Sermon for Social Justice Sunday: January 15, 2012
The Rev. Kate Ekrem
Over Christmas, my extended family visited Hanover New Hampshire, home of Dartmouth College, and saw “Occupy Hanover”, a collection of tents and boxes and students and signs on a street corner. My kids were curious, and asked what it was. Now, my family does not share the same political viewpoints in all respects, so there was sort of this pause, as we thought about who was going to answer the kids, and what each of us might say. I think they got some good answers, but it also caused some interesting conversation between us and it sort of seemed to boil down to, how are we responsible for each other? Do we just do good on an individual basis, giving to charity and volunteering, or should our government, our society, somehow be structured so that people don’t fall between the cracks, so that larger resources are there for those who need them, or does that somehow force us to take care of each other, and is that a bad thing or not?
The church has also had difficulty in knowing how to deal with the Occupy movement. Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street was incredibly welcoming to the occupiers when they first moved into Zuccotti Park in downtown New York. They let them use their bathroom, gave them space to warm up, and brought them hot meals, and so on. Then when the police evicted the occupiers from Zuccoti Park, they decided to go occupy nearby Duarte Park instead. Duarte Park is owned by Trinity Church. The church said, wait a minute, that’s our property, please get off. And now of course the occupiers are saying the church is the bad guy and Trinity is taking lots of criticism. It doesn’t make things less complicated to know that Trinity Church owns a large part of the office space on Wall Street or that Trinity pays for many programs that help those in need out of those office rents. It’s hard for the church to stand against the status quo when it is also part of it. And it’s worth remembering that when we get uncomfortable about the church being involved in social justice and therefore inevitably in politics, that the reason we have separation of church and state, the reason we value it, is that for centuries the church sometimes abused the political power it had – the Spanish inquisition just being one of many examples.
So the idea of remembering Martin Luther King Jr. – someone who certainly taught and preached and lived that the church has a role in politics, in social justice -- begs the question, what is the role of the church in social justice? Not just doing individual good, as when we participate in our mission projects helping others, but actually trying to create change in our society, in our government, lobbying for laws and policies that help those who need it most, that give voice to the voiceless. Where is the role of the church in that?
Because there is a role, there always has been. It’s not enough to say that the church should stay out of politics or the public forum, when the church has always been there, before there was a church. Jesus turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, a public protest against a government policy that let some make money off of the poor. And the prophets of Israel spoke out publicly against “those who sell the needy for a pair of sandals-- they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” as the prophet Amos wrote. (Amos 2:6-7). You know, I checked out the Occupy WS web site to learn what exactly they are trying to do, after that trip to Hanover, and a lot of it sound like it could have come right out of the Book of Amos.
Even a cursory reading of the Bible shows us that religion can’t be a private thing, that our faith demands some kind of public witness or action. Acknowledging that the church has a role in social justice I think means two things.
One is to admit that our government, democratically elected though it may be, can be unjust. The issue of civil rights that we commemorate this weekend exemplifies just how unjust we’re capable of being. Segregation was the law, and segregation was – well, evil is not too strong a word. When the law is wrong, good people must stand up and say so. In part, this is acknowledging the problem of human sin. That human beings, given enough privilege and power, will use that power in selfish ways. As one theologian is has written “precisely because of what scripture tells us about sin and power, Biblical people must always opposed great extremes of power.”
The second is to acknowledge that we are all responsible for each other. When someone asked Jesus, who is my neighbor, he responded by telling the parable of the good Samaritan, who helped a someone he didn’t even know. One of the main points of Christianity is that we’re not individuals, none of us is an island, all of our lives are connected together. And we have a responsibility for making sure that others don’t fall out of the community, because of ill health or old age or lack of economic resources or just plain prejudice.
So if the church does have a role in social justice, I think it’s partly in saying loud and clear these two things. Pointing out when laws are unjust and wrong. And reminding our leaders and ourselves that we’re all responsible for each other, for other people and for the created environment. Christians can’t just vote their own self-interest. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you all the things our church is already doing in this area: from the Episcopal Public Policy Network which lobbies Washington promoting legislation in keeping with our baptismal vow to strive peace and justice, to the annual Lobby Day for Episcopalians at the state house in Boston to promote affordable housing and health care access. I bet some of you are already involved in those things and other actions. When we do that, we are living out the truth often stated, that the church is an organization that exist for the benefit of people who are not its members, our very existence is about giving voice to those who don’t have a say in things, in making sure all members of our communities are included.
Our readings today are two calling stories: God calling Samuel and Jesus calling the first disciples. They left behind the safe and familiar to enter into a wider world, to witness to what they thought was God’s truth and God’s justice. Some of them lost their lives doing so. But to us as to them Jesus invites us outside the doors of this place, saying come and see. Let us like Samuel respond, Here I am, Lord.