Longing for Justice


Luke 10:38-42

"Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

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Many years ago Paula and I took into our house a young mother and her bi-racial newborn baby. They lived with us for several months. The biological father had just begun a seven-year prison sentence on drug charges.

We unofficially adopted that mother and child. He became our first “grandchild” and we loved him as our own. For many years thereafter they were part of our family. He’s now 14 years old. And as of a week ago Saturday his mother has a new worry. She doesn’t want her son ever walking alone at night in any neighborhood in this country.

The death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman have been on my mind this week. There were many other things I could have thought or fretted about, many distractions and preoccupations, including the torrid heat, Syria, Egypt and the royal baby, but—thanks to the gospel lesson for today—I discovered the one thing needful—for me. Race matters.

In this country, race still matters.

This week I sat at the feet of our Lord and rediscovered the passion of Christ. You can’t hear his racially tinged Good Samaritan story in church one week and forget the very next week that over the past 500 years a certain people in our society have been beaten, robbed and left to die while privileged people walk by.

That sort of thing really bugs Jesus. It’s that sort of thing that was always on his mind and in his heart.

And it’s no wonder since his mother weaned him on the words of the prophets, prophets like Amos. Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land. I will not forget what you have done to them. Listen, listen, listen to the word of the Lord.

Jesus was weaned on the prophets. You may recall that Jesus publicly announced that his life work was and would be shaped by the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. The Spirit has anointed me
 to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives
 and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:16-22)

Did you hear that? There’s nothing there about taking people out of this world into a world of pie in the sky bye and bye. But there’s everything there about moving people out of a miserable world into a more humane world on this planet. And that as you know takes work and prayer. Not one or the other. Both.

And that brings me to the gospel lesson for today.

It’s unfortunate that this little gospel story about Mary and Martha has been trivialized as a domestic quarrel pitting Mary’s life of contemplation against Martha’s life of activism. Such a reading falls into the dualistic trap of either-or. As it turns out, both are important—praying and working; being and doing; listening and speaking.

By the way, there is no mention of a kitchen or a meal in this story. So we are free to imagine what Martha was fretting about (perhaps keeping track of her electronic devices!). And we are free to imagine what Mary heard as she sat listening to Jesus.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary. Mary was sitting at the Lord's feet listening to what he was saying. Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to Jesus, "Lord, she said, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to get up and help me."  But the Lord answered, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; only one thing is needful and Mary has chosen that. She has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her."

One thing is needful. What could that one thing be?

If we widen our lens to see the context that precedes and follows this little gospel scene it becomes clear that the one thing Jesus thought needful was working to bring peace, freedom and justice to people. It’s called the kingdom of God. Or we might call it the empire of God and since God is love that means the kingdom or kin-dom or reign or empire of God is love—as exemplified, in part, by the Good Samaritan story, the feeding of the 5,000, healing of sick, forgiving of hurts and so much more.

The empire of love is an alternative, a counter culture to a different kind of empire. In that time and place the empire on everyone’s mind and back was Roman.

The Roman Empire wanted world peace. It wanted world peace so badly it killed anyone who got in the way. But like most empires it overlooked the one needful thing: without justice there is no peace.

Jesus also wanted world peace and believed the way to get there was by practicing compassion, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, befriending the stigmatized, forgiving hurts, and liberating those in prisons of one sort or another. But, alas, the transformation of society also requires a transformation of the heart. The kingdom of God is within, Jesus said. Or as Gandhi put it: If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed--but hate those things inside yourself, not in another.

There’s more to this little story of Mary and Martha than many people see. For one thing, it’s a pause in Jesus’ momentous journey to Jerusalem. In the gospel moment before us this morning we see Jesus affirming the role of women in the work of the kingdom. It’s a pretty good guess that was what he shared with Mary.

This little lesson also warns women against succumbing to socially defined roles and preoccupations that crush their own dreams and visions. Mary chose to defy stereotypes and for that she received a blessing from our Lord. After all, justice for women is part of the kingdom’s call.

You can’t hear the Good Samaritan story in church one week and forget the very next week that a certain people in this country has been beaten, robbed and left to die while privileged people walk by.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion—these are the words of Martin Luther King in his letter from a Birmingham jail— I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but rather the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.

I have no quarrel with the Zimmerman verdict. Given the laws of Florida it seems the jury decided fairly. Zimmerman was declared “not guilty” according the laws of Florida. By the way, did you know that no jury ever pronounces a defendant “innocent?” Only God knows that. Not guilty is one thing; innocent is another.

One African American put it like this: it might have been fair but it wasn’t just. And millions of others agreed. No matter the verdict, the national debate in its aftermath reveals much about who we are—what we’ve become and have yet to become as a nation.

Whether you know it or not, there is still a racial caste system in this country, a caste system that began with slavery nearly 500 years ago. Following the Civil War there was a brief respite but that was quickly followed by a hundred years of Jim Crow segregation policies—segregated schools, lunch counters and bathrooms. The 20th century Civil Rights movement prompted significant civil rights legislation including the Voting Rights Act. Those laws eliminated many discriminatory practices but not all and not irreversibly.

Today Jim Crow is back. Jim Crow is back in a yet another version of racial oppression. It’s called the criminal justice system.

You’d be shocked at the percentage of black men who are either in prison or bear the permanent stigma of incarceration or probation. As Michelle Alexander points out in her recent book, The New Jim Crow, being in prison is not the worse part although that’s bad enough. It’s the prison label and stigma that shackles nearly half the male black population in this nation to a life of poverty and exclusion.

Welcome back to bondage.

Unless you believe that men of color are born with a criminal gene, you have to suspect it’s the social and economic conditions into which many are born that aggravate criminal behavior. And surprise, surprise, when it comes to color, laws are not neutral, nor are punishments equal.

Once we see this, really see this with open eyes, it can’t help but make us long for a different kind of nation. Reforming the criminal justice system is a tough, tough challenge. One thing we can do now is simply raise our awareness. We can sit at the feet of Jesus. We can listen to his passion for justice. We can educate ourselves to the inconvenient truth and when opportunities arise we can stand up and speak out in love. Reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, is a good place to begin.

It’s true: we must be on guard to protect our neighborhoods, our communities and our nation against destructive threats. But we can easily be distracted and preoccupied by the wrong dangers. The greatest threats to our nation are chronic racism, poverty, injustice, and discrimination of many kinds. Against these things we can and must be vigilant. And it doesn’t require a gun. It requires wisdom and compassion and hearts strengthened by faith, hope and love. It requires courage.

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HYMN “There Is a Longing”