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Sermon for Sunday, February 12, 2017

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Texts: Habakkuk 2  and Luke 7:18-35

There is a story about a village that was overtaken by enemy forces. All of the warriors who inhabited the village were gathered together and imprisoned by the conquerors.

Amidst the villagers were four philanthropists who became aware of the prison conditions that their compatriots were enduring. The first philanthropist went to the prison and said to the captors, “I understand that my brothers are without clean water. I want to take all my riches, and use them to purify the water, so that my brothers will have clean water, that they will not get sick.” The captors agreed and granted the man this right. He walked away, glad that he had been able to show this act of charity for his brothers.

The second philanthropist went to the prison, and approached the captors, saying “I understand my brothers are sleeping on rocks. I want to take all my riches, and provide bedding for the men, so they may rest comfortably in prison.” The captors agreed, and the man left, feeling that he had fulfilled his purpose in aiding his brothers’ plight.

The third philanthropist went to the prison, and spoke to the captors, saying “I have heard that my brothers have no food. They have only bread and water. I have a large farm, and want to harvest all my crops to see that the men have good food to eat while they are in prison.” The captors agreed, and the philanthropist left, knowing he had done much good in helping his brothers in prison.

The fourth philanthropist though heartened by the acts of the other three, was disturbed that his brothers remained unfairly imprisoned. So he found the keys to the prison, and one night, he slipped into the prison and freed all his brothers from their captivity.

The four philanthropists show us the difference between mercy and justice. The first three engaged in acts of mercy. They came to the aid of their brothers and made their difficult circumstances more comfortable, but they did nothing to change the unjust situation. The fourth philanthropist acted to change the unjust situation, not just the circumstances. He acted to pursue justice and not simply mercy.

Mornings like this I think about the fact that Jesus never saw snow, was never this cold, didn’t know the joy of hearing the organ play or the choirs sing. Jesus never read hymns from a not yet produced hymnal in a not then heated sanctuary. Much of what we hold sacred and dear fall outside the realm of Jesus’ experience altogether. Despite our vastly different circumstances, across all these generations, we’re bound together by our common commitment to follow Jesus by living out his Vision and Mission on behalf of all God’s people.

This morning after worship we’ll consider a new Vision and Mission for First Parish Church that reflects the prayers of the church and the deliberations of about seven-dozen of our members. Jesus had a Vision and Mission too. Like the prophet Habakkuk who told his people to write the vision and make it plain so that a runner can see it, Jesus defied the convention of his Jewish ancestors and avoided the lengthy and complicated laws that governed most of the ordinary and domestic affairs of his people. He wrote the vision. He made it plain. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. He further said that this one statement summed up all the law and the prophets. Love God, love our own, love the world. His words no doubt shocked his listeners. They were used to needing a whole cadre of lawyers to interpret the law.

In this week’s story, John begins to doubt Jesus’ vision. From prison, John, who had known Jesus from before the time he was born, now doubts Jesus himself. From prison, John sent his own disciples to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah they’d been looking for or if they should look for another. They’d heard Jesus’ Vision statement about loving God and neighbor as self, but now they wanted to see Jesus’ action. It’s not what Jesus said that would convince them, but what he did. Jesus’ mission statement was revealed through the fruits of his commitments. John recognized him as the Messiah through what he did. Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” His vision was to love God, neighbor and self. His mission was how he showed God’s love. How Jesus did it was through acts of justice and mercy.

Jesus lived the definition of Biblical justice when he healed a blind man on the Sabbath, re-defining the spirit of Sabbath keeping for all. Jesus practiced mercy when he fed hungry people. Jesus practiced justice and mercy when he healed lepers, both restoring them to their community from which they had been alienated out of fear, and curing them of their disease.

When we hear the word justice, we sometimes feel anxious. We get anxious when someone tells us what we should care about. We get nervous  when we think commitment to justice will make the church political and that it has no place among us. This could not be further from the truth. If we take justice and mercy out of the Bible and out of our story we gut the message of Jesus. Instead of resisting Jesus’ Vision and Mission to fulfill the will of God, perhaps we need to re-think Jesus’ understanding of Justice and Mercy, which according to Jesus, is central to living a Godly life.

According to the Bible, to “do justice” means to care for the vulnerable by changing the circumstances that have brought them to this place. The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, occurs in its various forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. When we think of justice we think of the law or of punishment for wrongdoing, but here Jesus demonstrates God’s alternative vision of justice. It means treating people equitably and respectfully, giving people their due. And what is their due? To experience the mercy of God and of those who love God, to offer protection, compassion and care to those in need.

In the Old Testament, several classes of persons are described as needing mishpat or Godly justice. The cause of widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor. Jesus had a heart of mishpat for the blind, the lame, and the poor. He issues warnings to those unwilling to act on behalf of the least of these. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

         When we think of justice, we think of Micah 6:8: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” To do justice is to act justly, to act equitably, to hurt nobody by word or deed. To love mercy is to be guided in conduct to others by loving-kindness. These two concepts provide the goal posts to love of neighbor as self.

If Jesus’ vision was to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength, then his mission to love neighbor is literally translated to do justly or to embody justice and to love mercy, or loving kindness toward neighbor as we would toward our own.

As the Hebrew word mishpat means justice, the Hebrew word Hesed for mercy means loving-kindness and steadfast love. In every generation, Christians listen deeply to how God wants us to practice mishpat and hesed, justice and mercy for our time. What does doing justice or acting justly, and loving kindness or practicing mercy look like for us?

Today, those considered most vulnerable would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, single parents, those suffering from mental illness and our beloved aging people right here in York. Opportunities for mishpat and hesed are always close at hand.

         When I was a very young graduate student in counseling psychology, I sometimes visited a prisoner at the Nebraska State Penitentiary named Steve Hurley. I cannot recall now why he was there, what he had done, but I do know that he spent a good long time behind bars. It was the only way of life he had known, as his only brother, uncle and his father were there too, for differing crimes. Steve was a kind man trapped in the impossible grind of poverty, living hand to mouth, day to day with a mentally ill mother incapable of the guidance young men need, and the men who could guide him all gone to jail. It surprised no one when he joined them, not entirely without comfort, for at least jirail, with its lack of freedom, offered three meals a day and a bed.

         While the details of his incarceration are missing from memory, I do recall that Steve was different from the other men in his family. He wanted what we all want: a wife and children, a family, a place to call home, a job that paid enough to support his family. He wanted to break out of the cycle of poverty and distance himself from a hostile and angry family system. There was a simple sweetness about him, as if waiting for some good thing to appear like a rabbit out of a hat, though he had no evidence that it existed.

         The prison guards treated him with some measure of distrust if not disdain on account of their agitation of his father. So what happened that first year should have come as no surprise. It was nearly Christmas and I wanted to send Steve a present. State Penitentiaries have a long list of rules and I spoke personally with the warden about everything I planned to send. You couldn’t bring many items through security as a visitor, and the guards inspected mailed items for contraband and weapons. After listening to the few things that would be meaningful to Steve, I sent along some fruit and nuts, and cheeses, some smoked meat and a book as I recall. As it was a long break from school, it was several weeks before I was able to visit with Steve again. After clearing the requisite frisking at security and being locked into the visitor’s room, I asked him how he liked his Christmas gifts. He looked embarrassed. He hadn’t gotten them.

         When I later asked the Warden about this, he reluctantly went to the back room and brought out the opened package. He looked like a kid caught with his hand in a candy jar, half apologizing for not delivering the gift in a timely manner. The soft cheeses had gone to mold, the packaging crushed by an angry guard, the remaining gifts to uselessness and the book gone missing.

         I recall only a half dozen times in life when I’ve been so angry. I remember thinking about the comforts of the Warden at home with his family for Christmas, and the cheerless cold comfort of prison food on a day like any other for Steve. It seemed to me then as it does now, that Jesus would have wanted justice and mercy for Steve too.

         The Warden apologized, and eventually changed the policy, requiring that receipts be sent to senders to assure that gifts to prisoners had been delivered. That’s justice. A new Christmas gift was delivered to Steve, a little late for Christmas but in time for Lent. That’s mercy. This incident instilled in me a deep passion for God’s justice and mercy on behalf of the vulnerable and powerless who cannot alone change their circumstances for good. When Jesus asked us to heal the sick and visit the imprisoned it seemed like a good idea, in theory. I just didn’t think it would be so hard.

While some people rightly misunderstand the meaning of justice, we see now that justice means something different than it does in the pubic square. We care about the vulnerable because God cares about the vulnerable. We advocate on their behalf when they are not in a position to advocate for themselves. Justice reflects the character of our God who does justice and loves mercy and asks us to do the same. This requires faith. It can be challenging.

In today’s Bible teaching, we remember that when the men sent by John had come to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?... And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”…”And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God.”