Sunday, November 04, 2012

Creating Justice

Creating Justice
Psalm 146[1]
It’s hard to watch the suffering of other people and not ask where God’s justice and compassion are.  We’ve seen millions of people affected by a catastrophic storm in the Northeast this week.  Events like hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanoes have provoked the question of God’s justice for centuries.  There’s even a separate subject in the study of religion for it: it’s called “Theodicy.”  It means “justifying God.”  The premise is that, if God is both good and all-powerful, then natural disasters that destroy people’s lives and create massive suffering should never happen.  So some conclude that God must be all-powerful but not good.  Others conclude that God must be good but not all-powerful.  Either way, when we start out like this, we paint God in a corner.  Or maybe we paint ourselves into a corner!
The Psalmists have a very different view of God’s justice.  Part of the reason for that is they begin with the conviction that God is the one who created all the heavens and the earth.  And this God is the one who “remains faithful,” which means that God reigns over all this beloved creation with goodness, power, and love.[2]  And if you want to know what that looks like in specific terms, the Psalmist spells it out in our lesson for today.  It means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, [3]  the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the “strangers” or resident immigrants have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported. [4]   The idea is that God is always working to create justice, peace, and freedom for his beloved creation.
And what does that justice look like?  God’s justice means setting things right.  The Psalmist defines it in terms of concrete steps to help those who live on the margins of social power and privilege to make their lot in life better. [5]  When you look at the suffering in the world and ask what God is doing about it, the answer is that God is creating justice—a way of life that makes it possible for everyone to thrive equally.  What God is doing in our world is extending mercy that is tangible, exerting compassion in action. [6]  And this isn’t just something God does from time to time.  According to the Psalmist, God always does these things.
So if we ask, “Where is God?” when we see suffering and injustice in the world, the Psalmist’s answer is to say wherever you see the hungry being fed, that’s where God is.  Wherever the prisoners are being set free, that’s where God is.  Wherever you see the oppressed lifted up and the immigrants and widows and orphans embraced, that’s where God is.  Those actions are the very definition of the justice God is always working to create in our world.
But one question remains—how does God bring this wonderful restorative justice into the world?  The answer is through people like you and me! When we look at the injustice and suffering in the world, and we either question God’s goodness or we get angry that things aren’t different, perhaps we should be directing our attention toward ourselves. For some strange reason, God has chosen to carry out the work of justice, peace, and freedom in this world through flawed and fallible people like you and me.  So if there’s a shortage of justice and an abundance of suffering, perhaps we should be looking to ourselves as the culprits. The fact is that we all have opportunities to create God’s merciful justice in this world.  And we have these opportunities to extend God’s goodness and compassion and love all the time.
So how do we do this?  Well, I think it begins with a change of perspective.  Instead of seeing people who are different as “other,” learning to extend God’s justice and love to all people begins by recognizing everyone we meet as a beloved child of God. [7] I think we can only extend God’s compassion to those around us who are suffering and in need if we begin here.  Then we can go beyond merely feeling sorry for the disenfranchised or giving money to causes that support the marginalized.  Then we can actually go to their side and enter their homes and find tangible ways to relieve their suffering.  Then we can actually put into practice God’s compassionate justice. [8] And when we’re doing that, that’s when we become the hands and feet of the God who always works to create justice, peace, and freedom for those who are in need

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/4/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, 147: “it is the will of Yahweh the Creator to renew his creation (Ps. 104:30; 96:10–13; 98:8–9; 146:6–9).”
[3] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalm 60-150, 552.  He points out that this refers to “the liberating verdict of God by which those human beings are rescued who, though innocent, are accused and incarcerated.” Even when it comes to those who may be guilty of wrong-doing, God’s justice comes to them as grace and mercy rather than condemnation!  Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1:375-84: “According to the witness of the Old and New Testaments, the love and grace and mercy of God, …, are the demonstration and exercise of the righteousness of God” (384); Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 127: “The opposite of God’s justice is not God’s mercy, but human injustice.”
[4] J. Clinton Mccann, Jr, “The Book Of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible, IV:1264: these verses portray “a God who cares about human hurt and who acts on behalf of the afflicted and the oppressed.”  He adds that they constitute “a policy statement for the kingdom of God. The sovereign God stands for and works for justice, not simply as an abstract principle but as an embodied reality—provision for basic human needs, liberation from oppression, empowerment for the disenfranchised and dispossessed.”  Cf. similarly H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 553.
[5] Cf. Robert W. Wall, “Where Wisdom is Found,” Christian Ethics 2009, 31: “The care of poor and powerless believers is a hallmark of God’s covenant-keeping people (cf. Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 24:17-21; Psalm 146:9; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:28; Acts 2:45; 4:32-35; 6:1-7; 9:36-42).”  Cf. also Borg, Heart of Christianity, 139: “God cares about justice because the God of the Bible cares about suffering.”
[6] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121; Nicholas Wolferstorff, “Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy,” Theology Today 48 (April, 1991) 16.
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 134, where he says that we can only exercise compassion when we see ourselves in others, and see them in us. Cf. also Paul Tillich, Love, Power and Justice, 25, 36, 60.  He gives what I think to be one the best definitions of justice: it means to recognize “the intrinsic claim of every person to be considered a person.”
[8] Cf. Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217–18: One contemporary preacher puts it this way: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy.  One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.  The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”

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