Church Getting Political: Seeking Mispat

Seeking Mispat, Sermon for February 5, 2017 on Matthew 5:13-20 and Isaiah 58:1-12

(We don’t normally post sermons, but this one was all written out, and because I tend to drop by voice at points, a few of you asked for a written copy.  Here is to trying something new! Plus, I get to add pictures. -Alice)

Over the last several months, many of us have become fully engaged activists.  In the last month I have stood up at 5 protests.  If I look back at the last two decades, I can count maybe two.

Like many of you, this life of political demonstration is a new normal for me.  When I first met Roger a few years ago right after you decided to call me as your Associate Pastor, Roger told me about the good work this church did standing up during the Iraq war.  Instead of offering to join in, I over-confidently told Roger “I don’t protest.” Then I added something to the effect that “It’s because I’m not very interested in politics— I just want to help where the church can.”   

In my defense, I was breast-feeding mama at the time, and didn’t think I could risk getting arrested.  But the babe is now a little more grown up and things have changed. 

Thinking back to this conversation with Roger a few years ago, I realized two things: First, Roger is very forgiving.  Second, I don’t think I had a very well thought out understanding of the intersection of politics and faith. When Roger asked me about politics, I was thinking of pastors endorsing or defiling political leaders by name from the pulpit. I was thinking of a church becoming totally partisan where the church in my mind becomes the mouth piece of the state — and not preaching the work of God.   That kind of politics in church really does bother me as it does for many of you.  Roger too.

What I didn’t think about is when we see and experience policies that directly hurt God’s people, it is at the very core of our faith to get involved.   It is at the core of who we are as a church.  

As a church, it our job to support each other in all that we are feeling, going through, and all the ways we seek God’s justice in this world. It is our job to say that you are supported. It is our job to say  you are loved  because God has loved each and everyone one of us first.  It is our job to share God’s deep and vulnerable love for all of humanity goes to the core of who God is.

I have become political in the last month because our Christian faith says that is what we are called to do.

Coming out of God’s deep love for us, we hear God’s call to care for the marginalized, the vulnerable, the foreigner. We hear this call ringing loudly throughout the Bible, and in particular in these scripture passages from Matthew and Isaiah. Both passages are addressed to communities of faith struggling to figure out how their faith can be best lived out in the public sphere.

From Matthew — we hear the call on to the whole community to be salt and light.   You are the salt of the earth — not the salt for yourselves, but for the whole earth. You are the light of the world, not for for a closed fellowship — but for everyone. 

What is the point of salt if it does not flavor food?  What is the point of light if it does not shine? What is the point of the church if it does not seek in every way seek to live into the goodness and justice that comes only from God?

From Isaiah we hear those deep penetrating questions addressed to a community living in conflict arising out the experience of deep hardship. 

The problem isn’t that they aren’t showing up for worship or concerned with their piety. The problem is that they are just going through the motions. Isaiah says that they fast but oppress the worker.   They seek out theological study, but they ignore those in most need.  As Scholar Paul Hanson puts it — “Their faith is faith in a subjunctive mood.” Their faith is lived as if.  There faith is lived as if they  were worshiping God.  Their faith is lived as if was to suit their needs — not the needs of the community.

Quoting verse 2:  “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, As if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” 

Ordinance is important word here.  It comes from the hebrew word mispat.  In some places mispat is translated instead as judgement as in God’s righteous judgement for the nations.  That application may apply.

But I go with the translation of Hanson and other scholars translating mispat for the people as “compassionate justice.”  Compassionate justice goes to God’s very nature. Compassionate justice is God reordering the world.  Isaiah urges the people to seek this mispat — and to become reordered.  To get refocused. 

I’m not saying that we as a church have been going through the motions or that our worship doesn’t reflect our faith.  But I do see that we are in a time of re-awakening for our church here, our Presbyterian denomination, and Christians across this country. 

We are at time when we are being called out of zones of comfort, called out of what we would consider normal, called to apply all the skills we use to regular things of the church  —  to be ready and alive to do God’s justice work out in the world.

But before I go any further — I want to make an important distinction. I believe we seek justice together. We are not justice ourselves.   We are far from it in fact.   In our call to refocus and take up the call of justice, we need to be very well aware of the third part of Micah 6:8 that we have on our banners outside:  that we are to walk humbly with our God.

To walk humbly, it is likely that we need to begin with confession.  About a week and a half ago on the steps of this church I heard lots of faith leaders speak out against then proposed EO.   All of the leaders spoke boldly — but the one that stuck with me was from the Catholic Sister.

1/25/17:  Faith Leaders on the Steps of NYAPC Protesting the then EO banning refugees from 7 majority Muslim countries.  Organized by Church World Service, Presbyterian Office in Washington and Faith in the Public Life.    One of the ways we can show up for justice is by hosting events!

She challenged us to our need to look deep into our own culpability. Here is how I interpreted her statements:

  • In what ways have we been party to systems of oppression that have inspired violence in Syria? 
  • For how long have we been well aware of the flood of refugees around the world and have looked up but not been fully moved into action?
  • How often have we said we cared — and yet — how often have we in the past engaged in calling, in protests, and in other acts of political engagement standing up for those escaping violence?

As a church, seeking compassionate justice means that we need to wrestle deeply looking within ourselves to those places of comfort where we have each retreated saying that “This isn’t my issueI’m not directly affected.” That place of comfort and ease — blindness and distraction — that is where our confession lies. 

That may be where our action lies as well.  Out of that work of confession, our community based work of atonement is some real honest conversations about where we are at. 

This kind of resistance as God’s work is new or perhaps newish to many of us. We need to acknowledge that this is new territory to many of us. We need to say loudly that there is much that we need to learn— and that we need to learn in places we have not looked before.

We need to remind reach other to pace ourselvesMany of us are following the news so closely that we have jumbled up our insides, forgotten at times to eat or shower, ignored our loved ones, snapped at a friend — and basically haven’t attended well to our mental and spiritual health. 

In these hyper engaged political times, we need to be attentive to ourselves and our community.  We need to dive deeper into spiritual practicesI find the breath prayer so helpful — to breath all of the goodness of God and to breath out everything that brings the world harm. 

We need to talk to each other directly about our new level of anger and frustration — a new level of feeling scared — a new level of courage perhaps. The protests take many of us beyond what we previously thought as comfortable. Those of us who don’t really like using the phone are starting to call our representatives. 

Many of us have started reaching out more intentionally across the boundaries of religion and background to see how we can act in more collaborative and supportive solidarity with one another. 

Here is what you were doing this past week:  The petition against the Executive Order banning refugees from those 7 majority Muslim countries, that Kathy started last week here in church was mailed out this week.  Then, Taylor adapted it to a google form, and all of your pastors including all of your Pastors including Parish Associates signed on.  Yesterday at 7:50 pm, we had signatures of 895 Presbyterians around the country representing churches in DC, Virginia, Maryland,   Alabama, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Nevada, California – the list goes on.  You are becoming organizers. 

The paper petitions from members of NYAPC to Presbyterian members in Congress against the EO banning refugees from the 7 majority Muslim countries.  On-line petition version to be sent out soon!

Because of where we are positioned both physically and theologically,  it our calling as this church on New York Avenue to be a leader on how we respond with God’s justice, how we respond with resistance, and to help  discern where we can enter into reconciliation.  We are called to be prophetic, to be risk takers, and to be feisty. 

And when we have doubt (don’t we all have doubt, sometimes?), we can know that those who have sat in the pew here have done it beforeMany of you well know that The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from the pulpit to warn about the consequences of the war in Vietnam.  The pastors went to Selma to march for civil rights. During the Vietnam war, the church served as a haven for protesters and was the center for publicity and public information for the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington in the spring of 1968.  You marched against the war in Iraq.  Some of you got arrested. 

You now serve the city here through the Radcliffe Room ministry, through tutoring and through mental health ministries. You serve through the “regular” ministries of this church that keep us running, keep us learning, and keep us holding worship as our center.  You serve each other by showing up and being church.

Here is one more: One of you on the sanctuary task force emailed me this story that you learned at a recent interfaith meeting of how we can live into s new calling to be a place of sanctuary in the city.   The article is from the Smithsonian at the Anacostia Community Museum.  It was about Adam Frances Plumber born a slave in 1819.  It talked about Ms. Plumber being an incredible and resilient man suffering under horrors of slavery.   Not excusing slavery at all — this is the worst sustained offense of humanity — there was a glimmer of hope in his story. 

In 1841, Adam Francis Plummer married Emily Saunders who was also called slave. Their wedding was held at one of the two churches that merged as the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.  “The marriage was considered legal and they were granted a marriage license. Both of these things were unusual because slave marriages generally occurred on plantations and they were not legal in the eyes of the law.”

NYAVE in 1841 did a radical thing standing up for justice.  Twenty years later in 1861, President Lincoln and his family became pew holders here.

Isaiah is very clear — If we choose the fast to loose the bonds of injustice — if we live into a life as a church community standing up for those most in need, then — the words and reality are beautiful:

You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.  Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

May we seek this future of compassionate justice together.  

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