My father, like many of us, grew up knowing the Good Shepherd image of Jesus. That image of Jesus as the care taker, the all loving, the all forgiving messiah. It is also the image of Jesus that has led many to believe or to perceive Jesus to be nothing more than a door mat who passively allows himself to be crucified. Several years ago, my father discovered another Jesus. A Jesus who displays anger as he did when throwing over the money tables in the Temple or like the one we heard from in this morning’s Gospel who claims no interest in keeping peace while pushing forward the Kingdom itself.
It is difficult to deal with the assertive side of Jesus, instead of hearing words that make us feel good, these words challenge us, force us to ask if we really understand the full message of the Gospels. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is clear that he has not come to bring peace, but division. Why? Because divine justice was not and is not part of the status quo of human life, and this, as we have heard over and over again, is the foundation of the Kingdom or Reign of God. Jesus’ mission, and the reason Jesus was executed was not because he made everyone feel good, but because he challenged the status quo, because he challenged a system of injustice that provided rights and freedoms to a privileged few while the rest suffered the challenges and indignities of poverty and oppression.
Very recently I was asked why the church continues to grow in Africa while it is shrinking in Europe and North America. The answer is simple, Africa is where oppression and injustice seems to be at their worst and this is where talk about the Reign of God still ignites passion.
The last time the Social Gospel ignited America with passion was during the Civil Rights era. In reading speeches and other writings by Martin Luther King Jr. what strikes me most is how deeply he understood scripture, and how closely he identified with it. When he talked about segregation in the Deep South, the African-American experience became one with Israel’s experience in Egypt. When Civil Right marches were blocked by police, National Guard and fire hoses, the parting of blockades was one in the same with parting of the Red Sea. And when Dr. King spoke of the day when his children would be judged by the nature of their character and not the color of their skin, when black children and white would play together, he was speaking of the Promised Land as he shared his vision of the Reign of God.
Dr. King’s ability to intertwine scripture with the story of the African-American experience and combine it with his passion, not only excited a crowd, but moved all who to believe that nothing short of full Civil Rights was acceptable before God.
Dr. King’s passion went far deeper than his speeches. In his letter from the Birmingham Jail, he declared he was an extremist. He was clear, he had no room for the moderate Christian. “Too long,” he wrote, “has the negro lived under oppression and injustice.” And for too long, he would go on to say has moderate Christianity said the time is not yet in hopes a time will come without dissension or division, and like Jesus, King knew Civil Rights could not be won without fire and without division. Because like the Reign of God, if Civil Rights were to be realized, the systems of oppression and segregation had to be destroyed and that would only come with a fight and with discord.
At Baptism, we commit ourselves to the fostering the Reign of God. As part of our commitment, we vow to seek justice. The establishment of Divine justice is a major part of the Gospel message. And it is often the lack of divine justice, combined with the abuse of power by the kings of Israel and Judah that the prophets address prior to pronouncing God’ anger and condemnation. These same prophetic cries are being heard today when the institutional church is criticized for being out of touch or having no relationship to people’s lives. If we are not about divine justice, then we are not about the Reign of God. If we are not about the Reign of God, then we are not about Christ. If we are not about Christ, then what are we about? Christ was about the Reign of God, and Christ was about divine justice and Christ was about division and discord in the same way Dr. King was about creating division and discord in order to break down the systems of segregation and injustice that denied the rights of African-Americans prior to the Civil Rights movement.
One of the problems we face is we don’t always share the same understanding or vision of divine justice. According to John Dominic Crossan, divine ustice does not equal the retributive justice of the American Legal system that emphasizes an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Instead, divine justice is distributive justice. At its root, distributive justice is about everyone having equal access to opportunity. The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals offers the best model of distributive justice. These goals emphasize the foundation of international justice begins with access to adequate food, water and shelter, maternal and child health care, and education. When these basic needs are met, individual empowerment can follow.
What distributive justice is not is our current American welfare system. Today’s welfare system is a system which fosters dependency and not empowerment. Despite its ability to provide recipients with the basic needs of food, shelter and health care, it is a system that has become nearly impossible, if not impossible to overcome. Recently, in a letter to the editor of the Hartford Currant, a writer observed the income equivalent for a family on welfare in Connecticut is roughly $32,000 a year. “No wonder,” he mentioned, “So many people prefer to stay on welfare than work.” The issue goes far deeper than he observed. In an economy in which most college graduates continue to have difficulty finding employment starting much above minimum wage, for most individuals who lack basic job skills, education or experience, accepting a job at minimum wage means a loss of benefits at a rate of three dollars to every one dollar earned. With no hierarchy of benefits, going from welfare to work is like jumping off a cliff without a safety net or parachute.
If we as the Body of Christ, the Church are truly passionate about justice, it is not enough to spend Sunday morning’s talking about it and the rest of the week thinking about it. Instead, we must find ways to act on it. If adequate housing catches your passion, there is Habitat for Humanity. If nutrition is your concern, there is the Seeds of Faith Garden, St Charles Food Pantry, Samaritan Center soup Kitchen etc. to engage with. If our children’s education worries you, most public school system will welcome volunteer tutors and class room helpers with open arms. It does not matter where or how you or we get involved, just that we get involved. Because if we are afraid to take risks, or to offend others. . injustice will prevail, and the reign of God will remain an unattainable reality.