6 With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Since today is Back to School Sunday, I’m reminded of the story about Cindy, who refused to get out of bed on the morning of the first day of school. Her poor mother tried everything she could think of, and finally in exasperation said, “Can you even give me three good reasons why you don’t want to go to school?” Without hesitating, Cindy said, “Yes. All the students hate me. All the teachers hate me. And everyone is mean to me!” And then, turning things around, Cindy asked her mother, “Can YOU even give me TWO good reasons why I *should* go to school?” Without hesitating, Cindy’s mother replied, “Yes. Because you’re 51 years old, and you’re the principal.”
Today we are continuing (and concluding) our short sermon series on the Belhar Confesssion. For those of you who were not with us last week, or who have slept since then, here’s a brief recap:
- A Confession is, in this case, not an admission of wrongdoing or guilt, but rather a creed or statement of belief. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a book of historic confessions that together represent how we have interpreted the scriptures through the years, and what we believe the church is called to be and do in a variety of times, places and situations.
- The Confession of Belhar is the newest addition to our Book of Confessions, adopted by our General Assembly this summer, and by a 2/3rds majority of elected representatives from all the congregations in our denomination.
- The Confession of Belhar was written in the 1980s by South African Reformed Christians who opposed the government and church sanctioned system of racial discrimination known as apartheid. It has since been adopted by reformed Christians in Africa, Europe, and America as a statement of true Christian belief, and as a guiding voice in the church’s age-old struggle to promote unity, reconciliation, and justice among all God’s children.
Last week we talked about unity; this week we’ll focus on reconciliation and justice. I’d like to start by pointing out how all of these themes are intrinsically related. I think we all understand that unity (not uniformity) is a good thing, a worthy goal, in our church, in our community, and in our world. But how do we achieve that goal when we are so hopelessly divided over so many issues, both great and small?
When we are divided, there can be no unity until there is reconciliation. Reconciliation is the act of coming back together again, of laying aside what separates us, or at least of putting our differences in larger perspective, and making them secondary to the principles of unity, peace, and love for all people.
The Confession of Belhar places this responsibility specifically with the church when it says:
“We believe that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker.”
Of course peace, or reconciliation, even when we want it, even when we strive for it, is never a simple or easy thing. The writers of the Confession of Belhar understood that where there cannot be reconciliation where there is an imbalance of power between two to people or two groups.
Think about it: If someone holds a gun to your head and says, “Let’s put aside our disagreements. Can’t you see things my way?” You might be inclined to say “Why, yes. I can see things your way!” But how much choice would you really have, and how sincere would that unity be? It would only last as long as the gun is pointed at you, as long as the imbalance of power is strictly maintained.
True unity, true reconciliation between two parties is only possible when there is equality between them. Equality is, essentially, what we mean when we say “Justice.” Think of the classic image for justice–a blindfolded woman holding a balanced scale: Both sides of the scale are equal. When a person does wrong to another person, the scale becomes imbalanced. Justice is done when the wrongdoer makes things right, makes restitution, brings things into balance and equality once more.
It is possible to have justice without reconciliation or unity. In fact, this happens all the time–a judge hands down a verdict, justice is done, but both parties still go away hating each other. Or an unjust law is repealed, but the former oppressor and oppressed still harbor resentment toward one another. That’s why it’s never enough for Christians to simply advocate for justice, or the enforcement of laws, and stop there. We are called to the higher standard of love, which means we must always work for reconciliation and unity.
But while it’s possible to have justice without reconciliation, it’s not possible to have reconciliation without justice. So to review: When we are divided, in order for there to be unity, there must first be reconciliation. And in order for there to be reconciliation, first there must be justice. This order of things is important, and I’ll come back to it in a little while.
But first, back to the Belhar Confession, which has some bold, challenging things to say about equality and justice.
When you think of that image of justice–the blindfolded woman holding the balanced scales–where in that picture do you imagine that God is?
If you imagine God as somewhere out of the picture, or over the picture, or even in the middle (perhaps as the blindfolded woman!) you would be wrong, according to the authors of the Belhar Confession AND according to the Bible. Both say that you would find God in one (not both) of the scales. In other words, God is not impartial. God chooses a side.
Here’s how the Belhar Confession puts it:
“We believe that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people; that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.
Then the Belhar Confession goes on to quote and paraphrase several passages of scripture:
“God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry; God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind; God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows; for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the
widows in their suffering;
But it’s not enough for God alone to do these things. The Belhar Confession continues:
“We believe that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”
So, going back to that image of the scales of justice–wherever there is an imbalance of power, God stands on the side of the weak, the poor, and the oppressed, and God expects us to stand with him, on that side of the scale, until justice prevails and balance is restored.
So what does that look like, here and now, today, in our world? I want to give one practical example, a division in our country that many of us have felt deeply in the past few months, one that separates and divides good people right here in this room.
A few years back, a slew of high profile shootings of African Americans began to make headlines in our country. A movement began on the internet called “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a movement that has, I think, been greatly misunderstood by white people, who (mistakenly) see the phrase as somehow exalting or lifting black lives to a higher status than other lives, as if there’s another word implied after the phrase: More. Black lives matter more.
But if you actually explore the origins and history of this movement, you’ll find that those who began to spread that phrase “Black Lives Matter” had in mind a different word implied after the phrase: Too. Black lives matter, too. Black lives matter not more than, but just as much as white lives. Equality.
In response to all this, some people (mostly white people) have started using the phrase “All Lives Matter.” It’s a beautiful sentiment on the surface, but it’s also misguided, because it dismisses and ultimately attempts to silence real, valid concerns among the African American community. I came across a cartoon that illustrated this point brilliantly: It had a picture of Jesus, standing on the side of a mountain. In the middle of his most famous sermon, right when he says “Blessed are the poor…” someone interrupts him and says, “No, Jesus. Blessed are ALL people!”
When we see injustice in our world–whether it’s a young black man who is unfairly targeted, or an immigrant, or a Muslim, or a police officer–God stands on the side of the side of that person, and says “You matter. You are blessed.” It doesn’t mean God loves the rest of us any less, over here on the powerful side of the scale. But he does want us to cross over to the other side, and stand with our brothers and sisters who are in distress until the scales balance out again.
That’s what the Confession of Belhar calls us to do. And that’s what God’s scriptures call us to do as well.
In our scripture passage today, the prophet Micah asks a timeless question of God: What do you want from me, God? What do I have to do in order to be right your eyes? Do you want my posessions? My wealth? My family, even? And God says, no. You already know what I want, and it’s simple. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.
The Hebrew word for mercy in this passage is חָ֫סֶד (chesed). It means making things right, which is another way of saying reconciliation.
This is an amazing passage, because God is essentially summing up everything that is required of us in this life in three easy steps (and the order may sound familiar to you):
- First, pursue justice–not just for yourself, but specifically for those who are on the short end of the scale.
- Second, once justice has been done, pursue reconciliation. Learn not just to tolerate those who are different from you, but to love them and welcome them into your life.
- And finally, says God, when you’re doing both of those things, you’ll be walking with me, and those I have chosen to walk with. And if all of us are walking the same direction, in humility…then there will be unity and peace in our land.
People of First Presbyterian Church:
May you act justly toward your fellow human beings;
May you fall deeply in love with mercy; and
May you walk humbly with your God all the days of your life.