Worship, justice, and a rotten grape

Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

Last week I couldn’t be here because I spent two days with the National Farm Worker Ministry. The Farm Work Ministry was formed by Christians who read passages such as Micah 6:8 and saw the injustices done to many farm workers. That they formed such an organization is a testament to their heeding the call to justice. They rightly understand that our Bible, the way of Jesus, and church teaching calls on us to seek justice.

When I landed and was waiting a few hours in the airport there were literally tumble weeds blowing across the airport parking lot. While driving between Bakersfield, Tehachapi (where we stayed), and La Paz (where we met) we passed desert hills and plains where irrigation had turned dry grass into orange groves and green fields.

We heard stories from board members older than me who were deeply involved in the campaigns for farmer work rights with César Chavez. These were stories not unlike John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.

We also heard stories from farm workers who were struggling to make enough money to support their family’s basic needs. One man talked about how his supervisor would threaten and manipulate to make workers go faster under the threat of punishment. Another woman saw workers working hard and then the supervisor give them a ticket—three of which cost them their job—in order to increase output. One that I remember particularly well was with harvesting grapes. If one rotten grape was found in a case of grapes, and there are many cases in a day, then the worker was not allowed to work the rest of the day. Not only this but since the shuttle, which the worker needed to pay for, only came in the evening the farm worker needed to wait the entire rest of the day to get home.

Certainly they were right to think that Christians ought to care for justice. The argument even in its simplest form is hard to miss—If you eat you should care about farm workers. Or another way– farm workers who provide food for our families should be able to afford food for their families. The justice in this is clear.

While I am certainly in favor of working for justice I would like to raise a few questions around our notion of justice. By this I mean to challenge our thinking on justice to not necessarily change our idea towards something more correct or to criticize but to put it into the context of the passages but also run it alongside the other passages we read today.

First, perhaps is the notion of rightly worshiping and being with God in a particular manner. “Do justice” is in the 8th verse of our passage which is in the 6th chapter of Micah which is the 33rd book out of 39 in the Old Testament. Justice certainly shows up before this verse found deep in the Hebrew scripture but it is not alone. Micah 6:1-8 is not a passage about justice per se it is about Israel’s relationship to God. It is not justice in an abstract form but justice woven tightly into all that is Israel.

The scene is set as a courtroom with the world, particularly nature, as the witness of the proceedings.

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
God then lays out the case and recounts the history of his saving action on their behalf

3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
The writer then poses a rhetorical question concerning sacrifice. 6 “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? We must remember that at this point sacrifice was a primary form of worshiping God. Additionally for this people their standing before God was in many ways contingent on sacrifice. Sacrifice was the way of dedicating oneself or a child to the Lord, it was the way of dealing with sin, it was the way of giving thanks for the harvest. Sacrifice was not a novel or non-necessary aspect of Israel’s relationship to God. The answer to this question, however, is no—or at a very least this is not the sole requirement.
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the
Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

While not getting rid of the more formal aspects of relating to God Micah highlights the core of what the “Lord requires of you”– Nothing less than to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Let’s hold this thought of Micah and turn our attention to the passage in 1Corinthians. Here we see the wisdom of God compared to the foolishness of the world’s wisdom. The Apostle Paul writes that when Christ appeared and then was preached this message was seen as foolishness by some—he says “those who are perishing” but to those who believe it is the wisdom of God.

Perhaps nothing sounds more foolish than the Beatitudes—the “Blessed are….”statements in Matthew 5. “Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the merciful….blessed are those persecuted, reviled, and lied about because of Jesus. “

Whereas we [modern Christians] may tend to justify our more eccentric practices such as singing together or meeting on Sunday by noting that our community is really about seeking justice or feeding the homeless—that is we try to explain our oddness by showing how we are really for improving our communities….in these passages relation to God is the primary focus but how we live in the world —that is seeking justice, loving kindness, embodying the beatitudes—qualifies how we are in relationship with God.

I have three propositions relating to justice and worship that will hopefully help us explore the relationship between these practices and virtues which we see in these passages.

1. Justice is part of worship

We have a tendency to quarantine what we call “worship” which is usually thought to primarily include singing or the Sunday morning meeting from “justice” or perhaps more broadly ethics. If we admit a link we often think of these as related such that worship prepares us in some way for living ethically or acting for justice. Sometimes worship is used as part of acting for justice. Faith-based activists sometimes note that clergy are often wanted for rallies—they call it “rent-a-collar”—clergy need to wear their distinguishing garb to put on a good show. [I noticed that at the Religions for Peace World Assembly this fall that I was more likely to have the event photographers pause to take a picture if I was, along with my beard, wearing this olive wood cross from the West Bank and sitting near one of the other young adult delegates who was wearing a hijab—the Muslim head covering]

This not only is the case for non-religious activist groups. This is regularly part of overtly religious organizations engaged for justice. My most recent experience of this was at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture prayer vigil on Tuesday evening. The vigil was to mark the 5th anniversary of Obama saying he would close the Guantanamo detention center. The vigil was essentially for pictures to use in line with the State of the Union address.

From this we can observe that many people feel that religion has some connection to justice –this is likely a residual effect of religion—in this country, Christianity—have a great deal of social power. This is not the moment for reflecting on whether or not the institutional-political power of the church was a good thing, though as an Anabaptist, I doubt we should mourn the passing of this assumption.

Whatever the legitimacy of using symbols of worship in seeking justice we note from our passages that our commitment to seeking justice qualifies our worship. To undermine or disregard justice is to undermine our relationship to God.

But this talk of actively seeking justice raises a question–How do we square working for justice with the beatitudes seemingly more gentle tone? While these two may seem at odds, at least in practical terms, a positive reading of Matthew 5 and Micah 6 could be –Seeking justice cannot be divorced from virtues that appear at odds with gaining power for change. That is, seeking justice does not automatically condone the means.

Those of us who attend to Micah’s call for us to seek justice and who do this in an active way—especially those of us who do this for our job are familiar with tactics for gaining the ability to change attitudes, policy, and practices toward justice. There are tactics and ways of getting attention. This attention is for the purpose of power. In politics that have not devolved to war this power typically lies in public opinion and politician’s fear of the poll.

So we set the active seeking of justice—which is at least in part—a matter of gaining power for those without power alongside the beatitudes. Think organizing for a protest and listen again to Matthew 5.

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

It has been observed that these “Blessed” statements are not so much commands as characteristics of the Kingdom of God. The people that God has constituted will be identifiable by these traits. —If this is the case and Micah 6:8 is an indictment of peoples’ walking with God wrongly then these two are not in opposition–or at least not in irreconcilable difference.

Not only is the manner of justice seeking critical but the end that is sought changes everything. The collaboration and action for justice are on a second look perhaps not entirely what it seems. For we seek to gain power—and certainly this can be done in ways that are not godly—but this is not for our own benefit.

2. Seeking justice cannot be divorced from virtues that appear at odds with gaining power for change. That is, seeking justice does not automatically condone the means. A good end does not make the means beyond reproach.

Not only is the how important—and this how is challenged by the virtues of Matthew 5 but the direction of our action is important. While this town is full of people hired to defend the good of their employer—which are often the powerful and moneyed—when we seek justice, whether in our personal relationships or on the national and international stage, we are primarily focused on others. While there are certainly many very legitimate cases of people fighting for justice for themselves, their family, or their group as people of God we are primarily focused outside of ourselves. When we seek justice–

3. We prioritize seeking justice for others.

A Gallop Poll, noted in the Christian Century magazine, ranked public perceptions of certain professions ranks lobbyists near the bottom of a list of 20 professions—While my office engages in lobbying we are not registered lobbyists. We have friends and colleagues at FCNL and Network (Nuns on the bus) who are registered lobbyists. One critical difference is that most lobbyists are trying to gain something for their employer. Weapons companies, health care industry, wheat growers association—almost any big industry that has a vested interest in policy. This is quite distinct from the people I work with who are seeking to be a voice for people without a voice.

Worship turns us away from ourselves. Seeking justice and caring for others turns us away from ourselves. Given the typically mild winters of DC this stretch of relatively cold weather has caught many people’s attention. As I go from meeting to meeting a question in refrain is “how is the cold?” At a meeting on Wednesday a colleague from the Presbyterian office asked this familiar question. Since the big repeating event for us in this cold is our gas line freezing and heat going out, I mentioned this difficulty. I noted, however, that we have found ways to keep our house relatively warm and noted that that while this has been an irritation many of our guests at the Brethren Nutrition Program are without adequate shelter—this knowledge has affected how I feel about uncertain heat. When you know people and are working to help–working for justice–it becomes less easy to simply think about yourself and complain about whatever happens to be on your mind. Our worship and our justice seeking turns us toward God and toward others.

In the face of all sort of causes and injustices—we can get caught up in making the world more just and…miss “loving kindness.” Last night—I must confess—I failed at kindness. I was a jerk.

What is justice without kindness? What is worship without justice? May God grant us the wisdom and strength to do justice, love kindness , and walk humbly with our God and one another. 

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