by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“Cease to do evil, / learn to do good; / search for and seek justice, / rescue, help the oppressed; / defend and protect those who are orphaned; / plead the case of those who are widowed.” — Isaiah 1:16c-17.
I suspect all of us take note of milestones and celebrate them in some way or form. The events marking the milestones break out into two distinct groups: public events and private events.
Corporate, public milestones get celebrated in a universal way, observed by a whole community with public ceremonies. There may be very private aspects to these public observances but they are, none-the-less, communal.
There are other milestones we mark which can only be described as private and personal. These are most often observed only by an individual or by family members or by close friends.
Now, both of these kinds of milestones, the public and private, each also break into two categories. There are events we associate with joy and events we associate with sadness.
Among those private events we observe with joy are birthdays and wedding anniversaries. The private observances we mark with reserve and a sense of solemnity might include marking the anniversary date on which a close friend or a relative died.
And, as I’ve already indicated, the same is true on the public side of the spectrum. We joyfully mark some celebrations— national dates of note like the Fourth of July. We observe others with a sense of solemnity and sometimes sadness.
Indeed, in our history, in the history of this country, there have been many points of public distress. These range from the Battle of Bunker Hill to the burning of Washington in 1814 to the Battle of Gettysburg to the assassination of Lincoln to sinking of the Battleship Maine to the attack on Pearl Harbor to the assassination of John Kennedy to explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger to the tragedy of 9/11.
Needless to say, the further into the past we go, the less likely an event is to stir our emotions. The more recent the event, the more fixed it is in current memory, the more personal it becomes. Therefore, even though these events, especially the recent ones, are observed in a public way, the personal pain of these memories, the pain these memories bring is real.
Additionally, the most private person among us at some point participates in public moments, public markings both joyful and sad. And the most public person among us experiences private moments and private markings, joyful and sad. That there is a tension between public and private cannot be denied. (Slight pause.)
Tomorrow— Monday, November the Fourth, I will observe a hard personal anniversary. It is the thirtieth anniversary of my Mother’s death. As I have said here before, she died very young as those things go.
Further, she died of a form of cancer— cancer of the bladder— which, even thirty years ago, only took about ten percent of those who dealt with it. She was simply in the wrong group, not the ninety percent of the population who survive. She was among the ten percent who do not make it.
There is no denying this: the fact that she died young and the fact that the disease takes such a small segment of those who suffer from it does not feel fair. I’ve already outlived her time embodied in frail flesh by a number of years.
Not a day goes by when I fail to feel some personal pain about this. It leaves me asking the question ‘is there, was there any justice in that?’ (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah: “Cease to do evil, / learn to do good; / search for and seek justice, / rescue, help the oppressed; / defend and protect those who are orphaned; / plead the case of those who are widowed.” (Pause.)
So, what is justice? What does it mean to do justice? What does it mean to see justice? What does it mean to experience justice? And is any kind of justice— personal justice or public justice— real, attainable? And what is the tension among these? (Pause.)
I’ll come back to those questions in a bit. (Slight pause.) I just want to take a little journey down the road, somewhere else. I give titles to all my sermons. Some pastors do; some do not. I called this sermon Systems 101. Why?
If you went to a typical undergraduate class in systems this is the first rule you would learn: there is no such thing as a perfect system. It does not exist.
Equally, if you did a Master’s Degree in theology or any of the associated areas, it’s likely a required course would be Systematic Theology. And, obviously, there is only one problem with giving a course the title of Systematic Theology. There is no such thing as a perfect system.
Please note: I did not say ‘there is no such thing as a system.’ Systems exist, they are necessary, useful, helpful and they serve us quite well, thank you.
The job of anarchy and the job of an anarchist is to abolish and/or obstruct systems. The last time I looked neither anarchy nor anarchists— they don’t serve anyone except those who enjoy wallowing in chaos— no, thank you— not my cup of tea— anarchism.
Again and to reiterate, I did not say systems are bad things nor did I say systems fail to exist. What I said is there is no such thing as a perfect system. Every system ever invented has a flaw.
That brings me back to what I believe is the key issue this passage presents: that there is a tension between our private needs and our public needs. There is a tension between our private joy and our public joy. There is a tension between our private pain and our public pain.
We do have private needs. We do have private joy. We do have private pain. We do have public needs. We do have public joy. We do have public pain. And it seems to me all these— needs and joy and pain— are all inexorably intertwined.
So, if a perfect system cannot be constructed— and I do not think a perfect system can be constructed because of the joy and the needs and the pain tugging at one another— if a perfect system cannot be constructed what is justice? What does it mean to do justice? What does it mean to see justice?
What does it mean to experience justice? And is any kind of justice real or attainable? Is justice personal, private? Is justice public, communal? (Slight pause.) Hard questions, these. (Slight pause.)
I think we make a basic mistake in our perception of justice. We perceive justice as an end. We understand justice as a result.
That’s where the words from this passage are instructive. For me the passage has a clear outline of what justice is about. Justice takes action. Justice moves. Justice is, therefore, for all people. Justice is a process, not an end. (Quote:) “Cease to do evil, / learn to do good; / search for and seek justice, / rescue, help the oppressed….” (Slight pause.)
Which brings me back to my mother. When I was maybe six or seven, I saw a mugging take place outside the front window of the house. I was the only one there watching.
I ran and got my Mom. She rushed into the street. She was all of five foot two. But she shouted so loudly the attacker ran off. She brought the victim, a woman who was probably in her seventies, back into the house and called the police. (Slight pause.)
Action, you see, shifts our focus. Action takes the focus off us and places it on anyone who is denied justice. And action helps us realize that if any one person is denied justice, then we are all denied justice.
To be clear: action does not remove pain. Action, if anything, makes us more aware of pain. Action does not eliminate need. Action, if anything, makes us more aware of need.
To sum this up in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have not lost faith. I am not in despair, because I know there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I would add that arc invites us toward action. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “What is justice for all? These are the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (quote): ‘The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.’”
BENEDICTION: O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our striving for justice and truth, to confront one another in love, and to work together with mutual patience, acceptance and respect. Send us out, sure in Your grace and Your peace which surpasses understanding, to live faithfully. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.