God’s Heart for Justice

I really struggled with this sermon this week.  One of the reasons was that in my “day-job,” my primary appointment as a United Methodist deacon, I work with a non-profit who’s mission it is to achieve affordable, accessible health care to all Ohioans.  If any of you have been within ten feet of a television recently, you know how violent and difficult the rhetoric is right now around health care.  My job is as an advocate for people who are too poor or too sick to be able to access health care in our state.  This has not been a good week for them, and so it has not been a good week for me, as I look toward a future in our state where the poor, the sick, and the elderly are told by governnement officials either to “Get on the bus, or get run over by it.”

In the midst of this, I’ve also been working with our very own Greater Hilltop Area Shalom Zone, the collaborative of more than 90 congregations, social service agencies, schools, and governmental organizations tasked with the mission to rejuvenate this wonderful, broken place we call the Hilltop.  The Zone, of which, you, yourselves,  are an essential part, a church sharing the Zone’s mission.

However, this week, I’ve witnessed continued crime reports – murders, assaults, domestic violence, robberies – in our Zone neighborhoods.  I’ve listened as members of my own congregations have prayed and begged for the money to feed their families as their homes are foreclosed upon, as their children face gun violence at school, as they struggle to pay their mounting medical bills, as their drug addictions rear ugly heads once again, as the snow continues to fall on their homeless camp, but manna does not.

As I’ve listened to this call from the people, and as I’ve heard hateful words come from people at the “top of the food chain” in our state government, I wonder, at how far we’ve come from the days Dr. Martin Luther King stood and gave his famous speech, “I’ve been to the mountaintop!”  I have seen the Promised Land.  He had so much hope for us that the Promised Land was within view.

As I’ve listened, to government doling out “pull up your bootstraps” advice to those who don’t have boots to begin with, I’ve visited the scriptures, and what I found there was at first a mystery to me.

‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.”

My peace I leave with you… Do not let your hearts be troubled.  The Promised Land is in view.  Peace, do not fear, said Jesus.   We are nearly there.

But my friends, I am troubled.  I don’t know this peace, and an advocate is hard to find.  Who is standing for those who suffer?

We live in a world where a child is born into poverty every 16 minutes.

Attainment of high school diploma is the single most effective preventive strategy against adult poverty but the new Ohio budget will cut education funding that would lift that child into stability.

We live in a country that is 2% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prison population, and we in Ohio spend 3 X as much money on each prisoner as our public school pupils.

The cost of mentoring: $1000/year, of employment training $2500/year, of public education in Ohio $10,000/year.  And of prison?  $86,140/year.

And yet we refuse to make the Ohio budget God’s budget.  We spit in God’s face and refuse to make prevention our priority, instead spending more money on building prisons to hold our children than opportunities to live a better way.

We live in a world where to be born black and male is to be born into the “cradle to prison pipeline,” where 1/3 young black boys will end up in prison, and  1/13 white boys will.

On the Hilltop, 82.4% of West High School students are economically disadvantaged, at Briggs, 81.9%.

We fall far below the state average in graduation rates, which impact unemployment, guarantee low income, and increase the likelihood our kids will get into gangs and drugs, and ultimately prison.

We live in a world where racism still exists because what WE KNOW is that poverty and prison sentences aren’t caused by the color of a child’s skin but by risk factors like

pervasive poverty,

inadequate health and mental health care,

gaps in early childhood development,

disparate educational opportunities,

chronic abuse and neglect,

rampant substance abuse,

overburdened and ineffective juvenile justice systems…

And yet, this year we will pass legislation that will cut essential supports like Medicaid that allow single parents to work and raise healthy families.

We will slash funding to mental health services across the state because they are deemed “voluntary,” and we will no longer provide money for batterer’s intervention programs to respond to the crisis of family violence breaking our homes apart.

I think of Dr. King’s speech in March of 1964 when he said, “We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Or perish together as fools.  Fools.

Dr. King focused on these and so many other concerns.  Racism was the foundation of inequalities in our nation, but lack of jobs, unfair labor practices, discrimination, poverty and substandard housing were the symptoms.  He began what he called “the Poor People’s Campaign” as part of the second phase of the civil rights movement.  The campaign would help the poor by dramatizing their needs, uniting all races under the commonality of hardship and presenting a plan to build a solution.

Under the “economic bill of rights,” the Poor People’s Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty legislative package that included a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing.

Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and the economic bill of rights was never passed.  But he left us the legacy of the dream of it, of one-step closer to the Promised Land.

But how do we arrive there, given where we are?  How must we act?  On whom can we depend?

Remember our scripture, with Jesus, saying, “I send you an advocate.”  The Paraclete.  In the Greek, it means “comforter, or exhorter, or appealer, or advocate, one who is called out.”  Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit, of course, who would empower and compel his people to act on Jesus behalf.

The Paraclete would comfort them, advocate for them and their values in a world that seemed entirely opposed to their way of life.  The Paraclete would give them the words to speak and the power to speak them.

I think Dr. King could be called a “paraclete.”  He claimed over and over again that the voice of the poor must be heard and then he offered to speak on their behalf, as one of them.  Listen,

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way. Because I heard the voice saying: do something for others.

 

But if Dr. King can be a paraclete, identifying with the poor, choosing to live for and with those who suffer, then you and I are called to, as well.  For remember, the Advocate, the Paraclete, is here for you – but Jesus did not come just for our comfort but said “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words”.  And what are his words?

Comfort the sick.

Bring good news to the poor.
Proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
Let the oppressed go free.

The Advocate comes to remind us of Jesus’ teaching.  Dr. King reminds us of Jesus’ teaching.

If we are advocates, we come to remind the world of Jesus’ teachings about the poor, about the gospel and to appeal to the authorities on their behalf.

Now, some you may say… it is not the place of the Church to prevail upon the authorities about such things as the Ohio budget, or the systemic discrimination against people of color, or the relationship between being poor and being in prison in this country.  Some of you might say it is our job to comfort (one aspect of the Paraclete) but not to advocate, another.

To you, brothers and sisters, I say – look to the model of Dr. King who faced down Senators and police officers.  I say, look to Moses, who harangued Pharaoh.  I say, look to Jesus who stood at the authoritative feet of Pontius Pilate and refused to submit until he had fulfilled what he had been called to do.

They were advocates, teaching, appealing, pointing out injustice and standing in its way.

And Jesus didn’t think he was the last one who would do so.  He didn’t walk to the Cross without setting up his successors, broken and dependent as we are.  Remember, “I send you an Advocate who will teach you… and “My peace I give to you” –  But what is this peace?  It is trust.  Trust that we can learn.  Trust that the work will matter. Trust that things will change.  Trust that when you face the gates of hell, they will not prevail.  Trust that light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  Trust that you have an advocate, and because of it, you can become one, that you are “advocate” –  Called out.  That you are called to a place of standing in line with the poor, standing in solidarity with them, standing in their stead, even, because that is what Jesus did for you, does for you every time you screw up or sin against another.

The peace of Jesus is nothing less than the presence of God, the willing SEEING of God’s face in all.  Stop saying you do not know where to find Jesus, or that you do not know what to do.  You do.  You will.  But you must go into the places where the poor are.  You can not simply bring them to you.  You must join them.  You must advocate for laws that improve their lives.  You must wage a Poor People’s Campaign and live as though your mother, your brother, you son, your daughter are the poor.

This is the Farewell Discourse in John.  Jesus knows he’s about to be executed.  He knows he is walking directly to his death.  And he passes the torch.  He says, here, now it’s your turn.   Have we?  Have taken up his offer?  Have we followed?  Have we accepted his gift?

The Advocate can only come if Jesus is gone.  Our role, and the role of the Holy Spirit, exists because our Lord was crucified so that the good news would come to the poor, that release would come to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.

Faith is NOT for the faint-hearted.  If you want to just be called a Christian, to claim the label, then by all means, come here on Sunday.   But if you want to BE a Christian, then you’re going to have to build yourself a new life.  If you want to BECOME a Christian, you’re going to go into the homeless camps on the Westside.

You’re going to call your congressmen and women and tell them that the Ohio budget is God’s budget, and that God’s priority to for the poor, that it is Jesus standing in those food pantry lines, that it is Jesus’ face you see sleeping on the icy sidewalks, no place to lay his head because shelter has been cut yet again.

You’re going to learn to welcome the hungry into your church and into your homes as a protest against the crimes our government commits against them.

You’re going to learn to mediate violence on our streets.

You’re going to think in new ways about how to share the gospel through food, and laughter, and friendship, real friendship that hurts a bit – because real friends don’t just give hand outs to one another – You’re going to sit with little kids THIS CLOSE to prison while they learn to read in the local elementary school.

You’re going to give, and give, and give some more of your time and your love and your prayers.

If you’re like Martin Luther King Jr., or like Jesus = you might give your life.  You might give your life.

But know this, my friends.  You will have gained peace.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give as the world gives.  Do NOT BE TROUBLED.  Do not be afraid.  Jesus said that.

If you can’t trust him, who can you trust?

Faith is not for the fainthearted.

Dr. King said to us, “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.” You have riches and resources at your fingertips if you but stand firm on this foundation.  There will be no surprises because the Advocate will teach you.

And against such resources, the ruler of the world stands no chance.

Dr. King’s reminder that “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity” holds us fast.

We must live, because when we learn to live in this way, every day, as a peace-filled people led by the Advocate who calls us, shining out that call into the world, we will have finally become Christian.

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