Draw Near … to Justice
by Louise Westfall
Look closely at the image on your bulletin cover. Who do you see? I think I know this man. He hangs out at the Senior Support Services building, down the street from my condo. Same intense gaze, with an expression I can’t quite put my finger on: is it worry? concern? sadness? We’ve never exchanged more than a few words of greeting as I scurry off to the Safeway grocery store, but I wonder about his story. What have those eyes seen? What might he say if I stopped long enough to listen? Would he speak words of despair or hope, hard truths or good news?
The artist who drew this image identifies him as John the Baptist, cast in the Bible as the herald of the long-promised Messiah, God’s appointed One who will inaugurate a new day of justice and peace and human flourishing. He always shows up in the season of Advent, as we too anticipate the birth of Jesus and all his life signifies. His message reverberates across the millennia: draw near to God, and change your lives. The reading in which we are introduced to John begins with very particular details of the complicated political and religious world to which he spoke, as if to remind us that these realities are never separate from spiritual ones, but have profound implications on how we live faithfully in the real world. It’s long, so I’m going to read it in sections. A reading from Luke in the third chapter at the first verse. [Read Luke 3:1-6]
I blame Georg Fredric Handel for blunting these words about dramatic change by setting them to some of the most gorgeous music ever written. Because really, how do valleys get filled up, and mountains worn down? Can you imagine Berthoud Pass, with its hairpin curves and steep inclines suddenly flattened and straightened?! Rough roads are made smooth only through immense pressure. Earthquake, winds, flooding: that’s how the prophet announced the transformation accompanying salvation. The people to whom John first spoke these words didn’t have Handel, but they revered the already-ancient prophet Isaiah as one who came with good news. John’s invitation to change direction might have seemed a welcome relief from the oppressive rule of Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod. But the reading doesn’t end with the people flocking to be baptized into this new reality. [Read Luke 3:7-9]
Really? This? John’s fierce urgency — while not polite — is meant to wake up the people, to alert them to their true condition. They couldn’t be brought to life by reciting some self-affirming mantras, or because of their religious pedigree as the chosen people of God. Just in case they were lulled into complacency with the familiar words of their spiritual hero Isaiah, John sounds the alarm. None of that mattered. What matters — then and now — are the consequences of faith. What is different because you have experienced the salvation of God? John caught the attention of his first audience. [Read Luke 3:10-14]
What then should we do? Are you struck by John’s responses? Very practical, down-to-earth things that make life better for someone else. Share what you have with those in need. Don’t exploit people for economic gain. Don’t use power or privilege to control others. Faith is not an abstraction, contained in a beautiful creed, or honored commandments. Faith is expressed in concrete actions. It’s a way of life, and one that restores relationships among people and builds community in which all can thrive. The changes to which we are called are meant to help us draw nearer to the day when God rules on earth as in heaven, when justice rolls down like mighty waters, and all flesh will live together in peace.
What a vision!
But lest we remain entranced by the music, rather than facing it, John describes the way of transformation in modest, every-day acts.
When we do justice, God draws us nearer -- freeing us from enslavement to soul-killing practices and deeper into the Divine life for which we were created.
Like the thoughtful disposal of dog poo. Yes, I heard a piece on Colorado Public Radio this week about a guy in Fort Collins who had bagged his dog’s waste on a walk a couple miles from his home. He casually tossed the bag into a nearby garbage can sitting at the curb in front of a house. As he did so, the homeowner came bounding out the door and yelled at him.
“Did you seriously just put your poop bag in my garbage can?”
“Yeah, it’s garbage,” he replied. “That’s where garbage goes.” He recounted what happened next. “The guy said ‘That’s your garbage, not my garbage. This is my garbage can. You take your garbage and go throw it in your garbage can.” The encounter made him wonder: Was he in the wrong to put his dog’s waste in another person’s trash can?
He decided to get more perspectives, so posted a poll about it on Nextdoor, a localized neighborhood app. Nearly 600 people cast their votes, and over eighty added their voice to the comment section. [as reported in the Fort Collins Coloradan newspaper] People on both sides of the debate based their decision in a sense of morality — which practice makes better neighbors and better neighborhoods? (You’ll have to go on line to discover which side had more votes!)
Well. Maybe you were expecting something … a little more high-minded. But when you get right down to it, a commitment to justice extends to the most humble tasks, as well as the systems that oppress and the “isms” that codify injustice. And I wonder if John’s examples suggest that when one attends to the particular individuals and situations, we actually gain skill in addressing the larger concerns. When we do justice, God draws us nearer — freeing us from enslavement to soul-killing practices and deeper into the Divine life for which we were created.
It’s a life that seeks not the destruction of the world, but its repair and restoration. Justice does not reduce life to “just us” but continually expands awareness of our deep connection with one another. And while we might not always agree about what constitutes perfect justice, thinking about our priorities and choices through that lens might offer guidance for our actions.
And always, always with one goal in mind: to nudge one another and this sweet and terrible old world nearer to the God of love and life. A retweet I read this week stunned me with insight: I believe churches are meant to connect us with God. But so are 2am car rides, parties, coffee shops, the gym, conversations with friends and strangers. Don’t let a building confine your faith because we will never change the world by just going to church. For that we need to be the church. [Lauren Klusman@loloklu 11/24/18]
Friends, John the Baptist’s sobering words tell a truth. There’s a lot of turning involved in following Jesus. But we take one step, and then another. We act thoughtfully in one situation; we invest our time and talent and money towards making this particular downtown community kinder and more humane. We clean up the messes we make. Step by step. But these are the steps that move mountains and bring about change. And you know why I believe that? Because there’s something else going on, that even John hadn’t quite figured out. But here’s where he pointed; listen again for God’s Word to Central Presbyterian Church, in the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, when John Hickenlooper was governor of Colorado and Michael Hancock mayor of Denver, during the years Louise Westfall was pastor. [Read Luke 3:15,16] The One who is coming has lit a fire under us with his very essence. With that light and Spirit, we can change the world.
In the silence that follows, I invite you to look once more at the image on the bulletin cover. See him as the prophet proclaiming God’s Word. Listen. After the silence, we’ll sing TWO verses of the Advent hymn we learned last week; repeating verse one and refrain, and then singing verse THREE and refrain.