The Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson
Lord, take my lips and speak through them. Take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire with justice and love. Amen.
Good morning. After that rousing piece of music I feel like I should have worked on this sermon harder. I’m delighted to be here, especially this morning to kick off this Be Campaign. These five weeks prior to the midterm elections in which we hear Micah, who basically is saying that, that the Hebrew people are on trial for not having been true to their God. And that powerful story ends with this, “And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” I think it’s not an accident that justice comes first, because without it, and only with kindness and humility, Christianity turns out to be just about being nice.
Do you know that there is a mistake in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer? It’s on page 847, which comes in the catechism. And it means to quote Micah, “And what does the Lord require of us?” And what it says is, “we are to love justice, do mercy and walk humbly with God.” That’s wrong. Did you hear it? Not to “do justice and love mercy” as Micah said it, but “to love justice and do mercy and kindness.” I think it’s a gigantic ecclesiastical institutional Freudian slip. Because you know what? We love to love justice. And what we don’t love is doing justice. How many pairs of eyes looked at that text to proofread it and never picked it up? Because it’s kind of what we wish Micah had said instead of what he had said.
In the Hebrew scriptures, in the Christian scriptures and in the gospels, we are told that merely loving and admiring justice simply won’t cut it. Jesus even says, “All those who say Lord, Lord”, who profess a belief will inherit the kingdom, but rather those who do the will of the Father. Now, there are lots of reasons why we don’t like to do justice or to be just. First of all, there are no easy answers to the problems, indeed the sins, that we point out when we are being prophetic. But probably more importantly, you can’t be just, you can’t do justice work without making somebody mad because somebody is benefiting from doing the injustice. You know that gospel reading we just heard, where Jesus opens up the book of the prophet Isaiah and reads about how we are to treat the poor and vulnerable among us?
And the gospel stopped just before the verse that says, “And they tried to throw him off a cliff”. It’s in there. Look it up. They tried to throw him off the cliff. And if you do justice work, somebody, especially those on whose toes you are stepping, somebody will be mad. It’s the kind of good trouble that John Lewis told us about. It’s the kind of gospel trouble that Jesus got into and calls us into as well. And it makes me wonder if you and I aren’t in trouble, do we really believe the gospel? Do we live the gospel? Now, there’s good news in this. Justice work is kind of like, well, don’t quote me on this, but sort of a gateway drug that is to say it’s a gateway grace. Because if you do justice work, all kinds of grace will come your way. Grace is a kindness and mercy and humility. Doing justice work is its own reward.
At my parish of St. Thomas DuPont Circle here in Washington DC, we received busloads of migrants from Texas and Florida sent to us here in Washington, DC, by the governors of those two states to protest the lack of immigration laws that please them. And so our parish turns out to welcome them, and comfort them, and watch their children while they take showers and help them get the bus tickets to where they know someone in the United States. So recently, a young family, father, mother, two children, arrived having walked a thousand miles, the mother having done so with staples holding her together because of gunshot wounds that she incurred along the way. And that young woman still has four of those bullets in her body. And we baptized their children a couple of Sundays ago.
The thing is about doing justice work. At the end of the day when you’ve done it, you feel like you are the recipient of the grace. You are the one helped more. Or maybe you know a transgender teen who is just getting used by the political powers that be like a, uh, like some sort of a ball in a game. And if you talk to them and you listen to them and listen to what their experience is, you’ll learn kindness and mercy. Write a check, write a letter, march for some human rights cause, or for a living wage or for Black Lives Matter. And you know what? When you do, you don’t wind up feeling like you’ve done something for somebody else, like sort of Madam Got Rocks handing out money. You feel humble and thankful and grateful, and you know you’ve been in the presence of God’s grace and you feel like maybe you are the one being ministered to.
Be just. Do justice work. And I promise you, you will become more kind and more humble. Christians must do justice work or we’re are only Christians in name only. You do that and you’ll get involved in the hard work of systemic change. And when you say the Pledge of Allegiance and it ends with, “with liberty and justice for all”, those words will mean something different to you than before you did that justice work.
And here’s the thing, it’s not enough to pull a drowning person from a raging river. You have to walk back upstream and see who’s throwing them in the river to drown in the first place. You can do the kind and gentle kind of first aid of pulling people out of the river. But until we walk back upstream and find out who’s throwing them in and stop it, we will have only done part of what we’re called to do. And yes, it means politics.
Just last Sunday at this church, someone came up to me and said, “You have got to take politics out of your sermons”. I said, “That ain’t gonna happen, because they were in all of Jesus’ sermons. Jesus didn’t get crucified because he preached “love thy neighbor”. Jesus was crucified because he was a threat to the political establishment. They thought he was going to, and he could have, led a revolution against them and they killed him for it. If we want to be Christlike, we have to get our hands dirty in politics, which is the work of the people after all. So if you want to hear the gospel, you have to, you have to listen to politics too. And you know what? There are lots of raging rivers out there with people drowning in them.
Across from where I live here in DC there’s a fancy French restaurant that sells a hamburger for $22. And it’s actually, it’s kind of worth it. But I never eat it without trying to think how much of that $22 goes to the pair of brown hands that grew the lettuce and tomatoes and picked it. Or to the truck driver who got it to DC, or to the dishwasher in the back who will clean up after me. We all love the good deals we get at Walmart and Costco, but you know what, it’s no better to exploit the Chinese people than to exploit the American people. And how long must African American parents sit down and have the talk with their young sons, their young black sons, so many of whom get stopped for a tail light missing and wind up dead? When is that going to stop? And it won’t stop until we get involved, until we do some gospel work and get in trouble for it. So pick one of those rivers of injustice, one that matters to you, maybe one that you know something about already, and walk back upstream and see who’s throwing them in the first place.
I want to close by telling you about a man from my diocese of New Hampshire, who’s quite well known actually, around Lake Winnipesaukee, which is the large lake there in the central part of the state. And there was a time when no one was catching fish. I mean no one. And every day he would come in with his limit. Day after day he would come in with his limit when no one was catching anything. And people began to wonder what was going on. And so they called the game warden and the game warden came up, sort of camouflaged as just a another fisherman, and asked this old guy if he could go out fishing with him. And the guy said, “Well, yes, of course”. And they, they go out to a particular small cove and the man opens up his tackle box and takes out a stick of dynamite. And he lights it, and he tosses it in the water, and there’s an explosion and all kinds of fish come floating up to the surface. And he starts taking them out of the water. And the game warden takes his badge out and shows it to him and says, “You better stop doing that. I’m the game warden”. The old fisherman just opened up his tackle box and took another stick of dynamite out and lit it and tossed it to the game warden and said, “Are you just gonna sit there or are you gonna fish?”
It’s kind of the question you and I have today as we consider what it means to be just. We can’t come to church and only hear about kindness and humility. We can’t only be about being nice. We are called to follow Jesus and to do the work of justice. So let’s stop merely loving justice and do a little more justice. Let’s stop admiring Jesus and start following him and loving the people he loved. No one of us can do everything, but every one of us can do something. So for God’s sake, be just. No really, for God’s sake, be just. Amen.