Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Preacher, the Church, and Justice

The Christian preacher has a responsibility to speak for justice.

Pastor John Ortberg underscores this in a challenging article in the latest issue of Leadership Journal, Preaching Like the Prophets. There, he looks to the prophets of Old Testament times to show how important the quest for justice is for followers of the God Who revealed Himself to Israel and ultimately, in Jesus of Nazareth.

Writes Ortberg:
Events that horrified the prophets go on every day in our world, but we just get used to it--like you get used to wearing your watch. After awhile--we don't notice any more.

The prophets noticed. The prophets never got desensitized to sin. Injustice is sin. Justice is central to shalom.* We omit justice from our preaching at peril of our calling, and of our congregation's health and ability to see the reality around them.
Ortberg goes on to say that there are certain perils associated with preaching about justice, particularly in these times. "Our society has become so politicized," he points out, "that people often hear words like justice or life or the poor or compassion as code words for a partisan political allegiance in one direction or another." Also, he notes that preaching about justice can devolve into "self-righteous moralism" on the part of the preacher. But for all the perils it may entail, the preacher is still called to talk about justice as an outgrowth of Christian discipleship.

Most importantly maybe, Ortberg in this very good article, says that in preaching about justice, church leaders "will have to explain that the values embedded in the Bible do not necessarily have a straight-line translation into legislation." He writes:
For instance, all followers of Jesus are obligated to be concerned for the poor. But that does not mean that they should all be committed to passing a higher minimum wage law. Very bright economists disagree about whether such legislation actually results in helping the poor. As preachers, we do not further the cause of the authority of Scripture when we pretend to be experts over fields we have not mastered.

Justice is an important element of the Christian's relationship with Jesus Christ. This is something we acknowledge in our Lutheran tradition, among other times, on the occasion of Confirmation, or Affirmation of Baptism, when adolescents or adult converts who have been baptized and trained in the faith publicly affirm their intention of living as faithful followers of Jesus Christ in their daily lives. Toward the end of the rite for Affirmation of Baptism, each individual is addressed and challenged to do just that:
You have made public profession of your faith. Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in Holy Baptism: to live among God's faithful people, to hear His Word and share in His supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?
The confirmand is then asked to respond with the words, "I do, and I ask God to help and guide me."

The message of the prophets was, in a nutshell, "Turn from sin, including injustice, and turn to God." None of them laid out specific political programs, recommended particular outlays of money to address specific issues, or commended particular laws. They trusted that if they shared God's Word, including the call and the command to seek justice, God would help the people see what they needed to do.

Today, preachers (and denominational groups) are called to preach justice and trust God to do the rest.

*Shalom is a Hebrew term. It means more than peace. It has the idea of our enjoyment of peace with God and all the good things--including justice and love--that flow from it in our relationships with others. Such peace begins in a relationship with Jesus Christ in which Jesus is our Lord, God, and Savior. As Paul writes in Romans 5:1, "...since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ..."

[UPDATE: Just today, Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA, released the text of a letter in which he got deep into the weeds of immigration reform, not my idea of what the bishop is best at or called to do.]

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