was aware of the world around him, although he did eat when he was fed. Though he lived to be over 30, feeding him was like feeding an eight-month-old child. He required 24-hour care, which his mother gave him until the day he died. Chris remembers it like this:
When I was in my early 20s, I met a girl, and I fell in love. After a few months I brought her home for dinner to meet my family. After the introductions and some small talk, my mother went to the kitchen to check the meal, and I asked the girl, “Would you like to see Oliver?” for I had, of course, told her about my brother. “No,” she answered. She did not want to see him. It was as if she slapped me in the face. In response I mumbled something polite and walked to the dining room.
Soon after, I met Rosemary—a dark-haired, dark-eyed, lovely girl. She asked me the names of my brothers and sisters. She bought me a copy of The Little Prince. She loved children. I thought she was wonderful. I brought her home after a few months to meet my family. The introductions. The small talk. We ate dinner; then it was time for me to feed Oliver. I walked into the kitchen … and prepared Oliver’s meal. Then, I remember, I sheepishly asked Roe if she’d like to come upstairs and see Oliver. “Sure,” she said, and up the stairs we went. I sat on Oliver’s bed as Roe stood and watched over my shoulder. I gave him his first spoonful, then his second. “Can I do that?” she asked with ease, with freedom, with compassion. So I gave her the bowl, and she fed Oliver one spoonful at a time.
Which girl would you marry? Today Roe and I have three children.
If you want to live in God’s forgiving grace, then walk in kindness, meeting the needs around you with the compassion of God.
Micah also mentions humility. A story is told about a doctor at a mental institution who made his rounds one evening. She heard someone shouting from one of the rooms. “I am the King of the Universe. I am the Ruler of the World! From now on everyone will do what I say because I am the Supreme Commander of the Galaxies!” The doctor investigated, opening a door to find a man in his underwear, standing on a chair, beating his chest and yelling, “I am the King of the Universe!” The doctor shouted, “Harry, get own off that chair! And quiet down! You’re disrupting people who are trying to sleep!” “I am the King of the Universe!” “Harry, your are not the King of the Universe!” “Yes I am!” he cried all the louder. “And just what makes you think you are the King of the Universe?” asked the doctor. “God told me I was King of the Universe!” shouted Harry. Just then, a voice erupted from another patient’s room down the hallway: “I did not say that!”
Humility means recognizing that the universe doesn’t revolve around us. In fact, it means serving others in a way that doesn’t even draw attention to the good deeds we do. It means that we do acts of justice and kindness with quiet simplicity.
Justice. Kindness. Humility. Honestly, it would be a lot easier to buy God off. But new life in Christ means living in ways that make life better for others. It’s risky and uncomfortable.
The life of justice is a response to God’s goodness. It refuses to back down in the face of evil. It never relents shining the light of grace into the dark place sin the world. Do you want to experience God’s presence? Do you seek tangible evidence of the New Life? Then live for God by living for justice, kindness, and humility.
Let me suggest some beginning steps in living such a life:
· Write a kind or encouraging letter, perhaps to someone who is struggling with a decision, or a failed marriage, or disappointment. Or write notes of encouragement to our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world who are persecuted for their faith.
· Volunteer to help at a food bank.
· Guard the reputation of another person. Refuse to take part in discussions that focus on fault-finding or gossip.
· Look for injustice and address it. Ask yourself, “Am I doing something that oppresses someone else? Have I taken advantage of another person? By examining yourself, you will be able to see the injustice around you.
· Take a stand. All around is there is racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. You have the power to make a difference in Jesus’ name.
The life of justice is a life of sacrifice–but a much different kind than we may think. God doesn’t want stuff. God wants you. God has shown you what is good, and what does the Lord require of you. To do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.