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Do justice

A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

A Sermon for Social Justice Sunday (September 29, 2004)

A Sermon for Social Justice Sunday (September 29, 2004)

By Valori Sherer


Text: Proper 21: September 29. Delivered to my field ed sites (St. Mary's Convent and Epiphany Sherwood).

“The following is a prayer taken from Mother Theresa’s Meditations from A Simple Path:

Dear Lord, the Great Healer, I kneel before You,
Since every perfect gift must come from You.
I pray, give skill to my hands,
clear vision to my mind,
kindness and meekness to my heart.
Give me singleness of purpose,
strength to lift up part of the burden of
my suffering fellow man,
and a true realization of the privilege that is mine.
Take from my heart all guile and worldliness,
That with the simple faith of a child,
I may rely on you.”[1]

This is a prayer seeking to answer God’s call to social justice.

The same call issued by the Prophet Amos in today’s reading. The same call issued by the psalmist, St. Paul, and even Jesus himself in today’s readings.

It’s a call for an inward change: Meekness of heart and a true realization of our privilege…that has an outward effect: strength to lift up the part of the burden suffered by others that I can.

Privilege is “a right or immunity granted, and it is specifically attached to a position or office.”[2] In other words, it is the right to have and immunity from guilt for having.

Being comfortable, being privileged, creates a blindness in us. Those of us who have can be blinded to the needs of those who have not.

As the Prophets like Amos, remind us: “those who enjoy the fruits of wealth and luxury without regard to the plight of the poor and needy are as guilty as those who actively exploit them.”[3]

In her book “Healing a Broken World” Cynthia Moe-Lobeda quotes a Mexican strawberry picker as saying, “Our children die of hunger because our land, which ought to grow food for them, is used by international companies to produce strawberries for your tables.”[4]

These are the privileged ones Amos is warning to repent. These are the comfortable ones whom Jesus is addressing in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel.

In that story, the rich man goes on day after day just not thinking much about the poor man, Lazarus, who sits nearby hungry, and covered in sores. He doesn’t even notice when Lazarus has starved to death right outside his gate. When the rich man dies, he is surprised to find their roles reversed.

Now he is suffering and on the other side of a great chasm, Lazarus, the rightful heir to Abraham, is being comforted. The rich man had forgotten Amos’ warning: Alas for those who are at ease…they will be the first into exile. (Amos 6:1,7)

Jesus restates this idea in a familiar phrase in Mark’s gospel: “many who are first will be last and the last will be first.” (Mk 10:31) This trap of privilege Amos warns about

is such an easy trap to fall into.

And humans are masterful when it comes to justifying what they want.

American slave owners in the 19th century justified their ownership of persons stolen from Africa by saying:

  1. Slaves weren’t human. Those in the privileged group had agreed to believe that Negroes had no souls. Therefore, their inhumane treatment of them was justified.

  2. The slave-owners were good people. The slaves were better off in their benevolent care than they would be on their own, so their continued forced imprisonment was justified.

  3. Slavery was Scriptural. These Christians were immune from Jesus’ command to love their neighbors as themselves, because they had agreed to understand the Scriptures as determining that slavery was an institution in keeping with God’s natural order of things.

Besides, Negroes weren’t human, so they weren’t neighbors. Immunity intact and justification complete.

It took a Civil War to undo that justification and it nearly destroyed our country.

Those who suffered and died for the abolition of slavery are saints and martyrs whose singleness of purpose freed us from a terrible sin – a sin of privilege.

I don’t mean to imply that we’re entirely free from the sin of racism, nowadays, we fall more often into a subtler kind of privilege. Things like: I really need this software, but I can’t afford it. I’ll just copy it. They’re charging too much for it anyway and it’s not like Bill Gates needs the money. Besides, everyone else is doing it.

Or – I’m not going to declare this income on my tax form. I disagree with the current tax structure, it’s not fair, and I didn’t vote for it. Besides, the government gets enough of my money already.

I need it….I want it….I deserve to have it. This is the sin of privilege we struggle against today.

But the children of Abraham are called to something different. We who are richly blessed with wealth, or power, or position are called to open our eyes to a ‘true realization of the privilege that is ours.’ To notice the plight of those who have little or nothing, and then to imitate God by acting to restore right relationships.

We are called to be the presence of Jesus Christ in our world, who declared that the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. (Lk 4:18-19)

I bartended at a party Friday night for Parent’s Weekend at the University. My partner, an older black man, and I stood for several hours behind a table and he was in obvious pain in his legs. He needed to sit down, but there was no chair for him. I assured him that I could handle pouring the beer and wine alone for a few minutes so he sat down on some nearby steps and rested.

As we were leaving, I walked with this older man and his wife to our cars. He told me that he had lived and worked here in Sewanee for 43 years. In all those years he has never earned above $7.50 an hour.

The minimum wage in our country is simply not enough to live on. The term “subsistence wages” is a lie.

35 million Americans are currently living in poverty in this - the richest country in the world!

45 million Americans can’t afford health insurance. This is a statistic that hits particularly close to home because my family is among them as are many families of Episcopalian seminarians.

But I’m not telling you things you don’t already know. Most of us here today are already actively working to make things better in our world.

But how far will we go? Will we hear Amos’ call to repent of our privilege? Or will we, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, understand it too late?

The Christian’s call to social justice is one we inherited from our Jewish forebears.

It is a call Jesus lived out in his ministry on earth. Jesus confronted the oppressive systems of his time calling them to repentance.

Except for a few times when he got mad and called them hypocrites and a brood of vipers,Jesus approached those in the oppresive systems with mercy. But even in his mercy, Jesus called them to account.

In the portion of Luke’s gospel just prior to our reading today, Jesus confronts the Pharisees saying, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Lk 6:15)

Jesus called the Pharisees to recognize and reform their oppressive systems. He called them to open their eyes and see the cost of their privilege: isolation from each other and from God.

Jesus modeled how to welcome the stranger and demonstrated how the covenant people had been redefined by eating with Gentiles and sinners and calling women to be disciples. In response, they killed him.

That sort of redefinition of self proved too hard to do. We confront the same problem today. We understand ourselves as good people, and rightly so for the most part. We’re trying to do the right thing according to the will of God as we understand it from Scripture, tradition, and reason.

But sometimes, when we see ourselves through the eyes of those others,…like the Mexican strawberry picker…we may begin see the real cost of our privilege.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus shows us where failure to repent of our privilege will lead us: to an eternal prison with a great chasm that forever separates us from the eternal presence of God.

These are the prisoners Jesus set free. It is us.

Take hold of eternal life, says Paul, the life that is really life. (1Tim 6: 17,19)

The lives we see lived in great wealth, in positions of power and privilege, seem so important. We follow their every moves on television and in magazines. Celebrity gossip, celebrity fashions, celebrity marriages and divorces…We can’t get enough of it.

A current big hit is a TV show in which rich heiresses play at ‘living poor’

and they call it ‘reality TV’! Well, clearly this is not the life that Paul describes as really life as celebrated as it may be in our culture.

Christians are people of the New Covenant. Together with the other children of Abraham,

we seek something different – eternal life, life in the eternal presence of God.

We remember and heed the call of God to social justice. A call found in the Scriptures, in the voices of the Prophets, and in the life of Jesus. A call to care for the stranger, to feed the hungry, to raise up the lowly, and to set the prisoners free,

We trust in the faithfulness of God who is Almighty, whose “power is declared chiefly in showing mercy.” (BCP, 234) who can and will act to restore the relationships that have gone wrong. And we open ourselves to a true realization of our privilege so that we can take up our part of the burden of suffering that is around us.

We are called to be imitators of Christ. He went to the cross to answer this call.

How far will we go?

[1] Lucinda Vardy, editor, Mother Theresa, Meditations from A Simple Path (Ballantine Books, NY, 1996), 54-55.

[2] Miriam-Webster Online Dictionary,

[3] Bruce C. Birch, Let Justice Roll Down, The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1991), 263.

[4] Cynthia C. Moe-Lobeda, Healing a Broken World, Globalization and God (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2002), 1.

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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