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justice for all (a sermon for MLK day, 2018)

last fall the bishop of our episcopal area, Bishop Jeremiah Park, invited me to be the preacher at his annual retreat for clergy and families at the hershey lodge on Martin Luther King Jr. day.  you don't tell the bishop no, so i agreed!  last night i preached this sermon, and leave it here for anyone interested...

 Good evening, Bishop Park, Cabinet, colleagues and friends, family members, and to all who are here this evening, grace and peace to you.  I am grateful to the Bishop for offering me the opportunity to preach tonight, though I must admit it has shown itself to be a daunting task to prepare a message for so many of my closest critics, I mean friends.  As the day has approached, I have found any number of things to focus on and to make the task seem even more formidable: I’m too busy, I ‘ve had several funerals, I’ve had the stomach bug, we’re in the middle of several big projects, I have a hangnail, and so on and so forth.  I was thinking about this while I was watching a film on dvd with my children a few weeks ago, the film adaption of C.S. Lewis’ “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” in which Edmund and Lucy get to return to the magical land of Narnia, but this time they are accompanied by their incredibly annoying cousin, Eustace.  They are ushered into Narnia through a painting of a boat on the water, and they find themselves landing on a boat with King Caspian, in the middle of an adventure, on a mission of justice, to free seven kings who have been unjustly banished.  Lucy and Edmund, who have tasted the wonder of Narnia before, are thrilled to be on such a mission, but Eustace is unbearably contrarian, complaining about every possible thing.  The waters are too rough, the ship is too crowded, his room is too small, and so on.  His character is so over the top, that it’s difficult to even watch him, and my 6-year old son, who sometimes tests the limits of my patience, commented, “Eustace is SO annoying!”  But even as my skin crawled with Eustace’s petty selfishness, and my kids and I groaned at his egregious exercises in missing the point,  I couldn’t help but wonder if I’m sometimes like that.  I couldn’t help but wonder if I, too, am not on a kind of mission of justice, a mission to make disciples of Jesus; a mission to love God and others with all that I am, a mission to care for the oppressed and the marginalized and the forgotten and the abused; and then I couldn’t help but wonder if I’m more like Lucy and Edmund full of wonder and adventure, or more like Eustace, full of selfish blindness.  My back hurts.  My check engine light is on.  Someone wrote an email about the communion table being a few inches off-center (true story).  I don’t want to deal with that upcoming finance committee meeting.  I was irritable and grumpy with my children, and I regret it.  My sermon for the bishop’s retreat isn’t ready, and the Steelers lost, so basically, this just stinks.  Why does all this happen to me?  
Now I am being overly dramatic here to make a point, but I hope you can all be honest enough tonight to admit with me that sometimes we get pretty distracted by, or even focused on, our own problems, however little and insignificant they may be, and we forget about the mission we are on.  I wonder if a day in which we remember the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. might just be a perfect time to be reminded of the important work we’ve been called to, not only by our vocation as ministers of the Gospel, but as followers of the Jesus who demonstrated what this justice mission was all about.  When he began his ministry in Galilee, Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth and read the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah, words that say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And then he indicated that he was the fulfillment of these words.  That to bring good news to the poor and set captives free and give sight to the blind, this is his mission statement.  So for us, who claim to follow Christ, we ought to pay very close attention because to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world isn’t simply about reciting a creed or having certain knowledge, it is about living the way Jesus lived, and loving the way Jesus loved.  His mission statement should be ours, too.  Dr. King believed that if we would live in such a way that that mission would be more than mere words on a page; if we dared to follow the imperative in 1 John 3 that we not love in words and speech only, but in action; that we would march towards freedom and a daybreak of peace.  53 years ago on Sunday, Dr. King spoke in the town where I serve, State College, Pennsylvania, using a refrain that has brought hope to many people in the years since then.  He said “yes, we shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  Dr. King spoke so many inspiring and powerful words, but sometimes I think we forget that he spoke those words into the fabric of a nation that was deeply divided.  
That’s important for us, because we know something about division, don’t we?  We need only mention gun control, or immigration, or climate change, and we begin to get an uncomfortable sense of just how fragmented and polarized and divided we have become.  We know this in our own tribe as well, when our opinions and beliefs regarding human sexuality, gender, and marriage, have created what feels like a chasm between us.  What we feel today, and the division into which Dr. King spoke, particularly regarding racism, is not really anything new.  As I was preparing a sermon recently about the importance of community, I found myself absolutely moved by Paul’s words to the church in Corinth, a church that was dealing with its own division, so much so that Paul had heard that it had broken into various factions.  Some were claiming to follow Paul, and others Apollos or Cephas, and Paul seems to think that these divisions are ridiculous.  “Has Paul been crucified for you?, “ he asks rhetorically.   “Can Christ be divvied up between you?”  Instead, he calls the church to be united in the same mind and purpose, a turn of phrase in the Greek that was idiomatic and common defining friendship.  But nowhere do we see where Paul urges the Corinthians to give up their diversity and distinctions.  In fact, in other places in his letter, he acknowledges that they are both educated and uneducated, of high status and low, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, different parts of the same body, with different and unique purposes, and, given the location, there was surely racial diversity there as well.  The unity to which Paul calls them is not in surrendering their diversity, or weeding out the others, or appealing to some lowest common denominator, or marching with tiki torches to claim that one group is better than another, or profanely disrespecting the countries of origin of certain groups of people; no, the unity they can experience, says Paul, is in Christ.  That in the brokenness of Jesus, in non-violent, unconditional love, the community of faith could have a common purpose, a guiding force to rally around, a unifying power that could bind them together.  That in the darkness of death and despair, we meet the One who is light and love, and nothing: not powers or systems, not life or death, not governments or politicians, not height nor depth, not skin color or sexuality, nothing can separate us from that love.  
My friends, if we have gotten distracted by the color of the sanctuary carpet, or the placement of the communion table, or the restoration of the stained-glass windows, then we have missed the mission to which we were called; if we have become burdened with the board of trustees and a bloated sense of self-worth; then we have taken a detour from that arc that Dr. King so beautifully talked about;  if we have become satisfied with statistical reports and Sunday after Sunday of whitewashed messages, then we have become Eustace in Narnia, unable to see beyond ourselves; if we have become consumed with arguing our position on sexuality, or proving that we are right, we have lost the plot and have substituted it for something tame, something benign, and something utterly unhelpful.  We are those who need again to hear the words of the prophet Amos, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
In 1963, four young girls were killed at a bombing of a church in Birmingham Alabama, an act of terrorism by white racists.  Dr. King gave the eulogy at a service that was held for three of the children, and he spoke about not losing hope, about using an event like this to spur us on towards love, and then he had some comments for both the religious leaders and political leaders of Birmingham and in other places of this nation of ours.  He said, “these young girls have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. ... They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.  In a world where the news is marked by reports of violence against people of color, against women, against the other, these words better weigh heavily on us as ministers of the Gospel. 

It reminds me of a passage of Scripture that has always intrigued me.  In what is often called the sermon on the mount, Jesus made a radical statement that rings loudly across the centuries in our ears tonight.  After talking about the law in Matthew 5, Jesus says that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  I want you to stop and consider that this evening.  Unless you are more righteous than those who had dedicated their lives to following the law, all the codes and rituals, all the washings and words, unless you are more righteous than them, you have no place in God’s kingdom.  The statement is meant to turn everything upside down.  Jesus isn’t saying that you have to be more religious than them, more clean than them, preach better sermons or say less curse words or have more Christian bumper stickers or use longer theological words.  What he is saying is that he is looking for a different kind of righteousness, one that is concerned with the heart, and not the external.  One that is willing to trade caution for courage.  One that is willing to stand up to the evils of our time which push people down based on race or class or gender or sexuality.  Jesus is calling us to justice like a river, a river that washes away our self-centeredness; a river that churns and flows and swirls us from our satisfaction with the status quo; a river whose current pulls us towards an arc that bends in the direction of justice; a river that inspires us to show up and speak up and stand up for what is right, even if we don’t know how it will end.  Jesus is calling us to a mission of freeing captives and giving sight to those who have not yet seen, and offering good news that is actually good news to the poor; he is inviting us into a journey that is at times disorienting and wild like a mighty river; a journey that is like traveling through a portal into a whole new world, or at least a whole new way of doing things; a journey that means putting aside our differences to focus on the One who unites us;  a journey that is not so much about where we end up, but about who we are and what we do right now.  Dr. King had a dream, and we have been blessed to hear it, and to be challenged to live into it.  But Jesus gives us a mission; and we will be defined by how we choose to respond: if we will be Lucy’s and Edmunds, or Eustaces; if we will be content behind pulpits and red wooden doors, or if we will meet our neighbors where they are; if we will succumb to the ease and comfort of silence, or if we will use our voices for truth and dignity; if we will continue to walk in starless midnight of racism and war, or if we will choose to march and dance and sing in the light of God’s love; if we will opt for ritual and tradition and safety and security; or if we will stand for justice.  For all.  God, make us people of justice.  Amen.    


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