Hearts for Justice

Psalm 23 & John 10

Many years ago, while I was working as a student-chaplain in a large hospital, I had an unforgettable experience with the Twenty-Third Psalm. You see, I was paged one evening to attend to a person who was dying. When I arrived in her room, she wasn’t awake, but standing beside her bed was a middle-aged woman who described herself as the woman’s caregiver. Upon further discussion, I discovered that the dying woman was Jewish. The caregiver, a self-described “nominal Christian,” was concerned about praying for her since she, and I as well, wanted to honor her faith tradition. So, we decided to pray from a common text of our two faiths: The Old Testament. And specifically, the Twenty-Third Psalm.

Now, let me pause here in the story and share something. Over the course of my twenty plus years as a pastor, there have been numerous occasions when an apparently unconscious person, begins to mouth the Lord’s Prayer or a favorite Hymn on their death bed. But what happened next was truly amazing. As the caregiver and I recited the Twenty-Third Psalm, the dying Jewish woman opened her eyes, just a bit, and a slight smile crossed her face. Not a smile of glee or great joy, but it seemed to me to be a smile of assurance, as if she understood that everything would be alright.

Now, upon reflection and further study, I learned that the Twenty-Third Psalm is considered by Judaism as one of the great poems of King David, and, as in our own faith tradition, it’s considered one of the most comforting passages in all of Scripture.

But why is it so comforting?

Well, I would suggest that it has something to do with the image of a shepherd. A shepherd tends the sheep, right? She keeps them safe and provides for their security. She makes sure they are cared for and fed. But even more than that, a good shepherd, knows and loves the sheep in her charge. Which is a not-so-subtle transition to our gospel passage for today, John 10: Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Now, as comforting as the image of a shepherd can be, I would like to focus today on the concept of Jesus as good.  But in order to do that we must begin with a brief word study on the meaning of term “good.” Good, first of all, can refer to “technical proficiency.” In other words, being efficient at one’s job or effective as a parent or whatever. In this sense, to say that someone is good is to say that they produce a good product or desirable outcome.

Okay. But as we look at our gospel text for today, I don’t think John was complementing Jesus on this sheep-tending skills. Something else must be at play. And that something else is a second and more relevant meaning of the word “good.” Good, as we see it used here, describes the character of a person and the relationships that emerge from that character.”[i] The term good, then, can be understood as living morally, compassionately, or selflessly.

So, when John elevated the description of Jesus as the Good Shepherd to one of only seven “I Am” statements in this book, it tells us not only this it’s important, but that it must necessarily indicate an attribute of God. You see, when Jesus says “I Am..” such as I am the True Light, or I Am Living Water, or I Am the Bread of Life… He is describing a bit of what God is like. How do we know this? Well, remember the whole burning bush thing back in Exodus? Moses asked God for God’s name and God said, “I Am who I am.”

Well, John is intentionally and clearly creating a equivocation between Jesus and God. In the Prologue to the book, John said, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Jesus, of course, was the Word.

So, the character of Jesus, what he says and how he lives, is a reflection of the character of God. So, the shepherd then, Jesus, is fundamentally “good.” He’s good not in the sense of being proficient at something, although I’m sure he was skilled a great many ways, rather, Jesus the Shepherd was good in character just as God’s character or nature is fundamentally good.

Now, this is important to us because we, as people of faith, are called to be a reflection of God, to be Christ-like, to actually “be good” itself in the world around us. And through my experience with the dying Jewish woman, I have come to realize that no matter what name we use to describe the divine, whether it’s God or Father or Mother, or Creator, or whether it’s Yahweh, or the Sacred, or Allah, or whatever… over and over again, in every sacred text of every major religion, we that the fundamental nature of God is good.

Now, let’s pause here for a moment and address the elephant in the room. In the Quran, in the Torah, in the Hebrew Scriptures shared by Judaism and Christianity, and in the New Testament of our own Bible, we sometimes see a vengeful and violent portrayal of God. So, how do we reconcile a God whom the writer of I John says “is love itself” with the God of wrath we read about? In other word, how can we proclaim that God is good, that God seeks justice and liberation and equity for all people, when some passages of Scripture suggest otherwise?

Great question and it’s not an easy on to deal with. But, with that being said, I think the most valuable way of understanding this disparity comes to us for the late Marcus Borg. When speaking on this very subject, he emphatically held that the bible is finally a human product.

He wrote, “…it contains the voices of our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel and early Christianity. It tells us about their experiences of God, their thoughts about God, their understandings of what life with God is about, their praise and prayers, and their wisdom. We hear their voices, their witness, and their testimony. And their limited understandings, their blindness and conventions, and their desire for protection and vengeance against their enemies. It’s all there.”[ii]

What a brilliant way to understanding the Bible. Far too often we’ve been led to believe that the Bible is a divine product, as if it was somehow written by God. But in reality, the Bible is a human product, written by people who were inspired by their experience of the divine, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in their time and context, and as defined by their culture. The Bible, when seen in this way, opens to us the experiences of our forbearers, to their fear and doubt, their insecurities, and their need for vengeance. But it also illuminates for us the presence of God that they felt as they faced these challenges and attempted to be and do better; as they attempted to be good.

So, my friends, it’s with this understanding of the Bible and with the realization that the nature of God is finally good, that we are naturally, and unmistakably led, to a desire be and do better ourselves. We have a term for this: Justice. Justice is about being aware of the needs of others and then doing whatever it takes to fulfill those needs. Justice, like God, is in and of itself, fundamentally good. That’s why we’re called, as people of faith, to have hearts for justice. But not only hearts, we are challenged to have hands that serve, feet that march, minds that think, and voices that advocate for justice, liberation, and equality for all people and for the conservation of this planet. I don’t know how to say it any plainer.

My friends, as we continue to propagate hearts for justice, as we continue to heal as a nation, and as we continue to recover as a world, my hope and prayer for all of us, is that we will be safe, that we will be well, and that we will remember the assurance of the Twenty Third Psalm, that God is our shepherd, the Good Shepherd, and God’s justice is the justice we seek for the most vulnerable among us, for the most marginalized and oppressed, for the stranger, for the refugee and the immigrant, for the lonely and the hopeless, and for this fragile planet. God’s justice seeks the good. May we seek it as well.

This is my prayer.

Amen & Amen.

[i] Feasting on the Gospels. John Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson eds. (Westminster John Know Press, 2015) pgs. 14-18

[ii] Marcus J. Borg. (Quote from a posting on marcusjborg.org January 22, 2014)

One Great Hour

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.

Do you remember the old fable called Stone Soup? There are many versions of this story, but essentially, it’s about a hungry traveler who came upon a village carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. Upon his arrival, however, he discovered that the villagers were unwilling to share any of their food. So, the traveler hatched a plan. He filled his pot with water, dropped in a large stone, and placed it over a fire. Now, one of the villagers became curious and asked him what he was doing. The traveler answered that he was making “stone soup.”  “Stone soup,” he said, “tastes better than anything else in the whole world and that he would be delighted to share it with the entire village.” “But there’s one problem,” he continued, “it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor.”

Now, the villager, who anticipated enjoying a share of the soup, didn’t mind donating a few carrots. And as the story progresses, we see the same thing happen over and over again, as more villagers become curious about the soup pot, each, in the end, adding another ingredient. Finally, when the soup was ready, the stone was removed, and the delicious pot of soup was enjoyed by traveler and villagers alike. What’s the moral of this fable? The value of sharing.

Now, in a very real sense, this is also the moral of our gospel text for today. Looking at the immediate context, the verses previous to our reading for today, we see Jesus convince 5000 people to share their provisions with each other. The generosity that Jesus inspired among those crowded on the wilderness hillside that day is the real miracle that this narrative points us toward.  

Now, bearing this in mind, we come to today’s narrative. Jesus and his disciples crossed the lake, only to find that the crowd had followed them there. When they approached him, he abruptly accused them of seeking “food that doesn’t last.”  In a sense, he said they followed him not because of the miracle of generosity they had witnessed and participated in just the day before, instead, Jesus accused the crowd of following him only because their tummies had been filled. In other words, they were focused on their personal needs, their immediate gratification, rather than the health and wholeness of the entire community. This is why Jesus was upset with them.

So, what does this mean for us? Well, I would contend that we sometimes fall into this trap as well. We sometimes, individually and historically as a nation, we have sometimes focused on our immediate gratification, on our personal gain, rather than the health and wholeness of the “other” whoever the “other” may be.

This is why God’s grace exists. This is way Lent is important. Grace exists and Lent is important because it provides us with the opportunity to reflect, realize our shortcomings, and then turn around, correcting our way of thinking, and in turn, our behavior.  

The most relevant and current example of this is the “American Rescue Plan.” Now, before I continue, it’s important to understand that I’m not promoting one political party over the other and I’m not saying that this 1.9 trillion dollar stimulus package is perfect by any means. No bill passed by either party is ever perfect or contains every things they wanted. But, that being said, this is the first legislation in my lifetime, or in a very long time anyway, that prioritizes the poor over the rich.

And this is big! Why? Because over the course of many, many years, we, the United Church of Christ and both of our local congregations, have participated in acts of justice. We’ve literally fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the lonely, and comforted the grieving. We’ve generously donated our time, our talent, our hearts and souls, and our wealth to help people we know in our communities and people across the nation and globe whom we will never meet. And today, we are invited to participate once again in the One Great Hour of Sharing offering. OGHS demonstrates for us the value of sharing our resources and what it mean to be the Church beyond ourselves.  

The American Rescue Plan, however, represents a step beyond what we can do and individuals or even as congregations. It moves past local justice efforts, and begins to address the issues of social justice. It’s like the vison statement of both the Cable and Delta churches says: “United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.” This is a good reminder of who we are and what we stand for. Remember, in addition to that vision statement, we also adopted purpose and mission statements along with a proclamation that coincide with the UCC statements adopted by the General Synod.

Our purpose is “to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.” Our mission statement is “United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.” And finally, we proclaim that to “be the Church” we must “protect the environment, care for the poor, forgive often, reject racism, love God, fight for the powerless, embrace diversity, share earthly and spiritual resources, and enjoy this life.”

Share earthly and spiritual resources. Isn’t this reflective of Jesus message? Isn’t this the moral philosophy that the stone soup fable offer us? And isn’t this finally what the majority of the American Rescue Act is all about? The value of sharing?

My friends, as the pandemic continues to subside, and as our economy continues to recover, I pray that all of you are safe, well, and continue to move in the direction of justice, both on a personal and congregational level, and by advocating for a wider social justice, seeking equality, health and wholeness, for all people and all of God’s beautiful creation.

Amen and Amen.