March 29, 2018 - Maundy Thursday

“You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

In July of this year the Episcopal Church will hold its General Convention. In preparation a House of Deputies Committee has submitted its report on the “State of the Church”.  I recommend the full report for your reading but tonight I focus in on the section called, “Social Justice and Advocacy work of the Church.”  Parts of it reads as follows:

“The Social Justice and Advocacy subcommittee explored the commitment and involvement of the wider Church and our congregations in social justice. To this end, we spoke to various staff at The Episcopal Church Center and electronically distributed a survey seeking to discern what dioceses and parishes were doing in furtherance of social justice ministries. In this survey, we asked respondents to think about distinguishing between charity and justice, and also making distinctions among work that the congregation created and nurtured, work that was being done by individuals in congregations, and work that utilized congregational space.

In our survey of the Church, we discovered that definitions and understandings of “social justice” vary broadly. We heard from many congregations with ministries that would traditionally be called “charity” as compared to “justice;”. We defined justice work as acts to address and heal the root cause of the injustice which prompted our need for charity in the first place. This distinction caused anxiety for some who filled out the survey, both in terms of trying to define charity work as “justice” and from some who do not believe the Church should be doing justice work. Comments in response to our survey stated, with some frequency, that the Church should “remove itself from politics.” Bishop Barbara Harris has commented that the Church tends to confuse the charge of the prophet  Micah as we “love, justice and do kindness.”

In preaching, teaching and praying, we use prophetic language about doing God’s work of justice; yet responses to our social justice survey suggest that our actions across the Church tend to fall more often into the realm of alleviation of suffering and the work of charity than the work of justice. Speaking about justice work, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said, “When Christians speak in public about community flourishing or about justice, there’s always someone who will pop up and ask why we’re sticking our noses in, as if these things were miles away from the proper concerns of Christianity.  Stick to God, we are told. So, we do, and we find not only the passages I have mentioned, but Jesus saying: Love God, love neighbor.  The common good of the community and justice are absolutely central to what it means to be a Christian.” And furthermore, “We don’t speak about common good and justice because we think we have some automatic right to be heard,” he said, “but because loving our neighbor places responsibilities upon us. We have responsibilities to speak, even when it might be easier to stay quiet, to point to injustice and to challenge others to join us in righting it.” Nevertheless, we heard anxiety from the grassroots of the Church and, to some extent, a sense of being disconnected from the words of the wider Church and General Convention on the theology of social justice. For example, some felt that social justice preaching should not advocate a particular view on reform or that the emphasis should be on  “outreach ministry” but not social justice. We heard concerns that social justice is “only about politics.” In our Church wide discussions, we talk about justice in terms of promoting social change and responding to long-term needs in combination with work to alleviate the suffering before us. For example, we have many important congregation-level food pantries, which help to alleviate hunger for a short period of time (a week or a month), but we also provide funding for an Episcopal Public Policy Network and several statewide coalitions that advocate for systems-level change to address hunger. These networks call on Episcopalians to advocate for strong public benefits such as school meals and food benefits for families in poverty and for better minimum and living wage policies so that working families do not run out of food money before the end of the month. In the survey, we did not see many responses connecting these two types of ministries.”  Further down in the report they say, “Here is one vivid example of the disconnectedness between what the  Church says and what the congregations know about what the Church says: One congregation stated they did work with immigrants and also stated that General Convention did not pass resolutions that helped their work. The same respondent urged General Convention to pass more resolutions relating to immigration. A quick search of the Episcopal Archives reveals thirty-nine resolutions on immigration that have been passed by General Convention. It seems that the resolutions passed by General Convention may not have been communicated to the people in the pews.”

When I try to help people understand the difference between charity and Justice I often tell them a story.  It goes as follows.

A man was walking by a river, quietly enjoying the view, when he noticed, to his surprise, a baby floating down the river.  He immediately jumped in and brought the baby safely to the shore.  He no sooner turned around when he noticed another baby floating down the river and then another and another.  He did the best he could but it was obvious he was out numbered.  Other people joined him on the shore and he called out for their help.  They jumped in as well.  Everyone worked as fast as they could but it did not seem like the flow of babies would ever end.  Finally, the first man, got out of the water and began to walk away.  The others yelled, “Where are you going?  We need you here to help pull the babies out of the water.”  He replied, “I am going up stream to find out who is throwing the babies in.”

In our story who is doing charity work and who is doing justice work?

Tonight we will follow the example of our Lord by washing feet just as he did so long ago.  I ask you, is what we about to do an act of charity or an act of justice?   Some of you might be thinking, “I don’t see this as either, charity or justice.  I think Jesus is trying to teach us humility.  And you know I might have to give you that one.  He is teaching humility.  But think on that just a little more.  Why?   Why does he insist on humility?

“You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

The Psalmist sang in our psalm today:

“O Lord, I am your servant.  I am your servant and the child of your handmaid.  You have freed me from my bonds.  I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call upon the Name of the Lord.  I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”

What I have learned is that before justice and true charity can walk through a door, humility has to unlock it first.