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Sermon | Worship and Justice
Texts: Micah 6:6-8; Mark 15:16-24
Speaker: Joel Miller
If you came to church this morning needing some good news, here you go: The Ohio legislature is close to abolishing the death penalty in our state.
If you checked in to worship feeling isolated and disconnected from community, then consider this: We are one of many participants in the Death Penalty Abolition Week for Ohio Faith Communities. As the Cleveland Jewish News reports: “The faith communities involved represent a broad spectrum of beliefs, including Judaism, Sikhism, Paganism, Zoroastrianism, Catholicism, interfaith communities, and several Christian denominations like Methodists, Episcopalians, the United Church of Christ, Evangelical congregations and the Mennonites.”
Something interesting has to be going on when Mennonites end up on the same list as Pagans, Evangelicals, and Zoroastrians.
Throw in Pope Francis’s 2018 edit to the Catholic Catechism and we’re really in business:
“The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” (Catholic Catechism 2267)
Death Penalty Abolition Week shows up on this second week of our worship series: Voices Together and the worlds worship creates. It’s a good chance to explore the relationship between worship and justice.
A go-to scripture for justice matters is Micah 6:8 – “God has shown you, o mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” This is the scripture we chose to put on our church t-shirts that we wear for BREAD meetings and public demonstrations. “Do justice, Love mercy, Walk humbly.”
The rabbis discerned 613 commandments or mitzvoth in the Torah, and a line in the Jewish Talmud says that “Micah came and established the 613 mitzvot upon three.” (b. Makk. 24a). Justice. Loving kindness. Humility.
What can get lost if we just get in sound bite mode with this passage is that it has to do with the relationship of worship and justice.
In Micah’s time, the covenant relationship between Israel and Yahweh had been strained, as it often was. So the prophet sets up this court room type scenario in which Yahweh, the plaintiff, brings a case against the people of Israel. Micah 6:3 - “Oh my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you?...For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”
Israel, the defendant, offers to make things right, but either doesn’t know or pretends to not know how to do that.
That’s where the reading from today picks up, when Israel has its chance to speak. Micah 6:6-7: “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? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
I think Israel might have been getting a little sarcastic there at the end.
Offerings and sacrifices were acts of worship. They were part of the rhythm that permeated the culture and household life, a sacred thread that connected the people and their God.
But the verdict in this case points to the essential fibers in that thread without which there is neither strength nor substance.
“God has told you, o mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you?” Justice, loving kindness, humility.
All justice is restorative justice because it restores the primordial bond between creation and Creator. It restores, in the words of Pope Francis, “the inviolability and dignity” of each person.
This tendency for the rituals of worship to lose sight of the essential threads of justice, mercy, and humility is a theme that shows up throughout the prophets.
Isaiah, ministering about the same time as Micah, says, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts….learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:11,17)
Jeremiah gives a speech in the temple and echoes that same theme, warning that temple worship is no refuge for those who ignore the poor.
And those famous lines from Amos that Martin Luther King Jr. often repeated - “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” - come after the prophet has some harsh words to say about hollow worship: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters….”
“The noise of your songs.”
How’s all that for really getting you in the mood to celebrate our new hymnal?
What is the relationship between worship and justice?
Well if we are to take these prophetic words to heart, we have to consider that worship can just as much dull the senses as enliven them. It can just as much put us to sleep as wake us up, and not just because the sermon is a bit long-winded.
Worship has the capacity to reinforce our biases and shut us off from the deeper voice within us. And worship has the capacity to challenge those very biases, as Katie talked about last week. It can help us hear the still, small voice deep within.
Worship could make you a stronger believer in the Divine endorsement of the death penalty. Worship can present us with new ways of seeing God and ourselves and our relationship with all beings.
Worship can crack our hard protective shell even just a little bit, so that a seed can be planted and grow. Worship can connect us with that strong and powerful thread that runs through all of life, the thread that tethers us to our Source, the thread that guides us into the way of justice, loving kindness and humility.
Ancient Israel’s problem of worship void of justice has not gone away by any means. Harms against the poor, women, queer folks, immigrants and foreigners, continue to be justified in the name of God and religion.
Worship void of justice has not gone away, but in the 1970s Joanna Macy and some of her friends noticed another dynamic. Let’s call it justice void of worship. This isn’t what they called it, but this is what they observed: they observed friends and fellow activists confronting the existential threat of nuclear war, flaring out in anguish and despair. They observed those they cared about deeply who cared deeply about a more just world becoming overwhelmed and emotionally paralyzed. As if the more one becomes aware of the bigger picture, how bad things really are, the more one gets lost in despair.
“I learned…that despair arose in relation to something larger than individuals, personal circumstances. There is a complex of strong feelings that I call ingredients of despair. One is fear about the future based on what we're doing to each other and to our planet. Another is anger that we are knowingly wasting the world for those who come after us, destroying the legacy of our ancestors. Guilt and sorrow are in the complex. People in every walk of life, from every culture, feel grief over the condition of the world. Despair is this constellation of different feelings. One person may feel more fear or anger, another sorrow, and another guilt, but the common thread is a suffering on behalf of the world or, as I put it, feeling "pain for the world.”
So rather than not feeling or caring, Joanna Macy and other leaders have worked to revive mindful, soulful, spiritual, worshipful practices for folks who cannot help but feel and care about justice. They call it “The Work That Reconnects.” And it has a whole pattern and set of practices, which start with the cultivation of gratitude and move out from there. The Work That Reconnects.
Which is a powerful way of thinking about worship. Worship as the work that reconnects us with God, ourselves, the ecology of life, and that thread that binds us together. Worship has the capacity to keep us aware of the things that can cause us despair, while connecting us to the life that goes on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation.
That’s the way I would invite us to engage our hymnal. There was a lot of intentionality that went into this to make it part of the work that reconnects.
I want to end by drawing attention to one of those new hymns which has direct connection with this being death penalty abolition week. We’re about ready to sing it, so you might as well turn there if you have a hymnal. It’s number 308 How Can We Worship Caesar’s Cross.
The cross is the subject of our other reading, from the gospel of Mark. In Jesus’ time the cross was an instrument of torture and death. Those who held power saw it as a public deterrent to anyone who would challenge their authority. It was reserved mainly for slaves and the lower class. It was Rome’s chosen method of capital punishment.
It is our firm belief that the crucifixion of Jesus shows us once and for all that it is we humans, and not God, who demand sacrifice to appease our wrath. And even as systems humans have created continue to sacrifice lives so the systems can maintain their power, it is God who is at work to undermine those systems, identifying not with the executioners, but the crucified.
Our worship of the God of Jesus Christ wakes us up from numbness, honors the causes of pain without getting swallowed up in despair. It invites us to live in the power of the resurrection.
As we sing this song, let’s do so as a prayer for all those currently on death row, all the families healing from the trauma of the harm those persons have caused. Let’s pray for Hannah and Ohioans To Stop Executions and our elected officials and ourselves that we can be agents of the work that reconnects. Let’s ground ourselves in gratitude. Gratitude for the breath of life. Gratitude for the thread that weaves us together.