Do justice. Or not.

Micah 6:1-8

In this season of Pentecost we have been inspired to be an expansive church. But we know that “the church” can’t be something that the people aren’t. So for the last three weeks we have considered how our biases lead us to be exclusive instead of expansive. Addressing our biases is the work of a lifetime. So, as we all keep working on that, I’d like for us to spend some time thinking about what it looks like for us, for Zion United Church of Christ, to be expansive. Who are we and what are we about?

In the spring of 2019, I suggested that we could orient our life together around a focus of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. A concise, memorable and inspiring statement like this could bring focus to our identity, our process of discipleship and our missional efforts. In other words, it helps clarify who we are, how we grow spiritually as individuals, and what we do together as a body. You all took me up on that suggestion and I’ve been using that language almost every week since then. BUT I’ve never preached on it. Actually, I did once but it was in the fall of 2018 before we started using it as our focus statement. So, that means that we have a focus we’ve never really unpacked. <thumbs down> I want to fix that. 

For three weeks we are going to consider what it means to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly, not just one at a time but all together. What is the result of actually doing these? What’s the goal? What’s the point? Here’s what I think. I think that if we, as individuals and a congregation, if we focus on doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, if we do those things to the best of our ability, we will find lasting joy and we will heal the world. Find lasting joy as individuals and participate in God’s work of healing the world.

The concepts of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God are not ones I came up with. They come straight out of scripture, from the Old Testament prophet Micah. Let’s remember why Micah was writing. After the reign of King Solomon, the ancient kingdom of Israel split into north with Samaria as its capital, and south with Jerusalem as its capital. Micah prophesied to the southern kingdom after the fall of the northern kingdom. He warned them that they were no better than their northern relatives, that Jerusalem could be captured just like Samaria. He said that their deliverer would not come from the urban halls of power, but from a little podunk village, which was not what they expected. Finally, he challenged their expectation of what it meant to please God and promised that God is ultimately faithful no matter how often we mess things up. Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the word and wisdom of God.

{Micah 6:1-8, Common English Bible} 

Hear what the Lord is saying:

Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;

        let the hills hear your voice!

Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord!

        Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!

The Lord has a lawsuit against his people;

        with Israel he will argue.

“My people, what did I ever do to you?

        How have I wearied you? Answer me!

I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;

        I redeemed you from the house of slavery.

        I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.

My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned,

        and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him!

        Remember everything from Shittim to Gilgal,

        that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the Lord!”

Pause. What’s happening here is God is using the metaphor of a court case to talk about how the ancient Hebrew people have been interacting with God. They have apparently not been living as people who have been blessed in order to be a blessing. Understandably, God takes this personally, and begins to build the case by reminding the people how faithful God has been to them, how much God has done for them. Have they forgotten? This is the opening statement of the prosecution. And here comes the response from the defense.

[The prophet responds]

With what should I approach the Lord

        and bow down before God on high?

Should I come before him 

with entirely burned offerings,

        with year-old calves?

Will the Lord be pleased 

with thousands of rams,

        with ten thousand rivers of oil?

Should I give my firstborn for my transgressions;

        the fruit of my womb for the sin of my spirit?”

Pause. The prophet says, “OK, we are guilty. So what do you want?” He gives a list of potential sacrifices that increase in value, starting with a simple burned offering and ending with child sacrifice. Is this what God wants? Is God an angry God who needs to be placated and appeased? That’s what the people expect. In fact, I wager that’s what some of you were taught to expect. God is angry and needs a sacrifice in order to make it right. Let’s see if that’s how it turns out.

God has told you, human one, what is good 

and what the Lord requires from you:

           to do justice, 

to love mercy, 

and to walk humbly with your God.

This is the word of God for all people.

Thanks be to God.

Do not ever let anyone tell you that Jews are all about sacrifice. That’s not true. Because all the way back here in the Old Testament the prophets knew that what God wanted was not sacrifice. Not animals, not oil or other crops, and certainly not human sacrifice. In response to God’s goodness, what God wants from humanity is right living, lives in line with God’s wholeness, God’s shalom. That’s what God wants. When we have failed, God doesn’t expect us to prostrate ourselves, to wallow in guilt or shame. God asks us to reorient ourselves and get back on track. Doing justice. Loving mercy. And walking humbly with God.

This week, I want us to specifically look at what it means to do justice. Word nerds, join us tonight for sermon discussion group because there is way more to say about this than we have time for this morning. Justice is an interesting word, and we need to unpack it a little bit because it’s not quite the same as our idea of justice. 

You’ve seen the images of Lady Justice outside courthouses. What does she usually have? She’s holding scales in which to weigh evidence. She has a sword to enforce her justice. And she’s blindfolded. Guess what? The blindfold is new. Not brand new; it showed up in the 1600s when the European world was experiencing massive shifts in society. Now we have the idea that justice should be impartial, that it shouldn’t take into account the people involved. That there’s some kind of objective standard of right and wrong and extenuating circumstances don’t matter. We have theoretical justice, a justice based on ideals.

That’s not God’s justice. God’s justice is not blind. God’s justice is not impartial. In fact, what we see throughout the Old Testament and into the New is that God’s justice is specifically oriented towards those who need it most. The prophet Micah was not part of the privileged class living in Jerusalem. He was a man on the margins, not someone who benefitted from the system. This is important because frankly most of us in this congregation do benefit from the way our systems are set up. Whether it’s because we are white or because we have stable incomes or education or we are straight and cisgendered (which means that our preferred gender matches the physical body we were born with, it’s the opposite of transgendered). In this congregation we have more privilege than not. We just do. We don’t have to be ashamed of that and we don’t have to apologize for it. But we do have to be aware of it and we have to decide how we want to use it. What we need to hear is that God speaks from the margins. God’s critique of our society is not coming from us who do benefit from the status quo. It’s coming from those who don’t benefit from the status quo. Those folks are not just complaining. God is speaking through them, speaking through their complaints, and if we want to do justice, we have to listen. Especially when it makes us uncomfortable. God is speaking through the marginalized.

God’s justice cares deeply about those who have been shoved aside and ignored. God’s justice is on behalf of the oppressed, the hungry, the abused, the persecuted, the homeless, the refugees. In 1968, Father Pedro Arrupe coined the phrase that God has a “preferential option for the poor,” and the Bible bears this out. God cares about those who are not flourishing. God’s intention for the world is that all things and all people are whole, and so God’s justice is focused on restoring wholeness.

Now, we know that really none of us are whole. We all live with the effects of brokenness and sin, and through Jesus, God has made a way for all of us to receive spiritual wholeness. But sin is not just a spiritual problem. Over the millennia, our individual sins have built up into systems that are harder on some people than they are on others, and God cares about that. That’s what God wants to set right. And living in line with God means that we participate in that setting right. It means we do justice.

How we do it matters. True justice frees not only the oppressed but also the oppressor. Being oppressed diminishes our humanity. But so does oppressing. When we participate in the oppression of other people we diminish our own humanity too. We are less human when we make life harder for other people, when we allow our biases to operate unchecked. God’s justice frees the oppressed and the oppressor. And that’s why we do it. We don’t do justice to stick it to the rich. We do justice because everyone needs wholeness.

Now we have to be honest, justice might initially feel better for the oppressed than for the oppressor. We’ve talked about this before. There are some things that have no place in God’s Kingdom. And if we persist in clutching onto those things, we will not feel good when God makes it impossible for us to use them. 

Here’s a specific example. Let’s say I had never let go of my racial and class bias, that I still believed that somehow people of color who are poorer than I am deserved their situation. And let’s say changes happen in society that make it possible for people of color to have new opportunities to help offset the ways they have been marginalized in the past. If I cling to my bias, those changes are going to make me very uncomfortable. We could even say those changes would feel like hell to me. But that’s not because God did something to me. It’s because I refused to participate and rejoice when God did something for someone else. If I refuse to do justice, when God does it, it’s going to feel like hell to me until I get on board.

Around here we think about justice and mercy and humility as three circles that at best are interconnected and overlapping, like a Venn diagram. Do justice is global. Love mercy is interpersonal. Walk humbly is individual. It’s all spiritual. We need all three for spiritual maturity. If we neglect to do justice, we are missing part of what God has called and blessed us to do. 

So what happens if we only love mercy and walk humbly? I mean, that’s pretty good right? It is. And lots of Christians and lots of churches live there. What we have if we only love mercy and walk humbly is a relationship with God that is expressed in a love for people in our circle, BUT is disconnected from what God is doing in the larger world. It means we love God and we love OUR people, but we don’t love all people, not really. 

This is the realm of the personal gospel. As long as me and Jesus are good, it’s all good. Lots of people live that way. I used to live that way. But when we live that way, we fail to acknowledge that God doesn’t just care about our souls. God cares about our bodies that are hungry and cold and abused and neglected. God cares about our wallets and our financial decisions beyond just what we give to the church (although we should give to the church). God cares about our minds and who has access to mental health care and who doesn’t and why. Psalms 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all the people who dwell there.” It all belongs to God and God cares about all of it, and all of us. 

I have to be honest with you, as I stand up here preaching this sermon. I struggle with this. I do. I struggle with it because doing justice never seems to be convenient for me. The opportunity to actually stand with someone who has been shoved aside, to share something I have, to deliberately let someone else go first, those moments never seem to come when I’m ready for them. They come when I’m not ready for them, when I already have other plans. And I don’t want to change my plans. God wants me to do justice and I want to do what’s convenient. And also, it’s always so messy. Doing justice, really, means getting in it with folks. Figuring out when to say yes and when to say no. It means suspending my automatic judgment on whether they are “making good decisions.” What it comes down to is that justice can’t be done from a distance. Real justice is done in relationships, after we have challenged our biases by making new friends and realizing that they have real needs that God wants us to meet. Ultimately, we don’t just do justice on behalf of other people. Doing justice will change me. It will draw me to deeper spiritual maturity. Doing justice is inconvenient and messy and scary and it takes a long time. But also, it’s worth it.

At the turn of the last century, a Christian pastor named Walter Rauschenbusch was one of the key figures in what has become known as the social gospel movement. His words are tremendously challenging for me. He has this little book, 60 pages, you can find the digital version for free on Google Books, called Dare We Be Christians? and I want to share some of it with you. He says this, “Love carries its own validation. It proves its own efficiency and trustworthiness in action. Selfishness always looks safe; love always looks like an enormous risk. … We never live so intensely as when we love strongly. We never realize ourselves so vividly as when we are in the full glow of love for others.” (Walter Rauschenbusch, Dare We Be Christians?, Pilgrim Press: 1914, 48-49.)

So we can do justice. Or not, because it’s inconvenient and messy and scary. If not, then we make the deliberate choice to do less than what God asks of us, less than what God invites us to do, less than what we could do to reveal God’s Kingdom. Doing justice means paying attention to real needs and working to do something about those needs. In all the ways that we are less than whole, we should expect that God sees that, God cares about that, and somehow someday God will make that right. And for all the ways that we are whole, we should remember that God expects us to use that wholeness as a tool for building the Kingdom. God has shown us what is good, and what God requires from us is to do justice. Amen.

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