The Way of Justice and Mercy
This particular message was preached during Lent 2016 in the midst of when presidential elections were ramping up. At the time, I was serving with a volunteer corps as their program director and was at my wits end with the interpretation of God’s justice and mercy on the right and the left in the public square. I could not get past my writer’s block as a preacher. On a Friday afternoon, sitting in DC traffic in route to pick up my daughters from school, I prayed and asked God what to do. I lamented. The Holy Spirit reminded me that the fruitfulness of the Gospel message lies in my being honest about how the Scriptures have hit me for the week as well as being broken open for God’s use. May all readers be blessed.
I didn’t think I would have trouble writing the sermon for today but I did. Around 4pm on Friday, I felt led to change the beginning of the message today because of the current climate in our country. Mass incarceration. Places and spaces filled with either/or thinking with no room for nuanced, respectful dialogue. Broken communities and families. Environmental racism. Abuse of power, positions, privilege and people. And then, there are the current politicians and upcoming elections…..Don’t get me wrong, we have always lived in a flawed world. But, this morning, I feel a sense of urgency due to the amount of hateful rhetoric in our debates. There’s no talk of policy, no talk of better ways to care for others and whole communities…..just a whole lotta talk about how to restrain and exclude those who look different and a whole lotta talk about what to do with those who have no place and have been displaced. Such rhetoric may be harmless to some, but for others such language is frightening and reminds them of times and spaces of the past that were not safe for those who were different. These spaces still exist now. So, what people of God? How do we walk in the way of Justice and Mercy in this time?
Relevant Magazine put out an article a few years ago titled “When Justice and Mercy Meet.” The author, Robert Lupton, tells the story of how he was moved with compassion to help street kids in the inner city who did not have father figures and positive role models in their lives. Lupton left a successful job in business and moved with his family to the inner city so that he could be more available to mentor street kids. However, as the boys grew into young men, they needed money to live resorting to easier ways to make money from the streets. Lupton soon realized that, although his decision to build relationships with street kids teaching them the Gospel of Christ was positive, his actions of mercy weren’t enough for the boys to survive when they got older. Lupton wrote this in the article, “Mercy is a force that compels us to acts of compassion. But in time mercy will collide with an ominous, opposing force. Injustice. Against this dark and overpowering force, acts of mercy can seem meager. What good is a sandwich and a cup of soup when a severe addiction has control of a man’s life? Or a night in a shelter for a young woman who must sell her body to feed her child?” Acts of justice without mercy are cold and remote making all of us scream, “My rights are more important than yours.” Mercy without justice meets one’s needs in the short-term, but ultimately, makes the one in need dependent on the person in power.
The Israelites had their own thoughts on how to honor God: “How can I stand up before GOD and show proper respect to the high God? Should I bring an armload of offerings topped off with yearling calves? Would GOD be impressed with thousands of rams, with buckets and barrels of olive oil? Would he be moved if I sacrificed my firstborn child, my precious baby, to cancel my sin? God’s standard was plain and simple and the prophet Micah told them, “But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what GOD is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously — take God seriously.” If we belong to God, then we are called to reflect God in our compassionately just actions toward our neighbor. Scholar and activist Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Justice and mercy together reflect the power and presence of a God who cares about each of us and the things we’re experiencing, a God whose love is so radical that it pursues us and won’t let go, a God who demands that if we have been redeemed and saved by grace, then our only proper response is to set relationships right with others and ourselves.
But, in these times, we’re tired. We’re tired of seeing people of color gunned down (Rev. Rodney Hudson, pastor of Ames-Shalom UMC in Sandtown-Winchester Baltimore posted on FB that there have been 45 murders in Baltimore City in 70 days), we’re tired of seeing young people take their own lives because they feel hopeless and lost, we’re tired of seeing poor rural and urban communities ravaged by food insecurity, drug abuse, and violence. Pastors, community leaders, social workers, caregivers, police officers and justice advocates are tired……they are tired of burying folks due to violence, they are tired of caring for those who are victims of injustice, they are tired of organizing to change unjust systems and seeing no changes. And then, there are the victimizers and oppressors. Church, if we’re truly honest, we don’t want to show justice and mercy to these people at all! We don’t want to show mercy to someone who has wronged us so badly! We don’t want to show mercy to the person who has oppressed someone else. We don’t want to show mercy to the person who has harmed families, friends, loved ones, and children. We want them to get justice……Charles Bronson justice……Captain America justice……Batman justice…….you know, the kind of justice that hurts, the kind of justice that causes them to feel the same kind of pain they inflicted on us and others. We want the kind of justice that gives us revenge. We want them to pay! But, when we are the ones who have wronged someone or oppressed someone, we don’t want to get justice. We want to be shown mercy! We want to be shown compassion and forgiveness! Yes, in our own flawed beings, apart from God, we cannot hold justice AND mercy together. We will either want justice without mercy for those who have wronged us, or mercy without justice for ourselves when we’ve done wrong.
The way of justice AND mercy calls us as God’s people to be present at the intersections of injustice, pain, and hurt in the world just as Jesus did. The way of justice AND mercy calls for us as God’s people to give a person a drink of water AND address the issues that prevent the person from gaining access to the water for themselves. The way of justice AND mercy looks like Celestin Musekura, a Rwandan man who lived through the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and founded African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries whose mission is peace building, conflict resolution, forgiveness, human rights advocacy, trauma counseling, and justice initiatives. Celestin summed up justice AND mercy when he said, “Justice without forgiveness sets up the process of more revenge…..The desired result of forgiveness is that you will reconcile.”
So church, how do we hold justice AND mercy in these times? How do we do what is fair and just to our neighbor, be compassionate and faithful in our love and take God seriously? Seek constant relationship with God and others. You were expecting something fancier than that, right? You were expecting a 10 point plan for enacting justice and mercy, right? But, this isn’t a new thing! It is the ancient way, the way of the God of Israel and Jesus! Jesus walked among us, became immersed in our human condition — in all of its pain, joy, messiness, and heartache — to save us because of God’s great love for us. Jesus developed relationships with 12 ordinary people, walking with them, mentoring them, loving them and loving others. It was not enough for Jesus to remain remote. Christ crawled into the intersections of the Cross, into the trenches, into the mess of humanity to graciously love humanity to life reconciling us to God. The world may be able to give us justice. The world may be able to give us mercy. But, it is the way of Christ — the Way of Justice and Mercy — that says, “I see what everyone is going through and how everyone is suffering. How can I be compassionately just to everyone, heal broken relationships and free all?”
A few years ago, I read a book titled Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things. The author is Ken Wytsma, president of Kilns College in Bend, Oregon and founder of the Justice Conference — an annual international conference where people gather to learn from justice organizations and have conversations about biblical justice. Wytsma talks about followers of Christ seeking justice and mercy THROUGH seeking constant relationship with God and others. Like the prophet Micah, Wytsma says that if we are followers of God and love God and are called to do justice, then our relationship with God needs to me mirrored in the way we treat others. When I began serving in justice and mercy ministries at 21, I thought there was one way to do justice and mercy. If you had asked me at 21 to draw a picture or write about what that one way was, I would have told you justice looks like an activist fighting on the front lines of a movement, or a policy advocate re-writing unjust governmental legislation, or someone boycotting a business. And in fact ALL of these examples are acts of justice. ALL of these examples have transformed society and gained rights for so many oppressed and marginalized populations. But, there is no magic formula to walk in the way of justice and mercy, nor do we need to create another justice movement. There is a more transformative, reconciling movement that has been created for us and it began as a movement — the Way of Christ is the way of Justice and Mercy which begins with seeking relationship with God and others.
I want to end by reading an invitation to justice that Ken Wytsma wrote. The invitation flowed from his own story of justice and truly learning what justice and mercy are all about. I invite you to close your eyes and sit in silence. I will read it through once. Then, we’ll have some more silence and I’ll read it a second time:
Justice is rooted in the character of God
And flows from the heart of God.
Justice is woven into the fabric of God’s creation,
Part of the image of God in every person.
Justice is commanded in God’s Scriptures
And integral to the promise of the gospel.
Justice is incarnated in the life of Jesus,
Inseparable from His words and deeds.
Justice is highlighted in Jesus’ concern for the poor
And demonstrated in His death and resurrection.
Justice is the early church sharing what they had,
Meeting the needs of others near and far.
Justice is the saints building hospitals and caring for orphans
Instead of pursuing worldly wealth and self-interest.
Justice is the abolitionists laboring to end transatlantic slavery,
Recognizing the God-given dignity and worth in each person.
Justice is the legacy of those who fought for civil rights,
Who began to dismantle systems of violence and exploitation.
Justice is the worth and equality of people in every land,
For we are all God’s creation and God’s children.
Justice is God’s grand design for creation,
A hope for every person and child to flourish in God’s