September 18, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
Micah 6:8; Isaiah 58: 1-9a
Election seasons seem to become more and more divisive every couple of years. The fabric of our union as Americans feels as though it gets more fragile at the seams. Published 50 years ago, but as fresh as today’s newspaper, Methodist preacher Wallace Hamilton wrote: “The whole country today seems in an ugly mood, as if we’d all been suddenly bitten by the same venomous bug—class against class, black against white, younger generation against older. Everyone rallies around (their) hates—and some have called us ‘The United Hates of America.’ I don’t intend to go into all of this,” he continues, “except to say that we who are Christian should be a healing influence in society, take some of the heat out of the hysteria, reduce the fever, and restore some decent balance in our judgments.” (p.83, What About Tomorrow?)
Such sentiment was more recently echoed by former senator John Danforth and Matt Malone in a September 2020 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. They said:
Today a growing number of Americans regard their political opponents not as fellow citizens with whom they disagree but as enemies; as politically, socially, and even morally irredeemable. Millions of Americans consume news in echo chambers, while countless numbers have lost friends or even turned away from family over political disagreements.
This tendency to divide the world between us and them has come even to American churches, where righteous advocacy of social justice can come across as self-righteous scolding of individuals. Christians have a religious duty to champion the cause of justice. But as the prophet Micah teaches, they also have the duty to walk humbly with God and with their neighbors, especially when tempted to think of themselves as the swords of divine judgment.
Ultimately, everyone bears responsibility for polarization. This might seem like unwelcome news, but it’s the opposite. As long as the cause of the problem is someone else, then nothing can be done. But those who acknowledge how they contribute to the problem also can begin to imagine how they can create a better culture. In this world Americans would see each other as neighbors and treat each other as friends, even and especially when they disagree deeply.
We are priests from different Christian churches. We belong to different generations and have worked for different political parties. Yet we share a love of country that transcends those differences. Above all, we share a faith in God, who alone has the power to separate the righteous from the sinners.
In this spirit we begin today a five-week series in which we are joining other large United Methodist churches around the country to examine what it means to be the church in times of division. This started with Adam Hamilton, founding senior pastor
of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest in our denomination. Adam is one of the most gifted leaders I’ve ever been around. And one of the blessings of coming to St. Luke’s for me is to have formed a friendship with Adam.
Back in the spring we were on a zoom with other large church pastors and Adam mentioned that they would be doing a series this fall that focuses on the hope the church can be in the division and angst of another election season. A few days later I called Adam and asked about bringing other churches into this campaign. After all, the United Methodist Church has taken a beating of its own in recent years. It could be nice to present a united front in leading our communities to practice civility. Adam was on board and pulled these pastors back together and everyone got excited about the idea.
The series is based on the words of the prophet Micah in the Old Testament: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) So we are calling this series the BE JUST, KIND AND HUMBLE campaign. We will spend the first three weeks looking at each of these requirements of God, then consider what it means to love our neighbor, and end talking about what our nation needs from the church today. This morning we begin with what it means to BE: Just.
There are two important Hebrew words used for justice and they both communicate different but important messages. The first is Mishpat. The most basic meaning of mishpat is to treat people equitably. This is often understood as rectifying justice. People who commit the same crime deserve the same punishment. You get what you deserve. This is foundational to our modern justice system. But that’s not all mishpat means. It’s not just handing out punishment for bad behavior. It means giving people what they deserve but can’t seem to get. Maybe they are poor, or a foreigner, or have a physical limitation and it is preventing them from receiving equal access to resources and opportunities like everyone else.
This is as much justice in the Bible as people being punished for wrong behavior. God’s people are called to advocate for everyone getting what they should have. This is where the prophets often blistered the people of Israel. The people were okay living in two halves: the haves and have-nots. The prophets declared that this is what will merit the judgment of God.
Now the other word for justice is Tzedakah. Tzedakah means righteousness, but not like holiness or self-righteousness. It has a more relational meaning. It is to be in right relationship with God and each other. Tzedakah is about conducting all our relationships so that we promote peace, fairness and equity.
So justice in the Old Testament promotes two key ideas: advocacy and harmony. A society that advocates for the needs of all people and works to have harmony in relationships will know peace. Courts in Israel today are known as Courts of Mishpat Hashalom. Courts for making peace. The New Testament doesn’t depart from this requirement of God. Jesus demonstrates this very idea of justice. He criticizes religious leaders for carrying out religious duties but says, “you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23)
Some people are surprised to learn how much the Bible talks about justice. The words justice and righteousness appear throughout scripture. Just to give you an idea how much look at verses scrolling on the screen as I read just a few…
Isaiah 56:1: Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right
Isaiah 1:17: Learn to do good; seek justice
Jeremiah 22:3: Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness
Psalm 9:8: God judges the world with righteousness and the people with equity.
Over 2000 verses in the Bible talk about justice. We are to care for the poor and orphaned. The rights of widows are a big deal to God. Treating foreigners and aliens with compassion is a commandment. It is clear that justice is a major concern to God. As Tim Keller says, “God clearly identifies with those on the bottom of the ladder.” (sermon “Doing Justice and Mercy” 5/21/2016)
Some people who don’t like the Bible because of perceived injustices in it are shocked to learn how much true justice and social welfare is in scripture. And many Christians who focus on a God of personal salvation are shocked to discover how much more attention is placed in the Bible of justice. Several years ago Richard Stearns, the president at the time of World Vision, wrote a book called The Hole in Our Gospel, calling evangelical Christianity to account for its woeful neglect of the justice God demands.
But if we think God’s call for justice is surprising to us today, imagine living in the days of the prophet Isaiah. The second half of this Old Testament book addresses the people of Israel who have returned home after captivity in Babylon. They accepted that this event came as a result of their own faithlessness. Doing right is now their primary concern. Doing what is important to God. But its kind of a selfish desire. They want to do right in order to guarantee their own well-being. Do right so God will send rain and your crops will grow. Do right so that God will heal your sickness. Do right so your cattle will have offspring and you’ll get richer.
It was a selfish desire to do right, but more than that, doing right got reduced to being good. Are you a good person? Do you attend religious festivals? Do you make offerings? Then God will bless you.
And Isaiah shocks the people, absolutely shocks them, when he tells God’s message: “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.” (v.2) God declared them unrighteous! Look specifically at the accusation in verse 3: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers.” What did that mean? Normally on fast days like Yom Kippur, no one worked. It was a holiday. So the people take off and keep their fast to earn God’s approval, but they don’t let their workers off. They demand their workers keep going, so they can be religious and still make money. In other words they weren’t fulfilling the demands of mishpat. Equal treatment. Looking out for what others deserve. Caring about their needs. Standing up for their rights.
Then God continues: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Those last words are significant, “your own kin.” The people were challenged to see folks who were very different from them, people they may have even rationalized as bringing their problems on themselves, as their own kin, their own flesh and blood. They are people with whom they have a relational responsibility, Tzedakah.
So what does it mean to do justice, to practice mishpat and tzedakah? Let me suggest two things that will help make this matter relative to our world and perhaps what it means in the divisions we face.
First: We need to be about right relationships in order to have a right world. We can be so driven to get things right in life and right in the world, that we drive people away from us and in the end discover that we got it all wrong. Jeff Peek in our church says he has a simple question he asks himself all the time when it comes to his marriage to Debra. “Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy?” That’s pretty good advice.
Having mishpat, fairness, equity, justice is important. But when we enforce that we tend to find it doesn’t eliminate wrong things. But when we love, when we accept and embrace, we are never wrong.
Some time back I met with a family going through a terrible ordeal. The children are all grown, but one of the children can’t accept a sibling who is gay. And this has just created a real stink in the family. They can’t all get together now and the parents are brokenhearted. They are frustrated by the child’s decision not to fully accept a sibling, but also love and appreciate that child.
They know this will change how they gather as a family. It will probably happen in separate companies. The parents really hope the one child will have a change of heart and accept the sibling, so we talked about what kind of treatment might open the door for change. Could they love that child just as fully as the other children? One of the parents said, “Yes, but I feel like I’ll be giving a free pass.”
I was thinking about that statement later and considered that’s probably how the one child feels about the sibling. If I fully embrace this sibling and accept not only this person but the person’s spouse, then I’ll be giving a free pass.
It occurred to me that no matter what, no matter what side of right you stand on, loving someone who is hard to love will always feel like you are giving that person a free pass. But what if God said living in a right world comes down to living in right relationship? What does it mean to love unconditionally? To love and accept without saying, “but…”
Isn’t this how Jesus loves? With true unconditional acceptance? The only condemnation Jesus offered was the same as Old Testament prophets--to religious people who didn’t advocate for the rights and well-being of everyone.
And this leads to the second observation:
Doing mishpat and tzedakah means Practicing Mercy and Justice.
There’s an old debate when it comes to justice work. It goes like this, is it more helpful to treat the symptoms of poverty, like providing a soup kitchen, or be about work that deals with legislative and structural matters that focus on eradicating poverty? Of course, the latter tends to get more controversial. Its like what Bishop Helder Camara said, “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor they call me a Communist.”
Years ago I was in a church that started a soup kitchen. The need for it was quickly evident and the crowds increased. I remember one day a retired pastor taking me to lunch asking if we were really doing any good? I got somewhat defensive. He challenged me to think about what it means to work for efforts that help people not depend on the services of a soup kitchen. I think I said something really snarky like, “Well, while you figure that out, we will make sure hungry people have something to eat. I believe Jesus said something about that.” I couldn’t resist that last line. Obviously, I didn’t get a Christmas card from that person that year.
And that is one of those conversations I wish I could have back because what age and bad attitude have taught me is this is not really an either-or issue. You need both. Activity like feeding the hungry is an act of mercy. It is beautiful. We should want to do those things. But we should also ask why people are hungry and explore the deeper issues that help eliminate such needs. That’s getting things right in the world, justice.
And here’s why we need both. Mercy grabs our hearts. And without our hearts, needs become issues. And issues become politics, and politics has yet in the history of the world achieved God’s dream for creation. If the answer to our problems was a political answer, then why do we still have problems? Now, mind you, I don’t think religion is the answer either. Something more than politics and religion is needed. We must have hearts that want to see the world changed as God desires.
Last week I joined St. Lukers at the Food Pantry near 71st and Michigan Rd. Members of our church work there every Wednesday, and Steve Claffey in our church is chair of he board. Traffic lines up around the building waiting for volunteers to roll a cart full of food to them so they can load in their cars. The Crooked Creek Food Pantry is now the 3rd largest in central Indiana. It is incredible how much food they are distributing. It is so much, in fact, they need all the inside space for storage. The distribution must happen outside.
So I talked with clients as they drove up to receive food and pulled carts to them. One encounter stuck with me. It was ever so brief. A man and his wife whose English was limited. I rolled the cart to them, wished them well, and turned to walk away. The man came over and shook my hand. Then he pulled me close to give a slight hug. He said, “Thank you. You have helped us make it another week.”
Oh man. That about ripped my heart out. For the first time that day, I wondered what it must be like to be in his shoes. I allowed myself to feel his relief, but also his weariness; his awareness that the challenge of next week starts again. And I thought I would do all I could to help get him out of that cycle. To help him get to a place where he doesn’t have to go week to week worrying about how he will take care of himself and his family.
It is not an either-or proposition. It is both, mercy and justice. Because when our hearts get grabbed, we allow ourselves to stand in another’s shoes. And that’s where justice begins.
Whose shoes can you try on this week?