First United Methodist Church
August 7, 2022
Rev. Lauren Hall
Joy: Living According To God's Justice
Take a minute and think about what you were doing the last time you experienced joy. For me, I was taking a walk near a pond and I saw a blue heron standing silent and still in the shallow water, waiting for its dinner to swim by.
It wasn’t just seeing the blue heron that brought me joy – it was the flood of childhood memories associated with seeing it that really made me smile. There was a restaurant on the island where we spent our summers called The Blue Heron, and I was reminded of how excited we would be whenever we actually saw one in one of the marshes. My dad would make sure we got really quiet so we wouldn’t scare it away, and we would try to creep up on it, but no matter how hard we tried, we could never get close enough to clearly see its features or take a good picture. It was fun trying though, and when I saw the Blue Heron by that pond a few weeks ago, you know what I did? I stopped moving and got really quiet, and then I walked the other way. I wanted to give it a chance to eat, and I knew that if I tried to get closer, it would fly away.
Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.” Psalm 50:23
Let us pray…
Sometimes, in order to be in harmony with this world, we as God’s people have to set our personal agendas aside and seek justice for God’s children and God’s creation. Justice should be present even in the small moments of our daily lives, because it is through these moments that we are able to experience joy. Our Scriptures today push us to seek generosity toward others and avoid greed for ourselves. Whether we are building a wheelchair ramp or giving a Blue Heron the freedom to enjoy dinner, Jesus calls us to live out our faith in everyday manifestations of justice and to consider such expressions as true worship of God.
In the passage we read from Isaiah, we hear the prophet rebuke us for forgetting to do justice in our actions while we are giving praise to God. It is not that God doesn’t want our praise and our offerings of worship. But God wants us to worship while we also practice justice. Joy is promised when we “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, and rescue the oppressed.” (Isaiah 1:17 NRSV) John Wesley was influenced by these verses and incorporated them into the General Rules: Do no harm; Do good; Attend to the ordinances of God. There is joy when we—as people of God— are willing to be obedient to God’s teaching. But we have to be careful that we are not simply learning and following the rules, but also putting our faith into action on a daily basis.
Isaiah makes the claim that we find joy through obedience. “But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword” (Isaiah 1:20). Joy comes when we obey God and thus, keep up our end of the covenant with God. Hardship will come upon us if we refuse to obey God’s teachings.
Our reading makes it clear that we are the ones who choose to obey or to rebel. In a real sense, our actions define whether we find joy or encounter brokenness because of the choices we make. It is not that we break God’s laws in our disobedience. Rather, we break ourselves by these choices. The challenge for us is to determine what constitutes obedience and what constitutes rebellion.
There is a scene in the movie, the Hobbit, in which the elven King tells his son, Legolas, to close the gates in order to protect the elves from the Orks and the evil powers that they serve. Legolas and his adopted sister, Tauriel, choose to rebel against the King in order to obey their hearts, because those outside the elven Kingdom would ultimately be engulfed by the developing evil. “What good is it,” Tauriel asks, “to do nothing and hide within the walls, live our lives away from the light and let darkness descend. Are we not part of this world? When did we allow evil to become stronger than us?” Rebellion, in this case, served the greater cause of justice, which is seen as obedience in the eyes of God.
Just as Isaiah emphasizes actions that manifest faith over empty praise, Luke’s passage calls on us to be prepared. Being prepared, for Luke, means living an obedient life in response to God’s teaching. Again, joy awaits those who practice justice, specifically giving alms to the needy and being more ready to give to others rather than to get things for ourselves.
In the 21st Century, Luke’s passage gives us plenty to think about. We live in a world in which we have about a hundred reasons to be afraid: global warming, racial divisions, mass shootings in schools and shopping centers, financial insecurity, trade wars, real wars, narcotic dependence, government instability, social media scams and multiple other things that threaten our safety and well-being. There is lots to fear, and lots of people eager to play upon our fears and all kinds of channels for them to reach us. So, how does Jesus suggest us we respond to these kinds of things?
He says: “Do not be afraid, little flock,” and then follows it with a list of commands: Sell your possessions. Give alms. Store your treasure in heaven. Be dressed for action and keep your lamps lit. These two verses are grouped together in the gospel, but the instructions don’t seem to support one another.
Justice, according to this passage, is accomplished through generosity. It’s good news for the church, and it probably sounds better coming straight from Jesus. But how do you discover joy in this kind of response? How do you open yourself to even let it in, especially when you don’t feel whole? When you are in the midst of brokenness, how does selling all your possessions work to put the pieces back together? Is there some place in your spirit that needs to be more willing, that needs God’s sustenance in order to live into the salvation – the wholeness, the deliverance, the freedom – that God intends for you?
The power of this passage lies in the line that is stuck right in the middle of these opening verses:
“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Of course, this isn’t just a line, it’s a promise!
God wants to give us the kingdom. God plans on including us as heirs – “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ,” Paul writes in Romans 8:17. This promise frees us to be able to sell all our possessions and give alms to the poor. It’s not a so that statement as much as it is a because of response.
There are two elements in this promise that demonstrate this:
1) First, it’s God’s good pleasure. That is, God takes delight in giving God’s children good things. Any parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle – anyone who’s bought a special gift for someone they love – understand this intuitively. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, better than doing a kindness for, giving a gift to, or taking care of someone you love. Nothing. What’s amazing is that this is what God is like. Not a rule-enforcer or power player or monarchial ruler, but a parent who delights in giving gifts. I would assume that this is not the dominant image most of us, let alone the average person who is not in church, has of God. And sometimes I think we neglect to embrace this side of God - God’s loving, generous, gift-giving, parental nature.
2) The second part of this phrase says this: God gives the kingdom. We don’t earn it. We can’t, in fact. We can only receive it as a gift. And that changes the rest of what we hear. If our inclusion in the kingdom is by gift and invitation – and it is, in fact, God’s good pleasure to give us this gift – then what follows aren’t conditions, but the invitation to set our priorities in line with what we’ve already been given. That is, we’re invited to live into the identity and reality we’ve been given.
In short, when we realize it’s God’s good pleasure to care for us, love us, take care of us, and give us all good things – even God’s own kingdom – then it’s a lot easier to give rather than hoard, live from a sense of courage rather than fear, operate out of a sense of abundance rather than scarcity, allow ourselves to be seen rather than presenting only what we think is acceptable, and so on. Promises, in other words, create a sense of freedom.
And freedom gives us the courage to address our fears, because, if God wants to give us the kingdom, then why not acknowledge them? Why not name them and perhaps begin to overcome them? Why not risk ourselves and take a stand for the people who are important to us? Why not show up, ready for action?
When you come forward for communion today, remember the love God has for you. If fear is an obstacle for you, name it, and ask Christ for the courage to overcome it. Receive Christ in the bread and the cup and experience the joy that comes by living in this world unafraid.
Let us pray…
God of justice, we long for the day when “righteousness is at home” (2 Peter 3:13). Enlarge our imagination to glimpse a vision of what your justice will mean for us as individuals and for people of God. Help us experience joy as we work toward your vision of justice. Amen.