From July 11-20, I was experiencing the lush country landscapes of Guatemala, meeting the beautiful people – both Spanish and indigenous – and learning historical, cultural, and justice lessons with my fellow cohort friends and professors. This intensive residency is a part of our graduate program – a Master’s in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. The design of this class includes pre-course reading and discussion, Scripture reading and reflections, journals, and a final synthesis paper to weave together what we’ve learned about Social Justice and Christian Spirituality.
What follows is the transcript of the sermon I preached at my home church on Sunday, July 23, processing the intersection of justice and the created intention of humanity.
My time in Guatemala was incredibly beautiful and deeply challenging.
I met some of the children of dump-employees who are cared for in the school called Camino Segura (“Safe Passage”) to give them a few hours with food, safety, fun and education – a break the cycle of poverty.
But I didn’t feel pity. I encountered humanity and experienced how little separates us from them.
I learned that justice isn’t donating to charity. Justice starts by seeing the needs in our community, getting to know the marginalized among us, and acknowledging their humanity.
Being a Christian would be much easier and far cleaner if we kept to ourselves. But following Jesus comes with a biblical mandate to do justice. The prophet Micah declares as much in chapter 6 verse 8: “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Reading the word “require” is likely to agitate our inner rebel. Most of us middle-class Westerners prefer a faith that has no specific rules and a god who has no expectations of us. If we look at the first chapter of Isaiah, however, we find the Lord chastising the people of Israel for the way they have perverted the sacrificial system and are bringing “meaningless offerings” (Isaiah 1:13). Instead they must “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Jesus himself confronts this issue of justice with the Pharisees in Luke 11:42. “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” These scriptures paint a portrait of the essential practice of justice for those who wish to follow this Yahweh God.
Too many evangelical churches have come to see justice as an optional aspect of the Christian life, a sort of religious “bonus point” if you will. But justice is inextricably connected to the heart of God and His intentions for our lives. I believe God’s creative initiative in the beginning was a call to hospitality: a call into God’s own self and a call to lovingly welcome others into the love we ourselves have received from God. This form of hospitality is the crux of justice: to know the “other” and to love them. We cannot “do justice” simply by donating money to a good cause or by giving a tenth of our income to the local church. If we do not find our hearts being transformed throughout our spiritual journey to join God in his work of love and justice in this world, then we need to seriously evaluate our Christianity and delve deeper into a contemplative connection to God’s Spirit. We must ask God to grant us “epiphany eyes:” eyes to “see through the façade to the real […and] eyes to see by the light of Christ’s word.” If we go about life with our eyes closed we run the risk of avoiding spiritual transformation altogether. Father John P. Bertolucci is quoted in a book called The God of Intimacy and Action as saying, “[…] prayer and evangelization without social action leads to a pietistic withdrawal from the realities of the human condition and an escape from social problems rather than a confrontation and challenge to change.”
Friends, can we call ourselves Christian if we are not doing justice?
Ok…now that we’re all panicking inside, I want to invite you to take a deep breath and explore with me what it means to practice justice. Our evangelical definitions are so often severely truncated, keeping to the work of soup kitchens and warming shelters. The biblical practice of justice goes beyond the realm of the physical into the emotional and spiritual, ensuring all of God’s creation are offered fullness of life which Jesus describes in John 10:10. “I have come that they may have life and have it to full!”
My experience in the Guatemala City shantytown of La Limonada was a pivotal moment in my visioning of justice, an encounter using my “epiphany eyes.” What I saw can only be described as paradoxical, a site full of both despair and hopefulness. From the rooftop of one of the safe schools, I gazed out over the cinder-blocked homes stacked one on top of the other into the walls of the ravine, expecting to see only heartbreak and filth, despair and poverty. Instead, my eyes were met with humanity all around me. I saw countless clotheslines strung with surprisingly-white baby onesies and undergarments, well-worn jeans and tshirts. I saw shoes lined up on the doorsteps, little ones being carried in slings by their mamas, and meals being prepared. I was not blind to the pain, but I also saw the Kingdom of God unfolding in the shape of humanity. Though the words of Jeremiah 29:11 are probably numbingly familiar to many of you (“For I know the plans to prosper you…”), the preceding prophecy correlated with my consistent conviction that seeing one another’s humanity is the starting point of justice. In Jeremiah 29:5-6, The Lord tells his people to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters.” This is what life in God’s kingdom is all about – belonging to a community and doing life together. Justice in light of Jeremiah 29 and the slums of Guatemala City starts by seeing the beauty of mundane life in which we have families and settle into community and grow our food and to pray for God’s peace in our world. We can do that, right?!
As we practice the justice-work of seeing one another’s humanity, being with one another in our mundane, everyday life, we are recognizing that God’s kingdom is already among us (in the beauty of families and gardens and animals) and not yet here (in the reality of pain and suffering). When we sit with another in their suffering, we do it not with pity but with a mutual love. We say to each other, “Friend, this should not be. Let me walk with you. Let me hear your story. I may not be able to offer an answer or repair, but I will sit with you in your pain.” This kind of justice is “looking for trouble,” as Jim Martin would say. [Looking for] “the place where we have become so identified with the suffering of our neighbors that we are suffering alongside them. It’s the place of desperation where we cannot help but fall at God’s feet and beg for his intervention.”
I believe our church is poised for justice work. We are building true community among us and inviting others to join us. We are sharing our chicken eggs and our garden vegetables and our honey. We are going shopping together and playing disc golf together and praying together. We are having fun and we are expanding the Church beyond Sunday mornings. I can’t wait to see how we might participate in Creation Care and Justice Work in the next year. Maybe we’ll have shelves in our fellowship hall where we can begin to actively share the bounty of our gardens and bees and chickens. We could truly have “everything in common” as the apostles in Acts 2. Perhaps we could change a few simple habits within our church and homes, such as eating with reusable plates and silverware or hanging a rack for mugs above our coffee bar. It’s the little decisions that begin to change our hearts and our world.
Mostly, though, I believe our church and our leadership must begin in contemplation and prayer. We must stop and be still before the Lord, to “listen to what the Lord says” as Micah 6:1 declares, in order that we may then “Stand up, plead [his] case before the mountains.” In waiting and responding to God, we will avoid asking God to bless our haphazard-justice-work. Instead, as Bono said in his 2006 National Prayer Breakfast address, my heart would be that our church would “stop asking God to bless what you are doing. [Instead we must] get involved in what God is doing because it’s already blessed.”
Lord, forgive us for doing evil in our pursuit of doing the right thing. Surely we have each fallen into the trap of pleasing you in our elaborate rituals and spiritual practices, when truly our hearts are far from you. How can we join you in healing the world? Help us to do what is right in your sight, to know what it means to “do justice” in our own context, within our neighbors and stores and families and churches. Amen
“As the plane left the ground and the clouds gradually shrouded the beautiful Guatemalan countryside, we looked at each other and spontaneously said, ‘Thank you.’ To the God who sent us and brought us together we also said ‘Thank you.’ We had traveled between two worlds and found them one. Something new was building, strong and beautiful, marvelous in our eyes. ‘De un corazón nuevo nace la paz’ : from a new heart peace is born.”
Henri Nouwen, Love in a Fearful Land: A Guatemalan Story