Occupy Justice (Homily for the Last Sunday after Pentecost)

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24     Psalm 100      Ephesians 1:15-23     Matthew 25:31-46

by Sherman Hesselgrave

Holy One, you have called us to be the living stones with which you seek to build your realm of living justice on earth.  Make us worthy of this great calling, and open our hearts and minds to recognize your Spirit working in our midst.  Amen.

Last Wednesday, at the midweek Eucharist, we commemorated St Margaret of Scotland, whose feast day it was.  Margaret, the 11th-century Anglo-Saxon princess who married King Malcolm III of Scotland, used her position of privilege and her wealth to provide relief to the homeless, the hungry, and the orphaned, as well as to redeem many Anglo-Saxons who had been sold into slavery by their Norman conquerors.  Not surprisingly, the gospel for St Margaret’s Day is the familiar passage we just heard from St Matthew:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

The Hebrew scripture appointed for the St Margaret’s Day is a passage from the 58th chapter of Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? …
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; …. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
I could not hear those words without thinking about the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movements that have been filling the headlines these last months.  I believe we are hearing the prophetic voice of God in the cries to repair the breach between the rich and the poor–the 1% and the 99%–between the oppressed and the free, for the reign of God is built on a foundation of social justice. Margaret of Scotland was called to be a repairer of the breach, and so are you and I.
Today’s Hebrew scripture reading from Ezekiel is another reminder of our vocation to occupy justice.  The ‘shepherd’ has been such a powerful image in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and it is largely due to economics.  In ancient Israel, people depended on livestock like sheep for their survival.  Sheep provided milk and meat, wool for clothing and shelter, and could be traded for other goods.  The shepherd’s job was both vital and dangerous, protecting the flock from both human and animal predators.  If a shepherd was only self-interested and neglected the well-being of the flock, everyone suffered and there would be a day of reckoning.  A good shepherd, on the other hand, would feed God’s sheep “with justice,” as Ezekiel puts it.

As we look around at what has been happening in the world recently, it is difficult not to think of it as a time of reckoning for the shepherds of the economy in which we live and move.  How it plays out will depend on many factors, but the first step toward redressing injustice is to name it, to call it out into the open, to share the stories of how it has wounded, oppressed, or destroyed.  The second step is to call out those responsible for the injustice.  Sometimes the bad actors are well known and easily identified.  Often, we ourselves may bear some responsibility for allowing systemic injustice to go unchallenged, or for putting our trust blindly in people or institutions compromised or corrupted by self-interest rather than the common good.  The third step is to begin the process of repairing the breach.  This is the most challenging part, for the forces to maintain the status quo are very powerful, indeed, especially economic forces.  William Wilberforce proposed legislation in the British Parliament to end the trafficking of slaves every year for 26 years before the Slave Trade Act passed in 1807.  But it would take another 26 years, when Wilberforce was on his deathbed, before the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which abolished the economic institution of slavery in most of the British Empire.

Economic justice is a persistent theme in our sacred writings.  When the prophet Isaiah writes:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price….

he is writing around the time when coinage is replacing bartering as the method of trading,  meaning that, going forward, in order to participate in the market economy it would not be enough to bring something to trade for something you need; now, for the first time, one had to have money.  Yet Isaiah holds out the vision of God for an economic system where there is enough for everyone, whether you have money or not.  The tension between that vision of the “peaceable kingdom” or  the “reign of God” and the economic systems that followed is as real today as it was then.  Jesus also warned that wealth and power had the capacity to corrupt.  As he put it:  “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Today marks the end of another church year, a day when we reflect on the reign of Christ and Jesus’ coming among us to show us that God’s reign on earth is not some fantastic reality in the remote future, but rather that God’s realm is right on top of us; we can literally reach out and touch it, because it is made manifest in the faithful people of God who live and struggle to put flesh and bones on the vision of God for a just world.  As yeast transforms the dough in which it has been placed, so too the community in which we have been place is transformed when we occupy justice, when we live as inhabitants in God’s realm realized.

While it can be discouraging to regard the magnitude of the challenges we face, we have to remember today’s gospel that every act of giving food or drink to a hungry or thirsty person, every act of sheltering a homeless person, every act of clothing a shivering person, or visiting a person who is sick or in prison is an extension of the reign of Christ.  If we feel that we lack the resources, remember the story of what God could do with five barley loaves and two small fish.

Jesus promised that God will meet us wherever we are and lead us on the path to the place where we need to be.  As we gather in our circle and come to the table to be nourished once again with the spiritual food for our journey, may God give us the faith to trust in the Spirit’s leading, and the courage and strength to do and be what we are called to do and become.


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