Sermon For May 3, 2015 ~ “Engaging Justice”

Luke 4:14-30 ( )

“Ham Sandwiches, Hashtags, And Handshakes”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail:

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog:

More and more in my life I have become extremely suspicious of dichotomies.  A dichotomy is a contrast between two things that are or are being portrayed as being One waycompletely different from one another.  Melanie Morrison, United Church of Christ minister, in her wonderful book, The Grace Of Coming Home, uses the phrase “mutually exclusive opposites” to capture this.  Classic dichotomies are: black and white, rich and poor, man and woman, body and soul.  I am not just hesitant to use them, but am downright cynical of them because quite often they are presented as undeniable fact or unquestionable truth when they are in fact thinly veiled attempts to promote a particular political, theological, or social position.  Sadly, quite often folks who make a habit of using such polarities condemn honest intellectual inquiry and ridicule anyone who might have an opinion or state a truth different from their perspective or that doesn’t fit one or the other opposing position or contrasting label.

OnlyOneWayConversations around justice, righteousness, and equality are rife with dichotomies, and they are perpetuated by people on all sides of the issues.  I have committed my life not only to casting doubt on the trustworthiness of mutually exclusive opposites, but to work diligently empowering others to think critically about important issues.  My call is for us all to disregard the many voices trying to convince us that it is this way or that way, that it is all or nothing, up or down, red or blue, right or wrong, my way or the highway.  I believe this not because of some innate rebel spirit – although I do have a bit of that blood in me – but because it is how I see God works, especially God made real in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  My life is committed to helping folks see that ambiguity, mystery, exploration, evolution, and change are all grace-filled possibilities, and that the Divine actually specializes in leading us through such non-hierarchical, non-dichotomous places.

There are two misunderstandings and two particular false dichotomies that are perpetuated about justice issues that I think are extremely harmful to living life fully and which put our faith in danger.  One misunderstanding is seeing benevolence as the same thing as justice AND the corollary false dichotomy is thinking that you can have one without the other.  The second misunderstanding is that justice is purely political and not faithful, and the offshoot false polarity is to see work and advocacy for justice as being antithetical to evangelism and witness for the gospel.  Let me take these one at a time.

GoodDeedFirst, the misperception that benevolence and justice are the same thing.  Benevolence, also known as charity, philanthropy, and compassion, are the acts of kindness and service that help a person in the moment.  We have many such programs here at Franklin Circle Christian Church, from our Benevolence Fund to our Disciples Clothing Closet, weekend Community Youth Program, our Third Sunday Community Meal, and our end of the month Food Bag Ministry.  All of these are powerful and wonderful programs that help real people in real need.  But we must not confuse them with justice.  Justice asks the questions behind the service: why are so many people in need of clothing, a hot meal, groceries, something for kids to do on the weekend?  It’s running up the river to find out why there are so many babies falling into the river, to reference an old and much used story.

Senior Minister Dr. Jacqueline Lewis at a special service for Trayvon Martin at Middle Collegiate Church, New York City

Senior Minister Dr. Jacqueline Lewis at a special service for Trayvon Martin at Middle Collegiate Church, New York City

But the tendency is for people, and many congregations do this, to pit one of these against the other.  Some congregations, like ours, focus on benevolence and meeting the human needs of the moment.  Others focus on advocacy, learning about the larger issues of poverty, violence, sustainability, food-scarcity and waste, racism, sexism, homophobia and heterosexism, especially by talking with, working alongside, and empowering those who are most affected by the injustices and exploitation.  These congregations translate what they learn into letter-writing, lobbying, marching for justice, and even non-violent protest.  Our Anti-Racism Team does some of this important work.  What would it mean for a congregation to be comfortable with both service and advocacy, benevolence and justice?

The shame is that we – for reasons of ego and hubris or just plain limitations on time, energy, and vision – pit benevolence and justice against one another, rather than celebrate both of them.  A classic false dichotomy is perpetuated in the old saw, “give a person a fish and she can eat for a day, teach a person to fish and she can eat for a lifetime!”  I like to say, “Well, if you haven’t fed them for today they’ll never live long enough learn to fish!  You have to do both: give and teach!  Plus, if they don’t have access to a fishing pole or the water isn’t clean enough for the fish to live in it, teaching them to fish is pointless!  So it’s gotta be give, teach, advocate!”

bothandWe need to have a Benevolence Fund to get people in great need through the day, but we also have to be asking tough questions about the predatory tactics of Payday Lending companies, or what are the policies and fee-scales of local banks that might keep our low-income neighbors from ever having the chance to save up money, or why there are so few living-wage jobs in our city.  We need to have a healthy hot meal and bags of “lovingly prepared groceries” so that families don’t go hungry night after night, but we also have to ask what city laws and regulations say about having gardens in our front or backyards or that make it harder for smaller, ethnic grocery stores to easily open near the people they might serve, or why there are so few living-wage jobs in our city.  We need to have a place where our young people can come and be safe, and have a professional basketball coach teach them skills in the sport and in life and to get good food and loving guidance, but we also have to be asking the tough questions about whether or not all of our children are equally getting a quality education, about why we live in a society where our young Black and Hispanic youth feel celebrated when they look to a future in sports but ignored when they look to a future in science, or business, or health care, or about whether all of our youth, no matter what tone of color there skin is, are equally safe on our streets.  And we should ask why there aren’t more living-wage jobs available.

helder_camaraWhich leads me to the second misconception and false dichotomy.  The misconception is the accusation that justice is not faithful, but political.  Bishop Hélder Câmara is famously quoted as saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”  The moment that a preacher like me starts to ask the “why?” question, we get labeled a “radical” or a “trouble maker.”  The moment we start talking about gender issues we are labeled a “feminazi.”  When we describe people as Black, Brown, White, Hispanic, Asian we are told we’re playing the “race card.”  And God forbid we talk about realtime real life economics, for then we are promulgating “class warfare!”  I maintain that if I do so, then I stand in the grand tradition of most of scripture and the essence of who Jesus of Nazareth was!

There are two Hebrew words that are used to describe what it means to “do justice.”  One is mishpat and occurs over 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably.  It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty.  But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means giving people their rights.  Author and pastor Tim Keller notes, “Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.  This is why, if you look at every place the word is used in the [Hebrew Scriptures,] several classes of persons continually come up.  Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor—those who have been called ‘the quartet of the vulnerable.’” (1)

But the second word used in the Hebrew Scriptures for justice fills this out even better.  Keller says it well, “The word is tzadeqah, and it refers to a life of right relationships.  When most modern people see the word ‘righteousness’ in the Bible, they tend to think of it in terms of private morality, such as sexual chastity or diligence in prayer and Bible study.  But in the Bible, tzadeqah refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity.  It is not surprising, then, to discover that tzadeqah and mishpat are brought together scores of times in the Bible.  These two words roughly correspond to what some have called ‘primary’ and ‘rectifying justice.’  Rectifying justice is mishpat.  It means punishing wrongdoers and caring for the victims of unjust treatment.  Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else.  Therefore, though tzadeqah is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, the righteous life that results is profoundly social.” (2)  That’s justice!

Jim Wallis, founder of the Sojourners community and magazine, often tells the story that he once took two old Bibles and in the first one he cut out all the verses that dealt with the “sins” on which most churches of our day spend their time, energy, and money: homosexuality, abortion, etc.  He said you could flip through it and never notice the missing passages.  He took the other old Bible and cut out all the texts dealing with the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant… and said it barely held together so many verses were applicable!

Jesus began his ministry making it crystal clear that justice, in all it’s forms, was going to be fundamental to his work of salvation.  Today’s text of Jesus’ proclamation in the synagogue, only days after his wilderness sojourn which began his ministry, is almost exclusively about justice:  good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the acceptable year of God’s favor!  His words should sound familiar, in that Mary’s magnificat, sung upon learning of her pregnancy with him, speaks also of justice for the oppressed and a righting of wronged relationships.

And note, Jesus has little time for exploring what people did to get into the condition in which he found them.  When he found the woman caught in adultery about to be stoned, he spent no time examining her past, but pointed her to the future.  When people discussed who had sinned to cause the man to be born blind, Jesus ignored their finger-pointing, healed him, and sent him off into a new future of possibility!  Oh that we would spend less time blaming victims for their situation and more time righting the wrongs that got them there and empowering them to new life!

revolutionary-jesus2So the second false dichotomy is that we ought not be about the work of justice because it works against the primary call of the gospel to “go and make disciples.”  I cannot tell you how many times the work of justice and the work of evangelism are pitted against each other in mortal combat.  I tell you now this is a lie and no such conflict nor schism exists.  In fact, I believe with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength – and  is illustrated by everything that I’ve done in this congregation for the past 14 years –  the belief that a community of faith that is serious about benevolence and justice is a congregation that will grow and, more importantly, will “empower disciples to serve and glorify God!”  I don’t want to “make disciples of all nations” if those disciples don’t have a heart and a spine and a voice!  I don’t want to grow the church if it means the sanctuary is filled with a bunch of “know-nothings” who have no interest in their faith transforming the way they live in the world nor in taking their faith to the streets and changing the lives of those around them, even if they never darken the door of the church!

It blows my mind that anyone would think this radical and revolutionary Jesus, who called both everyday laborers and tax collectors into his inner circle, who treated women as equals, who acknowledged the faithfulness of eunuchs in the community, who listened to and healed foreigners, who refused to treat children as property, and who saw that God was calling all of creation to faithfulness and not just those who were the “in crowd…” it blows my mind that anyone would think this Jesus I follow would insist we never talk about changing the systems that keep people in subjugation and instead portray the faith as simply a personal, private, spiritual activity.

No!  Jesus wants us to make the ham sandwiches and feed the people!!!  Jesus wants us to Tweet the hashtags and get people out on the street in an uprising against injustices!!!  Jesus wants us to offer the seeker our hand in Christian companionship!!!  And justice means all of the above!  Ham sandwiches, hashtags, and handshakes!  May it be so!  Make it so.  Amen.

(1) Tim Keller, “What Is Biblical Justice,” in Relevant magazine,  (2) Ibid———-