Jan. 29, 2019 Justice and Only Justice

‘Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land the Lord your God is giving you.’

Remember Occupy?  Ten years ago university students in California started protesting financial exigencies following the Great Recession, including 32% tuition hikes.  The slogan “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing” began a nonviolent quest for greater equity.  Occupying university halls, financial centers, and city squares spread globally, and the lack of coherent demands was cited as a subversive tactic to engage the deeper conversation that leads to transformation. 

Deuteronomy insists that only justice will permit people to live and occupy the land God has given.  What does it mean to live and occupy the land?  The book is a framework for Moses’ people, teaching how to live in that land after 40 years of desert wandering.  It’s also an ongoing reminder to God’s people to live righteously if they’re going to stay there.  It’s even a promise that returning to God’s ways of justice will let the exiles return home.

‘To occupy’ can have both negative and positive resonance.  The word itself comes from Latin roots that mean ‘to grasp.’  In Shakespeare’s day it was slang for sex.[1]  Occupation can be as constructive as a vocation or livelihood, as innocent or vacuous as a pastime, or as dark as tyranny over cities, nations, and peoples.  The Hebrew word is also translated ‘possess’ or ‘inherit.’

Occupying the land originally meant making a home and building a just community in the place God had led this people.  It is a remembrance of the first human home in Eden.  The arc of the biblical narrative continues to urge God’s people toward the vision of home where all may dwell in peace because justice reigns.  Lions and lambs rest comfortably together; children play in proximity to adders and serpents; Egyptians and Syrians and Israelis seek wisdom and peace as peoples of God. 

Today, occupying, possessing, or inheriting the land must recall us to a deeper understanding of that vision, grounded in the garden, seeking the light and Wisdom of God in the cosmos of creation.  The moral arc of the universe urges us forward, seeking home for all.  Our challenge is clearly and urgently about humanity’s continued existence on this fragile earth, our island home.  We have been destroying each other since Cain and Abel; today we are destroying the garden and its ability to support human life.  Our understanding must expand toward the global measure of life itself.  This is the only land, the only planet, God has given us.  Only justice will permit or bless our continued presence here. 

Living justly begins with knowing ourselves beloved of God.  Jesus hears that at his baptism, ‘you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased to dwell.’[2]  God has breathed the same loving gift of life into every creature on this planet.  Justice is most deeply about right relationship – with self, neighbor, and God – in actions and attitudes.  Justice is grown and structured in community.  The Deuteronomist urges us to ‘pursue’ justice; Micah frames it as doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.[3]  God alone is just; we strive and muddle along toward the fullness of right relationship – and we have others around us to remind us and recover us and turn us back in a godlier direction.

Jesus claims that journey when he reads Isaiah in his hometown synagogue – and then he challenges the community to do and love and walk together toward God’s vision of justice.  Today, right now, in your hearing.  What does it look like, right here and right now?

This week of prayer and these eight days are a vision of completeness in creation of God’s vision of justice.  In this week we remind each other to be loving and doing and walking together.  The Indonesian Christian community who put this year’s liturgy and study materials together is a remarkable example.  About 10% of Indonesians are Christian; 86% are Muslim.  The nation itself claims a vision of Unity in Diversity – parallel to Paul’s vision of one body with many parts and different gifts, each helping to build up the body.  The working principles of Indonesia’s vision are a model of the kind of justice needed to occupy the land fruitfully, and they echo the justice proclaimed in the Abrahamic traditions:  belief in one God; a just and civilized humanity; the unity of Indonesia; representative democracy guided by inner wisdom; and social justice for all.[4]  Indonesia is no more perfect or just than this nation or any other, yet there is an aspirational national map for the journey.

The Christians represented here use a very similar map, and it is the larger vision of all the Hebrew prophets.  Like Indonesia, we claim God’s dream of peace with justice for all, in shalom or salaam.  We seek a godly home for all.  The divisions among us are a scandal – and an opportunity.  The fruit of hard conversations about our differences and divisions can lead us to value our diverse gifts, and to seek ways to partner on the journey toward the peaceable kingdom.  Many of us advocate together, prodding our legislators to build more just systems of good news for the poor, healing the blind, liberating the oppressed, and returning prisoners to communities of healing and reconciliation.  Our respective communities often work together to serve individuals and communities directly – and the asylum seekers moving across the border have brought us closer to each other and to the migrants.  It’s helped some of us remember that we’re all migrants on this earth, seeking a home of justice where we might dwell together in peace.

This nation and this planet need those skills of conversation and that memory of migration.  Conversation is quite literally about spending time together, turning toward the other, seeking deeper insight and greater compassion.  Conversation is a key tool of justice – and it was the prime goal of Occupy.  We are meant to occupy this land – here and around the globe – in deep conversation that leads to conversion of heart and mind and practice.  We have been anointed for that work, and we’re sent to engage our neighbors in the conversation of life together.  We will find ourselves changed, transformed, converted, and turned again toward the dream of God.

The diocesan office in Ocean Beach has a neighbor who finds our ministry there obnoxious and inconvenient.  He hates the parking lot between us.  The people who are served with meals, medical care, showers, and mail service offend him – or their noise and refuse do.  I have heard stories about him since I arrived, but haven’t yet met this neighbor.  On Friday he agreed to sit down and have lunch.  I imagine that our conversation will include plenty of lament and complaint, for he feels unjustly served by our presence.  I hope and pray that we can find some glimmer of what justice for all might look like.  We’ll occupy a lunch table together next week, and it just might start some solidarity for the journey.

When we know and remember that we’re loved by God (and at least a few others), it’s possible to start abiding with our neighbors, even if we can’t abide them just yet.  We can occupy the land, abiding together, even imperfectly, and we can keep moving toward that more perfect dream of God’s justice. 

I leave you with an exercise for occupying the land – from Dostoevsky[5]

Love all Creation

The whole of it and every grain of sand

Love every leaf

Every ray of God’s light

Love the animals

Love the plants

Love everything

You will perceive

The divine mystery in all things

And once you have perceived it

You will begin to comprehend it ceaselessly

More and more every day

And you will at last come to love the whole world

With an abiding universal love.

1/27/2019 - Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - The Rt. Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori

Deuteronomy 16:11-20; Romans 12:1-13; Luke 4:14-21 

[1] https://www.etymonline.com/word/occupy#etymonline_v_2470

[2] Mark 1:11 and parallels

[3] Micah 6:8

[4] https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/xi-week-of-prayer-for-christian-unity/2019

[5] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book VI, Chapter 3.  1879-1880