August 23, 2020 - Sermon - Rev. Judy Bagley-Bonner

This service was livestreamed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Sermon Text

“Let Justice Roll Down”  



Isaiah 58:6-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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,
    and to break every yoke?

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,
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

Matthew 25:31-46 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)


31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”




         Throughout my thirty plus years of ministry now, I have tended to preach about aspects of the Faith that are somewhat personal and individualistic.   I am a contemplative at heart, and my mind tends to gravitate more toward themes of individual spirituality and the personal, spiritual walk. In the past years though, I’ve felt led, and led rather urgently, in a new direction.  I’ve sensed God guiding me to see, in a deeper way, some of the broader implications of the faith, and the ways that we are called to practice it collectively in the world at large. The prophet, Micah, after all, tells us that what the Lord requires of us is to DO JUSTICE, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.  We in the church do pretty well with loving kindness and trying to walk humbly. Not so much with the “Doing Justice” part.  


    So here is how this new direction emerged for me: First, I was reminded of the now classic book, God’s Politics, by Jim Wallace, wherein Wallace tells about a seminary project where he and other students were challenged, over the course of long months, to go through the entire Bible and literally cut out any part having to do with the work of social justice- anything having to do with God’s concern for the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised.  It was a lengthy, several months project, precisely because there were so many passages that fit the description.  In the end, they were left with a skinny volume, a mere slip of its former self.


     The fact is, social justice, God’s concern for the outcast, the poor, and those on “the bottom,” is one of the most dominant themes in scripture in both the Old and New Testaments.  In fact, one commentator notices that “nearly the only times Jesus gets “judgy” are when he is confronting the powers-that-be over their exclusion and miserable treatment of the poor.  And relative to its frequency as a subject, the call for justice gets relatively little press in our churches.  The book, The Social Justice Bible Challenge, points out that in the Bible, poverty alone, as but one small aspect of social justice, is mentioned 2100 times, while the broader subject of sin is mentioned only 1600 times.  And yet, which has received the emphasis, over the years, from the church at large? Something is out of balance here.  


     I understand it.  It makes us preachers uncomfortable to talk a lot about justice because it requires us to take up the prophetic act of preaching, afflicting the comfortable (including ourselves.)  And most of us would far rather comfort the afflicted.  Prophets have never been well-liked.  And so what I have to say today to all of us, myself first, may sound harsh and heavy-handed, but I would be doing all of us a disservice, as well as being unfaithful to my calling, not to say it.      


     In his book, Strength to Love, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause people everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will.”     


     Could King’s words be part of the reason that now both mainline and evangelical churches in our country are hemorrhaging members?  Why our culture is, bit by bit, going the way of Europe in closing churches and becoming basically secular?  Could it even be part of the reason that atheism is on the rise, and even considered hip and trendy?  Because the Church at large has lost its prophetic vision, and has annexed the strong Biblical command to “do justice” in favor of only preaching personal spirituality, and the “feel good stuff?”  If you are feeling a little squirmy right about now, I feel your pain.  As I said, I prefer the personal parts of the faith that calm fears, eases burdens, and increase one’s sense of God in one’s life.  But here is the good news: it’s not either/or!  It is most definitely both/and,  and better yet, the personal comfort and sense of God’s presence can be found right in the midst of the work for justice.


     I remember with a sense of awe to back in the eighties when Brian and I became involved with one of the first churches in the denomination, in Minneapolis, that was predominantly gay and lesbian.  They had started independently and were then seeking to affiliate with the UCC.  As you can imagine, given the times, this became a source of much controversy.  We had lots of education to do out amongst the churches before the Spring vote on whether or not to receive them.  Brian and I volunteered to help with this, and we would be deployed to go out, largely to the small, rural churches, to teach a series on the Bible and homosexuality, and how it doesn’t say what the quote “clobber verses” seem to say. They would send us out first since we were a straight couple that looked something like the Campbell Soup Kids, and were perceived as low-threat.  Then the lgbt folks would go out the next week to sit on panels and create personal relationships and answer questions.  We all worked hard all year, and finally the day came when over 100 churches in the Eastern Association met to vote.  It was tense. There were lots of tears on both sides as the discussion ensued. Finally, it came time for the vote, and you know, I don’t even remember what the count was.  It passed, but far from unanimously. What I do remember though, is that when those in favor of welcoming the new church into the UCC were asked to stand, there was one very elderly man in a wheelchair, in the front row, who apparently had not been out of his house, let alone stood up …in a long time.  He had his two adult sons on either side of him, and they lifted him up until he could find his feet, and then lean over his walker in front of him to be counted as one of those in favor of inclusion.  He later said he had a gay son who had been rejected by their home church, and he and his family had felt excluded and abandoned. He said, about the vote, “I never thought I’d see this day.  God has done a great thing here!”  Do you suppose there was a strong sense of God’s personal presence that day, as we sang together, 


“Here in this place, new light is streaming, 
now is the darkness vanished away. 
See, in this space, our fears and our dreamings, 
brought here to you in the light of this day. 
Gather us in - the lost and forsaken, 
gather us in - the blind and the lame. 
Call to us now, and we shall awaken, 
we shall arise at the sound of our name.”


Indeed, in that specific context, that hymn leaped to life as never before.  It was a great day of doing justice, and I’ve rarely been more personally aware of God’s individual presence.


     So I think we can safely say that despite the relative lack of attention that the topic of justice gets in our churches, that the Bible has a heavy emphasis on commanding people of faith to work for it on behalf of “the least of these.”  Indeed, today’s gospel seems to suggest that care for the poor is a or maybe the key determiner as to where we spend eternity.  (Boy!  Good thing we don’t take the Bible literally, right?)  And the next time a fundamentalist friend tells you that you have to sign off on a born-again formula in order to get to heaven, tell them to read today’s Gospel where it would seem the criteria is laid out a little differently.


     A couple of other points I’d like to make: One, that justice is not the same as charity or just “doing good works,” important as those are.  I got a handle on this distinction by thinking about the Good Samaritan, who provided important charity for the man who was assaulted on the dangerous Jericho Road.  The Good Samaritan tended the man’s wounds and paid for his food and lodging until he could heal.  This was essential work and precisely what needed to be done in that moment.  But justice, in its time, takes it one step further… Justice looks at the underlying causes of why the Jericho Road is so dangerous in the first place.  What systems and structures have rendered it so?  How might the people work together with their leaders to get the leaders to see the problem, and then to do something about it?  Charity, in other words, is fixing the good Samaritan.  Justice is fixing the Jericho Road.  


     Or think of the Old Testament concept of Jubilee, when every fiftieth year was declared the year of Jubilee, which involved a year of release from indebtedness and all types of bondage. All prisoners and captives were set free, all slaves were released, all debts were forgiven, and all property was returned to its original owners. In addition, all labor was to cease for one year, and those bound by labor contracts were released from them. One of the benefits of the Jubilee was that both the land and the people were able to rest.  So the year of Jubilee addressed the underlying injustices of slavery, income inequality and the environment.  Good stuff there in that Book of Leviticus.


     Indeed, at least in terms of how much press the Bible gives to various topics, it seems to care a whole lot more about things like how we treat the poor than about what we have allowed certain segments of Christianity to define as the “moral issues.”  The Bible, it would seem, views POVERTY as a profoundly moral issue.  The way we treat our planet is a moral issue.   Does God care about our sexual ethics and our personal relationships?  Absolutely.  I don’t doubt for a minute that God cares about every one of our individual lives in all their detail.   But I think too often we Christians forget that God cares for wider systems and policies too. Especially ones that stack the deck for some and against for others.  And when systems like the educational system, the compensation system, the health care system, the ecological system, the housing system, are stacked against whole segments of the population, God wants those systems and policies to be redeemed and healed also.  That’s part of our job as disciples!   


     I was absolutely blown away some years ago when one of the News Magazine shows did a piece on then CEO of Costco.  His name was Jim Sinegal, and he has since retired. But during his business career, he was truly a light in the darkness.  In an era where CEO salaries were then sometimes 400 plus times greater than that of their lowest paid employees, up from a 40 to one ratio in the 1990’s, and a 12:1 ratio in the middle of the last century,  Sinegal had opted to take a salary that was roughly 12 times his minimally paid workers.  And the lowest paid workers at Costco, at that time made seventeen dollars an hour.  When questioned, Sinegal, a burly, unassuming guy, said, “Well, I figured my dad’s era of management had it right.  a 12:1 ratio seems fair.”  Jim Sinegal... a “repairer of the breach”.           


        Let me be clear here.  I am not saying that CEO’s, executives and people who have worked hard to get where they are shouldn’t be well compensated.  I personally believe in capitalism and rewarding things like ambition, enterprise and the hard work that grows dreams into reality.  And I have no problem with profit as one of the  motives in business.  I’m just saying that everyone who is willing to work should make enough money and reap enough benefit to be able to live with some dignity, and to be able to care for their families without the chronic stress and hopelessness that too many of our working poor now live with.  


      In a previous job I worked for four years as a chaplain in a program in inner-city Cleveland where senior citizens lived on less than $1000. per month.  Most of them had worked like Trojans all their lives, first on share cropping farms in the south where conditions were barely a step up from slavery.  Later, they came north in “the great migration” and worked as domestics or low wage laborers.   One of my favorites was a woman named Charlie Mae, whose great shame in life was that she had never learned to read.  When she was a child, she would sneak to the corner of the share-cropping barn where she was already a full-time laborer at age 7, and she would try to decipher the puzzle of reading. But if caught by the boss, she would be punished, so she learned to minimize and hide her efforts.  When I asked if she was angry about the conditions under which she grew up, she said this:  “Well, as a child I was angry about not getting any real education.  But when I was 18, I found the Lord.  And when I came up out of those baptismal waters, I realized I no longer got to pick and choose who I was going to love and who I was going to hate.”...


      Charlie Mae was right: the Biblical ethic from start to finish is love.  Love of God, neighbor and self.  And in the words of my seminary ethics professor, James B. Nelson, justice is just love working out its problems.  Justice is love correcting systemic excesses for the good of all...for the good of the rich too, because wealth, when it’s gained on the backs of the poor without compensating them fairly doesn’t ultimately satisfy...indeed riches alone can’t provide meaning or wholeness or shalom.  And the creation is groaning for healing, for wholeness, for the children of God to order their collective lives in ways that provide dignity for everybody.
     In terms of next steps, let me say that your SJAM group here (Social Justice Advocacy Ministry) is doing an amazing job of helping Federated increase its justice ministries, and you might think about becoming affiliated.  Their mission statement is beautiful: “As Christians, we prayerfully seek to educate ourselves and take action consistent with our faith in order to bring justice to those who are most vulnerable, disenfranchised and marginalized, indeed to all of God’s creation.”  All of creation cries out for it!  Human systems and structures as well as the planet itself which pants for environmental justice to come.  We are the disciples of the one, Jesus, whose whole life and ministry was given in service first to the poor and disenfranchised, and who asks us to follow in that same path.  The one who joined with the prophets of old in speaking for God, saying, 


       “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,
    and to break every yoke?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly; 
and   you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.


May it be so.