January 27, 2019

Epiphany 3C

Do Justice!  

GOSPEL

Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“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 he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:14-21

SERMON

And so Jesus begins his ministry in laying claim to the mantle of the prophet Isaiah.  Last weekend we marked the commemoration of Blessed Martin Luther King.  We mark it well, if we mark it with a renewal of our minds, hearts and wills in the direction of those choices that define us as human beings, who strive to live our lives from a place of deep integrity and as authentic disciples of those inspiring prophets who have gone before.  We must be renewed and in our renewal be strengthened and galvanized to face today’s many challenges to justice.

When I think of Blessed Martin, the first word that comes to mind is prophet.  Prophet – not in the guise of those who foretell the future, but rather as those who look deeply into the goings on in the present moment and discern and address where God is acting and where He would have us join Him in action, that together with Him we might create a different and holier future.

Martin’s life was fueled by and bore witness to a powerful prophetic legacy that spanned the centuries between Isaiah and John the Baptist.  These prophetic voices, and most especially the voice of Jesus, captured his heart, formed his conscience, and animated his spirit.  From these prophetic faith roots Blessed Martin rose up and stood among us with nobility and humility, strength and gentleness, power and vulnerability.

Martin spoke with passion and conviction about the priority of justice within the mystery of God as it relates to the very core of our humanity.

Martin’s God is a God whose will it is to make just what is unjust. For Martin there was no possibility of authentic worship and of an authentic relationship with God that is not informed by this over aching moral directive of sacred scripture.  He said, “The arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward justice”. 

Martin embodied the admonition of the Prophet Amos, who said, “This is what the Lord requires, that you do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

We can remain deaf and blind to what is going on around us.  We can rely upon our tremendous psychological capacity for denial.  We can distract ourselves with meaningless preoccupations that have no ultimacy attached to them.  We can fill our lives with all that is shallow and hollow.  Worst of all, we can be active or passive co-operators in the machinery of injustice that is always tearing human beings apart and grinding them into the dust.  Or we can face and confront the reality of EVIL in our day and in our time. And that is what we are talking about.  When we are talking about injustice, we are talking about EVIL.

To go to this place is a stretch for those who live the experience of insolated privilege based on the color of their skin or the leverage that their wealth affords them, and for those raised in a society that bathes itself in the rhetoric of self admiration, self appreciation and self congratulation – in other words, for those of us for whom the world works just as it is.

But the EVIL that is injustice is very real and is very cruel.  Its punishing and killing ways touch the lives of far too many, for men and women of good will to allow themselves to remain untroubled by it and unresponsive to it.

Last week, I found myself in a place that I have been made to go too many times during these past two years.  I visited with Lucia and her six and four year old daughters.  Lucia and her husband, Prisco, have lived in the Hudson Valley for 17 years.  They fled dire poverty and gang violence in Mexico when they were 17 year olds in the hope of having a life that included a future.  Last Tuesday Prisco showed up to a scheduled court date for a traffic violation and never returned home.  He was sent to a detention facility in New Jersey.  He faces the prospect of immanent deportation and Lucia and her children have had their lives blown apart.  Her tears revealed a pain that is beyond words and beyond the consolation of words.  She said, “On Monday, we had a life and today we have no life.” 

When we talk about any justice related issue, we are not just talking about alternative strategies and policies, different reasoned approaches to issues, or competing opinions about possible viable solutions to problems.   We are talking about human suffering, in most cases unnecessary, unwarranted and even contrived human suffering, and, most certainly an absence of mercy and compassion.

When we face:

– the extent of police brutality directed against young men of color, its systemic protection, and judicial support;

– the school to prison pipeline;

– the resurgence of anti-Semitism fueled by an administration’s fascist impulses and hate speech;

– the distorted patriotism, primitive nationalism, nativist impulses, xenophobic thinking, that scapegoat groups of people as others to be feared;

– the kidnapping, separation, incarceration and death of innocent children at the border;

– refusing their legal right of entrance to asylum seekers and refugees;

– holding dreamers’ lives and futures hostage and using them as pawns in a game of political chess;

– the denial or diminishment of health care for the elderly and the poor;

– when unjust laws are valued more than the persons whose rights and dignity all law is intended to protect;

and

-when we face the truth that money and power allow a serial sexual predator, the likes of Jeffrey Epstein, to walk the streets after a 18 month incarceration in a designer prison that afforded him the luxury of a limousine ride to his office each day;

– there is only one word that can be used to describe any and all of this – that word is EVIL.

To name and call out evil, to resist it with every fiber of one’s being, to respond to agents of evil with love, and tough love as required, and to thereby engage the possibility of becoming its victim as one strives to enter into and identify with the lived experience of those who suffer oppression was, for Martin, his sacred duty as a man of Judeo-Christian faith.

For the prophets it is all about justice and judgment – next to, and not behind, mercy and compassion. The God of the prophets is not  concerned with whether people are following all the rites and rituals, or obeying rules and regulations. He wants to see them put their hearts into their actions, and behave with devotion and sincerity.

The God of the prophets doesn’t excoriate people for failing to say their prayers. He rages against them for only offering Him the lip-service of their prayers, and for failing to treat the most vulnerable among us, with justice and compassion.

The Judeo Christian scriptures are riven with God’s outrage at the oppression of the most vulnerable, and directives that we embrace and suffer that outrage with God and act on behalf of His great work of restoring justice.

Isaiah said, “Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow, care for the orphan and welcome and love the sojourner among you, giving him food, clothing and shelter.”

Mary, the mother of Jesus, giving voice to the child within her womb echoed the prophets and cried out, “He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, and has put down the mighty from their thrones; he has raised up those of low degree; and has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”

We have too long indulged ourselves in religious expression that can only be rightly described as spiritual masturbation.   Yes, God loves each of us as if there where only one of us and we are to delight and find our peace in that blessed assurance, but it cannot and must not end there.  We must love our neighbor, the other, and especially the different other, as ourselves. God continues to demand and require justice between and among us, as the sign of our sincerity in our worship of Him.

To assault the poor, to nurture the greed of the rich, to violate the demands and requirements of justice, is treason in the kingdom of God.

The prophets preached that God lives in the poor and Jesus admonished us to seek His face and serve Him in the most vulnerable among us.   The God of the prophets empowers the least among us to demand and require justice in His name and the rest of us to partner with them. Our worship is sincere if we genuinely want God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done – and if we want this to happen first of all in our hearts, in our lives, in our imaginations and in our dreams.  Remember Martin who declared, “I have a dream.” Martin dreamed kingdom dreams and made kingdom choices. His worship was sincere.

It belongs to us to share in the great work of bringing forth justice, God’s will for the poor and those who are oppressed.

We now stare on a daily basis into the face of evil. And there can only ever be one response to evil, and that response must be resistance, through any and every non-violent means at our disposal. To fail to resist is to be complicit. To pretend it is not our problem is to deceive our selves.

Yes, to resist evil is to go to the edge and to put our selves at risk. But is this not the very place where God is most present? When we risk becoming vulnerable with those who are most vulnerable, we enter the Holy of Holies. We enter that sacred space of self-giving love that alone is able to transform us into those bearers of light, like Blessed Martin, that God intends all of us to be. We are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We best honor the memory of the righteous prophets who have preceded us and grow into the depth of our humanity by making those very choices that put our selves at risk – by participating in that ongoing prophetic witness to justice.  Remember that we were baptized to be priests, who become the sacrifice they offer; prophets, who speak the truth to power; and kings, who reign as servants.

Martin said, “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right.  A man dies when he refuses to stand up for what is true.  A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice.”  Our alternative in Christ is to die to self-concern, self-protection and self-love so as to possess eternal life from the very day we make that choice.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna                                                                                                           January 27, 2019