On these last three Sundays with you I have reminded us of the three images that have guided us since our time of dreaming in 2005. A Welcome Table for All. A Healing Place for Souls. And now, finally, a School for Justice.
As I recall, it was clear to “the Dream Team” that one of those images had to concern the doing of justice. The quest for social justice had deep roots in this parish. It also had deep roots in my own ministry to that point, although the reality of life in the city—and especially this city—was new to me.
I recall saying at one point, that I had so much to learn. I cannot remember who replied to me, “Even if you’ve been here a long time you have a lot to learn.” And I remembered what one of my mentors, Verna Dozier, had said to me several times. “You cannot do justice without listening intently for injustice.” And learning to see the signs of God’s justice breaking through.
Through all this talk on the Dream Team I also recalled words from the end of the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict, that ancient rule of monastic life that many are finding in our own day to have much to do with the daily following of Jesus.
After a fairly long introduction, Benedict gets to his purpose. He writes,
And so we are going to establish a school for the Lord’s service… For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love.
And so the image for us of a “School for Justice” was born.
This image of a school tells us that the first step in doing justice is to learn to discern where it is lacking, and that we need to do that more with our ears than with our eyes. The other side of the coin is that we have faith that God is already at work in the world and we, again, need to learn how to discern where that is happening and then join it.
I’ve had more than one conversation with colleagues about our use of the word “justice,” and not understanding what “a school for justice” means. Doesn’t a commitment to justice mean a commitment to doing the specific ministries born of this parish?
My answer is, “No.” Our primary job is to equip people for listening, seeing, and joining God’s work of justice in the world. I fervently hope and pray that the doing of justice is something the people of this parish primarily do in their daily lives. If some of that daily living of justice forms into a group ministry, that’s great. We want that to happen. But we do not want it to happen before we are formed in the ways of justice day by day.
Another conversation that occurs occasionally is the observation by some that we seem to be all about justice and little about the Gospel. Aren’t we supposed to be primarily in the business of “saving souls”?
I look at our Mission Statement, these three images that have guided us, and I see the Gospel: Welcome, Healing, Justice. Those are the manifestations of the Gospel among us; they are the work of what Jesus called “the kingdom” which he taught us to pray would “come on earth as in heaven.”
The living of Justice and the living of the Gospel are one in the same thing. There is no good news that is truly good without the living of justice. There is no worship that is pleasing to God that does not send us out to be God’s compassionate, mercy loving, justice doing, humbly walking people in the world.
What stands in our way of being this kind of people, of doing this kind of justice? Mark Hare hit the nail on the head in the City Paper this week in his article about the Rochester Rebellion 50 years ago.
The life-changing consequence of the riots was not property damage or physical injury, or the four tragic deaths, but the fear the city sucked deep into its lungs—a fear that has shaped the community Rochester has become.
Of course, fear was not only the result of the rebellion, it was the cause of it as well. Jesus identified fear as the great enemy of the Gospel, the true opposite of faith, and thus it is also the great enemy of Justice. It is true, I believe, that if there is such a thing as “original sin,” it is the fear of the other.
The Gospel begins with these words, “Do not be afraid.” We are told this 27 times in the New Testament. “Do not doubt,” by the way is said only three times. Fear is the true enemy of the Gospel. Fear is the true enemy of justice. Instead of “a school for justice,” we could have just as easily said, “A school for letting go of fear.” Not an easy task; it is easy to fall short; but we keep on keeping on together.
Now I turn just a bit to some “valedictory” remarks. But they are apropos of my message today. I eagerly came here to join you on your journey, but I will admit, I came with some fear. Some of you had that fear as well. For most of you I was an “other:” A gay white boy who grew up with cows and spent 14 years building a suburban parish.
Together we learned not to be afraid. We listened to each other. You told me your story and I told you mine, and it felt right that our stories should merge. We have certainly had moments when the old fear surfaced among us, but, as Benedict said, our hearts were already expanding and we have had the courage to keep running in the way of God’s vision, a way of almost unspeakable love.
As a priest I have been blessed twice, with two parishes in which our love for one another overcame obstacles too many to number. In neither place have I felt this was a job to do until the next job came along. They were places—this was a place—to love and be loved and, therefore, grow more deeply into the reality that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
People outside the parish keep saying to me, “It must be so hard.” And they are right, it is, and I admit it. “But,” I say, with absolute conviction, “we love one another enough to want the best for each other.”
I thank you for the privilege of the last ten years. I wish it could be ten more. I have learned so much, grown so much as a priest and as a Christian and as a human being in this school for justice. Despite the illness that haunts me, this has been a healing place for my soul in your acceptance of me with all my flaws. And to have been Welcome at this Table will always be one of the greatest privileges of my life.