This week in worship, we celebrated the blessing of the students and teachers and the backpacks by handing out backpack tags.
BLESSING OF STUDENTS/TEACHERS AND THE BACKPACKS
*SCRIPTURE READINGS Tiara Leatherman
He has told you, O mortal, what is good,
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice and to love kindness
and to walk humbly with your God?
And now, please stand as you are able for the Gospel reading
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
LEADER The Word of God that is still speaking.
ALL: Thanks be to God.
MESSAGE Let Justice roll like an ever-flowing streamAmos 5:2a
Mercy… and… Justice??? Pastor Donna Goltry
How harsh! In Matthew, Jesus says – Woe to us when we have done what we thought was right but got it wrong. We gave our offerings. We gave our time. We helped the needy. We prayed our prayers.
How did we get it wrong?
Apparently, these were our gnats, those tiny little creatures we feared swallowing so took care of – we made offerings, prayers, gave our help the needy. But the greater pitfall, the proverbial camel so huge that we overlooked it, was seeking justice. Could that be the source of our woe?
Maybe you are wondering, what is biblical justice? What’s the difference between mercy and justice. Later I’ll tell you a story that makes it plain.
Last week, I began a three-week sermon series on rethinking justice. I began by calling notice to how the prophets and Jesus saw justice as very important. It was Jesus’ focus on his ministry. Oh, he was great at mercy – turning water into wine to save the moment when the wedding celebration was faltering. Feeding the multitudes when they were tired and hungry after a long day of listening to him preach.
But his focus was very much on justice. Raising consciousness on ALL of God’s children living as part of the kingdom of God. God welcomes all! Neighbors and strangers.
Read through the four Gospels with an eye to what Jesus cared about:
- Good health – like healing those with mental illness or sickness, those who could not see or hear or move. Those side-lined in life by poor health.
- And Jesus’ healings were not strictly physical? He not only cured physical blindness, or also challenge some whose eyes closed to open them and look around?
- Another thing Jesus cared about: people, especially the poor, having enough resources for food and a decent place to lay their head.
- Feeding ministries are great stop-gap measures. But long-term, people need day-in, day-out support to obtain food, clothing and shelter. They need well-paying jobs. If unable to work, support.
- Jesus saw all people as valued in God’s kingdom – he ate with the outcasts, like Matthew who was ostracized as a sinner because his occupation was a tax collector, but Jesus didn’t care. Jesus included women as followers even when their voices were excluded elsewhere. How many churches still exclude women and the LGBTQ from full participation in the church?
- Jesus knew the rich had a special problem. By clinging so tightly to their wealth, they excluded themselves from God’s kingdom. Jesus didn’t preach that people must surrender all their wealth, but he did preach that it shouldn’t be their idol. “Do not store up treasures on earth where moth and rust consume but store up treasures in heaven. Matthew 6:19-21 Jesus wanted the rich hear this message and avoid this pitfall.
These are examples of how Jesus saw justice as crucial. Now to talk about ministries of mercy and compassion. Mercy ministries are so rewarding. They make us feel good, like we have done our part. When we hand out a bottle of water on a 100° day, it feels good. When we hand out a lunch, we get a smile in return. When we find a pair of shoes, a coat or a blanket and give it the person who comes to our door, we feel like we have helped. These are great things to do. And we are called to keep on doing them.
But Jesus challenged the people of his day, and I am challenging you today, to seeking justice and mercy both. Two bible passages illustrate the difference between mercy and justice.
In the Good Samaritan story, the Samaritan (an outsider or think of him as a foreigner), saw a man robbed and beaten. He stopped to help. He carried the beaten man to an inn where he could rest and heal, and paid the inn-keeper to care for him. This Samaritan saw a man in crisis, struggling for his life, and gave him aid.
What about the others, the Judeans, who passed by without helping? Jesus condemned them as hypocrites. Failing to provide mercy when it was clearly needed. Woe to them, they swallowed the gnat.
However, the Samaritan’s act was a single act of mercy.
We must wonder, how many more people walked along this same Jericho Road, that day or another, and were beaten and robbed?
Chances are, unless something had been done about the robbers in hiding along the road, more people would have been beaten and robbed. This takes the story to another level. How could justice have been accomplished by making the road safe for travel? That is a systemic problem calling for more than one person’s effort. A community response. And this points to the difference between mercy and justice.
Consider now the account of the Exodus. In it, Moses challenge to Pharaoh. “Let my people go.” Not just, let my brother go, but all my people. The people were the Israelites who had been invited 400 years earlier to Egypt by a Pharaoh’s first in command, Joseph, and at first had enjoyed privileges of living as residents in Egypt. But, over time, they had lost their resident privileges and been put into work-slave bondage. The product of their labor benefitted Pharaoh. They subsisted on measly rations, just enough to keep them alive and working. Moses led them to take collective action to solve their problem: to force Pharaoh to release them to freedom.
You have a hand-out inside the bulletin that summarizes these two stories, the Good Samaritan and the Exodus, as ways to compare mercy and justice. We are called by God to do both. Generally we excel at mercy, but not justice because it harder for one person or a small group to do.
So, we shrink from tackling justice. To put it in language from today’s bible reading, we are blind guides! We strain out the gnat but swallow the camel. We show mercy, but run from tackling justice. But, to be fair, it is so hard to tackle justice on our own.
Good News – we can join with others in faith communities to make a difference. Momentum is building and giving us an opportunity. I challenge us to be part it by participating in the first step – a listening session where you are given the chance to name the bigger problems of justice you see in the Wichita metropolitan area.
I end today with a story many of you may have heard in a different version. But like our best Bible stories we hear over and over again, each time with fresh ears, sometimes great illustrations are great to hear with fresh ears.
Once upon a time, there was a small village on the edge of a river. Life in the village was busy. One day a villager took a break from harvesting food and noticed a baby floating down the river toward the village. She couldn’t believe her eyes! She heard crying in the distance and looked downstream to see that two babies had already floated by the village. She looked around at the other villagers working nearby. “Does anyone else see that baby?” she asked.
One villager heard the woman, but continued working. “Yes!” yelled a man. “Oh, this is terrible!” A woman who had been building a campfire shouted. “Look, there are even more upstream!” Indeed, there were three more babies coming around the bend.
“How long have these babies been floating by?” asked another villager. No one knew for sure, but some people thought they might have seen something in the river earlier. They were busy at the time and did not have time to investigate.
They quickly organized themselves to rescue the babies. Watchtowers were built on both sides of the shore and swimmers were coordinated to maintain shifts of rescue teams that maintained 24-hour surveillance of the river. Ziplines with baskets attached were stretched across the river to get even more babies to safety quickly.
The number of babies floating down the river only seemed to increase. The villagers built orphanages to keep the babies housed, warm and fed. Life in the village carried on. Then one day at a meeting of the Village Council, a villager asked, “But where are all these babies are coming from?”
“No one knows,” said another villager. “But I say we organize a team to go upstream and find out who’s throwing these babies in the river.”
Something to think about. Amen.
 Illustration from materials provided at Sedgwick County Justice Ministry Sponsoring Committee Meeting, June 15, 2023, held at First United Methodist Church.