As I told my congregation this morning, if you feel like you’ve been hearing a lot of messages about social justice or activism lately, your ears are not deceiving you. And no, I haven’t been putting stuff in the scripture that wasn’t there to begin with.
Epiphany—that short run of Sundays lost between Christmas and Lent introducing us to the light of Christ—has a lot to say about justice. Which is of course only another way of saying that Jesus has a lot to say about justice. Who he is has a lot to say on the matter.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at this morning’s lesson, another excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus instructs and exhorts his early disciples.
You’ve probably heard before that salt, like yeast, is a transformative agent. It only takes a little to change a lot. At the same time, it still has to do something. A spice that doesn’t taste like anything isn’t worth much. Like Jesus suggests, you mights as well just throw it out. (Trampling it underfoot is optional.)
Disciples are supposed to be like that. We don’t have to be salty in the sense of using bad language, but we are meant to change a lot.
To do that, disciples have to remain distinctively Christian (think about those Beatitudes that we heard last week).
It’s more or less the same with being the light of the world. This doesn’t really mean that we’re supposed to be a sunbeam for Jesus, though we could say that about someone like Gloria1 and not be wrong. Jesus, however, refers to God’s calling to the people of Israel to be a “light unto the nations.” That is, to show the world how good the Lord God really is. This is why the Pilgrims talked about their colonies as a “city shining on a hill.” Their purpose was to testify to God’s glory.
This is all very well and good, Pastor, you say. But where is this stuff about social justice you were threatening us with?
God calls the Israelites to be a light to the nations through their practice of social justice. The lesson from Isaiah that we didn’t read spells out what that means:
- “Look”, God says, “you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers.”
- “Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”
- Then, later: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…?”
- “Is it not 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?”
Now, working toward social justice are not all Jesus sends his disciples out to do. They also go to heal, to preach, to cast out evil spirits. But it’s definitely part of the program: to fight injustice and oppression, to share bread, to shelter the homeless, to clothe the naked, to care for the people in our community. Not only that, but as Jesus tells his disciples, we have to above and beyond what the law requires:
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
You can’t cheat at social justice and expect to get into the kingdom. On the other hand, as Psalm 112 says, “It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice.” Doing the right thing is good for us, just as Isaiah tells us: “Your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”
I really don’t have a specific program in mind, but I will suggest three things:
- Take your Christian values home with you. Live them from Sunday to Sunday, not just while you’re in church.
- Most Christians are all good on ministry to the poor, the hungry, the homeless—but we must not forget to fight injustice and poverty. We have to ask why these things come about and seek to remedy the causes.
- We as a church want to be a light, don’t we? Isn’t that we say: that we want to show the love we know from Christ and one another to the wider world? To do that, we will have to show our commitment to justice, not just friendliness.
I ended the sermon at this point, but during the joys and concerns, suggested at least one possible application of its message. Families with relatives in nursing homes are often concerned about the care they receive there. This turns out to be amazingly common: one article I read put the number of nursing facilities out of compliance with federal law at something like 90%.
This, I suggested to the congregation, is something that we could actually do something about. We could push for better standards and regulations and better enforcement. Or, we could look at Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements, which provide a lot of support to nursing homes, but which are ridiculously low, and prevent them from attracting and retaining qualified staff. We could advocate for those things to our elected officials and see what could be changed.
I’m often reluctant to bring such things up to churches. Small churches, and especially small churches in conservative rural areas, typically treat anything even remotely political like the plague. But there were a number of heads nodding up and down while I spoke, and darned if it didn’t turn into a conversation about the best ways to reach members of Congress and how to lobby them effectively. Those guys in Washington better look out. They’ll never know what hit them.
Apparently, neither will I: this is two weeks in a row my church folks have surprised me.
1.↩The beloved mother of ten and grandmother of several dozen more who died recently and whose funeral was at the church yesterday.
2.↩They didn’t think it was funny either.+ + +