Here is the text to the sermon I preached at Holy Communion on October 30, 2011
For several years now, I have taught American history from the first contacts between Europeans and native peoples, all the way through the present day. One of the stories we spend quite a bit of time on is the founding of New England by religious dissidents from the Church of England. In a sermon known as “A Model of Christian Charity,” Governor John Winthrop, writing in 1630, specifically laid out what a just society should be, even before he reached the shores of what would eventually be America. He wrote:
“We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our surpluses, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”
Here we see how work, excellence, love, compassion, equity, and justice are all necessary components of a peaceful society. This was the ideal early in the development of America- an ideal that fell short any time those in power laid heavier burdens on those beneath them in society than they were willing to lay upon themselves, or when we have sought to exclude some groups from the blessings of society to the benefit of those who are privileged.
By the time of the Revolution, the concept of “civic virtue” had taken root in the same soil. Civic virtue was the expectation of the duties a citizen owed to the community, placing the well-being of the republic ahead of the selfish concern for the individual. This sentiment was recast in my childhood during the civil rights movement, where brave men and women risked their lives in the name of justice and equality for others as well as themselves.
In the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This vision of a just society is drawn from and runs throughout the prophets and the gospels throughout our own history and into our present.
Our Old Testament reading today (Micah 3:5-12) starts out with a discussion of a society which is supposed to be just, but instead the expectation of peace has been turned on its head. Micah decries prophets who, from a sense of entitlement, ignore the commands of justice and equity that must take place in a community if it is to place the love of God at the center of its order.
True peace can never live alongside injustice, and yet that is exactly what the leaders are urging so long as they are satisfied. Their needs being fulfilled, they urge peace upon those who not only are hungry physically but spiritually. When those in power govern from their own interests, injustice inevitably flourishes. Those whose needs are not met--those who merely exist far from the center of power-- are expected to accept their position without protest, because the leaders themselves are satisfied. Those in authority here serve the few, especially themselves, at the expense of the many.
Sadly, the situation described by Micah from thousands of years ago is not isolated, and cries out to us today. It is a outright denial of the concept of peace, or, in the original text, shalom.
Now, Shalom is an amazing word. Apparently it’s one of those words that has a multitude of synonyms when translated into English, and no matter what, we still don’t get the full equivalent of its meaning. Those of us who are not speakers of Hebrew hear “shalom” often as a synonym for the word “peace,” and indeed that is how “shalom” was translated in our reading. But shalom means much more than this. Shalom can also be used to express health, wholeness, completeness, welfare, safety, tranquility, perfectness, harmony, rest, or health. A state of shalom is a state of completion. A state of shalom is a state without fear.
Shalom is the fulfillment of God’s promise to us, but it can only be fulfilled if we demand peace and justice not just for ourselves but for our brothers and sisters. Considering all these meanings, we can see the full measure of distortion on the part of the leaders Micah criticizes. A society cannot live in wholeness and health if it does not tend to the well-being of all its members.
Shalom cannot happen by accident— it requires the deliberate practice of love and justice for even the least in society. We love peace, but we must love justice more. Welfare for all cannot be harnessed to the plow of inequity. Urging others to peace must never be used to mean passive acquiescence to evil. In Micah, the prophets—the ones whose charge it is to give voice to God’s presence in the midst of us all-- cry “Peace!” when their bellies are full, when their needs are cared for. They distort God’s real message in the name of those in power, in the service of those who have the ability to pay them, or keep them in comfort. But Shalom is what we Christians have been called to create on Earth, and our English word “peace” is at once too small and too overused for us to really grasp what shalom really means.
Now, the cry, “Peace!” can also be used to urge patience. “Peace!” can be used to tell us to be still. “Peace!” can be used as a way to urge people to give in to injustice in the name of order. “Peace!” is a lie when put in the mouths of those facing protest against their own actions. “Peace!” can be used to encourage silence in the face of robbery. “Peace!” can be used as a way to urge others to tolerate wrong. This demand for order over integrity is a demand for willful blindness. This was the situation Dr. King faced while jailed in Birmingham, when religious leaders in the community urged peace in place of the demands of justice, when they urged patience in the face of inequality.
If we close our eyes to injustice, we turn our backs on peace and become hypocrites to the call of Jesus to create the Kingdom of God on Earth. To bring about a just and peaceful society, we must turn from an authoritarian vision of God, in which power is the central value, to an emancipatory spirituality in which love is the central value. We have to practice what we say we believe, which means we must practice true open-heartedness, true compassion, true equity and concern for others.
To demonstrate the love of God for us, to do as well as say, we are called to practice shalom in all its gradients. Peace that brings forth justice. Peace that brings forth reconciliation. Peace that works against poverty. Peace that values the least rather than the powerful. Peace that is true shalom, called for by the prophets throughout history and implied in our gospel. That’s why God calls us to practice peace, real peace through witness in our lives and actions. Our actions and our lives have to serve as witness to reflect God’s love for us back into the world.
Justice and love for all are the building blocks for lasting peace. The society God wants us to build has been described to us repeatedly. We are to care for the widow and the orphan, without distinction. We are to feed the hungry, even if our loaves are few and our fish are small. We are to insist upon a society in which there are not winners or losers, but in which each other person’s suffering is our own. We are not to be self-righteous in the face of poverty lest we reveal the poverty of our own spirits. We are called to action, not passivity, if we truly want to practice who we claim to be.
Like Micah, Jesus warns us in today's gospel reading against those who talk a good line but do not engage in what some call “practice.” Each of us, as professing Christians, are free recipients of the gift of God’s grace. As a gift, God’s grace is a model of the care and love we should show each other at all times. Yet, especially in American society today, the scandal is that too often we put concerns about ourselves over concerns about the community. The gospel of “I, me mine” is a false gospel, and yet some try to simultaneously follow this gospel and Christ’s gospel. It just can’t be done.
It seems we have forgotten this ancient truth. We need to recover that today, not only for the sake of our civilization, but for the sake of our souls. Having a personal relationship with Christ is nothing but window dressing if we do not allow Christ’s love to animate us, to live according to the “better angels of our nature,” in the words of Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, too often, this has remained an ideal.
In our scripture readings today, we are called to practice what we claim we ARE. We claim the banner of Jesus, but we sometimes march to a different drumbeat, the cadence of consumerism, the tattoo of “never enough.” We cannot shrug our shoulders at injustice and inequity if we want to truly be faithful to the call of Jesus to order society so that the least shall be first. We have been called to the banquet of God’s kingdom, but we are required to prepare ourselves by living according to the commandments, as we have been reminded in our gospel readings over the last few weeks. We are to love our God with all our strength and minds, but we are to act on love for our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
What must we do? We must help those who seek to help themselves. We must support leaders who in their actions as well as words govern with righteousness and justice, because the best cure for bad leaders is to deprive them of followers.
Show compassion to those who have made mistakes in their lives and help them when they reach out for assistance. Be kind to your neighbor. Be loving and appreciative of your partner. Make others’ needs your own. Love one another as we love ourselves. Demand a world that is not merely satisfied with dividing society up permanently into winners and losers. And above all, let us all truly love each other in actions as well as sentiments and let us demand that that love be reflected all the way from our families to our churches to our government. When we live in a just society, we will all benefit, for we will all bear the burdens of justice. Practice shalom for all in every step, mindfully, reflecting the gift of love of our Lord and saviour. Amen.