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Streams of Living Water: The Stream of Justice and Mercy

March 9, 2008

Matthew 25:31-46

Clare has been reading the last of the Mitford series by Jan Karon. In that novel, Father Tim, the Episcopal priest, has been asked to conduct a funeral for his dear friend Uncle Billy, a salt-of-the-earth kind of man. Because Uncle Billy always had a story or a joke to tell, Father Tim invited people to share their stories and jokes at the funeral. Someone told a story about the Baptist preacher in town, cutting his chin badly one Sunday morning while shaving. The person had commented to Uncle Billy that the preacher was thinking so much about his sermon that he cut his chin. Uncle Billy had quipped, “Well, he should have been thinking about his chin and cut his sermon.”

There is no such luck today, I am afraid.

Streams of Living Water is our sermon series title. Today, we come to the Stream of Justice and Mercy. Our Scripture passage today is familiar. I have included the entire parable. We usually stop at the line, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). When Jesus told this parable, he went on to contrast the other side. It is not a pleasant thought about what happens to those who do not treat other people with justice and mercy. We see the answer right from the lips of Jesus in Verses 45-46: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

As we begin to think about the topic for today, I want to set before you two images that will be helpful. The Amazon River is the largest river in the world. It is 3,900 miles, a length longer than traveling by automobile from New York to San Francisco. It is a very long stretch of river, but not the Nile is the longest. The Amazon is huge, containing more water than the Nile, the Mississippi, and the Yangtze River combined. In fact, you can stand on one bank along the Amazon and not see all the way across to the other bank in many places. It is like one very large, long lake in a sense because the current moves so slowly.

About halfway up the Amazon is a port called Manaus, which is situated at the confluence of another river, the Rio Negro, into the Amazon. The name Rio Negro simply means Black River. The water in that river is so dark and black because of tannin, which comes from decaying vegetation in the Amazon Rain Forest. The Amazon has somewhat of a coffee-with-cream color. As the dark water of the Rio Negro flows into the Amazon, these two clearly defined streams flow side-by-side, even several miles after the confluence. When we think about the stream of justice and mercy, we need to think about justice and mercy flowing together, side-by-side, both of them gifts of God’s grace.

The second image that is helpful comes from the Colorado River. Some of you have seen Hoover Dam. You know that the issue of water rights is important in the Colorado River Basin. Plenty of water seems to be available north of the Hoover Dam; however, south of the dam, the water is in short supply. The people of Southern California demand a lot of water. That means that water is somewhat sparse for some who depend on this water for their vital life supply.

Water rights is a worldwide issue. I remember the last time I was in Israel a discussion about the fact that Syria wanted to buy some land that would connect that country to the Sea of Galilee. The plan was to put a huge pipe in the Sea of Galilee and pump that water to Syria. Israel, of course, would not allow that because the Sea of Galilee is their primary source of fresh water.

One of our dearest and most cherished mottos in this country is “Liberty and justice for all,” but we all know that many people are denied liberty and justice. The truth is that some people are denied access to this stream of justice and mercy. The prophets of the eighth century – Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Hosea, in his own way – all could see this very well. They all spoke against this disparity.

Amos speaks so clearly about this imbalance, supplying instances of injustice: the poor being sold for a pair of sandals in the marketplace, prices being so inflated that poor people could not afford to buy shoes, scales used in the marketplace being weighted to benefit the seller, and produce vendors cheating the buyers. Amos lashes out against the wealthy, the haves, because much of their wealth was accumulated at the expense of the have-nots. He gives his prophecy in the region of Samaria, declaring, “Let justice flow down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream” (Amos 5:24). The image here is of a waterfall or perhaps a dam breaking. This dam keeps mercy and justice from reaching everybody
We see the very same concern in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus, as you know, was sometimes confused with one of the prophets. In his ministry, Jesus spoke to this very concern. Take, for example, the feeding of the 5,000. You understand that before Jesus fed the 5,000, he and his disciples were already exhausted. Jesus had planned to take his followers away to a deserted place for a time of retreat. When the crowd saw him and his disciples moving across the Sea of Galilee to this isolated place, those people walked around the bank of the Sea of Galilee and waited for Jesus until he and the disciples arrived. The crowd actually numbered more than 5,000. Five thousand men plus their families were waiting. Scriptures say that when Jesus stepped out of the boat onto the bank, he had compassion on the great multitude because they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). It is that compassion that identifies this stream of justice and mercy.

You remember the encounter Jesus had with a rich young ruler. This young man, so self-righteous, said that he had obeyed every aspect of the law. Jesus, of course, could see his Achilles heel. “There is one thing you lack,” Jesus said. “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” Jesus does not expect everybody to sell their possessions. Jesus pointed out to this self-righteous man that greed was his barrier to the kingdom of heaven. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus speaks to a lawyer who is trying to trip him. Jesus helps him understand what it means to be a neighbor, a neighbor even to one who was so different. Our Lord clearly identifies the stream of justice and mercy.

Here in Matthew 25, we have the last parable of Jesus, one told before Palm Sunday. The heading in my Bible says that it is a parable about sheep and goats, but those animals are only mentioned one time in an analogy. The real issue here is this courtroom scene. People brought before a judge, a righteous judge, are evaluated on the basis of the way they have responded to the needs of other people. Let me be quick to say that we know we are not saved by good works. We are saved by the grace of God. Our salvation is God’s doing. God expects us, however, to pass on to other people His justice and mercy. He expects our life to reflect the way we have ourselves been treated. Jesus makes it clear that the way we treat other people, the way we respond to those in need, is important to him.

Some people who choose not to believe that Jesus is Lord will say, “He is a great moral teacher.” Jesus is not just a great moral teacher. In my devotional reading this week, I came across a quote in Mere Christianity from C.S. Lewis that I want to share with you.

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be considered a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg or else he would be the devil himself. You must make your choice. Either Jesus was and is the Son of God, or else he is a mad man or something worse. You can spit at him. You can kill him as a demon, or you can fall before him and call him Lord and Savior. But let us not come up with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great moral teacher. He did not leave that open to us. He did not intend to.

People often make a second mistake about Jesus. They say that Jesus did not have anything to do with politics; therefore, Christians should not have anything to do with politics. I would like to recommend a book to you, John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. It is not an easy book to read, but it is very profound. Jesus did not come into this world just to die for our sins. He certainly did that, but he did not come into this world just to be a sacrificial lamb. Jesus came into the world to inaugurate a new kingdom. He came as messiah. He came as prophet. He came as priest, and he came as the “King of Kings and the Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16). One who comes into the world to inaugurate a new kingdom is a political figure.
Those of us who are Christians have a responsibility to understand that Jesus was very much involved in the politics of his day. Some Baptists cringe at this notion. On the other hand, some have taken the liberty of endorsing candidates and identifying themselves with political ideology more recently. His connection to politics is one of the factors that contributed to his death. He was concerned with justice and mercy. The church of Jesus Christ has a responsibility to look to him as our pattern, our model. This has nothing to do with being a Republican or Democrat. It certainly has nothing to do with endorsing one candidate over another.

Let me tell you how to vote. Now, just listen. I want you to vote just like I do. Go to your poling place with a sense of conviction, having prayed about the person you feel is worthy of the position. Go into the booth, close the curtain, and cast your vote by secret ballot. Do not tell anyone how you voted. That is what I am going to do. I am not going to tell you the name of the person who received my vote, but I encourage you to vote and be involved in the political process.

One of the best examples I have ever seen of this concern is in a young Lutheran pastor named Arthur Simon. He decided to take a year away from pastoral ministry in order to focus on the problem of world hunger. Traveling all over this country and speaking mostly to Lutheran groups, he raised $9,000,000 for world hunger. On the day he went to his denomination and presented this money, he felt so good about the work he had done for a year. Two days later, the Congress of the United States voted to withdraw $27,000,000 in economic aid from third world countries. Arthur Simon said, “I took a year of my life to raise $9,000,000. In one vote, the Congress undid what I had done three-fold. It was then that I realized world hunger is a political issue. It has to be addressed at the level of politics.”

Our relationship to Christ is a relationship to a king and to a judge who evaluates us by our actions. This parable makes that fact clear. Christ judges us by our actions in the way we relate to the people he called “the least of these.”

Let us take a look at the ones Jesus identified as “the least of these.” First, he mentions those who are hungry. Many of you are involved in ministry to hungry people at places like the Soup Kitchen at Second Presbyterian Church, Mobile Meals, and TOTAL Ministries. Ministry to the hungry is important. How are we involved in ministry to Darfur in the Sudan, where 200,000 people have died of malnutrition? It is an overwhelming problem. Do you think Jesus cares about those people, too?

How are we to be involved with those who are thirsty? Giving them a cup of water in Jesus’ name is important. Many places in this world do not have good water. I remember a time when one of the biggest projects was digging wells in African villages. More recently, the problem of having good water is an issue in the country of Haiti. They need fresh water.

What about those strangers who need a place to live? A young newspaper reporter, a member of this church, wrote a series of articles about homelessness. Out of that series of articles, a concern for the homeless in the community developed. The organization known as Spartanburg Interfaith Hospitality Network (SPIHN), now located in our building, came out of that series of articles. It was not until he died that I realized that our son Erik was very much a prophet in his own time. When he was here, none of us ever thought of him as a prophet. A person who writes as Amos did, calling the attention of a community to the fact that not all people receive justice and mercy, has a prophetic edge.

What about the sick? Tuesday afternoon, I will be at St. Luke’s Free Clinic. What a wonderful ministry right here in Spartanburg! Many in our congregation are involved in health care professions. We should certainly care for the sick. What about the worldwide epidemic of HIV and AIDS? Does Jesus care about those people? Are those of us who are Christian simply to say, “It is their fault”? I doubt Jesus would want us to blame the victim. He would want us to find a way to respond with compassion.

Consider those who are in prison. Do we just lock them up and throw away the key or do we treat them as people for whom Christ died, even if they do not act like people?
This parable does not mention children, but certainly Jesus regarded children as “one of the least of these.” What about children who are hurt, neglected, abused? What about children who are unborn?

How should the church of Jesus Christ respond with compassion, with justice and mercy, “to the least of these”? The prophet Micah spoke about this issue very clearly. “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Some wonderful Hebrew words are here: mishpat means justice, and hassid (chasid) means mercy. God expects justice and mercy to flow together out of our lives. They are companions, not mutually exclusive, but constantly bound to each other. You see clearly in the teaching of Micah that a balance is vital.

Mayor LaGuardia often presided at night court in New York City as one way to keep in touch with his people. One night while there, a man who had been charged with theft was brought before him.

Mayor LaGuardia asked him, “You have been charged with theft. How do you plead?”
The man answered, “I am guilty, sir.”
The mayor asked, “What did you steal?”
“A loaf of bread.”
“Why did you steal a loaf of bread?”
“Because my sister and her children did not have anything to eat.”

Mayor LaGuardia sentenced him, “You are guilty of theft. The fine is $50. You will be expected to pay that fine, but I am going to fine everybody in this courtroom because we dare to live in a city where a man has to resort to stealing in order to see that his loved ones are fed. Everybody is fined $5.00.” He took his own hat, put $5 inside, and passed it around the courtroom. When the hat came back to him, it contained nearly $300. He handed all the money to the man and said, “Fifty of that money is your fine. You may keep the rest.”
We see both justice and mercy in the mayor’s actions. We see a balance.

How do we find that balance? Micah tells us: “You must walk humbly with your God.” You will never find the balance if you fail to do that. There is absolutely no room to look down on anybody. Humility recognizes that the ground at the foot of the cross is level, that we are all equal in the sight of God, and that He bestows justice and mercy on every one of us.

Acts 15 includes the story of the Jerusalem Council. The church made a very important decision in that early church. The question was, “Can a Gentile be a Christian without first becoming a Jew?” That issue was resolved. Simon Peter had been to the Roman centurion Cornelius and had led him to Christ. Cornelius, a Roman, a Gentile, was baptized, as were others in his family. Paul defines this clearly in Galatians when he says, “In Christ Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). The Colossians’ take on that is, “There is neither Scythian nor barbarian.” Scythians were considered the worse of the barbarians. Paul is saying that in Christ Jesus, we are all equal. We need that point of view if we are going to see to it that others receive justice and mercy.
So many wonderful examples exist. A Quaker minister named John Wolman, who lived before the Revolutionary War, was often asked to write wills for others. He would write a will and not charge the person anything, but Wolman’s provision was that upon that person’s death any slaves in his possession would be freed. I also think of William Wilberforce, a protégé of John Newton, the slave trader who became a minister. When Wilberforce thought of leaving Parliament to become a minister, Newton told him, “No, you can do more in Parliament than you could ever do in the ministry.” Wilberforce stayed in Parliament and led the great battle to abolish slavery in the English Commonwealth. The truth is that we, too, need to be involved.
Richard Foster makes an important point. He says that when we follow this stream of justice and mercy, we will make decisions that will lead to peace. Another good Hebrew word is used here, shalom. This is not just peace between countries or peace between people; it is also inner peace. “Peace like a river in my soul.”

During the last presidential election, my friend Doug Smith asked if I would pray at a gathering with Vice President Dick Chaney. When I said that I would, he told me that I needed to submit the prayer to the White House. The fact that the White House had to approve it bothered me a little bit, but I did not have anything in my prayer that I felt would be rejected. I submitted my prayer, and the White House gave me permission to use it.

On the day of the event, I went through all of the Secret Service hullabaloo at the place where the Vice-President was speaking. I felt so sorry for the family hosting the event. Dogs and Secret Service agents were everywhere early that morning. I stood close, almost within arm’s reach of the Vice-President. No one ever asked me to pray. No one recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

Doug finally whispered in my ear, “Have you already prayed?”
I said, “Not out loud.”
“Did they say the Pledge of Allegiance?”
“No.” Knowing that they had also left out the Pledge of Allegiance made me feel better. The Vice-President’s staff had decided his schedule was too demanding and no time was available for the prayer or the Pledge. Dick Chaney spoke and then everybody left in a hurry. Lanny Littlejohn and I stayed behind and ate shrimp and grits together.

Three weeks later, Liz Patterson asked if I would say the prayer at a Democratic gathering. I said, “Liz, I have just the prayer.” I went to that gathering and prayed for the Democrats, using the prayer that had been approved by the Bush White House. That prayer fit both occasions.

Our number one responsibility as Christian people is to pray. Jesus said that we are supposed to be salt and light in this world. We are supposed to be the leaven in the loaf. How can we make a difference in this world where some of the problems are overwhelming? As always, the church advances on her knees. We advance by prayer. We cannot take on every problem the world has, but when something tugs at your heart, when you feel a connection, do not ignore it. In this great stream of justice and mercy, God calls every single one of us to exhibit the same kind of compassion that we see in the Lord Jesus Christ.

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