Sermon for July 11, 2021
A man stood in front of a judge arguing that he should be excused from a parking ticket. He had parked in a handicapped spot, despite not having a sticker or a visible handicap. The man claimed he’d meant to park for just a moment to go into a restaurant to bring his mother a glass of water (she was dehydrated, he explained). But when he was on his way out, he saw someone choking and felt obliged to administer the Heimlich maneuver. The only problem was when the judge asked him how one does the Heimlich maneuver, the man had not a clue. The judge told him to pay the fine. Sometimes the job of a judge is easy as in this case. It was clear that the man had not told the whole truth. Other times finding justice is difficult for a judge and for us. How might our lessons help us to find justice?
Our responsibility to seek justice for all people is clearly spelled out in the Bible. In Chapter 6 of the book of Micah, we are told, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In Psalm 10, the psalmist calls out, “O Lord, you will strengthen their heart, to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed.” In the 23rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus admonished religious leaders, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
In our own baptismal covenant, the question is asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” And our response is “I will with God’s help.” You see, doing justice is not really an option for Christians. The hard part is to figure out what is just. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is difficult. Sometimes it takes understanding and sometimes it takes work.
In our lessons for today, there is disagreement about justice. Remember, when the book of Amos was written, Israel had split into two kingdoms. The Kingdom of Israel was in the north and the kingdom of Judah was in the south. Amos was a farmer from the southern kingdom of Judah who went to the northern kingdom to denounce the morality of the leaders there. He especially sought justice for the poor and proclaimed that the elders “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth”. Pretty strong words, I would say. You can understand why the priest at Bethel told Amos to go back to his own country and prophesy there. Who was this foreigner who thought he could speak against the king? Yet, Amos insisted that he had been sent by God.
Amos and Amaziah clashed over a question of what is justice? It is easy to think of Amos as a lone individual seeking justice for the poor. And there is truth in that statement. Amaziah served an institution of religious worship in support of political institutions. Justice for him was to support the king. But Amos was part of an institution as well. The prophets were accepted as people with a specific vocation, people who followed God’s word. There are times when institutions clash over issues of justice. There are also times when each of us individually should remind institutions of their responsibilities to the poor and the oppressed. We should work for justice.
The gospel is another case of individuals speaking out. John the Baptist sought justice, he preached against Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. John was killed for speaking out. Now Herod is worried. Herod feared that Jesus was the resurrection of John. Jesus also preached justice. He preached in favor of the poor and the oppressed. He denounced the actions of leaders who were not caring for the needy. Jesus was also killed. There was good reason for Herod to fear the work of John and Jesus for they both sought justice and punishment for leaders who failed to care for the people.
There are many places where we should seek justice. I am thinking about the challenges of homeless people in the heat. Jan told me that it is very dangerous for people to be out in the weather when evening temperatures do not go down to 85 or less. It seems that people lose 2 liters of water during the night in these temperatures. We should always seek justice for the poor, the homeless, the underfed and others.
Another place where we struggle to know what is just is the issue of racism. The Episcopal Church has done a lot of work in this area. My intention is to share what is happening in this area and to let you know about things that are to come. I am well aware that the issue has significant political ramifications. We argue about critical race theory even as we don’t share a common understanding of what it means. We disagree about Black Lives Matter and defunding the police. The Episcopal Church is not asking anyone to take a particular position on these issues but rather inviting us to learn from history together and to share our own experiences and perspectives in an open forum with each other.
I would hope that all of us here today seek to accept all peoples, regardless of race. I think everyone here would say they are not racist. But racism can be a complex issue and I think we might find common ground through study and discussion.
The Episcopal Church has been working on issues of racism since 1988, long before our latest differences came about. In the 2020 Diocesan Convention, a policy was passed. Clergy and lay leaders are expected to take Anti-Racism training as part of their leadership roles. The Diocese of Arizona has nearly completed the training and they will begin to roll it out in the fall.
During this year, I learned about a program called Sacred Ground which was developed by the national church. Sacred Ground is meant to create a space for people of many different backgrounds to learn and to share perspectives on racism. It is non-judgmental. Sacred ground is a program that looks into the challenges faced by people of all kinds, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians. About ten people have joined me in what has become a wonderful dialogue about the issues. It is so refreshing to find a group and a way to discuss topics like this. We discussed the harsh treatment of European immigrants when they arrived in this land and how they were forced to give up their traditions and accept common beliefs. We learned about the struggles that Native people faced soon after they welcomed Europeans to the northeastern part of the country. We studied the history of black people both as slaves and after the Civil War. We learned about the challenges faced by Hispanic or Latino cultures. All of these sessions have given our group the opportunity to share some of our own perspectives about race in a comfortable space without judgement from others. If any of you wish to learn more about Sacred ground, let me know.
The experience of Chinese people who came to the United States starting around 1840 in California was something I knew little about. We learned that Asians, especially Chinese, were subjected to so many oppressive laws that were later declared unconstitutional including a foreign miner’s tax which meant the Chinese paid nearly all the taxes charged to miners, and a Cubic Air Ordinance which limited the Chinese from gathering. We also read about how Asian Americans were treated after World War II. As the United States sought to be the leader of the free world and to court the favor of the Chinese, leaders in our country spoke positively about Asians. Asian people soon were accepted. We now understand Asians as educated and hardworking people. That comes in part because of things leaders said about them in the Fifties and Sixties. I better understand why I have held this belief that Asia people are hardworking and better educated for my entire life. That is why Chris Whitehead and other teachers have suggested to me several times how important it to search for our truth not relying on a single source for our information. I have only discussed two possible areas for us to consider as we seek justice. I am sure you could identify many more.
Scripture encourages us to seek justice for everyone. Yet, we often disagree about what constitutes justice. If we all saw justice in the same way, we wouldn’t need the courts to help us figure it out. We also know that some people, just like the man who tried to get out of the ticket for parking in a handicap spot, try to bend the scales of justices in their direction. I suggest that seeking justice means seeking God’s will for our world. As we struggle, let us turn to God, let us remember the gifts that Jesus has given us as told in the letter to the Ephesians. We are destined as God’s children through the work of Jesus. We have been redeemed through his blood and forgiven for our trespasses. We have received wisdom and understanding. As we seek justice let us remember the prayer from today’s collect, “O Lord, grant that we may know and understand the things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them”. Amen.
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