Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Sermon: "Jesus Justice"

The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
January 27, 2019 – Third Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-9;  Luke 4:14-21

“Jesus Justice”

What does the Lord require of us?
According to the prophet Micah, we are to love kindness, do justice,
and walk humbly with our God.
Micah echoes the words of Isaiah.
Isaiah speaks of a God who LOVES justice, and compels us to love it as well.
But what does it mean to love justice?
What does it mean to do justice?
What is it that comes to your mind when you hear the word justice?

Language can be a tricky thing.
The same word can have several different meanings depending on the context.
The context in which it is used, the context in which it is heard,
and the context that we all bring with us given our varied backgrounds and biases, experiences and expectations.

There are numerous words in our English language that mean different things depending on the context.
The word “present” is just one example. 
As in: “There is no time like the present to present a friend with a present.”

Words can also shift in meaning over time.
The word “awful” used to mean worthy of awe.
The word “silly” used to mean lucky or blessed.
And the word “nice” used to mean foolish or simple minded. 
Which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Have a nice day!"

Culture and location also play a role.
If you walked into a super market in England looking for chips, biscuits, and crackers, your shopping cart would look very different than if you took the same list into a market here in America.
In the UK, chips are fries, a biscuit is a cookie, and a cracker is something you pull apart at Christmas dinner, and find a paper hat and a joke inside.

This same word, different meaning trickiness applies to adjectives as well.
One of my favorite British TV shows is “Escape to the Country.”
It’s like a British version of House Hunters, where people looking to move to the country tour several homes and share what they like and dislike about each one.
During the first few episodes I watched, it took me by surprise whenever someone walked into a room and exclaimed,
“Oh I love this  – it’s so homely.”

Apparently in the UK, “homely” is a good thing. 
It means cozy or comfortable – or “homey” as we might say.
So the next time someone calls your decorating style homely – you can say, “Why, thank you!”

Justice is one of those words that can shift in meaning depending on the context.
It can refer to retribution, restitution, or restoration.
Its motivating impulse could be a desire to enact judgment and punishment for a crime.
Or it can come from a desire to right a wrong, through reciprocal offerings of remorse and forgiveness.
Or it may be rooted in a desire to create balance where there is imbalance, equity where there is inequity.

When we link the name of God with the word justice,
with all the varied understandings of each that we bring to the mix,
we muddy the waters of meaning even further still.

Ask any Christian what they think of when they hear the phrase “God loves justice” and you may get very different answers.

Is the God who loves justice one who wishes to punish sinners for their transgressions by enacting eternal judgment,
while also rewarding those who’ve demonstrated righteousness and repentance? 

Is the God who loves justice one who commands us to seek harmony and fairness in our relationships, to treat others as we wish to be treated, and offer one another mercy, grace, and forgiveness when we are wronged?

Is the God who loves justice one who weeps over the injustice in our world – economic injustice, racial injustice, social injustice – any imbalance or inequity created and perpetuated by systems that favor the rich over the poor, the privileged over the oppressed, the powerful over the powerless?

What comes to mind for you when you hear Isaiah speak about our God who loves justice?

Isaiah speaks of a God who brings a message of hope to those who lacked hope – to the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, and the brokenhearted.
And Jesus uses those same words to describe his mission in this world:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

This is the heart of the gospel.

Of all the texts that Jesus could have read from the Hebrew scriptures to launch his ministry, he chose the one centered on liberation, healing, and justice.
He chose the one that inspired his mother Mary to sing about their God who would bring down the powerful and the proud and lift up the lowly and the meek.

In the first few centuries of the church formed in Jesus’ name this was the mission Christians followed, this was the gospel they preached.
As Christian historian Diane Butler Bass writes:

“Throughout the first five centuries people understood Christianity primarily as a way of life in the present, not as a doctrinal system, esoteric belief, or promise of eternal salvation. By followers enacting Jesus’ teachings, Christianity changed and improved the lives of its adherents.”

One of the prominent voices in the early church, Justin Martyr, argued that following the way of Christ “mended lives."
He wrote:

We who formerly . . . valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live with them as if they were family, and we pray for our enemies.”

Sharing wealth, caring for everyone in need,
living as if tribal boundaries no longer existed,
praying for enemies rather than destroying them.

That’s a radical understanding of the gospel right there. 

And it may not quite sit right with our modern understanding of personal liberty, responsibility, and fairness.

It didn’t sit right with Justin Martyr’s second century contemporaries,
which is why he was killed for refusing to play by the rules of the empire.
It didn’t sit right with Jesus’ first century followers either.
Which is why so many walked away from him when he said the poor and the meek will be the first to enter God’s Kingdom, while the wealthy and mighty will be last.

What is it about this understanding of justice that makes us so uneasy?

For centuries, the Catholic Church has been one of the biggest proponents of justice for the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned –
from St. Francis of Assisi to the Jesuits and Franciscans to the modern day Nuns on the Bus who travel the country speaking out about social inequalities, to the official Catechism of the Catholic Church - which has an entire section labeled “Social Justice” which states:

“The equal dignity of human persons (as created by God) requires the effort to reduce excessive social and economic inequalities (and) gives urgency to the elimination of such sinful inequities.”

Now I just said something there that brings us back to the subject of language, and context, and changing meanings over time.

I used the phrase “social justice” – which has in recent years been politicized and been used to drive a wedge between opposing ideologies in the political arena and in the church.

In fact, one prominent political pundit warned his followers that if you find the term “social justice” or "economic justice" on your church website, run as fast as you can, because it’s a code word for socialism and Marxism.

That would include just about every Catholic parish, as the Church and numerous Popes have been using both terms for over a century.
Most of the mainline Christian churches would be found guilty as well, including Congregationalists, who have historically been on the forefront of justice movements such as the abolition of slavery, the plight of the poor, women’s suffrage, and the recognition of civil rights for all.

But mainline Christians and Catholics are not the only ones lamenting that issues relating to injustice in our social systems have become politicized and polarized.
Lamar Vest, a Pentecostal Pastor, noted Evangelical leader, and former President of the conservative leaning American Bible Society, recently appeared on The 700 Club to discuss the new Poverty and Justice Bible—a Bible that highlights more than 2000 verses that talk about poverty and justice.

Vest described a survey in which people were asked to identify the sources of several quotes that talked about the Christian responsibility to care for the poor and address issues of social injustice.
All of the quotes were from the Bible.
Several were from Jesus himself.
Yet 54 percent of the respondents attributed the quotes to Hollywood celebrities or liberal politicians.
Only 13 percent recognized them as being from the Bible.

This says as much about Biblical literacy as it does about our current political climate.

But given this shift in understanding of what it means to address issues of inequality and justice in our society from a position of faith,
perhaps we should stop calling it social justice
and start calling it Jesus Justice.

To make it clear who it is God anointed to bring good news to poor,
to proclaim release to the captives, to set the oppressed free.
And who it is that commissioned us to follow in his footsteps and do the same.

Which brings us back to our original question.
What does it mean to LOVE justice and DO justice?

We may disagree on how we DO justice.
We may believe charity begins at home, and it’s the responsibility of individuals or the church to care for the least among us.
Or we may believe it’s the responsibility of the people as a whole, and that we can’t truly address social injustice without reforming the systems that produce and perpetuate it.

The reality is, we may never agree on how to best DO justice.
But what we can do is DO JUSTICE in whatever way rings true for us. 

Whether it’s volunteering our time at a community supper,
supporting our church’s mission work through charitable giving,
or working within the system or pushing from outside the system to enact reform and change people’s lives for the better.

The important thing is that we LOVE justice, as God LOVES justice.

That we are not hesitant or ashamed to admit that the good news of Jesus Christ was meant to liberate us all –
because as long as some of us are held captive by poverty, oppression, and extreme imbalances of privilege and power,
none of us is truly free.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us  – 
what Good News shall we bring to those who are joyously waiting to hear it?      

Thanks be to God, and Amen


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