James 1:19-27 (NIV)
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
As we have adjusted to worship over live-stream, even though we are not together in the same physical space, we are connected to each other through the love of Christ and the work or the Holy Spirit.
While it is strange and hard to be so spread out in our worship and life together … we are still doing the things Christ calls his church to be doing.
We are growing in our connection with God.
We are growing in our connection with each other.
We are reaching out beyond ourselves in love and service to share the good news of life with Christ with our world.
Since Easter we have been looking at the “Great Ends of the Church.” They have been part of our Presbyterian tradition for at least 100 years and serve as something like a big-compass or a vision statement for our churches. As I have been thinking about what our life as Christ’s church is like now, I have noticed that even though we are spread out, we are living into all six of the “Great Ends of the Church.”
So far we have looked at four of these;
– the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
– the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
– the maintenance of divine worship;
– the preservation of the truth;
Today we are looking at number five:
– the promotion of social righteousness.
I am willing to bet, that social righteousness isn’t what you expected to hear.
Maybe there was a misprint 100 years ago? Shouldn’t it say, “social … justice?”
As I have taken some time to learn and think about “promoting social righteousness,” how to define it and what it means for our church, I think the term is actually broader, more challenging than “social justice,” and really, kind of redundant. Kent Brower, a Nazarene seminary professor, has a simple and helpful definition of righteousness.
“While the biblical perspective is that all human righteousness ultimately stems from God, righteousness as a foundation for ethics has to do with how humans live in relationship, whether it is with God or the created order” (Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics).
Biblically, righteousness has to do with our relationships. It is social at its very core. For people of faith, righteousness means someone is living in a right relationship with God and that right relationship with God is expressed in right relationships with the people around them.
Kind of redundant?
Maybe it just really emphasizes, highlights, and underlines that our relationships with God, with each other, and with our community matter. They can’t be separated from each other. One shapes and influences the other. Jesus has given himself, he came, he taught, he did things that demonstrated God’s character and the values of God’s kingdom, he gave his life, and he rose from death to heal and restore our relationships with God and with each other. Social righteousness … kind of repetitive, but maybe a helpful way to emphasize that as Christ’s church, as Christ’s disciples, our relationships, relationships with God and with the people around us, matter.
In Luke chapter 4 we see an overview of Jesus’ teaching. For Luke this passage catches the core of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, and I think it gives us a powerful picture of social righteousness.
Luke 4:14-30 (NIV)
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
For Luke this passage defines Jesus’ life and ministry.
Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit … his ministry is God inspired and God driven.
Jesus is all about good news … good news for those who desperately need good news … restoration and release for those who are hurt or stuck. There are debates about what exactly Jesus is talking about when he talks about the poor. Some people are convinced Jesus is talking about the spiritually poor (like the sermon on the mount in Matthew, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”). Others are certain Jesus is talking about the economically poor. One of my favorite bible teachers, Joel Green, thinks neither of these quite catches what Jesus is addressing and what it would have meant to be poor in Jesus’ time and culture.
“Who are the poor? …[Spiritually poor” … ”Economically poor.”] Both of these definitions of the “poor” are inadequately grounded in ancient Mediterranean culture and the social world of [Luke]. In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as “poor,” but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and “poor” would serve as a for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal [criteria] of status honor in Mediterranean world. Hence, although “poor” is hardly devoid of economic significance, for Luke this wider meaning of diminished status honor is paramount.
It is thus evident that Jesus’ mission is directed to the poor — defined not merely in subjective, spiritual or personal, economic terms, but in the holistic sense of those who are for any of a number of socio-religious reasons relegated to positions outside the boundaries of God’s people. By directing his good news to these people, Jesus indicates his refusal to recognize those socially determined boundaries, asserting instead that even these “outsiders” are the objects of divine grace. Others may regard such people as beyond the [reach] of salvation, but God has opened a way for them to belong to God’s family” (The Gospel of Luke, locs. 6071- 6084).
Jesus breaks down boundaries … he draws outsiders, people who have been disconnected from their communities, people who have been left out into God’s family. Jesus reaches out to people who don’t fit in … who don’t have a place or connections … and who, because of that, are in danger of being left behind.
When we think of promoting social righteousness … I think it is building relationships, it is reaching out to people who don’t have connections — connections with God and with their community, it is doing what we can to connect with people … to build restorative and healing friendships … to not leave anyone behind.
I think that is such a cool picture for how we operate as a church.
We don’t leave anyone behind.
Last August at the church rummage sale I got to talking to this guy who was new to town … I actually don’t think he is around any more. I forget what brought it up … maybe it was his Marines tattoo, but he told me some stories about his time serving in the Marines. He had experienced some incredibly troubling and difficult things in the Middle East … He told me about a vehicle he was traveling in that was attacked. It was really bad … he was injured … the people he was with were injured, he told me about pulling soldiers out of burning wreckage. I said something, that must have sounded kind of naive or dumb … about the risks he took to help and he simply said, “We’re Marines. We don’t leave anyone behind.”
That has stuck with me.
“We don’t leave anyone behind.”
I think that catches our mission as Christ’s church. I think that catches what it means to promote social righteousness. We know relationships matter. Relationships with God. Connections with community.
We pay attention to the people around us.
We reach out.
We give ourselves in Christ-like love.
We don’t leave anyone behind.