In Preparation for our New Member Class after worship, I went to the PCUSA website to find their definition of what it means to be part of the Reformed Tradition, the foundation of our faith, and it’s core principles.
There are 4 great themes. This is number four.
The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God. (that’s the theme and the writers of this document go on to explain what’s meant by that)
Reformed theology resists the urge to control God (as if we could) or to box God in. Any attempt to tame God, to define God according to humanity’s finite knowledge and desires, is idolatry and must be repudiated. If we claim to know God completely, if we claim that our understanding of God is the right one and all others are wrong, then we have created our own idol. Likewise, if we worship money, or if we worship fear—being afraid to speak out, for example—then working for justice will not be on our agenda. If we worship God, then we must work to bring about justice in the world.
The challenge we get into is when we can’t agree on what we think is right or just.
Norms of morality and norms of behavior have been sacrificed for a kind of free for all individuation. That’s what the Bible is so often calling us to work against…to hold ourselves to a higher standard. And that’s what James is calling Christ followers, then and today, to do; to be held accountable to the law, God’s law, God’s commandments. And for James, justice and the law of liberty lives in making sure that all of God’s people are cared for. And James points out how we fail at this all the time by playing favorites. We can’t help it. We do it all the time. Whatever the color of your skin, your economic status, we play favorites, we have a bias, it begins early in life. We learn early in life that we are one kind, and then there are other kinds.
I went to a restaurant bathroom in Ashland over the summer. When I got there, there were two bathrooms. One had a sign that said, people. Next to it was a sign that said, other people.
Can you remember when you were young, the first time, you felt that there were other kinds of people? People your parents or grandparents maybe warned you about. Children on the playground you knew were part of that “other.” We form these prejudices young and it seems we can spend a lifetime trying to undo them.
I’m so proud of our Weds Bible class, who got very real and honest about their own judgment, mine included, recalling a recent Sunday we had someone come into the sanctuary who didn’t look like us. The fear that crept in, despite what we knew to be right. That's the thing about prejudice, it is so deeply rooted in us, we can be aware of it, and simultaneously work against it. And that’s what we all did. We spoke with him after worship, some of you befriended him that day, some took longer.
We are an imperfect bunch, James reminds us of that. Our job, if we are to uphold God’s justice, is to move past our imperfections, our fear, and show love to all people. All people, especially the ones we think we disapprove of, because God’s justice is what matters, not our own sense of propriety.
When a person says, I want justice in this country they usually mean, “I want to make them hurt like they hurt me.” The hope is that punishing a person will cause them to see the error of their ways and repent. But what happens is quite the opposite. It produces resentment.
That’s where the Gospel comes in. The Gospel presents a different kind of justice. It is the narrative of God in Christ acting to restore and redeem all of humanity through an act of grace and enemy-love. Paul refers to this in Romans as the“the justice of God.” In Christ, we see that God’s justice is a restorative justice.
The Gospel perspective entails understanding both justice and mercy in a completely different way: justice is not about inflicting harm, it is about making things right. Similarly, mercy is not about inaction; it’s about acting to make people whole again, acting to make things right. Mercy is therefore not in conflict with restorative justice at all; rather it is the very means to it.
The Gospel shows us the true story our hearts long for. It’s the story of redemption. It’s the story of overcoming evil with good. Or to put it in the childish terms of action movies: it’s about turning “bad guys” into “good guys.” This is what real justice looks like, and the more that we can imagine and rehearse this, the more we can make that story a reality in our world.
Author Alan Brehm, who I quoted int he weekly email said;
Justice is a concept that is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible… The practice of justice and the practice of mercy are one and the same. They go hand-in-hand, like faith and hope and love. The Hebrew Bible makes it clear over and over again that justice is about ensuring well-being, or shalom, for everyone. It’s about a way of life that makes it possible for everyone to thrive, not just the privileged few.
We are the privileged few. And we are commanded to love one another as ourselves, the law that James points to in his letter- came long before James, most certainly with Jesus, but long before Jesus in the Hebrew Bible, in what’s referred to as the heart of the Torah; Leviticus.
Leviticus is sometimes referred to as the heart of the Torah “because of its placement at the center of the Hebrew text and for its central locale, which is set at Sinai.” But as Rabbi Joseph Rapport describes,” Leviticus on a deeper level, is truly the heart of the Torah because her central message is the search for holiness, which is at the heart of our desire. To understand our world, we must find our place within it. To understand our lives, we must see them as part of a greater whole. God calls us to a sense of connectedness to a world within ourselves, within our families, and within all life upon this planet.”
That’s a tall order. It takes commitment, it takes, as we explored last week, the willingness to obey or listen to God in what God is requiring us to. To examine our hearts and realize fully our own judgment so that we can live into the commandment that God gives us, which is to love one another as ourselves.
When we judge others, it says more about who we are than who they are. And it requires us to take a deep long look at where our own heart lies.
Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon, "Owning Your Own Shadow," write; Jesus knows the truth about us and our judgments about one another, especially when we place some of God's children on the other side of a line that we draw.
She observes that "the danger" is within us, not out there, in those "others" unlike us: "There is actual evil in the world, no doubt about it," she says, "but until we meet up with the evil in ourselves, we cannot do battle. We cannot fight the shadow we will not own." Will our own hearts and minds, then, be opened up to receive, and share, God's abundant, and overflowing grace?
The reformed principle I read earlier has a part two;
In adherence to this theme, the Reformed tradition places a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of government officials. They should be obeyed, and they should rule justly and in accordance with God’s will. There are times, however, when—in order to obey God— ordinary citizens have to stand against their government. In this vein, Calvin said, “But in that obedience which we have shown to be due the authority of rulers, we are always to make this exception, indeed, to observe it as primary, that such obedience is never to lead us away from obedience to [God], to whose will the desires of all kings ought to be subject, to whose decrees all their commands ought to yield, to whose majesty their scepters ought to be submitted” (Calvin, Institutes, p. 1520).
That what we’re seeing now and it’s what we've seen throughout history. People standing up for justice in the name of God, their conscience, for what they believe to be right and true. And we have to ask ourselves which side of history we want to be on.
Elizabeth Gilbert author and writer shared this story recently-
My Father is a Vietnam Vet. A few months ago, I witnessed a very touching conversation between my dad and a woman his age, who had been a hippie and anti-Vietnam protestor. The woman said to my father, “I was against the war, but I’m sorry that we didn’t respect your service and your sacrifice back then.” My father reached across the table, took this woman’s hand and said, “thank you for saying that. But here’s the thing-your side was right. The protestors were correct. The Vietnam War was unjust and inhumane. I didn’t know it back then, but I know it now. You were on the right side of history. Without your protests, the war would've gone on even longer.” The woman said, “But all the same-I thank you for your service.” And my father said, “And I thank you for your protest.”
We have to ask ourselves how much we are judging non-violent, peaceful forms of protests that are making statements about the poor, the oppressed, the others in our country and our world who are not receiving the kind of justice that God calls for. Clothing, food, inalienable rights which do not discriminate based on race, religion, gender, or nationality. That’s God’s justice.
I’m not sure about all of you, but I couldn’t get enough of the confirmation hearings this week. The worst part was seeing the live moments on the sidebar of the computer filled with hatred from both sides, nonsensical childish vitriol and it depressed me. But what gives me hope lives in the potential of what a supreme court Justice is supposed to do. They use a biblical kind of understanding Justice. One that upholds the constitution, but also that ensures well-being for all people. Justice and liberty for all.
That phrase got me thinking pretty heavily about what our founding fathers had in mind when that was written, and I came across this; an article by a senior minister at First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.
Our ancestors envisioned a nation wherein liberty and justice would be for all people.
For some, however, “liberty” has been reduced to a license for self-centeredness and “justice” has been diminished to mere retaliatory or punitive action.
Although dictionaries routinely define liberty as “the state of being free,” liberty involves much more.
The historical American concept of liberty is not that one is free to do as one pleases without accountability for the consequences of one’s actions.
Rather, our heritage of liberty means that we are not owned or enslaved by another person or power.
“Real freedom is not the external freedom to gratify every appetite; it is the internal freedom not to be enslaved by our appetites.”
In other words, our individual and corporate freedom exist within the boundaries of ethical and moral responsibility.
True liberty calls on us to express ourselves with civility and to respect the rights of those who think differently to do the same.
The phrase “for all” is inclusive, not discriminatory. “For all” means we aim to provide and protect liberty and justice for all individuals regardless of gender, race, economic status, political ideology or religious background.
To preserve liberty and justice for the privileged few is indicative of a shallow theology and an uninformed patriotism.
While you and I are blessed to enjoy the privileges of freedom, many around our world still live under tyranny and can only dream of liberty and justice.
Liberty and justice are not just political ideals. They are social tenets that affirm intrinsic human worth, and spiritual values that reflect the image of our Creator, ultimately experienced through the liberty we find in Christ.
John 8:32 declares, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” and Amos 5:24 urges, “Let justice roll on like a river.”
In order to truly “let freedom ring,” we must work together to “let justice roll.”