Justice and Advocacy (Sermon on Psalm 82:1-8)

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This is the third sermon of a six message series written by Pastor Jack Van de Hoef based on the book Live Just.ly by World Renew and Micah Challenge. Click here to learn more and order your copy of the book. This sermon was originally given February 5, 2017; Bethel CRC, Brockville, ON

Pastor Jack Van de Hoef We have the privilege of living on the banks of a glorious river. Its name, the St. Lawrence River, originates from Jacques Cartier, the first known European explorer to navigate the river. In his search for a northwest passage to the Orient in 1535, Cartier sailed through the waters by what is now known as Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island on the feast day of St. Lawrence (August 10). He named those waters the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a name that was extended to the river that feeds the gulf.

The story of this person called St. Lawrence is very interesting. St. Lawrence was a deacon in the Christian church in the third century and was responsible for the material goods of the Church. He was quite generous, especially to the poor.

During a time of persecution by Emperor Valerian, Lawrence expected to be arrested, so he sought out the poor, widows, and orphans and gave them all the money he had on hand, selling even the sacred vessels to increase the sum. When the prefect of Rome heard of this, he imagined that the Christians must have considerable treasure. He sent for Lawrence and said, “You Christians say we are cruel to you, but that is not what I have in mind. I am told that your priests offer in gold, that the sacred blood is received in silver cups, that you have golden candlesticks at your evening services. Now, your doctrine says you must render to Caesar what is his. Bring these treasures, for the emperor needs them to maintain his forces.”

Lawrence replied that the Church was indeed rich. “I will show you its value. Give me time to set everything in order and make an inventory.” Over three days he gathered a great number of blind, lame, crippled, leprous, orphaned, and widowed persons and put them in rows. When the prefect arrived, Lawrence simply said, “These are the treasure of the Church.” The prefect was so angry that he had Lawrence burned at the stake.

How do Christians respond to government decisions and actions that we find improper or unjust? As Christians, are we called to get involved in matters of politics and justice? Is our calling only to invite people to believe in Jesus for salvation?

What does it mean to share the good news? What does it mean to love our neighbour? As we saw a few weeks ago, that also means to work for justice: “What does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Loving our neighbour includes making disciples, which is a working together of justice and mission.

The Bible emphasizes that the role and responsibility of leaders–and of believers in general–is to care for the poor, the stranger, and the oppressed (Psalm 72; Exodus 22:21-23; Romans 13). Scripture suggests that our leaders should work for the good and well-being of all, whether or not these leaders acknowledge that their authority comes from God. Christians can advocate for their government to protect and provide for all its people just as Paul exercised his power and privilege as a Roman citizen (see Acts 21-26).

This morning we learn from Psalm 82 that acting justly includes holding our government authorities accountable for their actions and decisions. The picture in this psalm is like a large gathering of leaders and decision-makers, with God presiding over the assembly. (Possibly picture a gathering of the United Nations National Assembly, with God presiding.) They are asked questions of justice: why do they defend the unjust? Why do they show partiality to the wicked? Why are they not caring for the poor and needy?

This image spills over into our current world situation. There’s a lot of questionable activity going on in leadership in our world right now. The headlines are full of protests and rallies and court challenges about government statements and actions in both Canada and the United States. How do we as Christians respond or participate or support those actions?

We could talk about implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee or the actions of the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. We could talk about refugee welcome and support. We could talk about social welfare policy and the consideration of the provision of basic income. We could talk about abortion or end-of-life decisions or pornography or prositution. Visit the website of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada to get information about involvement in up to 23 different areas of social concern. These are areas for justice and advocacy, advocating for change for the good of our neighbour.

Hearing this list, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. In fact, we can actually be psychologically fooled by modern media by their constant reporting of the suffering in our world. Because we cannot solve everything, and there is so much to solve, we conclude we can do nothing. Clearly, the answer to this false conclusion is to act on a human scale as we are able. To pick a few projects, or a particular project, to follow its successes and setbacks, to get to know its leaders and workers, and to support it with money, prayer and promotion might be ‘all’ that we can do. Most certainly, that ‘all’ is not nothing.

In fact, that has been the decision of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue, a ministry of our denomination. Their office is about four blocks from Parliament Hill. They work with government officials, promoting constructive dialogue as they advocate for justice. With limited staff and resources, they have chosen to focus their attention on a couple of particular issues and address government policy and decisions in those areas. That is not to negate the importance of other concerns. It is to choose to do something, rather than be overwhelmed and decide not to do anything.

As God’s people, we have a calling and responsibility to remind our leaders of a very basic truth: justice matters. See Psalm 82:2-4, “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy.” In a spirit of constructive dialogue we speak up to challenge structures that cause oppression.

Or we might have a particular interest and do more research and present more detailed information or write a submission to a government committees. What our leaders do with what we say is between them and the God who will judge how they led. But we can look at history and see that, through the early Christians and their human-scale engagements, God effectively set off irresistible social changes. Possible examples include the valuing of female infants who were being abandoned in 2nd century Rome, social care for the sick and dying, and the eventual demise of slavery in the British Empire. There are other historical stories of societal change that was impacted by Christian action that had a ripple effect dragging even rulers along with it. There is no state power that cannot be challenged or penetrated. One way or another, it is all subject to Christ.

Let’s hear the challenge to transformational advocacy from Live Just.ly. (See video at www.livejust.ly/videos and scroll down to Session 4.)

Our elected officials listen when we use our voices to encourage change. It’s more than joining a protest or signing a petition. It’s more than yelling and complaining on social media. Take the time to communicate with your elected officials. Send an email. Write a letter. Make an appointment to have a face-to-face conversation with them.

Keep your message personal and to the point, rather than a long-winded generic letter. Be respectful and constructive. Governing is challenging, and elected representatives get plenty of loud criticism. Come prepared to listen and to suggest alternatives that leaders can use.

Request or suggest specific action. Give the name of legislation or specific bill numbers that correspond with your request. Remember also to give your Member of Parliament a one-page brief that includes your request. Be sure also to follow up if you called or sent a letter, or to say thank-you after a meeting.

Check out the websites of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada or the Centre for Public Dialogue, or the Christian Reformed Office of Social Justice for other ideas or suggestions.

God calls us to work for justice. God calls us to hold our leaders accountable and to advocate for what is just and right. It might not cost us our life, as it did St. Lawrence. It might take some time and energy and effort.

May God grant us wisdom as we seek to bring the principles of God’s kingdom into relationships and structures in our society.

Amen.

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