Sermon – October 26, 2014

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyJustice

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“Do not be corrupt in administering justice; do not render an unjust judgment; do not show partiality to the poor or defer to the great; do not give honor to the great. Judge your neighbor with justice. Judge your neighbor with fairness.” — Leviticus 19:15

As has been true for the three years running, on Thursday last I offered an invocation and a benediction at the Annual Breakfast of the Chenango County Retired and Senior Volunteer Program. I should note that in the course of a year people gave more than 43,000 volunteer hours to many organizations such as the Classic Car Museum, Opportunities for Chenango, various food pantries and the Chenango County Historical Society.

These hours were registered with the RSVP program. That donated work was worth nearly one million dollars in terms of contributions.

At least five of our parishioners were in the breakfast crowd with more listed in the program. These folks might have noticed something a little different about me, something not too many church members have seen. For this occasion, I was wearing a Roman collar. I looked more like an Episcopal Priest than a Congregational Pastor.

And yes, I do own a Roman collar. I don’t often wear it. Generally, I use it only specific for public functions, for instance officiating at a funeral home memorial service.

More specifically, I use it when I think it’s appropriate to indicate I hold an office, probably a good idea when I am interacting with a group who do not know me well. Since I knew the people gathered at this breakfast would be very diverse, I felt wearing a Roman collar immediately identifies the pastoral office. (Slight pause.)

The Rev. Tamara Lebak is a pastor at very large church, All Souls Unitarian Church, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now, I just said some things which might shock we Easterners, sheltered as we are. That’s because we probably carry some preconceived notions about folks out west.

Of course, that there is a large church in Tulsa, Oklahoma might not surprise us. But that there is a large Unitarian Church probably does. That a woman is one of the pastors in Tulsa might also be a surprise. But that’s just Eastern prejudice.

Tamara decided to set a challenge for herself this year. The challenge was to spend a full year wearing a Roman collar whenever she is “on duty.” Needless to say, part of the challenge is just to be disciplined enough to wear the collar.

And also needless to say, since she is a woman who is a pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, her very appearance does gets some quizzical looks, which is the kind of reaction that feeds our Eastern prejudice. I should also note she has, through the course of this year, has written a blog about her experiences— Under the Collar in Oklahoma. [1]

I found her blog entry this week quite interesting. It’s not a comment about her experiences wearing a collar. It was a comment about the lectionary reading. (And yes, Unitarians— at least some of them— do pay attention to the lectionary.)

In noting one of the assigned readings for this week was Leviticus, Tamara admitted her relationship with this work has taken some hits over time. People determined to use passages from the book as cudgels have employed the various “Thou shalt not’s” found therein to bludgeon her.

She, however, realizes these “Thou shalt not’s” should never be taken literally. If anyone does take them literally, they then also need to realize Leviticus insists a crime which carries a extraordinarily severe punishment is eating shrimp wrapped in bacon.

In her blog Tamara said this passage we heard today has become one of her favorites. It’s clear both this passage and Leviticus in its entirety calls us to holiness.

She goes on to explain that, as a pastor, she works with people and shows them the so called Golden Rule often has good intentions but a poor impact. She does this by introducing people to the Platinum Rule. The Platinum rule: do unto others as they would have you do unto them. You have that? As they would have you do unto them.

This Platinum Rule makes a very large requirement on everyone, all parties. It requires knowing what others would like done unto them.

It, hence, also requires we teach others how to respect us. In other words, we all need to be curious about and seek to discover how others would like to be respected. And we should not start with an assumption that we know how others would like to be respected. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work Torah in the section known as Leviticus: “Do not be corrupt in administering justice; do not render an unjust judgment; do not show partiality to the poor or defer to the great; do not give honor to the great. Judge your neighbor with justice. Judge your neighbor with fairness.” (Slight pause.)

This passage begs many questions but prime among them is this: “what is justice?” More to the point and more specifically, the deeper question is not “what is human justice?” but “what is the justice of God?” How would God see justice and how would God have us see justice? (Slight pause.)

Part of what makes the issue of justice problematic is, largely, we only consider human justice. Human vision sees justice solely in terms of winners and losers.

Human vision, hence, sees justice only in terms of a game, something to be won or lost. Further, most people just don’t seem to comprehend that when (quote) “justice” is demanded, the goal of human justice is the same as the ultimate answer to any game: who wins; who loses. Put the other way around, human vision turns justice into a game— human vision turns justice into a game.

I would posit that God does not see justice in terms of a game— winners and losers. You see, with the justice God seeks, with perfect justice, winning and losing are immaterial.

The goal of the justice God seeks— the goal of the justice God seeks— is truth, not my vision of truth or not your vision of truth, but God’s vision of truth. When real truth, God’s truth, God’s justice is sought, picking a winner or picking a looser stops being a goal.

I would be the first to admit this is a very hard concept for most of us to grasp— that when real justice is sought determining a winner or a loser is not a goal. After all, isn’t life about who wins and who losses?

If you think that’s true, let me ask you this: does not everyone think God is on their side? But does God choose sides? Clearly that is not the claim we hear in Leviticus (quote): “…do not show partiality to the poor or defer to the great…” (Slight pause.)

In her blog the Rev. Lebak says this: “In lifting up both neighbor and stranger, what Leviticus seems to be lifting up is that you cannot simply stop the conversation with those like you. And you cannot simply stop the conversation with those you like.”

“So our call is to learn how to make mistakes and still stay connected to a person beyond any sense of respect or disrespect.” Connection is the goal.

To do that we must get our hands dirty. To do that we must tap into a sense of humility that says we, ourselves, were at one point strangers in a strange land and we were unaware of when we offended others even though our hearts were in a good place.

Lebak then says she wants to shout the good news of Leviticus from the rooftops because this is what we are being told: stay in relationship; speak from the heart. And is that not the holiest of places? Stay in relationship; speak from the heart: a holy place.

The church the Rev. Lebak serves has an interesting covenant. (Quote:) “Love is the spirit of this church; service is its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, to help one another.” [2] (Slight pause.)

I want to note whether it’s Tamara wearing a collar or me wearing a collar, some might say it’s a challenging exercise. You see, the collar makes you stand out, makes you a mark. It also makes a claim about what you strive to do, who you aspire to be.

So, perhaps the real question for us, for you and for me, is simple. Can we be recognized by those around us because we observe a covenant of holiness, a covenant of love to which God calls us without being set apart by an item of clothing which designates an office?

Indeed, I think we are called to not just a covenant of holiness and love. We are called to the responsibilities of an office of holiness and love. What is that office? This is the office sometimes referred to as the priesthood of all believers. And it is our calling. Amen.

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: “I want to leave you with two quotes today. The first is Frederick Buechner (quote:) ‘Justice is the grammar of things; mercy is the poetry.’ The second is from Thomas Aquinas (quote:) ‘The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy, and is based on it.’ Why is the reading about covenant and holiness? Justice presupposes mercy.”

BENEDICTION: God sends us into the world ready and equipped. God is with us each day and every day. We can trust God Whose love is steadfast and sure. Let us commit to doing God’s will and God’s work. And may God’s presence be with us this day and forevermore. Amen.

[1] http://underthecollarinoklahoma.blogspot.com/

[2] http://www.allsoulschurch.org/

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