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Sermon for February 2, 2014

The Life of Justice
February 2, 2014
What can we bring to the Lord?
    What kind of offerings should we give?
Should we bow before God
    with offerings of yearling calves?
Should we offer thousands of rams
    and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should we sacrifice our firstborn children
    to pay for our sins?
No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
    This is what is required of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
    and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:6-8
Audio version - click HERE

Have you ever heard someone say something like this: “There’s so much pain in the world. I suppose someone’s got to address it, but why should I have to do it? My hands are quite full right now, what with working 60 hours a week and my family commitments 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 little to do with social justice. And it won’t heal any of the pain the world.

Of course, we can always use guilt as a way to motivate people into action. Churches are good at this. “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 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 listen to a word from a Hebrew Prophet.

We just heard from the prophet Micah. Here’s what’s going on. Micah imagines God and the people of Israel in the middle of a lawsuit. They have come to court to see who is at fault in their fractured relationship. God charges that the people of Israel have ignored the covenant. They 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 history of bondage and the struggles leading up to liberation, the people grow indifferent. Israel comes up with a 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, you 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 will you be pleased, God? 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 a compulsion to clear our consciences. We want a sign that God 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.”

So, what does the Lord require?

Micah gives a surprise answer. 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 make it right 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. 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. Many also have a strong revulsion to the church getting involved in politics. I want to address this for a moment. The important decisions in our time – whether there will be peace or war, safety from terrorism and random shootings in public spaces, racial equality or discrimination, homophilia or homophobia, food or famine, economy parity or disparity – all these are, in part, political decisions. Not every political issue of the day demands a stand 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 into state and federal law. I love to see Christians 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. In these times that are neither safe nor sane, I love to see Christens put it all on the line, knowing that we can expect minimal support from the culture around us. Anyone can love the healthy, the successful, and the glamorous. There’s little dignity or courage in that. God calls us to a higher standard—to love and serve the world with compassion; to understand that when one suffers, we all suffer. When one person is given dignity, we are all brought a little higher. So, we DO justice. Think of those two words together -- justice as a verb. We don’t think justice. We don’t hope justice. We don’t pray justice. We DO justice. We DO.

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 writes 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 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 we want to live in God’s forgiving grace, then we walk in kindness, meeting the needs around us with the ease, freedom and compassion of God.

Micah also mentions humility.  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.

As we think about the life of Pete Seeger and mark his passing, I’m reminded of humility. Pete Seeger’s death leaves a void that must be filled with new voices. Clear voices. Committed voices. Determined voices. I wonder who will take up the guitar, the banjo, or the microphone; camera, pen and tablet to speak, sing, write, shout in a clear humble voice – who will remind us about love, and peace, and justice, and freedom. Who will be the new leaders? One of the tributes I read recalled Pete Seeger leading a march with the Occupy Movement in 2010. He was quoted as saying: "Be wary of great leaders. Hope that there are many, many small leaders." That’s humility, right? It’s not about the big grand scheme, as much as the long obedience in the same direction.

Justice. Kindness. Humility. Honestly, it would be a lot easier to buy God off.  The life of justice is risky and uncomfortable. It refuses to back down in the face of evil. It never relents shining the light of grace into the worst places in the world.

In the spirit of starting with small leaders, and for those whom this is new, let me suggest some first steps in living a life of justice, kindness and humility:

Write a kind or encouraging letter, perhaps to someone who is struggling with a decision, or a failure, or disappointment. Or write notes of encouragement to those who are fighting the good fight in our area, against all odds.

Volunteer to help at a food bank or Shepherd’s Table.

Guard the reputation of another person. Refuse to take part in discussions that focus on fault-finding or gossip, or discriminatory joking.

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 Christ’s name. Even a small one. Come join us on Lawyers Mall in Annapolis aon Feb. 17 to lobby for Transgender Equality. Learn about mass incarceration with us next week. Join one of our Peace in the Middle East events. We have lots of opportunities for eduction and service!

And remember, God doesn’t want stuff. God wants you. God has shown us what is good, and what is require of us. DO justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.

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