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Tuesday, December 07, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

Sometimes I feel like I was born with a passion for justice. Where did it come from? My father’s income was always below the official poverty line, although we didn’t think of ourselves as “poor”. We definitely lived on the wrong wide of the “divide” in our community, living sort of on the margins of those with power and social acceptability. My father was physically handicapped and my mother battled mental illness. We never dwelt upon it, but we knew what discrimination felt like, or at least what it felt like to be different.

Beyond our own family, the place I probably had the most intimate view of poverty was among the migrant workers who lived on the margins of our community. Eventually I spent some time working for the Migrant Ministry of the Council of Churches—both in Oregon and Washington. During my first year of higher education, at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, that ministry had me living among the migrant workers of Yamhill County, in a migrant labor community called Eola Village (run by the Yamhill County Housing Authority). It no longer exists, but at its peak it housed about 2000 people in simple but adequate two-bedroom homes as well as tents on foundations. I shared one of the two-bedroom homes with a fellow student. I remember my shock at discovering 13 year old girls running a prostitution operation out of one of the tents.

The question remains, “Where did that passion come from, and why does it not seem to burn as brightly now?” How do any of us come by such a passion and how does such a passion get engendered and maintained? At this morning’s breakfast discussion we all agreed that guilt doesn’t work too well. We also agreed that our church gives generously and supports a variety of worthy causes, but we feel there may be a deeper challenge calling some of us to another level.

The vision of justice pervades the scriptures, some of them coming especially to prominence during the Advent season, the promise of a coming Messiah seen as the arrival of a society where all things are put right. On my best days, I like to think that the passion for justice comes from those religious roots, those scriptures that have shaped my life since childhood. The vision is not just something we learn from our circumstance, or inherit in our genes, or catch like a passing virus. It is the groaning of God’s Spirit all around us, hard-wired into the synapses of the cosmos, sending spurts of passion into our dreams not unlike visions of sugar plums (although, I hope, more profound).

The visions are there in the lectionary readings for this Sunday, and, guess what! They are presented not so much as pulpit-thumping tirades. They are offered as gifts, promises, something for which to be grateful and to sing about. If there is a call, it is a call to participate in God’s reality, rather than a message that here is something we have to go out and create by sheer effort as something against our own wants and needs.

Isaiah talks about something that “shall be.” (See Isaiah 35:1, 5, 8, 9, & 10, for instance, all of which contain that phrase.) The vision includes good news for the blind and deaf and lame, the oppressed and hungry, prisoners, strangers, orphans and widows, all those in need. (See Isaiah 35:5-6, Psalm 146:7-9, Luke 1:43, & Matthew 11:5) Sometimes it includes the blossoming of the desert, highways that are made straight and safe, etc. (See Isaiah 35:1-2, 8-9)

The vision is something that engenders singing and gratitude and joy. (See Isaiah 35:10, Psalm 146:5 & 10—The Luke passage is a song with ancient roots sung by Mary in anticipation of Jesus’ birth, a grateful response to a God who does not forget the needs of lowly people.)

So what if, instead of thinking of justice as something we have to work at, we were to experience it—even its possibility—as something to sing about and be thankful for? I know it’s a bit idealistic, but passions are often expressed in songs and prayers of gratitude. If we could but start from that place, perhaps we would come closer to the place where true justice exists. Maybe we need to start by singing and praying our way through Advent, with gratitude.

A few additional comments temper all that I have said so far. Justice is somehow also connected with “judgment.” Our system of justice today, with all its limitations, requires that those whose behavior is destructive stand in a court of law to be held accountable. Well, at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work, and sometimes does. The biblical vision has the oppressors being brought to account. The proud are scattered; the powerful are brought down; the rich are sent away empty. (Luke 1:51-53) James writes of a “judge . . . standing at the doors!” (James 5:9) What is good news to the poor and hungry weighs heavily on those who seem to have been working against God’s vision.

If we ask, where does the passion for justice come from, we might also ask, “Why do some people just not seem to get it?” We have certainly seen examples in recent years—and in all ages—of the high and mighty (and maybe some everyday citizens) who seem to care about little but their own comfort and ease and profit. In fact, the reading from Matthew implies that they are not where we need to look for a vision of justice. Jesus asks what the people expected when they went out to hear John the Baptist. Were they looking for someone in fancy robes, living like a king? What they got, and what they needed, was a prophet to announce the coming of a new way of walking together on this earth. (Matthew 11:7-10)

Interestingly, Jesus ends his words about John the Baptist with the declaration that “the least in the kingdom is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11) I take that to mean that Jesus is calling every one of his followers to be a messenger preparing the way.

Finally, it seems almost contradictory, but James’ instruction is to “be patient.” (James 5:7-8) Let yourself be surrounded by, comforted and encouraged, even empowered, by God’s vision of justice, but be patient walking along the highway leading toward its full realization. Take time to sing and pray along the way, remembering, as someone once said, that “all the way to heaven can be heaven,” if we just notice it and live it as best we can right now. Let’s keep walking all the way through Advent and beyond, passionate about God’s vision of justice.


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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