Sunday, June 23, 2013

A School for Justice

Sermon preached on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, June 23, 2013 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene:  Galatians 3:23-29 (Proper 7C)

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Together, as people of God, in companionship with Jesus, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to be…A healing place for souls…A school for justice…And a welcome table for all.

          I did not plan this but it has turned out rather neatly.  Two weeks ago the readings lent themselves to a sermon on healing, so I chose to reflect on what it means to be “A Healing Place for Souls,” one of the ways we characterize ourselves in our Mission Statement.

          Last week was the official close of our Capital Campaign we have called “Pull Up a Chair to the Welcome Table,” and the readings helped us reflect on what this image of the Welcome Table means for us.  Again, the image is from our Mission Statement, “A Welcome Table for All.”

          Monday morning I read the readings for this Sunday and chuckled to myself, because there it was:  the opportunity to preach on the third and final image from our Mission Statement:  “A School for Justice.”  So what does it mean to say that we are “A School for Justice.”

          The image comes from the 6th century Rule of St. Benedict.  Benedict ends the prologue to the rule by succinctly stating his purpose:

This is why we want to establish a school for the Lord’s service.

          For those of us crafting our Mission Statement back in 2005, we easily understood “the Lord’s service” to be the work of justice.  We know Benedict meant a broader set of aspects of Christian living, but it is no doubt that he understood justice to be included in them.

          The word “justice” has not had an altogether easy relationship with the Bible and the church.  For centuries, Christians did not think of it as a very essential word as part of their faith.  This was, in part, due to the translation of the King James’ or Authorized Bible using the word “justice” only 28 times in the whole of the Bible.  Compare this to our current New Revised Standard Version, which uses the word 166 times, and another strong contemporary translation, the New Jerusalem Bible, 255 times.  It is no great surprise that the concept of justice in the Bible did not get much commentary until the late 19th century.

          Some would still believe the Bible has little to say about justice, especially what we call “social justice.”  Some of you may recall conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s warning to Americans back in March 2010.

I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!"

          “Social justice” he said are code words for “Nazism” and “communism.”  The Bible, he said, is full of encouragement to help one’s fellow citizens—feed the poor, etc.—but contains no encouragement to change economic or social systems.

          I first heard those words three years ago and they still take my breath away, and I literally do not know what Bible he is talking about.

          Could St. Paul be any clearer this morning about the absolute necessity of changing the social system of his day—be it Palestinian, Greek, or Roman?  The very heart of the social system of Paul’s day was the unquestioned and rigid distinctions between men and women, free men and slaves, and, particularly from a Jewish perspective, Jews and everyone else, sometimes referred to simply as “Greeks,” but also as “Gentiles,” or “the nations.”

          For people in the Roman world of Paul’s day, normal, ordered, successful life was inconceivable without these distinctions which were considered entirely natural. In other words, they were the way things were supposed to be.

          Now, to be fair, these distinctions did not always lead to ill-treatment.  People who were considered to be good, moral people treated everyone within these classes with fairness and without abuse.  But it was fairness within their station.

          When Paul says that there is no longer male and female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, he is not talking about fairness.  He is talking about equality.  You see, what he says at the end of that sentence may very well have been the most radical statement he ever made, a statement that proved that the goal of Christians was indeed, as was reported in the Acts of the Apostles, to “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

          He said,

For all of you are one in Christ.

          Such a simple statement, and when we hear it, it can slip right past us with nary a thought.  But Paul was saying that following Christ was a new and radical way of living:  the way of equality.  No distinctions.

          The Church has tended to fudge on this radical belief.  We have embraced fairness rather than equality, much like our American culture has.  We have embraced charity rather than change.  We have talked about heaven rather than earth, which is to say we have acted as if what Paul said was, “For all of you will be one in Christ.”

          But Paul said “are,” “now,” and that is the basis for the church’s commitment to justice, a justice based on the assumption of equality, not enacted with pie in the sky, but enacted her and now in the way we live together, the way we are committed to the common good, the will of God, as we pray, to be done “on earth as in heaven.”

          The Church has also grappled with a question that never occurred to Paul.  “To whom else does this radical equality extend?”  I do not know how he would have answered that question.  I have always suspected that this was a prophetic statement of which even he could not grasp all the implications.

          We still wrestle with them.  The economic implications alone are staggering.  Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has recently reported that over the past 30 years, the US economy has roughly doubled in size. This is true in spite of several recessionary periods during these years.  Good news.  But the bad news is that during these 30 years the earnings of the top 1% of Americans has tripled and average American household income has remained almost entirely stagnant.

          Glenn Beck would say that is how the economy works and the church has no mandate to interfere except to encourage the wealthy to acts of charity.  St. Paul, I believe, would say otherwise, and he would say otherwise because he would believe that Jesus would say otherwise.  One of the basic building blocks of biblical religion is that God has created and still creates enough for everybody, and if there is not enough for everybody, the system has become sinful and must be called to repentance.

          We are very much in the thick of this struggle, although the voices are still weak that are willing to decry the obscenity and sinfulness of the amassing of wealth beyond any imaginable need and the deliberate sheltering of money so that it does not have to be shared.  It is easy for corporations to hide wealth “off shore” and therefore exempt from taxation.  Apple, for example, is estimated to have $500 billion sitting offshore for which it has no particular use.  And, by the way, that money is not literally sitting “off shore.”  It is held by the biggest American banks. The only thing “off shore” about this money is that statements concerning it are sent to an address outside the country. And that is perfectly legal. But it is also perfectly, biblicaly, immoral.

          One more way of wrestling with the implications of radical equality will come to the fore this week.  The Supreme Court will hand down their decision in the case challenging the nullification of equal marriage in California (Proposition 8) and the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  Are we ready for lesbian and gay people and the lives they lead as citizens and as members of the church to be treated with equality?  Conservatives in the church believes this is a no-brainer, that Paul clearly supported inequality when it came to homosexuality.  My response is that Paul had no more idea what it means to be gay or lesbian in the 21st century than he did a couple who chooses to be childless, two persons marrying of different races, or the obscene divorce rate among heterosexual couples in this culture.

          What Paul did know about was equality, which was the basis for doing justice, bringing God’s justice as known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh.  And it is this God who shows no partiality that keeps us wrestling in this school of justice, learning to live lives that, in the words of our baptismal covenant, “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

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