Isaiah 55.1-12; Psalm 111; Romans 12.9-13; Luke 6.20-36
Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters, from the merciful One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who leads and empowers us in the way of justice and peace.
“God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36). This is God’s word, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, that comes forth from Jesus to our ears, hearts and minds. We are sent out with this word as we make our way home to our families, communities and congregations all over the country and the world. As God’s sent word, not returning to God empty, we too do not return home empty.
We have spent this week together in worship and prayer, discernment and voting, recognizing and celebrating how God has been working through us. Our week together has been centered around how God claims, empowers and equips us in baptism, which sets us free in Christ to serve. It is in this unique and special time that we gather together as an assembly of the ELCA, in which we move forward in mission together.
Rarely do we hear the word “mission” and not also think of justice. Say it with me if you know it from Micah 6:8 — “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Baptismal life is not baptismal life without working for justice.
But what is justice? In my ministry context, I am called to Heart River Lutheran Church in Mandan, N.D. The people of Heart River have been worshiping every Sunday morning with incarcerated youth on the campus of the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center for 30 years. I have asked the youth in prison there what they think of when they hear the word, “justice.” Nearly universal, their response has been: “punishment.”
I hear the word justice all the time, but seldom understand what it means or more difficult yet, how to work for it. Water crisis, world hunger, AIDS, racism, genocide, war, sexism, corruption, malaria, self-service and natural disasters are just a few of the overwhelming injustices happening in the world. Fellow children of God, where do we even begin?
I suggest we begin with the mark of the cross on our foreheads. If we ever doubt God’s mission in and for the world and what is possible, take your finger here with me, and make the sign of the cross on your forehead. If only we could extend that mark of identity and claim on our forehead a few inches out in order that we could see everything, every situation and everyone through the lens of the cross, perhaps then we might have a glimpse of the justice and love of God.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus commands us to do seemingly impossible things. How, O Lord Jesus, can I love my enemies, do good to those who hate me, bless those who curse me and pray for those who abuse me? To do such things is against my natural reaction to injustices done to me and such an alternative way of living than what I see in the world. Justice in the world is retribution, an eye for an eye, condemnation and prison. It is finger pointing and the getting of what one deserves. I can hardly wrap my mind around the fact that the world’s justice is not God’s justice, for Jesus and his dying on the cross reveal God’s great mercy for us and for the world. Mercy we are called to extend with our very life and being.
’Woe unto you’
The beatitudes of Luke are not about equality and fairness but echo Mary’s song of reversal in Luke 1 that we heard in worship on Monday. I confess that I don’t particularly enjoy Jesus’ teachings here because I most often find myself in the “woe” categories. It makes me nervous and I suppose it should. Luke 6 convicts us because we hear our baptismal calling to work for God’s justice in the world and we often fail. However, Jesus’ words in the Gospel move us from where we need to be moved, and this is a great gift to us.
What the cross on our foreheads reminds us is that we are all made one in the death and resurrection of Jesus: full or hungry, laughing or weeping, wealthy or poor. We are all in the same body of Christ doing mission together. Hungry people are not incapable of working for justice. In fact, hungry people are the forerunners of it because they know what God’s justice is for them in a belly that yearns to be filled. Justice cries out from the hungry belly!
Weeping people are not so incapacitated that they cannot live out their baptismal calling to witness to the hope they have in Jesus Christ. Justice cries out for the resurrection from the sorrow-filled, exhausted heart.
Persecuted ones, too, know how to peacefully and powerfully march in the streets with Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Justice cries out from underfoot!
It is the church’s responsibility to hear and respond to the cries for justice from underfoot, from exhausted hearts and hungry bellies.
If we are full and we forget about those who are hungry, woe to us. If we are wealthy and do not share our resources with those who are poor, woe to us. If we are laughing and forget about those who are in mourning, woe to us. Yet, if we are hungry, poor, weeping or persecuted, woe to us if we think that is all there is. For if we are so consumed with our own suffering, we have missed Jesus.
You are sent from here with a charge to discern your congregational mission in your own context. Where are the loud, and quiet, voices crying out for justice coming from in your community? How is God leading you? How are you going to respond and walk with all whom God beckons you to love?
The cross speaks loudly
The cross on our forehead is louder than blessing and woe categories. The greatest reversal came in the form of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from his tomb of death. The beatitudes of Luke and our lives must be seen through the lens of the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s word declares us and our neighbors as sons and daughters and has the first and last word, period. God will enact God’s justice and bring in the kingdom whether we like it or not. The joy and peace in this life, then, comes through participating in what God is already bringing about.
I have a 15-year-old member in my congregation who absolutely loves bird-watching. His dad told me a story that when this son was 10, he was sadly gazing out the window after bird-watching for the first time at a family friend’s home. He shook his head and said, “My whole life I have thought all birds were small and black. Now that I’m 10, I finally realize that birds are many different wonderful colors, shapes and sizes. Oh, the wasted years.”
This summer I was listening to prayers of children in worship. In the mix of thanking God for bubble gum, pineapple, stars and baby deer, the children’s prayer also was that “everyone might have a better life on earth.” Perhaps this is our work of justice in this life — to do whatever is in our power to help those around us have a better life on earth. This isn’t rocket science. It has to do with basic needs being met that leads to abundant life, which fills each heart with hope for God’s justice.
Freed in Christ to serve means that we don’t need to worry about our relationship with God. Our reconciled relationship to God is taken care of in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our response, then, is outstretched arms to humanity and creation in thanks and praise to God for all God has done. We cannot afford to waste any years. Poor people — women and children of developing countries, and people in Detroit — cannot afford our wasted years. Hungry people — people of Somalia and Ethiopia, and new immigrants to the U.S. — cannot afford our wasted years. Weeping people — people of Haiti and Japan, and people in Minot, N.D. — also cannot afford our wasted years.
Justice is God’s work, but it is implemented in the world through our hands. In a letter to his barber, Martin Luther writes, “God has no hands but ours, no bread but the bread we bake, no prayers but the ones we make, whether we know what we are doing or not.”
I am a witness
Children of God, if you could only know what your hands of healing and prayer have done in my own life. Some of you may or may not know a piece of my own journey and deep commitment to and relationship with the people and country of Haiti. My husband, Ben, his cousin Jonathan and I were spending time with the people who make up the young Lutheran Church of Haiti when the earthquake of January 12, 2010, struck. All three of us were together when two floors and a roof of concrete fell on us. Jon and I lived. Ben died.
The earthquake did not care who was wealthy or poor, laughing or weeping, hungry or full. A common phrase on the streets of Haiti is: “Everyone lost someone; someone lost everyone.” In fact I met a Haitian man this morning who is a worker in this hotel who lost 25 people in less than a minute — in his family. If we can imagine the sorrow
I am a witness to sorrow, death, and for me, the world coming to an end; yet, I am also a witness to hope in the power of God to make all things new. I am a witness to the Haitian people gathering together the night of the earthquake and for weeks after in song and prayer. I know the cross has stubborn street singers! I am a witness to Ben’s witness in his dying, as he sang while buried in the rubble: “O Lamb of God, you bear the sin of all the world away; eternal peace with God you made, God’s peace to us we pray.” If only we could make such a bold proclamation in our death.
Peace in the Lamb of God, the way of the cross. Peace that Ben and the rest of us are marked with the same cross. Hundreds of black crosses mark one of the mass graves outside of Port-au-Prince. As I stood at that grave last February when I went back to Haiti for the first time since the earthquake, I cried out, “What is your justice, O God, for those who lay here?! What is your justice for the 1million grieving hearts still displaced and on the streets of Port-au-Prince?”
Forms of justice
I have learned that for some forms of God’s justice, we must wait in mystery and hopeful expectation for the resurrection of the dead, God’s ultimate justice. For other forms of God’s justice, it is time to roll up our sleeves, open our wallets and open our ears to the cries of people who are hurting.
A fellow justice worker and saint and sinner in the body of Christ, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writes in “I Want to Live These Days With You: A Year of Daily Devotions”: “In this world there is peace only in the struggle for truth and justice, but in the new world there will be the eternal peace of the love of God.”
We don’t wait for our current situation or state of being to change in order to have joy; we have it in the midst of all the injustice because of the promised future that comes into the present in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. So live out your baptismal calling to strive for justice in all the earth with joy, trembling and grace. And only in that striving can we truly offer peace and in turn receive it ourselves.
Let us be merciful, children of God, just as our Father is merciful, for we are marked with the cross of Christ forever, and sealed by the Holy Spirit who leads and empowers us in the way of justice and peace.
The results are in — you are ready to be moved and disrupted by the Spirit and the abundant and amazing grace of God.
Renee Splichal Larson is pastor of Heart River Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Mandan, N.D.