This sermon was originally preached by Rev. James Morasco on September 2, 2018.
Much has been written about the decline of Christian Churches in the US since the 1960s. The overall conclusion is that it somehow ceased to be relevant to those that attended. Remembering back to those particular years in our history, among other issues - people who had been oppressed and discriminated against in our culture were demanding that the “golden rule” be applied to them. Common everyday people were standing up and demanding equal rights. Unfortunately, all these years later, people still have to protest in the streets as full equality has not yet come to everyone.
Today I’m going to talk about a term that has come up in conversation several times this past week – “social justice”. The term may or may not be familiar to you, but I know you will understand it more as we go along. First let me start with a legal definition:
“The fair and proper administration of laws conforming to the natural law that all persons, irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, possessions, race, religion, etc., are to be treated equally and without prejudice.”
In Christianity, this is a concept that derives from the Gospels of Jesus Christ and reflects what Jesus not only taught, but lived his life as an example of. Like most ideas we have been taught as children, we agree that everyone should be treated fairly, that we need to follow the golden rule, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Since it seems to be just as relevant today as it did when I was growing up, I thought I would use as an example, parts of Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter From the Birmingham Jail”. He had been arrested for leading a non-violent march in Birmingham, Alabama. He had appealed to the pastors of all the churches, including those that were traditionally white; to come out and stand with their black brothers and sisters against what was happening in that city. The white ministers told him he was moving too fast, that it will take time for change to happen.
April 16, 1963
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "moodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers
In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
I would encourage you to read the entire letter.
Now you may be asking yourself, "How is this relevant today?" Let me give you some personal examples:
I had a pastor friend named Larry who was black, serving in a mostly white community. He was a decorated war hero, who dedicated his life to ministering to others. Larry was a calming influence and a gifted preacher. He was one of those people that were “larger than life”. Before he died, he told me about never being fully accepted in his community and even in his church, because of his skin color.
I have another friend who is Puerto Rican. He too is a veteran. He’s a professional, who has dedicated his life to helping those with addictions. He too is of brown skin. He has told me in the past about having to make sure he drives at least one or two miles under the speed limit because he is always getting pulled over for no reason. One morning, as I crested a hill, I observed my friend's car on the side of the road. He had just collided with a deer. He was upset and trembling. I waited with him until the State Police arrived. He told me afterward that he told the trooper he had his speed set at fifty-six. The trooper proceeded to give him a lecture about driving over the speed limit.
One more example – Another good friend of mine has a daughter who is gay. Her partner is a pediatrician who cares deeply about her patients. The partner is also of Mexican and Italian descent and a third generation American. She has told me about continually being questioned and looked at with suspicion because of her skin color. Being married to another woman has also brought people's prejudices out as they sometimes make remarks to them as they interact in public. They feel they cannot even hold hands at times because of the reaction of others.
This is not history. This is what some members of our society live with every day of their lives.
These examples are not history, they are happening as we speak. Many live in fear for their lives and for their freedom, just because they are labeled as “different” in the eyes of others.
It’s a story we’ve all heard before. No different than in Jesus’ time, when he felt the need to stand up for those labeled “different” and treated accordingly. Isn’t that what he is calling us to do?
So how do we not only understand the concept of Social Justice, but apply it to make the time we spend here every Sunday relevant? Do we become, as many have said, just a social club or do we use this sacred space to bring God’s Justice to the oppressed? In other words; how do we demonstrate our “compassion in action”?
The United Church of Christ officially stands with those who have made it their mission to advocate for Social Justice in this world. If you go on the state and national websites, you will see all of the many ways you can get involved. I propose that if anyone wants to develop a “Social Justice” ministry here, I would be glad to do my part in helping in the process. There are books we can study, people who have already volunteered to be guest speakers, and of course, study material from our denomination. Just let me know.
Christian author Steve Mattson writes:
The Bible tells us that Jesus cared deeply about the social causes around him.
Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.” “Children’s lives matter.”, “Gentile lives matter.”, “Jewish lives matter.”, “Women’s lives matter.”, “Lepers’ lives matter.”
Even though Jesus loves everyone, even to the point of dying for their sins, he went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people — the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice.
It’s not a matter of pitting social causes against the gospel message of Christ; it’s a matter of realizing that these causes ARE actually an important part of that gospel message. Stephen Mattson is the author of The Great Reckoning: Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ.
Let me end with the following story titled “Inside The Walls”.
It is said that during the Second World War some soldiers serving in France wanted to bury a friend and fellow soldier who had been killed. Being in a foreign country they wanted to ensure their fallen comrade had a proper burial. They found a well-kept cemetery with a low stone wall around it, a picturesque little Catholic church and a peaceful outlook. This was just the place to bury their friend. But when they approached the priest he answered that unless their friend was a baptized Catholic he could not be buried in the cemetery. He wasn’t.
Sensing the soldier’s disappointment the priest showed them a spot outside the walls where they could bury their friend. Reluctantly they did so.
The next day the soldiers returned to pay their final respects to their fallen friend but could not find the grave. “Surely we can’t be mistaken. It was right here!” they said. Confused, they approached the priest who took them to a spot inside the cemetery walls. “Last night I couldn’t sleep” said the priest. “I was troubled that your friend had to be buried outside the cemetery walls, so I got up and moved the fence.”
The fences we build inside to keep others out are of our own making. Jesus showed us that it doesn’t have to be so. There were plenty of fences in his day too. But, just as we learn to dislike others, we can learn that inside, we are all the same. Once we realize this, we only have to find the courage to “move the fence”.