Sermon preached November 7, 2010
Texts: Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8; Acts 4:32-38
This is the fifth of seven sermons on aspects of a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century. The basis for the broad ideas in these sermons is found in Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity For the Rest of Us, which 60-75 of us are reading. Thus far we have set the context for being Christian and being a mainline church in this day and time. The term “mainline” is simply a historical term for Protestant churches that have a relatively long history and were once the center of religious life in the United States. That has changed in some ways and so we are exploring what it may mean to have a vital Christian faith and an alive Christian community in this day and time. We have already explored certain elements of such a faith and community: hospitality, healing, discernment, contemplation, testimony and reflection. Today the key words are justice and diversity.
These are important elements of a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century and they deserve more time than I can give them this morning given all that is happening in worship. Make no mistake, the relative brevity of this sermon belies the importance of the topic. At the same time, perhaps brevity also reflects something about this church. We already understand the centrality, the utter importance of justice and diversity for Christian faith. The United Methodist Church, of which we are a part, has John Wesley as its founder, and Wesley once wrote: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” Doing good, caring about the world, working for justice, overcoming the division diversity can create – these are part of the heartbeat of our church. By the way, I use “justice” in the primary sense we get of it from the Bible. Justice has to do with fairness, with right relationship, with respect, with a concern that people have enough of the basic necessities of life. Justice is a central element of “shalom” which is God’s comprehensive dream for the world – a dream of joy, peace, love, reconciliation, justice, beauty and delight (see Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 69-72). In the words of a theologian, “Shalom is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling” (Wolterstorff, 72).
Caring about the world, working for justice, overcoming the division diversity can create – these are part of the heartbeat of our church. I think we get that here, though our embodiment of it can always grow. In fact, I think that this element of a vital faith is so much our focus that we may give short shrift to the good that also needs doing in our inner lives. Make no mistake, I would rather have a group of people working to feed the hungry, or mentor, or work for justice, or stand up against racism than excuse themselves from such activity because they are reading the Bible. If I had to choose, that would be my choice, but we do not have to choose. A vital Christian faith is both/and - justice and personal spiritual disciplines, justice and inner work.
In Christianity For the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass makes some provocative statements about justice in Christian faith. Justice and diversity are “biblical ideals,” part of the “spiritual journey.” Justice is not about backing a secular political agenda – whether that be liberal or conservative…. Justice is part of the faithful life of being a Christian; justice is spirituality….Doing justice is much more than supporting a particular political party and its policy agenda. Doing justice goes beyond fixing unfair and oppressive structures. Doing justice means engaging the powers – transforming the “inner spirit” of all systems of injustice, violence, and exclusion. (161-162) I expect for some those words will give us pause, and they might be pushed too far. Public policy matters, and we should engage our minds and hearts in thinking together about the kind of society we want to create through our political systems and structures. Yet, biblical justice is more than that. To take justice seriously as a part of the spiritual journey is to know that we cannot only work for systemic change and do nothing else. It is to know that we cannot wait until systems change to engage in acts of justice and compassion.
To take biblical justice seriously as part of the spiritual journey of a vital Christian faith for the twenty-first century is to work to create a community that is making a difference in the world by making a difference in people’s lives – alongside whatever policy work we also engage in. We need to be working together here to create a transformational community that weaves diverse people together into a “polyculture of the Spirit” (144). We want to bring people together who have diverse ideas about how best to create justice in the wider world. “Besides the fact that diversity is a deeply biblical and profoundly Christian practice, it is just more fun to go on a pilgrimage with interesting people” (155-156). One of our models for biblical justice and diversity work is found in Acts 4. It is a picture of a community that amidst diversity discovered a deep unity – a unity of heart and soul. It is a picture of a group of people joined together in a shared way. It is a picture of a group of people who cared about the needs of all and shared so that none would be without.
This work of justice does not need to wait until the government does this or that. This work of justice does not wait until policies change or large programs are initiated. Policies and programs matter, but the work of justice does not wait.
We do not wait until social programs are in place to meet the needs of others. We work with other churches through the Gabriel Project to help meet human need. We don’t wait until large-scale food programs are in place to feed the hungry. We set up Ruby’s Pantry Coppertop and work to make a difference in feeding people. We do not wait until the medical system changes to offer care for the sick. We visit, individually and through our lay pastor program. We discuss end-of-life issues. We promote healthy living. It is not all that needs doing, but we don’t simply wait. We don’t wait until programs are in place that provide care for the elderly. We visit again through lay pastors, but also through a number of people who volunteer at places like the Benedictine Health Center. We don’t wait until all the social policies about schools are in place to care about the young. We offer ourselves as mentors.
A vital and credible faith for the twenty-first century is a faith that takes diversity seriously – diversity of race, orientation, background, opinion, yet seeks to create community out of a deeper unity of heart and soul. A vital and credible Christian faith for the twenty-first century is a faith that does justice, that sees justice as a spiritual journey. It is a faith that unites justice and prayer, worship and working for a better world.
Ironically, finding a vital and credible faith for the twenty-first century means rediscovering some old ideas. Hear these words of Amos, in a fresh rendering. “Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness – rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.” Hear these words of Micah, also in a fresh rendering. “But God’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.”
Just this – justice – oceans of it.
Just this – fairness – rivers of it.
Just this – compassion.
Just this – loyalty.
Just this – love.
Just this – walking the way with God - a way of justice and prayer, worship and work, unity in diversity, loyalty and love.
Just this. It’s that simple. It’s that challenging. Amen.