God's Love is Just...
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “It’s Just Love”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
February 16, 2020
Micah 6:1-8 NRSV
1Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. 3“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! 4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam…
6“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8He 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?
Did you get it right? Did you manage the right combination of gifts, affection, and romantic love for Valentine’s Day? I mentioned last week, no Valentine’s Day is complete without a romantic walk in the rain and a certain drink and if you didn’t have one last week for Valentine’s Day then you better get two this week – one for each hand as that theologian and choral vocalist Garth Brook sang so beautifully in “Bring Me Two Pina Coladas”.
Well, as important as walks in the rain and the right beverage are for Valentine’s Day, we have much more important issues to talk about if we are going to address the unfinished sentence, “God’s love is just….” Just what? Just and love when it comes to God seems odd. We know that God’s love is supposed to be eternal, everlasting, perfect, etc. But it is also just.
Of course, you know what I mean – God’s love is just, as in righteous, as in it does what is right, it does and seeks what is best for all people and all creation. Mother Theresa put it this way, as we quoted on our bulletin cover: “love without justice is not love, and justice without love is not justice.” So this morning we come to our cornerstone Scripture lesson from Micah. Those of us who have been part of our justice ministry are fully aware of it. We hear it at virtually every gathering. It reminds us of the importance of doing justice as part of our Christian life. It reminds us of that it is not optional, that God requires it, demands it. Micah reminds us that faith in God does not give us the option of doing 1or 2 out of 3 when it comes to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” The word is “and” not “or.”
Jesus echoes this in Matthew’s Gospel in chapter 23, verse 23:
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, 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.
He reminded the most religious of people in his own faith, that tithing everything including their spice rack is ok, but they should attend to “the weightier matters of “justice and mercy and faith,” [clearly quoting Micah] “without neglecting the other” matters of stewardship. These are root matters to Jesus, so are we willing to make them root matters to us? Is our faith that important to our lives?
Before those of you who are “anti-ICARE” turn me off, let me give you reasons why you should not turn me off. I don’t think I need to do a lot of explaining of the Scripture, it is pretty plain, but I will give you a quick exegesis of the verses we read before I give you answers to the main objections I hear some of you express about doing justice as God calls for us to do it. Because basically if you have any authentic reason beyond, “I’m just not going to do it,” I can answer virtually any objection you have – if not these fifteen minutes then speak with me privately. For the rest of us committed to, or at least willing to participate, let me give you facts and figures to strengthen and deepen your commitment and your participation.
So the Scripture is pretty plain. God has rejected our worship when the nation ignores the poor, the stranger/immigrant, and all those in need, when the nation does not practice fair justice in the courts, when the powerful king abuses the people for his own privileges. In response the prophets again and again call out the kings, the judges, and the religious leaders. Micah 6 is just a summary of what we are supposed to be doing in order to restore “righteousness” to the nation: “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” Jesus put it this way: “when you do these things for the one in need you are doing it for me.”
To “love mercy” is to do those things that help people in the moment. It is our efforts to give shelter to families who are houseless through Family Promise, to bring food for children and others in need through Micah’s Backpack and Arlington Community Services. It is sending money to Puerto Rico and other places where disaster has struck. This is good, it is just not ALL that God “demands” we do. The part about walking humbly with our God is simply all that we do to share the love and gratitude we feel for what God has done for us and to learn more about it: prayer, personal study of Scripture, and worship. So if you have any questions about that, talk with me later. I can expand.
Let me address some of the objections I hear about doing justice as a faith thing. One is “churches shouldn’t get involved in politics.” Well, tell that to the evangelical and fundamentalist churches who are working to put judges into every level of the court system, and to pass laws restricting human rights, and to demand our nation should be a “Christian nation,” according to their very limited definition of Christian. What we do with ICARE is political only to the extent that we recognize those we elected to serve the public good have the power to do what is good for all, but often only do what is best for their campaign contributors or their own personal benefit. What’s more, throughout Scripture God calls people of faith to hold our political systems accountable to do what God calls righteous. We are, however, not partisan supporters of any party or candidate.
Some object saying our solutions cost more tax dollars. Well, in every case I know of over the past 20 years that isn’t true. I can give you example after example where our solutions have saved millions of dollars over the bad practices we have demanded public officials change. One example: you probably have heard how we pushed to have JSO use civil citations instead of arresting children who have committed nonviolent first-time offenses. This has the city over $2 million dollars just over the past couple of years over arresting these children. In addition to those savings we have SAVED those children from an arrest record that would destroy their future by making them ineligible for many jobs, many colleges, and serving in the armed forces of our country.
At the state level the use of civil citations has saved the state over $220 million over the past few years, while we have made children go through a life-changing experience where they are held accountable for their actions, make amends to any victims they have hurt while admitting to their actions, and then following through on a very specific set of requirements to help them change the direction of their lives [ sounds like repentance doesn’t it? ], by counseling, training for jobs, or colleges, assistance with health or mental health issues that led to the behavior and more. In other words, while saving millions in tax dollars for those of you fiscal conservatives, we have saved the lives of those of you interested in people taking personal accountability of their behavior, all while doing what God DEMANDS of us to do what is just and loving for ALL.
For those of you wondering what we are going to be doing this year at our Nehemiah Assembly on March 30, let me give just a word about where we are with these issues. As with EVERY issue, we have listened to people describe their greatest fears, what makes them angry, or what other problems they have living here in this community. This year one of the biggest issues, that was chosen by democratic vote at our Community Problems Assembly was to address issues related to mental health and mental health resources. You may have heard me say, or read that in Jacksonville, the local jail is the single biggest provider of “mental health services” in our city. Now, I don’t know about you but I can’t imagine that this is a good thing, let alone ideal. I don’t believe it is ideal for victims to suffer for behavior they do not have the power or resources to change. In the current system the only resources that seem to be available is to arrest a six year old because the adults in the room don’t have the skills, training, or sensitivity to know how to deal with a child, and oh by the way to neglect to call the parent of that child before Baker Acting that child. A SIX year old! That is a system that lacks an important alternative. If you haven’t heard the news this week look this up – it actually happened here in River City.
This relates to the second issue we are addressing which is pushing for our Public School Superintendent to fund and use “Full School Restorative Practices” to improve school discipline in all schools. Our Public School System outsources its bus transportation and its substitute teacher system to save money. None of these persons get real training in dealing with difficult behavioral situations that can arise. The Superintendent said they don’t need training because these people don’t have to deal with student behavior. If you said “what?” to yourself, you and I had the same reaction. “What?” So we want to see this changed for the sake and safety not only of the children who have behavioral issues but for the children who don’t and the adults who have to manage them on the busses or as substitutes in the classroom. These are the two main issues we will be demanding our city officials say “Yes,” to.
The other objection I want to address is the complaint that we “disrespect” city officials. We do not. First, we always meet with them for weeks if not months in advance to discuss these issues. They are always given the question we are going to ask at least a week in advance, in writing. They are aware we only allow them a “yes,” or a “no” answer. Why? Have you ever listened to a politician answer a question? Have you ever, anywhere else, heard an elected official actually say just “yes,” or “no?” They normally have all kinds of “wiggle talk” to avoid answering. We feel we deserve a simple yes or no. The people who are hurting because of unjust practices deserve a yes or no. Now, if we get a no we WILL try to negotiate a better answer from the city official. We feel the people suffering deserve that effort. It might make the city official uncomfortable, but isn’t it more righteous to have a city official be a bit uncomfortable for a few minutes in order to stop what in some cases is the years of suffering those who are affected by unjust systems go through? I believe it does. And we never boo them for a no answer, and we never ridicule them or respond in any other way than with respect, even when we are disrespected by those city officials as many of us have been, and if you doubt me talk with me about the way the former State Attorney totally and publically disrespected our own Nancy Ricker as we were asking her to implement civil citations for youth some years before the election of the current State Attorney.
So why do we do this beyond the fact that God DEMANDS that we do it? We do it because it is the greatest form of love to do something for someone else in the name of our God. It is the greatest form of love to love others as God has loved us. One of my colleagues and one of our newer members, Rev. Dr. Steve Hudder, shared an Ash Wednesday liturgy that he wrote and used some years ago at his own church and these words echo what I believe serves as the basis of our understanding of God’s love as just and God’s justice as love. They seem quite appropriate for this Sunday just after our great love holiday, Valentine’s Day.
He suggests that to some love seems foolish. He wrote, “There is no bigger lover in the universe than our God, who loved us into being, fashioning us from the dust of the earth, creating us in God’s own image, and breathing God’s own breath, spirit, into us to give us life. God so loved the world that God sent Jesus, God’s only beloved Son, into the world to save the world and show the world just how much God loves it and all of us. Perhaps there is no bigger fool, either, for God continues to reach out to us and, just like the Prodigal Father who was waiting to welcome back the wayward son, God is always ready to welcome us back with grace and love.
“Truth is, love makes fools of us all. Whether you are alone this Valentine’s Day, happily partnered, in the early stages of a new love, or riding the long tail of a relationship that is ending, remember that there is One who loves you above all others. That One has pined for you, is blessed when you melt into the love of that One God, is heartbroken when you reject this One God in favor of someone less ‘complicated.’ This One longs for your return, with all the heart this One can be said to have. God is ready and waiting.” And God doesn’t expect a walk in the rain or a Pina Colada. But because of God’s love, we do justice, you see it is a Jesus thing, too. AMEN.