Sunday, September 07, 2008

God's Justice

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
September 7, 2008

Year A: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
(Romans 13:8-14)
Matthew 18:15-20

God’s Justice

With both the Democratic and Republican conventions behind us, we’re now moving into the heart of the presidential campaign season. In reality the campaign, of course, has been going on for just about four years now (although it seems longer even than that!) but now many of us are starting to really pay attention and to consider who will be our next president and vice president.

And maybe I’m na├»ve, but I really thought this campaign was going to be different than those in the past. The two presidential candidates have repeatedly pledged to run campaigns that focus on the serious issues facing our nation rather than launching – or encouraging - attacks on one another’s character and personality. Now it seems like those pledges weren’t worth very much.

Each election cycle it seems to me that we never get to talk about the really big issues facing our country. Maybe these issues are just too complicated or too controversial. Maybe it’s because these issues just can’t be boiled down to a catchy slogan or sound byte. Maybe we the people just aren’t very interested in these issues.

One of the issues I wish we would talk about during this election campaign – or any election campaign - is justice.

Over the years whenever I’ve spoken with a lawyer or a police officer they’ve usually thought that our justice system was seriously broken. They often had different ideas about what makes it broken – and how to fix it – but they agreed that things have gone very seriously wrong.

I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about the growth of the so-called prison industrial complex – how in some parts of the country the only growth industry is thanks to increasing incarceration. But the truth is unless we’re directly affected by the justice system it’s easy for us to ignore it – to think it’s out there somewhere and doesn’t have anything to do with us.

But I find the statistics shocking and alarming. The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

The U.S has 2.3 million criminals behind bars, more than any other nation; more even than China with its much larger population and repressive government.

If you count only adults, one out of every 100 Americans is locked up.

In terms of executions, we’re fifth worldwide – in the rogues’ gallery behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

A New York Times article in April talked to American and foreign experts on crime and law and summarized their explanations for this high incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racism, the war on drugs, “the American temperament,” and the lack of a social safety net. And some also pointed out that in many places judges are elected and so feel the need get public support by being tough.

I don’t know what to make of all of this. I am sure many of us here today can and do reasonably disagree about what’s wrong with our system and how to improve it. But, we’re not even having the conversation. I checked the McCain and Obama websites and both contained statements on a laundry list of issues, but neither directly addressed justice.

And this isn’t just about John McCain and Barack Obama. Justice isn’t just about national statistics. Justice isn’t just about the “justice system.” What about us? What’s our “justice system”? What’s our justice? What do we have to say and do about justice or the injustice right here in our community?

A couple of weeks ago I went with Grace Church parishioners to volunteer at the soup kitchen just up the road in Morristown. On that summer day we served 162 people – right here in prosperous Morris County! And my sense was that a large percentage of the guests belonged to the working poor. In some cases it was clear that they were day laborers who do backbreaking manual labor and yet are paid so little. What do we have to say and do about that injustice? What’s our justice?

And what about justice in our own lives? How do we treat people who wrong us? Are we quick to punish or are we quick to forgive? Do we hold tight to our grudges or do we let them go? What’s our justice?

Our presidential candidates may not have anything to say about justice, and we might not have much to say about justice, but today’s lessons from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew make it clear that God has a lot to say about justice.

The lesson from Exodus tells the story of Passover. It’s a very ancient and bloody story and scholars think it has its roots in very early harvest festivals that over time the people of Israel came to associate with their liberation from Egypt. And of course Passover remains a deeply meaningful, central event for the Jewish people.

I’d suggest that the story of Passover continues to have meaning not just because of ancient tradition but because it tells us something very important about God. Passover tells us that for God justice means being on the side of the weak, the poor and the oppressed. The Egyptians were the powerful ones. The Egyptians were the “winners.” The Egyptians were the oppressors. Yet, God took the side of the weak Israelite slaves and led them to liberation.

And in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel Jesus offers instruction on how to deal with a member of the community who has sinned. But before we go any further we need to put this little section from Matthew into context.

Just before it, Jesus asks the disciples, “What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went away?” We might very well answer no to that question, but Jesus makes it clear that our just God does not give up on the one who has gotten away. The God of justice does not throw anyone away. God continues to reach out to us no matter what we do, no matter how lost we are. As Jesus concludes, “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

And next week in church we’ll read the section just after today’s gospel passage where Peter asks Jesus the familiar question, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus says in reply, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

In the gospel Jesus doesn’t ignore sin but Jesus makes it clear that God doesn’t throw anyone away and God offers forgiveness after forgiveness. How about us? What’s our justice?

And in today’s gospel passage Jesus offers a practical plan to put God’s justice into action when a member of the community sins – talk one on one. If that doesn’t work bring some witnesses. If that doesn’t work bring the issue before the whole church. And if the offender still doesn’t listen then Jesus says “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

This at first glance sounds pretty harsh. It sounds like this offender should be thrown away, tossed out, excommunicated from the church.

Except that Jesus has just told us that the God of justice never gives up on anyone. And Jesus is about to tell Peter and to tell us to forgive seventy-seven times – to forgive an infinite amount of times. And, if we stop and think about it, it’s exactly the outcasts – the Gentiles and the tax collectors – in other words, the sinners – with whom Jesus seems to spend a lot of time.

“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Jesus isn’t saying give up on this person or throw this person out. Jesus is saying be like me, keep at it, keep trying, keep reaching out to this person. The God of justice never gives up on us, never stops forgiving, never stops reaching out to us.

In thinking about God’s justice I’m reminded of Sister Helen Prejean. Some of you may know her from her book Dead Man Walking or the movie based on her book, where Sister Helen was played by Susan Sarandon. A couple of years ago she visited St. Peter’s Prep and spoke passionately against the death penalty. Two things she said that night, and has said many times elsewhere, have stuck with me.

First, “We are not the worst moments of our lives.”

And second, “We are worth more than the worst act we commit.”

That’s what God’s justice looks like. God is on the side of the weak, the poor and the oppressed. God continues to reach out to us no matter how lost we get. And God offers infinite forgiveness.

That’s God’s justice.

What’s our justice?