Following the Lord of Love and Justice

By The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab

[Trinity Church, Plattsburgh, NY ; May 8-9, 2010; John 14:23-29.]

These two weekends to fill in for Colin are a special gift.  I want to share with you what I am learning.  It’s not what I am achieving or ferreting out for myself.  It is what the Spirit has been opening my eyes to see.  What is it Jesus promises in the Gospel?  “The Holy Spirit . . . will teach you everything.”  I share some of what the Spirit has been leading me to learn and to see.

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I begin with what does God want of Christians today.  I believe that God wants us to be seen and to be heard.  We Christians have been too silent and too invisible for too long.  We need to show up with caring and love where caring and love are in short supply.  We need to speak up where justice and fairness are in short supply.

The Tuesday morning Bible study group read a book that transformed me.  I was fairly quiet in the face of blatant hard heartedness and injustice.  I think of the times when someone or some group is doing and saying some outrageous things.  I’d tend to let them be and not trouble the waters.

Then the Tuesday Bible study read Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers by Alan Storkey.  Storkey is both a sociologist and a Bible reader.  He uses the word “politics” in the right way.  Politics is the life of the “polis” – the Greek word for the city.  So he writes of how Jesus confronts the hardheartedness and injustice of life – both public and private.  He unpacks what goes on the last week of Jesus’ life as he takes on all the pressure groups.

I’m taking you into a lot of Bible study.  The learning I share is based on what Jesus really did – what he really did that last week in Jerusalem.  Many interpreters miss it.  Storkey did not miss it  because of his sociological perspective.  He was able to bring out what others had missed.  Note, this is based on what Jesus actually did.   It’s not reading something into the text that is not there.

I had not understood those pressure groups – power groups.  I had seen Jesus’ opponents as people who disliked his teaching with its challenges.  I had missed what we call pressure groups.  They had money and they had their own media campaigns and they had their lobbyists.  Jesus did not threaten just their ideas.  Jesus threatened their power – their followers – and the money that gave them power.  In that last week in Jerusalem Jesus takes them on one by one.

He takes on the religious leaders – the chief priests and elders, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees.  The parables about the Prodigal Son and about the wedding banquet are told to reveal the fakes they really are.  The older brother is angry that the his brother is being celebrated.  The guests too busy to come to the banquet are the leaders who shun Jesus.

He takes on the leaders in government.  Here he takes on the religious leaders who are also the governmental leaders.  It was a theocracy.  The religious leaders ran the government.  He calls them blind guides who oppress the common people.  “You hypocrites; you take in all that Temple money; at the same time you lay heavy taxes and fees on the people.”

Jesus speaks up.  We need to speak up.  We need to act and to tell the truth as we are given to see it.  Reread chapters 21-25 of Matthew.  Reread chapters 11-13 of Mark.  Reread chapters 19-21 of Luke.  Reread John; John puts the cleansing of the Temple in chapter 2; John laces his whole gospel with Jesus’ open criticism of his opponents.

So I learned not to keep quiet any more.  I have a lot of learning about how to do that but at least I am out of the closet!  If you are holding back, don’t any more.  Risk calling a spade a spade.  Sure, be respectful but also be candid.  Tell it like it is.  You don’t hit anyone.  You just say, “Here’s where I am on this issue!”

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Next, learning that is so sharp for me is how to tell what to speak up about; what to work for rather than leave the confrontation to someone else.  Again, the clue is what God and Jesus are like.  God’s way is always the loving and the just way.  God’s mission – here’s a fresh and still fully biblical way to say it – God’s mission to overcome the evil, sin, and death in the world with God’s love and justice.

What is love?  Here’s a fresh yet biblical way to say it.  Love is trying to value others without limit; and to help them to put their skills and talents to their best possible use.  That’s the way God works with us.  That’s how we try to act with others.

What is justice?  Justice is the way you love a crowd.  You can love face to face.  You cannot love a crowd.  You can be just.  To be just is seek equal access to the good things in life for everyone; equal access to all the things that help others to put their skills and talents to their best possible use – to do their best work and to be the best lovers of others.   The public face of love is justice.

So what do you do when you do God’s work?  You love and you are just.  You love without giving up.  You work for justice in the face of injustice.

Three stories – the first is about a mother’s love for her nine-year-old daughter.  It’s the story of how a mother saw what love would do and did it – in the face of her daughter’s resistance.  A mark of real love is that it endures when resisted.  This mother, Ruth, does not give up.  The story goes like this.

Four friends of her daughter, Sally, have come over to play.  Sally disappears.  Her mother finds her under her bed crying, “They don’t want to play with me.”  Ruth has been here before with Sally.  Sally gets dialogs in her head about what is happening to her.  These dialogs are not about reality – about what is really happening.  Sally’s dialog in her head is that her friends don’t want to play with her.

Ruth says, “Sally, your friends have been looking all over the house for you.  They want to play with you.”  “No, they don’t,” comes the reply.  Ruth knows she cannot give up.  Sally must see what is really going on.  “Look, Sally, first two of them came looking for you.  When they had no luck, all four looked for you.  They want to play with you.” Ruth kept it up until Sally finally came out to play.

Ruth is a great mother.  She expects this is not the last time.  She will keep it up.  She knows her job is to be a reality test for Sally.  That is what loving parents do.  Ruth is blessed.

Sally will answer back so Sally is blessed.  Ruth will not give up until Sally sees the reality.  Ruth will do this kind of thing until Sally is in her late twenties.  Then, her reality-testing will not end.  It will just take a new form.

Ruth knows this is one of her missions at home.  She has a support group of Christian mothers and the unfailing help of the Holy Spirit.

I have two short stories of justice seeking Christians.

One is of my brother, an architect.  The setting is the 60’s in Baltimore.  The city is getting second-rate architecture because jobs are granted to the architects who have the right connections.  Van was about to give up.  Our father said, “Wait until you are in charge.”  He did.  He became head of the local chapter of American Institute of Architects and was able to get the needed leverage to fix the problem – with the members of that chapter and a key supporter on the city Council.  Of his work, the bishop of Maryland said, “You are fortunate to be so involved in God’s mission.”  Those words sustained him in some hard times.  Those words and his parents’ example of faith – his father, in a volunteer public office, returned every gift that came to him from someone who was trying to buy his vote.

The other story comes from Zimbabwe.  It is far from finished.  President Mugabe looked so good when he started over 30 years ago.  Today, he abuses human rights as poverty and unemployment spread.  Several Christian bodies have openly joined the opposition to him.  His response has been to forbid worship, close the churches, and to prevent any reference to things Christian  in any religious gathering.  His armed soldiers stand along the walls instructed to “take appropriate action” when any Christian notes are sounded. That is a valiant stand for justice.  Justice is God’s work.  Justice is the work of God’s people – out in the open – no longer silent and visible to all.

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Jesus is not just “meek and mild.”  When he needs to, he confronts evil – regardless of the cost.  Love and justice are the marks of his presence and work.  For us, his people, being loving and just is the way we follow him!

[The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab, Coordinator of Member Mission Network, Inc., President of Member Mission Press, Chair of the Spiritual Formation Committee for the United Church of Hinesburg, VT, Author, Speaker, and Workshop Leader.]