Monday, 15 March 2010 17:10

March 14, 2010 Sermon

“Justice or Just Us?”
Amos 5:8-24
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 14, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

On this the fourth Sunday in Lent, we are looking at class contempt and class divisions.  Throughout the Lenten Season we have been focusing on six forms of organized evil that contributed to the crucifixion of Jesus.  These things still have influence today and bear reflection as we seek to be healthy Christians.  We have already looked at graft and political corruption, religious bigotry and militarism.  Next week we will look at a corrupt legal system and on Palm Sunday we will look at mob rule.  But today, we are looking at class division and class contempt.

As the health care discussions are all about these class distinctions, it seems appropriate.  The health care debate is about taking care of the poorest and sickest among us.  I find it amazing that people will support keeping the present system against their best interests.  The people holding the reigns of the media have duped them into believing that universal health care is a boogey man and the next step on the slippery slope to communism.  There was even a sign at one of those TEA Party rallies that said, “keep you government hands off my Medicare.”  Medicare is a government program.

I find it interesting that when tax breaks pass for the rich there is little outcry, but when people ask for health care for the poor they get accused of class warfare.   When people mention social justice and justice for the poor, they are talking about the need to take care of the least of these which is a central tenet of scripture.

I need to say a few words about social justice here.  Glenn Beck has told people that they need to leave churches that preach social justice.  And yet, here you are.  Even after the clock leaps forward, here you are.

I think brother Glenn might need a reminder or two about what the church is about.  First of all, Jesus was all abut justice.  And in my opinion, if a church is not interested in social justice then it is not really a church of Jesus Christ.  The church of Jesus Christ is a movement of people committed not only to the salvation of individuals, but the salvation of groups of individuals,--of society.  Whenever Jesus was given the opportunity to favor just us over justice, he always chose justice.  He was in the tradition of the Prophets, when he claimed this justice priority.

When I was in Atlanta at Oakhurst Baptist Church for a Baptist Peace Fellowship Board meeting in February, pastor Lanny Peters preached on the call of Isaiah.  Isaiah sounded a lot like Amos.  They spoke in the same tradition.  Here’s what Lanny said about the call of Isaiah:

“The book of Isaiah contains some of the most beautiful and haunting and familiar words of the Bible. And some of the most daunting. In most of the book, Isaiah is speaking not about God but for God. In much of the book, God is not happy. The book opens with the words of an angry God. If I were to translate the words and tone for us sitting here today, it would go something like this, my paraphrase of a section from the first chapter of Isaiah.
Hear the word of the LORD, you sorry people that live in a wicked country. I have had enough of your sacrifices, your burnt offerings, your lambs, goats, especially your bull. I have had enough of your little worship services. I do not delight in your singing, your organ music, your dancing and your shawls. Who is that ridiculous guy in that robe? Who appointed him to speak for me? When you come to appear before me, who asked for this stuff? Trample my courts no more; bringing your pledge cards is futile; your money is an abomination to me.

Your special little theme Sundays, my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  Now I don't want to see any of you back here, including that Pastoral Team, until you have done those things.

And tell your political leaders that if justice does not become a priority soon, a foreign invasion of their land is coming backed by God for God does not care if their two party system financed by special interests is busted. God only knows that the poor and oppressed are suffering and God's tired of waiting.”

The prophet Amos railed against the righteous people who claimed that God was on their side because they participated in worship services.  In today’s scripture, Amos challenged the people to engage in a more worthy type of worship.  He says the worship he would like is the one where “justice flows down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

It seems that Beck and his ilk celebrate the false god of just us.  They are supporting not justice but just us.  And if just us stands in the way of justice then it can’t be Christian.

Amos’ critique was that the people did not care for the poor. They seemed to have succumbed to the just us temptation.  We remember that the prophet Micah asked what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.  Justice, not just us.

We have been looking at the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch this past month.  He was a pastor of a Baptist church in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York city.  He wrote about the need for Christians to be accountable for the way that we care for the poor and downtrodden, as Amos suggests.  His major work and his major movement was called the Social Gospel.  It was a school of thought that we ought to be known as Christians for not only how we cared for the poor, but how we analyzed society’s inequities through the eyes a justice-loving Christ.  In his book A Theology for the Social Gospel, he wrote that Jesus’ crucifixion also had class implications.  You see, Roman citizens could not be crucified.  Only outsiders, only the poor, only the rabble rousers.  
The method of Jesus’ execution pointed out a class difference between him and his executioners.  “When Jesus was nailed to the tree” wrote Rauschenbusch, “he bore not only the lightening shoots of physical pain imposed by the cruelties of criminal law, but also that contempt for the lower classes which has always dehumanized the upper classes, numbed and crippled the spiritual self-respect of the lower classes, and set up inseparable barriers to the spirit of the kingdom of God.”(p. 257)

The Kingdom of God, argued Rauschenbusch necessitated the equality of all people.  There could not be rich nor poor slave nor free male nor female for we are all one in Christ Jesus.  Where have I heard that before?

The Kingdom of God needs to be an alternative to the economics of greed and graft and inheritance.

The Kingdom of God is where Justice flows down, not where justice slows down.

The Kingdom, the reign of God is antithetical to a class system that keeps people perpetually rich and perpetually poor.

So, maybe this is the most difficult of items for us to overcome as first world people.  We love Jesus, but we are not really willing to sell all we have and give to the poor.  We’ll give our share and then some, but not everything.

We love Jesus, but we also love our beautiful church buildings, our mission projects, our opportunities for fellowship.

It’s not about just us, even though we are relatively comfortable in this fine edifice.

My brother posted a status update on Facebook a couple of days ago asking, what’s more important, services or service?  You know what I said, especially given that  the words of Amos were freshly dancing around my head.  “I despise your feasts and your solemn assemblies, but let justice flow down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

In their book, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Intervarsity Press, 2003), Glen Stassen and David Gushee state that the Bible has 1,060 uses of the two Hebrew and two Greek words for justice. In contrast, the main words for sexual sin appear 90 times. They say, “There really is no theme more central to biblical faith than the matter of justice.” They devote an entire chapter to detailing the forty occasions in which Jesus confronted the powers and authorities of his time over their injustice.   David Gushee writes in a recent Huffington Post article:

“For Jesus, as for the Jewish prophets in whose line he came, social injustice consists of misuses of power to create distortions of human community in which greed, domination, violence, and exclusion come to dominate human life. Social justice consists of human acts to resist social injustice by repairing such distortions of human community. We work today for social justice when we seek to create religious and political communities characterized by more economic justice, less domination, less violence, and more inclusive community. When we do so, we can have every assurance that we are attempting to put into practice God's will and indeed God's passion for a world that he made for precisely such justice."

Of Glenn Beck, Gushee writes:

"He has made his rise on skillfully inflammatory rhetoric that has hooked the emotions of millions. But this time he hooked the Bible and the God of the Bible. He managed to do something few have been able to do -- speaking only of my own religious community, he has united Catholics and Protestants, evangelicals and mainliners, Christian progressives and moderates and conservatives. He has offended all Christians who know that our God is a God of justice, and that advancing justice is central to our mission as a people and to the kingdom of God for which we work and wait."  (from Glenn Beck vs. God: The Bible Speaks for Itself by David Gushee Huffington Post March 13, 2010)

My friends, the church is about justice.  It’s not about just us.  It’s not about an exclusive club.  It’s about a commitment to a lifestyle that will set you and others free.
But on some level it is about just us.  There’s an old song that says

If not now, when?
If not us, who?

This is a contemporary rephrasing of the ancient Rabbi Hillel’s questions:

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, then what am I?
And if not now, when?”

It may be just us who are committed to justice.  But here’s the really good news.  If all of the just us-es that are committed to justice started working for a better world and started implementing the call and message of Jesus, then we might even find something resembling the kingdom of God and that would be very good news indeed.

If not now, when?
If not us, who?

It’s just us, the people committed to God’s message that are committed to justice.  It’s us working together that makes justice not only happen here or there but flow down like waters continue like an everflowing stream.  That’s what we’re here for.

Who? Just us.  
When?  I’ll let you answer that one.