Sunday, March 21, 2004

Mission Means Justice

Mission Means Justice
Isaiah 42.1-9
March 21, 2004

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD,
I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD,
that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

I know in the church we don’t believe in astrology and horoscopes, in a person’s zodiac sign as a determiner of destiny. But I would be willing to bet that lots of people read their horoscopes anyway, just for fun. One of the most cliché pick-up lines is “hey, what’s your sign?” Well, my sign is Libra. The symbol for Libra is the scales—we’re supposed to be balanced people who value fairness. Lady Justice is a blindfolded woman holding some scales that look just like the scales of my Libra symbol—suggesting that the justice system is one that values fairness and balance. Now, since this is my sign and these signs supposedly say a lot about who we are, you would think that I (along with everyone else born between the 23rd of September and the 22nd of October) would be experts in the field of justice and fairness. So what explains why I had such a hard time writing a sermon with Justice in the title?
The main problem I’ve had seems to be with the abstract concept of justice. In our American legal understanding, justice seems to mean fairness, balance, equity, and the like. It means that everyone gets treated equally, and that there are consequences to every action. But this balancing act doesn’t seem to be what God means by justice when I read the book of Isaiah, or what Hannah and Mary sang about in their songs praising God’s justice, or even necessarily what Jesus was like all the time. There it seems that God cares especially for the poor and downtrodden, that it isn’t about equality at all but about lifting up the needy and bringing down the mighty.
How can we be a part of this vision of God’s justice when our own idea of what justice is doesn’t seem to square up with God’s? The prophets say that doing justice means caring for the poor, the needy, the outcast, the alien, the orphan, the widow. Deuteronomy says that following the law will lead one into a just relationship with God and neighbor. In the first chapter of Isaiah we hear God shouting at the Israelites that the wealthy and powerful have become so self-absorbed that they forget to care for those less fortunate than themselves. The pious have become so involved in temple ritual that they neglect to feed the hungry. The whole nation ought to be ashamed by this behavior.
So God has sent the servant, in whom God delights. The servant who has been anointed with the Holy Spirit, who will bring forth justice to the whole world. The gospels claim that this servant is Jesus. In his life and in his death, he has established justice. But if that’s the case, where is it? I look around and I don’t see justice in either my usual definition or in God’s definition: instead I see war, I see famine though there is plenty of food for everyone, I see children dying of preventable diseases, I see homeless people on the streets, I see big houses and limousines and Hollywood stars wearing million dollar dresses.
I wondered how I could preach this text and say that God has established justice and thus the work we do is not to bring about justice but to help people see it, or some other way of making it sound like all the work was God’s and we’re just conduits of information somehow. I have agonized over how to make this work. And finally, I think I have a way, a way that reminds us that it’s really God’s work without releasing us of responsibility. The word established has become key. Established doesn’t necessarily mean Accomplished or finished. It just means started. In Christ, God was working for the reconciliation of all creation to Godself. The whole creation is new because God came to live among us, to be our light in the darkness. And now, as we wait between the resurrection and the coming again, the church has been called in righteousness to continue the justice God has established. God has taken us by the hand and kept us. God has given us, the church, as a covenant. God will open the eyes of the blind and lead out the prisoners who sit in dark dungeons. And we, the church, are both the proof and the workers.
Here we are, an organization full of sinful people, people who don’t often do the right thing, people who live with broken relationships, and yet God has called us to be in relationship with our neighbors and with Godself. God has called us to be a light in the dark world. And God is holding our hand the whole time. And so we can be bold enough to do God’s work in the world. Which is why we spend the night at a homeless shelter once a month, lobby for changes in legislation so that children with cancer don’t lose healthcare benefits, tutor kids in reading and math, visit the people who are often forgotten in nursing homes and hospitals, write letters to our congresspeople, go on mission trips to work in soup kitchens and build houses, and countless other things. It’s why we smile at our checkout clerk at Publix. It’s why we support our churches and local charities. Because God has called us, and led us, and given us as a light to the nations.
It isn’t possible to go out and do mission solely as proselytizing. Catherine showed us last week some of the dreadful consequences of forcing Christian faith, complete with Western cultural ideals, on other people in order to save their souls for eternal life. If we claim that Christianity has only to do with eternal life and nothing to do with life in the here and now, then we are severely misrepresenting our God and the work of Jesus. Jesus said “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” He cured the sick, cast out demons, fed the hungry, and visited people who needed him. He told stories of how at the last days the king will say “come inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for you, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” And the people asked when this had happened, and the king said, “as often as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” Jesus not only talked about the future in the kingdom, but acted like it was already here among us. The people who were outcasts were welcomed at the table—even known sinners, even tax collectors, even disciples who didn’t understand what was going on. This doesn’t sound like a mission to save eternal souls. It sounds like a mission to exhibit the kingdom of heaven in this world.
I went on an impromptu road trip this weekend, and saw a place in Conyers that you may know about, called the “Church in the Now.” I’ve heard some things about this place that make it seem like perhaps not exactly the type of community I would want to be in, but I am interested in their name. See, this is exactly what we ought to be: we need to be doing mission as the church in the here and now, not as the church of the past, stuck in our ways, and not as the church only interested in the state of our souls after we die. We are interested in what our lives are like here in this place, now in this time, as the children of God. We are interested in what God wants for all God’s children right now, not in whether ultimately every person will go to heaven or not. I’m intrigued by the idea of being a church in the now, just as we call ourselves a church of the new covenant. We are children of the covenant—and we have been given as a covenant, a light to the nations. And we exist here and now, surrounded by people who want to know what God has to say to them in their situation. What does God have to say to us in our current context, our current problems, our current excitements, our local culture? “I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness.” God has called us into right relationship, into reconciliation, into care for one another.
You often hear me talk about the Great Ends of the Church, which are listed in the very first chapter of the Book of Order. The sixth great end is the Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. That’s what mission as justice means to me personally. It means that we are engaged in showing the world what the kingdom looks like, because God has already showed us. To do God’s mission in the world is to show forth the kingdom in word and in deed.
We Presbyterians like to sit around in committees and figure out what everything means before we actually do anything. Ann Weems has a poem about this, and about how we can go about this business of exhibiting the kingdom of heaven to the world—which seems a daunting task! Hear her poem “Careful Consideration”:
Certain in-charge church people
expound upon the finer points of doctrine
while the disenfranchised await the verdict.
Meanwhile the holy fools rush in
and touch the outcasts,
creating Good News once again.

Friends, this is good news! The former things have come to pass, and God is declaring new things right here in our midst—before they spring forth, God is telling us of them. And we are called in righteousness, taken by the hand, and given as a covenant and a light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. Amen.

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