September 10, 2017

September 10, 2017: Why Hope? (Justice)

 

Scriptures Used: Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-18

 

In multiple speeches and sermons, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the phrase, “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What that means, by my interpretation, is that even when we wonder if things look bad in a moment, the long game of time’s movements is towards a better existence.

 

The Rev. Dr. King was paraphrasing part of a sermon by American abolitionist and theologian Theodore Parker, who in 1853 stated:

 

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye

reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by

experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it

bends toward justice.”

 

I imagine Rev. Parker could care less that his name is not the most attached one to his own words. His sentiment in the mid 1800’s was that the practice of slavery was wrong. The fact that those same words would a century later be used to proclaim equal treatment of African Americans shows that his words may be his, but the spirit behind them goes both backward and forward.

 

I noted last week in the first part of this worship series on hope that one of the great challenges of being a person of faith is reconciling that bad things happen while we celebrate a God we believe loves all people and wants us to be at peace. The question remains: how do we find hope when suffering exists?

 

If we can assume that God indeed wants the best for all people, and we also assume that God honors the freedom of people to choose how to behave, then eventually a clash of wills, desires, greed, morals, and various understandings of justice will lead to suffering. Humanity has shown that we are not adherents to “live and let live.” Therefore, through obvious examples of what we have discerned to be evil – things like slavery, oppression, suffering from the behavior of others, stoppable death – we have collectively discerned that God has a conscience and a moral code. Centuries of theologians of various faiths would argue that conscience has a name: justice.

 

Today’s passage from the Psalms exalts God as the bringer of justice. By its language, one can see an eschatological, or “end times,” tone; however, the people of Israel throughout their history felt God would vindicate them and save them from their enemies. God is always seen as the savior of the people. That belief was so deep. It was part of their core. They had to live by God’s law because God blessed those who upheld the law. And, to remind you, that law was partly about right actions and ritual purity, but those are deeply about caring for the other, especially the vulnerable and outsider.

 

I believe we should have hope because God has proven that justice exists and God has promoted justice throughout time. Justice, by my definition, is what God has named as righteous and lawful. Throughout the Christian Bible, in what we consider the Old and New Testaments, a single commandment takes precedent as a summation of all the law of God: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and being…and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 22:37,39) Christians and Jews share books of the Hebrew Bible, again, what we call the Old Testament, but we are not the only ones with words that sound like this.

 

In the holy book of the Baha’i faith, one finds the words: “O son of man! If thine eyes be turned towards mercy, forsake the things that profit thee and cleave unto that which will profit mankind. And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself.” (Baha’u’llah, The third Leaf of the Most Exalted Paradise, Tablets, p. 64)

 

In the Hindu faith, we find another example: “Do not to others what ye do not wish done to yourself; and wish for others too, what ye desire and long for, for yourself. This is the whole of Dharma, heed it well.” (The Celestial Song, 2:65)

 

In Confucianism: “Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”(Analects, 15:23)

 

The Prophet of Islam (who I will not name out of respect to those who hold him in high regard), borrows just as well from our shared religious lineage: “Not one of you is a believer until he desires for another that which he desires for himself.” (Muhammad, 40 Hadith of an-Nawawi 13)[1]

 

I am not pointing to these to advocate for a religious homogeneity or poor man’s pluralism; I want you to see that there is a shared understanding among many that equal treatment of our neighbor is part of the holy texts of many of the world’s faiths. In my heart, I believe that God is not bound to only act through Christians. Some would say God may even be acting in spite of the words and deeds of some of us; I would prefer to think God does what God does and I should not wish malice on anyone. As noted previously, you can find that belief in one of many books.

 

If we believe that God promotes goodness and justice, and if we can believe that God will achieve justice however God chooses, then I think we can safely believe that there is hope to be found as long as good people – Christian or otherwise – are acting in accordance to shared morals and laws that promote equality and good treatment of all people.

 

Sadly, I see today’s understanding of justice has become subjective – tied to self-preservation and self-determined definitions of what we think is lawful or good. I know that, because I have to have the utmost care to even say things like, “loving everyone” or “welcoming the strange,” because some feel those statements carry caveats. I will not be haughty and say something like, “The Bible is clear,” when talking about specific topics, but I do think history has proven that God will work on the side that is the just side. It just may take a few years or a few centuries to find out what that is.

 

If I may digress for a moment, I know in times like this week, when we anxiously await the fate of those trapped by non-human threats such as hurricanes, words like justice mean so little. This, I believe, is even further proof we need God’s justice Some will lose everything because of a lack of preparation or insurance, and we have the choice to blame the victims and accomplish nothing, or we can give generously and sacrificially like we have been taught to do.

 

As we discern together, as a people, what God calls justice, we are given extra help by other parts of the Bible. In today’s lectionary readings, we get two:  Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-17.

In Romans, the apostle Paul tells the church in Rome: “Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments… are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.11 As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day,…”

I imagine that is self-explanatory. Seeking God’s justice means abiding by the laws of self-discipline and purity and also to good treatment of our neighbor. Life is too short to mince God’s law so we don’t have to treat others well. If you have to ask ‘who is my neighbor?,’ the safe bet by my reading is ‘anyone can be your neighbor.’

I had not planned to preach on the Matthew text, because it deserves its own sermon, and I preached something like it back in the spring, but its appearance in the lectionary for today and some recent events bears its repeating. In it, Jesus says, “15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16  But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. 17  But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.

 

In recent weeks, I have spoken with our new superintendent, who you will meet, and he hinted that his first weeks transitioning to this position have been difficult. People have visited him, made phone calls, and written letters – both named and anonymous – to get him to change their church’s pastoral leadership or change something in their church. He told me his first response is to ask if they have spoken – not yelled, spoken – to the pastor. This isn’t a secret leadership tactic, it’s the command of Jesus.

 

What do complaints and arguments have to do with God’s justice? The only way we ever move forward as a people is to address our problems face to face with humility and hope for agreement. Our country has been embroiled in battles over how to govern from taxes to the economy to treatment of non-natives, which are all biblical topics as well, and the only effective method in reaching agreement is seeking understanding of each other and God’s law.

 

Justice and love share this: they are deeply personal matters that can only be negotiated on a personal level. So often when I am in a counseling session, and difference becomes a matter of winning an argument rather than talking about why it matters, the whole conversation is lost. However, when I see a deeper meaning behind the concern, when I see the personal reason, I can more easily understand the problem.

 

As this church’s spiritual leader, I point to the words of Jesus not because I want to be right, but because I believe we should follow what the Bible says about treating each other well. Whether it is about a concern on how things are going here at church, or if there is a disagreement on a belief or topic, or simply about how we treat others who don’t think like us, God tells us to seek justice, to show the same care for others that we would give to ourselves. It doesn’t mean we have to agree or see things the same way; it does mean we should treat each other well in the process.

 

Last week, I named a few news stories about people helping during the hurricane. I failed to mention the ages, economic classes, ethnicities, or political affiliations of the people involved, because they weren’t mentioned in the article. Acts of justice and love take all our preconceptions and get to the root: “You are a person in need, and I am ready to help.” Church, this is us at our best. No matter what people say about Christians or non-Christians, we can find ways to seek justice and love mercy. We can work together to give relief to flood victims, or offer gifts to those in the nursing home, or simply visit with others in the church we don’t know. Try it – go to lunch with someone new. Talk to someone you barely know. I bet you’ll see a neighbor; I bet you’ll see why God says to love. God wants us to love each other and love God, because those two alone offer hope.

 

[1] All sources found on the website of the Universal House of Justice, part of the Baha’I faith