Divine Justice Love What It Means to Be Christian, part 7 Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Our first reading today is from my favorite work of historical-political sci-fi fiction, the book of Revelation. The text shows a woman adorned with stars and the sun and moon. That image is borrowed from Joseph’s dream in the book […]
Divine Justice Love
What It Means to Be Christian, part 7
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Our first reading today is from my favorite work of historical-political sci-fi fiction, the book of Revelation. The text shows a woman adorned with stars and the sun and moon. That image is borrowed from Joseph’s dream in the book of Genesis, when he dreamed that the heavenly bodies would bow to him. The woman is often considered to be Mary, but of course Mary never ran from a dragon or literally wore stars for jewelry.
New Testament scholars, including Roman Catholic New Testament scholars, tend to understand the woman in Revelation as the First Century Jewish community, out of which came the central figure of the movement that would come to be called Christianity. The early church was persecuted, and so the drama outlined in Revelation 12 is a story about the church confronting, and hiding from, and working against Roman domination. Rome is the dragon that pursued and persecuted the followers of Jesus, and that tried to extinguish the movement and the message by executing their hero. But God raised Jesus to eternal life and significance.
Archangel Michael, the legendary defender of Israel, and by extension the Jesus movement, will defeat the dragon, Rome, by helping the movement survive and outlive the Empire that tried to destroy it.
The story is a Christianized retelling of the Greek myth about the goddess Leto, who running and hiding from the angry goddess Hera was helped by her lover, Zeus, so that she could safely deliver her child, the healing sun-deity, Apollo.
The writer of Revelation apparently took that old story, adapted it for his community to suggest that the kin-dom of God that Jesus preached and represented would outlast violent empire.
The second reading this morning is from Luke’s gospel, where the female star of the story really is Mary who sings a song of praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, who has looked with favor on the lowliness of a marginalized person …God has shown strength and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things…”
Like the first reading, the woman is standing up to injustice by speaking out against it, and by affirming that God will not and cannot abandon those who suffer, and that God is Justice-Love, and therefore will always be at work in the hearts of righteous people to work to make life more fair for all people. Luke imagines Mary declaring that God doesn’t want some to thrive while others struggle; God wishes to lift up the lowly, to feed the hungry, to show favor to those whom unjust systems have marginalized. And of course what God does for us, God does through us. Our hands are God’s hands, so for God to want to do something is to say that God needs us to do it.
We remember that Jesus grows up to teach about God’s kin-dom, an non-kingdom, an anti-empire where the last are first and the first are last, where generosity and peace and compassion and fairness are the rules of life, where everyone shares in prosperity, where the hurting are healed and those once called lowly are lifted up.
Jesus’ mother, according to Luke, imagines that God is Justice-Love.
Jesus himself, according the gospels, believes that God is Justice-Love.
But as radically new as these ideas sound, even today, the truth is that the message that God is Justice-Love that we are to put into action is one that Jesus inherited from the prophetic tradition.
In stories about Jesus we see him bringing the message of the prophets to life.
One of the prophets who seemed to have influenced Jesus, or at least influenced the stories about Jesus, was the prophet Amos.
Amos was a tree farmer who showed up in Samaria one day to preach. Samaria was a big city in Israel. This tree farmer from a small town in Judah just shows up to start preaching in a big city in Israel, and his message is one of economic justice. It was during a time when the ruling class was doing very well, and as the super rich got even richer, the lower classes struggled more and more. And Amos dared to say this is not what God would want. He wasn’t saying that the rich should give more to charity…Amos is from a religious tradition that teaches we should all share what we have so that everyone can have basic needs met. Of course the rich should be generous, and so should we all. But more than sharing some of our good fortune, Amos is saying that systems that privilege some “haves” while creating a vast collection of “have nots” is contrary to God’s desire.
God dreams of a fairer sharing of resources. Amos, like Jesus hundreds of years later, is offering a picture of the Realm of God, a realm where the last are first and the first are last and those who are pretty lucky care about those who are not currently doing as well.
In Amos chapter 2, Amos says that the elites of Samaria “trample the poor.”
In chapter 4 he says, “they oppress the poor and crush the needy.”
In chapter 5 he says the ruling class “push aside the needy.”
In chapter 6 he accuses the well-to-do of not having compassion for the poor.
And then he stops preaching and goes to meddling…not that he has sugar coated his message from the beginning! Amos tells religious people that God isn’t impressed with how well they keep traditions, or how perfectly they perform rituals. Instead, Amos insists that God would prefer we care about the poor, the sick, the hurting. We can celebrate however we wish, but if we use worship rituals in place of actually caring for our neighbors, then our worship rings hollow and our faith isn’t making a positive difference in the world. And so Amos speaks to those who are comfortable and who worship in nice places without ever being confronted or challenged in those places and he tells them this is what God would say to them, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Chapter 5).
And for Amos, righteousness is justice. The waters of justice and the stream of righteousness are the same thing.
When Amos is preaching all this justice stuff, he does set up his audience. He starts talking about how their neighbors and enemies should do better. He says Damascus is wrong to ignore the poor. Gaza is wrong to marginalize the poor. Tyre is wrong is keep the poor down while the rich just get richer. Edom also doesn’t treat the hard working poor fairly. The Ammonites and the Moabites are not doing enough for the sick and the poor. Judah, your cousins, your nearest neighbor, they aren’t doing enough for the marginalized and the suffering. And then he says, “And YOU, Israel, you are no better than these others; you trample the poor into the dust and you push the afflicted out of your way” (chapter 2).
It would be like a preacher in our own day calling out the wrong doings of Iran, of North Korea, of Venezuela, of Columbia, of Russia, and then saying, “Oh, guess what US, your hands aren’t entirely clean either.”
And that is what Amos would say to us. We have the ability to send every good student to college; so, why do we make it economically difficult instead of easy for people to continue their education? We could make sure that every citizen has medical coverage, but we fight against it. We could make sure that those who don’t have enough to eat get more food, but we try to cut aid to the hungry. We could promise every senior citizen that they will spend their final years with dignity and some comfort, but instead we fight to make them work longer before they can retire and we try to gamble with their medical coverage.
Amos told the prosperous people of Samaria, you can do better and if you truly want to be godly, you must do better. You can’t be content to grow your finances and to blame the poor for their plight or ignore them all together. You have to be more generous, more compassionate, more caring than that to call yourselves the people of God.
The bible is never against people prospering. But the bible repeatedly challenges those who say, “I’ve got mine now let everyone else just try a little harder.”
The story of Mary this morning has her praising God for wanting all people to be cared for. She affirmed that God, and by extension, God’s people, must be concerned for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed.
And Jesus risked his own life, and lost it, preaching about a kin-dom of God that would look nothing like the militaristic Roman Empire that invaded other countries and privileged the elites while ignoring the desperately poor.
What it means to be Christian is to follow Jesus and the justice-seeking prophetic tradition he embodied, and so part of what it means to be Christian is to not only share our good fortune, but to work to end systems whereby others are kept from enjoying the same comforts we might take for granted.
To follow Jesus is to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
To be followers of Jesus is to be worshipers of Justice-Love, which we call God, and to be worshipers of Justice-Love is to be workers of Justice-Love in our world. Will you covenant with me this morning to be workers of Justice-Love in the world? If so, say yes! Better yet, sing it…
Then this, truly, is the good news! Amen.
Divine Justice-Love…Flow through me…To bless me…And the world…Amen.
Durrell Watkins, MA, MDiv, DMin
Senior Minister, Sunshine Cathedral