Last week we began a series of sermons on the subject of justice. I did this because of the timeliness of so many difficult issues facing the poor and homeless in our own community and all across our country. My goal is to help us come to some understanding of how we in the church might see the issues of justice that exist all across our globe.
We looked, last Sunday, at the purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world. I suggested there are two understandings of this event: the first is that the purpose of God in sending Jesus into the world was to provide a sacrifice for the sin of humanity. This is called in theological terms, the sacrificial system. It assumes and encourages the idea that the sacrificial death of Jesus, separate from his life and teaching, is the thing that matters.
The other concept is on in which Jesus was sent into the world to change the world. The intention of God was that Jesus would be successful that this task—that his message, his stories and parables would teach the world the most loving way to live. This message caused jealousy, and hatred. Jesus died on the cross because of this message. This concept is called the incarnational system. And last week I indicated that this system I have just described is the one that I support. I don’t believe that Jesus was sent into the world to die, but to live. He was sent to live in a way that presented a whole new understanding of life—to bring a new quality of life that was intended to serve as the standard for humankind. Jesus’ message for humankind was a message from God about life in the here and now.
My final point last week was a challenge: we’re challenged—each and every one of us—to live the truth that Jesus taught. But we’re not always successful. We fail to recognize evil in the seemingly respectable surroundings of business and government—and within the church—because we don’t want to fail at life—we want to be disciples of Jesus, but we don’t want to fail publicly as he did. We fight shy of the cross.
Let me suggest some ways in which we fight shy of the gospel and how our behavior inhibits the concept of justice in the world.
The pattern of Jesus’ life was that his gospel—his teachings, his parables, his stories—aroused many people of his time and from which he made enemies. Jesus said that the gospel lived and the gospel preached in anyone’s life—in yours or in mine—would cause the hostile forces of compromise in this world.
A poignant example of this might be when we look at the disciples of Jesus working in South and Central America, who have attracted murderous attention because of their message. Roman Catholic, Anglican and others who work in these countries have been labeled subversive. Death squads have killed priests and ministers working in shantytowns, all across Mexico, Central and South America. Lay leaders, both men and women, have been attacked and have seen their families, and their children, killed because of their involvement in what we would call simple social action. And in pointing this out, we haven’t even begun to explore the atrocities of life in many parts of Africa. These are people—the people who have been hurt and tortured and some who have been murdered—who don’t need sermons to point out to them that discipleship means the cross, or that saving their lives might mean losing them. They have lived the reality—they have walked the walk, and talked the talk—of what it is to be a follower of the gospel and their lives have been lives where justice has been the cross—just as it was for Jesus of Nazareth.
Where is the cross in our lives? Where and when do we pin on our badge of Christian discipleship? We need to think about this difficult question.
In one way, we undergo the cross whenever we attempt to do something good or right that arouses the anger of other people. Sometimes this is hostility from people we call “bad” people. But the hostility we arouse can also come from people who are good.
This is the bewildering part of living as a disciple. Even Jesus was bewildered when his friends said he was insane and mad and came to take him home. And how often Christian leaders have aroused hostility by simply doing compassionate acts like giving a meal to a hungry and homeless person or befriending a prostitute. And how many times we have heard from folks that it’s imprudent, it’s not productive—these are programs, after all, that only assist the poor in their bad behavior. How often do we find people getting angry and resentful and hostile when programs are introduced for others—mostly those who are poor—for those who are at the bottom of this world’s economic, political and social systems? Greed is appalling in this country. Fewer welfare cases, fewer health dollars for children, fewer mental health services, fewer resources for places to live, fewer places for the sexually and physically abused, fewer people committed to compassion for other human beings. These issues are hard for us—hard to hear—and even more difficult to understand when our reactions don’t match what we think our lives should be about.
I know that some of us experience hardships, too. In less dramatic lives many ordinary people undergo prolonged hardships because of their understanding of the gospel: parents of hyper-active and mentally limited children—parents who refuse to give up, day after day, month after month, year after year, in loving their difficult-to-raise child; relatives and friends who have nursed a sick person for months and sometimes years without a break—without much support; wives and husbands, gay and lesbian couples, who because of their commitment to each other, who work strenuously together to make their families and their relationships work in the world—sometimes at great cost to their personal wholeness. Many people receive parallel hardships for the sake of faith and justice.
We know that there is a long tradition in the church of referring to any form of suffering as “bearing a cross”. Someone with arthritis will see it as a “cross” to be borne. Or someone for the simplest inconvenience will take about the “cross” they have to bear. Some of you may even describe my sermons on this topic as a “cross” to bear.
But none of these examples have much to do with the gospel; it’s just that there are some personal sufferings that life may bring. But when we attach the word ”cross” then we lose the depth of meaning of what the real ”Cross” was all about. We need to bring some comparison to our sufferings and those who suffer in other parts of this community, our state, our nation and our world. We may live with some difficulties of daily struggle, but that doesn’t mean that we can avoid bringing justice to the world. The truth is this: Jesus needs everyone—everyone who loves, everyone who suffers, everyone who has compassion, everyone who can give an hour, or two hours, or three hours a day, or a week, or a month, to combating those issues in our lives and others lives which results in suffering--whether it’s helping people read and write, or serving food to the hungry, or providing help to the homeless, or collaborating with organizations whose purpose is to change individual lives—or by giving out of our abundance to those who have nothing.
Let me speak for myself. In my relatively comfortable life I need to be aware of the life and death struggle being lived by many people in many parts of this world’s village. Those is the midst of these struggles, Christians asked to live so very dangerously, need to know that they have my love and support. This kind of “connecting” is not meant to be a mere pleasant formality. It needs to be real and personal. It is heartening that many people in this parish engage themselves through the outreach of St. John’s. Your help makes it easier for this whole parish community to shoulder the cross of Jesus—to bear the cross of justice.
Next week I would like to talk a bit about what the Kingdom of Justice might look like. And what kind of a commitment it might take from us to be in closer community with others around the world whose suffering is a part of their every moment of living.