Title: Justice and Mercy
Pastor: Dr. William S. Barnes
Scripture: Micah 6:6-14; Matthew 23:23-24
Once upon a time there was a country...
That country? Israel in the 8th century BC, where the prophet Micah was one of the few voices truly speaking for God. He had a public ministry that lasted for 50 years, through the reigns of three kings. Throughout those five decades he never let up in calling for the leaders of the people to do something about the injustice in both the northern and southern kingdoms. His stand brought about opposition and threats.
The opposition came from other prophets and from those in power. He verbally attacked both the religious and secular authorities. He found out, as prophets often do, that when you oppose the religious majority, you are regarded as unfaithful, and as such are treated as a heretic. When you oppose national leaders, you are regarded as unpatriotic, and as such are treated as a traitor. Both of those things were true for Micah.
And they have been true for nearly all of the people through time who have advocated and worked for justice. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were regarded as traitors to the king. As we saw in the video clip last week, William Wilberforce, who led the fight for the abolition of slavery in England, was targeted and vilified by the wealthy pro-slavery forces who had a vested economic interest in continuing the slave trade. Nelson Mandela opposed apartheid in South Africa, and spent 27 years in prison before being elected President of the country. At the same time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was working from outside the prison, drawing international attention to the situation in his country. Many persons, not just southerners regarded Abraham Lincoln as a tyrant. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was branded as a communist because of his commitment to civil rights, and the FBI had orders to wire tap his phones, follow his actions, and discredit him, even with false rumors and allegations.
History has judged all of these persons to have been on the right side of issues of human rights and justice, but in the midst of their struggles, they, like all innovators against the status quo, like all those who have a vision of a better society and world, had to endure hurtful personal attacks, and sometimes even violence.
The prophet Micah is perhaps best known for the annual appearance he makes during the weeks in Advent, leading up to Christmas. He said in chapter 5:
"But you, O Bethlehem of Ephratha,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel."
Yes, it is the prophet of justice, Micah, who names the birthplace of the Messiah. Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that the ministry of Jesus was as much about justice as it was about anything else. When Jesus taught in his home synagogue in Nazareth, he began by stating the "platform" of his ministry, the reason why God had sent him. He chose the words of Isaiah, a prophet who was a contemporary of Micah’s.
"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,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."
Most would agree that the essence of the teaching of Jesus was at its heart the teaching of justice and mercy in the context of faith. The result of his courageous stand for what was right in the face of the powerful was opposition and death. Trust me, he wasn’t killed because he taught people to pray. He was killed because he called out those who preyed on others!
As bearers of his name, we believe that we are also called to be prophets of justice and mercy. Remember that a prophet is "someone who speaks for God." The word has its origin in the Greek: "pro-phetes," from the word "phaneo," which means "to speak," and "pro," which means "for." A prophetes, a prophet, is someone who speaks for someone. In our case, as United Methodists, using scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, we humbly, but boldly seek to speak for God. As Jesus said to the disciples before he ascended to heaven, "You shall be my witnesses...to the end ends of the earth."
It has been in the spiritual DNA of Methodists since the time of Wesley to be advocates for systemic and institutional change as well as believers who translate their faith in mercy-filled (that is, "love-filled) acts of help, hope, and healing for others. Sometimes our denomination is regarded as very "liberal" because of the social justice issues we support. One of my friends who teaches theology in one of United Methodist colleges says, "We are not liberal, we are Biblical." And he’s got a point. If you take the social justice issues of the prophets and Jesus himself seriously, they can seem pretty liberal when compared to the way things often are in the status quo.
Now, in case you are now doing one of those "let me go out the door in my head and think about that for a minute," I am not saying that The United Methodist Church is for liberals! This is not a Democratic/Republican observation. For instance, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, was widely regarded as a social liberal when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, yet few would still try to argue that enslaving others is in God’s will. The fact is, our Judeo-Christian heritage is one of justice and mercy.
Let me try to illustrate the difference between justice and mercy, borrowing an analogy from Lynette Fields, our Executive Director of Servant Ministry. It is as if there is a river flowing by our church and we are out in the rush of it pulling people to safety on the shore. Mercy ministries are the ministries of life preservers, rafts, ropes, and strong arms. Justice ministries take us upstream to find out why people are falling in, or who is pushing them in, and doing something to stop it.
The members of John Wesley’s "Holy Club" at Oxford University studied the scriptures daily from 6 – 9 pm, and then being compelled by its teaching, they began to visit and help others. They began with visits to the prison, then they started to visit the sick. The Anglican Bishop of Oxford sent them to visit with poor families. They started teaching children. Each year, after providing for their own necessities, they gave all their money away. As Methodism grew over the decades and became a church itself, it never lost its commitment to justice and mercy ministries. The eminent British historian, Arnold Toynbee wrote that there was no revolution in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, as there was in most of the countries on the continent of Europe because of the social justice work done by the Wesleys and the people known as Methodists.
Here at St. Luke’s, we are especially gifted when it comes to ministries of mercy. We offer free medical care through Shepherd’s Hope, free legal assistance through our Advocates of Grace. We partner with public schools and social workers, support the United Methodist Children’s home, and our two colleges, Bethune-Cookman University and Florida Southern. We serve at the Coalition for the Homeless and at West Orange Daily Bread. We do pet therapy through the Canine Crusaders, we offer support groups for grief, suicide, divorce, parenting, and chronic illness, to name just a few. We offer family assistance for the community, youth and children’s ministry, musical events for shut-ins and our neighbors. We send mission teams around the world. I could go on for hours here. We are really good at ministries of mercy. We are good at filling the gaps where people might otherwise fall through.
Where we need to spend more time in study, prayer, advocacy, and leadership is in the area of justice. Issues of justice are also issue about people, but they are the up-the-river challenges that are more demanding.
How did the "Hello Humanity" monologue hit you this morning? Or "The World Methodist Social Affirmation?" (The Affirmation, by the way, was adopted by the World Methodist Council at its 1986 meeting in Nairobi, Kenya. It is a group that is composed of representatives from Methodist churches around the globe.) How did all of that make you feel?
It made me feel both guilty and angry. I felt guilty because I know I haven’t done much of anything to work for justice. I felt angry because somebody called me out on it. I think that’s why the prophets, including Jesus, always got such an angry response. As they say, "the truth hurts."
Jesus basically told the scribes and Pharisees that they were placing all of their energy and time on the wrong things. They were straining gnats and swallowing camels. Like their ancestors in the time of Micah, they were turning blind eyes on issues of justice that directly affected the quality of life and opportunity for their fellow citizens while focusing on issues of proper hand-washing, eating the right foods, making the proper offerings at the Temple, and obeying moral regulations.
Increasingly our elections, especially our national elections have become reduced to gnat straining. Both of the leading nominees began their campaigns promising that things would be different this time around. And I believe both of them sincerely meant it. However, the political strategists around them play upon the weakness they know we folks have for gnat straining. Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama have proposals for and are committed to changing the quality of life for the American people. These proposals represent issues of justice on a huge scale that even great churches like St. Luke’s could not begin to tackle: health care, economic opportunity, housing, education, and the whole range of human rights. But what are we seeing on campaign ads? Personal attacks, distortions, and 10 second sound bites taken out of their original contexts. There’s only one thing I want to say: "I’m Bill Barnes, and I don’t approve of those messages!"
Our responsibility as children and perhaps prophets (small "p") of God is to advocate for both justice and mercy in the context of our faith. That means we need to hold our elected, and would-be-elected leaders accountable to liberty and justice for all. This is not a Democratic ideal. It is not a Republican ideal. It is not a Libertarian ideal. It is not even just an American ideal. It is a Kingdom ideal. And we are called to be builders of it.
As Efrem Smith, the founder and pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis says, "When Christ comes again, that will be real justice, until then, it’s just us!"