Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon was the second woman ordained to the order of bishops in our church, and she used to say that Episcopalians love this verse Micah 6:8. “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Episcopalians love this verse, she said, but too often they get it backwards.
Episcopalians tend to DO mercy, and LOVE justice.
Isn’t that true?
I was at a meeting of leaders from around The Episcopal Church in Eastern Missouri this week. The room was a mix of ordained folk lay leaders telling stories about their church’s impact on the community. The questions that prompted the discussion was simple: “What difference would it make if your church no longer existed?” Who would notice? That was the question.
The stories told were largely about feeding ministries, school supply drives, rental assistance, clothing ministries. We do a lot of mercy in The Episcopal Church. Mercy is good. Love mercy. But I wonder how many churches, how many Episcopalians, are doing justice. I know that I am more comfortable when I am doing mercy than when I am doing justice. I’m better at mercy.
Doing justice is difficult work. It’s costly. Justice takes time, and energy. Doing justice often involves tears and loss. Doing justice often means arguing with a neighbor, maybe in your street, maybe in your pew. Doing justice can be divisive.
Dom Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil, was famous for his work among the poor. He was also famous for his observation: “When I give food to the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why the hungry have no food, they call me a Communist.”
Justice and mercy are tied together. Mercy tends to immediate symptoms. Justice digs at the roots, at causes. Justice takes time. Justice takes patience. Justice can be infuriatingly slow and imprecise.
As we hear these words from Micah about “What the Lord requires” we are gathered after our Annual Meeting as a parish, a time when we look at our values, when we take stock. In my report to the meeting I talked about the ways we are meeting goals set by the vestry in conversation with members of the parish based on our three values: welcome, diversity, and community.
In the coming weeks and years, I wonder will our goals need to shift? The change in Washington is seismic. The tone of our national conversation has shifted so quickly. The world around us is changing and fast. What does this change mean for our goals, for our purpose, for our mission as a congregation? What does the Lord require?
A couple of thoughts, based on early observations:
Now, perhaps more than ever, our values matter. Together we discerned three values for Holy Communion. We value: welcome, diversity, and community. Creatively, our mission statement describes our church as a “welcoming and diverse community.” I wonder whether those words got more political last Friday. We are a people who pray in The Episcopal Church. We are a people of a prayer book, and that prayer book invites us to pray for our country, and our leaders. How are we to pray?
I will pray for our country in these coming days, these coming years. I will pray that we learn again to be community, that we heal the wounds of division sown through a long, embattled, and at times vulgar campaign. I will pray that we will come together as a community. In the words of our prayer book, I will pray that God might “break down the walls that separate us and unite us in bonds of love.” But if we don’t come together as a nation in the coming years, here at Holy Communion, our values require that we learn to come together, that we build bridges not walls. Here at Holy Communion, our value of community, a value that challenges us to build up the body of the church and reach out into our wider neighborhood, that value of community means that we must seek to bring people with different backgrounds and viewpoints together. We will break bread together, sacramentally, and over everyday kitchen tables. We will get to know our Muslim and Jewish neighbors. We will talk with people with whom we disagree. We will come together as community.
I will also pray that our country embraces diversity. The American people was never one race, one ethnicity. Americans are a people made strong by our different genders, orientations, abilities, religions, colors. We are stronger because we have so many perspectives. I will pray that our leaders embrace the full breadth of human diversity we are blessed with in America. But if our national leaders do not live into America’s promise, Holy Communion must continue to embrace diversity. When necessary, we will learn to check privilege. We will listen for the voices being silenced in wider society. We will learn to live together and see one another as sisters, brothers, children of the same God.
And I will pray that our country welcomes all. A year ago, I was at a rally for Syrian refugees here in University City. St. Louis is a city that has profited from an influx of new citizens. There were signs that said: “Bring them here.” We know what a benefit a refugee people can become for an area. We’ve been blessed by our Bosnian neighbors in recent years. Rabbi Susan Talve, of Central Reform Congregation spoke to the rally and said: America’s welcome to refugees is our BEST story as a nation. Those words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That is America’s Best story. I will pray our leaders tell our greatest story, our story of Welcome. But if they don’t, well Holy Communion’s story of Welcome may have to get a little bit bigger.
We’re good at welcoming strangers to our church. Visitors often tell me how people made sure they knew where to sit, where the coffee was. They were invited to Theology on Tap, or to the next Guild meeting. We are a welcoming congregation. But our welcome may need to get bigger.
I’ve spent most of this sermon on one verse from the prophet Micah. The Gospel is also one of the Bible’s greatest hits. The Beatitudes, Jesus’ surprising list: “Blessed are the poor of heart. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers.” His list is so surprising. What we miss this morning in this well known list is the setting for Jesus’ sermon. Just two verses before Jesus sits down on the mountain with his disciples, the Gospel tells us: “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them…When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down.”
Jesus’ words this morning, perhaps Jesus’ most famous teaching, the beatitudes are taught in response to his encounter with suffering Syrians. The irony is strong today, as our new president has declared Syrians are ineligible for entry to these United States. So I stand in this pulpit today, with the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, and leaders in every denomination I can count to say, this ban on refugees is unChristian. What does it mean to be a people who follow Jesus today? What does it mean to be a Christian who believes in “Welcome” today? I wonder if our church is being challenged to inhabit that value more fully.
Just this week, two of our parishioners started work on the house our congregation owns just behind the church on Gannon street. While we are in early stages of demolition, and planning, we are dreaming about whether that house might one day house a refugee family. What if “welcome” doesn’t just mean making sure a visitor to worship knows where to find a bulletin?
Maybe we won’t be able to partner with an organization to welcome a refugee family. That may be impossible in the coming years. Maybe our house will welcome an undocumented immigrant who has received a deportation order. Maybe welcome will mean coming with them to immigration court. Maybe we will welcome a mother who has escaped domestic violence. Maybe we will do justice when members of this congregation show up as character witnesses to help her keep her kids.
I will pray for our country in these coming years, and yes, part of that prayer includes praying for our elected leaders. The prayers we use here at Holy Communion have the form of praying for OUR President and OUR Governor by name. We pray for “Donald our President and Eric our governor” just as we prayed a few short weeks ago for “Barack our President and Jay our Governor.” We don’t shift the wording because the office holders have changed. Let me say one thing about why. I think the word “our” is important in our prayers.
As I said to you the Sunday after the elections: “Possessive pronouns are important in a democratic system. Possessive pronouns remind us to whom our government officials are accountable. The presidency does not belong to “him” it belongs to “us.” The Whitehouse is public housing. Our president, our governor, our elected representatives hold our government in trust, and they are accountable to us. We have a right to speak. We have a duty to dissent. We have a responsibility to hold our elected officials accountable.” The word “our” reminds us of our responsibilities around these office holders. Doing justice may find us in the streets and in the courts in the years to come, as we demand that our leaders, the leaders we pray for, hear our voices, take us into account.
I don’t know all of what will be required of us in the years ahead as we seek to do justice. I do know that members of this congregation are already asking important questions. I was amazed by the number of folks who showed up at the Women’s March, here in St. Louis and even in Washington DC. I was thankful for the group that gathered in our lounge last Sunday to talk about the “next steps.” We will continue to gather, and to welcome those from beyond our congregation who want to ask with us, “how can we LOVE mercy and DO justice?” I know that sometimes, you may need to push me as your priest. I am really comfortable doing mercy. But I get a sense that doing justice requires more.
I will say, by way of conclusion, that at least at Holy Communion, I fully expect that the years ahead will also include a healthy dose of of laughter, and of fun. You can’t go far at Holy Communion without hearing someone laughing. Whether it is the Guild giggling together over a funny observation someone made about the Bible or one of the books they are reading, or the youth playing flashlight tag and running through the hallways in the dark, there is a sense of fun in this church. I pray that the laughter continues as long as I serve as your rector. I have a sense it will.
As I typed up this sermon, I was wearing a bright pink hat with pointy ears, knit for me to wear in last weekend’s march by a member of our congregation. I look ridiculous wearing it, but it is warm. Even as we do justice, may we never forget to be playful. If our church disappeared, I hope part of what our neighbors would miss would be the laughter, the joy. I don’t just say that offhand. The last requirement from Micah is to “walk humbly.’ Laughing is key to humility I think. If you can’t laugh at yourself, can you really be humble?
As we seek to be a welcoming and diverse community, may we always be playful learners. May we continue to learn to do what the Lord requires: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.