Outrageous Justice: A Sermon for 17 Pentecost, Proper 22
“How long O Lord?” The prophet Habakkuk’s cry of lament comes during an era of Judah’s history when violence, evil, lawlessness, and injustice prevailed. And things were about to get worse for Judah, as they were soon to be captured and exiled by the Babylonians. Indeed, for Habakkuk - and the few righteous who remained - it had been too long of a wait for God to implement justice. So the prophet called out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?”
The reality is, we have it much better than the ancient Israelites during Habakkuk’s time. And we have it much better than the followers of Jesus during the first century Roman occupation of Israel. During those eras, the people of God were victims of violence and injustice from the outside forces of Babylon and Rome, as well as moral and social decay from within. Being subject to outside powers served as a constant reminder that they were not in control, and at times, it made them wonder if their God was even in control. Had God abandoned them? Or was their God simply less powerful than the gods of their enemies?
These difficult questions were in their very own DNA, as their ancestors had asked the same questions when they were living as slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt. The Israelite family system was marked by eras of slavery, violence, and injustice. You have heard me say before that the Bible was written by oppressed communities for oppressed communities. This doesn’t mean that there is nothing in the Bible for those of us today who are in positions of power and privilege. Quite the contrary. It just means that we have to hold these texts up in front of us like a mirror, and allow them to transform us.
So texts like this can pose a challenge as well as an opportunity for us in our relatively comfortable context. Besides reading about it in the Bible, most of us have to hear about injustice being done to others to be made aware of it. We have to read about it or watch it on the news. Most of the time, it is others who are the victims of injustice and corruption. So as followers of Jesus, we are called to do the difficult work of learning about people and communities for whom – in the words of Habakkuk – “the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” And then, we have to do the even more difficult work of not just learning about the plight of the oppressed, but advocating on their behalf. Due to our relative positions of power and privilege, we as 21st-century American Christians have a unique opportunity to not just lament injustice, but also to do something about it. Fortunately, we are not under the heel of Pharaoh, Babylon, or Caesar. We are in a better position to advocate for and implement justice. But with that blessing comes the responsibility not to collude with or become Pharaoh, Babylon, or Caesar.
So how might we hold our texts for today up as a mirror in such a way that we can become advocates for those who cannot advocate for themselves? And in the face of this difficult work, how might Jesus “increase our faith” as the apostles in today’s Gospel lesson demanded? One specific context where we can take our emboldened faith into action is prisons and the criminal justice system. One thing that I love about the time I have spent participating in prison ministry is that is has put me with groups of other Christians – on both sides of the bars - with whom I otherwise shared very little in common – politically, theologically, or socially. But when it comes to answering Christ’s call for us to visit him in prison, all of those differences seem to fade away. I can say with conviction say that the closest I have felt to living out Christ’s call to discipleship – to take up my cross and follow him - has been when I have participated in prison ministry.
Not too long ago, our Adult Forum class read and discussed “The Sun Does Shine” by Anthony Ray Hinton. His story tugged at our hearts and gave us an excellent glimpse of how the criminal justice system initially failed to execute justice. And the only way that justice was ultimately served in this case was through the tireless, courageous, and faithful efforts of attorney Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative. Someone had to stand up for what was good, right, and just.
Last week, our Adult Forum class began a new study called “Outrageous Justice,” which is a book and study guide published by Prison Fellowship, a Christian prison ministry organization that believes that, “Every person is made in the image of God, [and] no life is beyond His reach. Founded in 1976, Prison Fellowship® exists to serve all those affected by crime and incarceration, and to see lives and communities restored in and out of prison—one transformed life at a time.”
What I love about Prison Fellowship and the Outrageous Justice curriculum is that their focus is on justice – not just for the incarcerated but for the victims and communities who are affected by crime as well. In chapter 2 of the book, it mentions that “justice and mercy intersected at the cross.” We need both, otherwise we end up with cheap grace or unbridled justice. The book goes on to say that “God’s desire for justice extends even farther than atonement for sin and provision of salvation. In fact, the Bible exhorts Christ-followers to live justly and love mercy in their daily lives.”
And this exhortation is a thread that runs through our lessons for today. Keep in mind that Paul wrote his letters to Timothy from prison. But also note that Paul didn’t let his incarcerated status define him. His baptismal status was what defined him. And Paul did a faithful job of remaining grounded in his baptismal identity.
And one way that we can remain grounded in our baptismal identity is to find ways to advocate for justice for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Prison Ministry is one of many ways we can do this. Keep in mind that there are numerous ways you can participate in prison ministry without going into the prisons. Go to the Prison Fellowship website and join us for our Sunday Forum for many ideas of how you can get involved. Also, you can speak with Libby Fisher and me about our Diocesan Commission for Prison Ministry if you’d like to get involved at the diocesan level.
But if we go out from here inspired to advocate for the prisoner who cannot advocate for themselves, we must be sure that we do so grounded in our Christian faith and identity. It is incumbent on us to be able to make the connection between our baptisms, our weekly feasting on Christ’s Body and Blood, and our mission in the world. If we do one without the other, we are not making the critical connection between faith and works.
Michaela Bruzzeze points out that in our readings today, Paul encourages Timothy to "bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God." And in today's gospel, Jesus assures the disciples that even the smallest amount of faith can move … firmly rooted trees. Surely, then, our faith can also strengthen us in the face of evil and injustice.” In other words, we can’t fight the good fight alone. As it says in today’s psalm, “Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass. He will make your righteousness as clear as the light and your just dealing as the noonday.” When we advocate for justice, we need the grounding and support of our community of faith, as well as an utter dependence on God’s mercy and grace.