Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Let Justice Roll

Last night I was honored to have the opportunity to offer some words of reflection, hopefully inspirational, at the IMPACT Annual Meeting.  According to its website IMPACT is "a grassroots initiative that brings together a diverse group of congregations to live out our religious traditions' call for justice in our local community of Charlottesville & Albemarle County, VA."  (IMPACT stands for "Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.")  It is part of the congregation-based community organizing (CBCO) movement, and a very exciting way of doing real work  to address real community needs.  Here is the talk I gave (including the last page, which went missing):

~ Let Justice Roll ~
I have to say that I am really proud and grateful to be standing here tonight.  And by “here” I don’t just mean up here at this podium, with the opportunity of sharing some thoughts with you all.  By “here” I mean here – with all of you, among all of you, a part of this incredible gathering.  Thirty-one different faith communities have sent hundreds of different people to do one thing – to work together to do justice.
I’m new to Charlottesville.    My family and I moved here this summer when I began serving the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist.  I have to say that one of the things that drew me to TJMC was its involvement in IMPACT.  Let me tell you, they did a real good job of representing this relationship prominently in the packet of materials they sent to prospective clergy people.  I read everything they had to say.  I followed up by reading the IMPACT web site.  And that led me to the DART Network site.  I suppose I should have been paying more attention to the congregation’s own budget and history, but I was fascinated by this stuff.  Drawn to it.
It’s not too hard for a congregation to be involved in social action.  Lots of congregations of all kinds would say that they’re interested in it.  They have a Social Action Committee.  Maybe there’s a Director of Social Justice Ministries.  Maybe checks get written to good causes.  Maybe some folks volunteer to bring food to the Food Bank once in a while.  Oh, it’s not too hard at all for a congregation to be involved in social action.
But for a congregation to be involved with others who are involved in social action?  To intentionally seek out other congregations, other communities – and not just others who are like us but also others who are not like us? And then to join with these  others – even those who are not like us – not simply to work toward those issues that we’re most excited about getting involved with but to try to determine the issue which actually is most pressing for our entire community?  Wow.
No wonder I feel proud to be standing here tonight.  Protestants of so many stripes, Roman Catholics, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims – we’ve come together to try to do something that will benefit not only our own communities but, more importantly, the wider Charlottesville  - Albemarle County community.  That’s something to be proud of.
Are you proud of being here tonight? 
¿Se siente orgulloso de estar aquí esta noche?
I’m grateful, too, because this congregation based community organization, this CBCO, isn’t just one more opportunity for a bunch of well-meaning people to get together and moan about everything that’s wrong “out there” and then wring our hands because “they” aren’t listening to all of our good ideas.
No!  In the six years since its inception here in Charlottesville, IMPACT has . . . well . . . had an impact.  Things are different because of gatherings like this.  There have been substantive changes because of this work; and there are no doubt more to come.  Although Charlottesville has recently been described as the #1 city to live in in the country -- #4 for book lovers! – and has been called “the healthiest place to live” and “the number one city for retirement,” we all know that there’s still work to do here.  Lots of it.  We all know that this can be a tough place to live if you’re African American, or a refugee, or have a mental illness, or are poor.  We know that it’s not all like the glossy magazines portray it.
So let me not hold up the work we’re here to do much longer.  I would like to share one thing with you, though, an observation I made while working on a sermon for a congregation I was once serving up in Maine.  The text for the morning was the well-known passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Amos, Chapter 5, verse twenty-four:  ¡Pero corra el juicio como un río, la justicia como un torrente inagotable!”  “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
I can’t tell you how many sermons I’ve heard that used this as a starting place.  Can’t tell you, even, how many sermons I’ve preached that have used this as a starting place.  And they all end up at pretty much the same destination – encouraging the congregation and the individuals that make it up to get more active in working for social justice. 
Oh, most of them have had a particular focus – a new project the congregation’s taking on, or an old one that appears to be running out of steam – but the general outlines are usually the same.  Amos is telling us to get out there and get busy doing justice in the world.  As a friend of mine likes to say, “Am I preaching to the choir?  Sure I’m preaching to the choir.  And what I’m preaching is, get out of your chairs and sing!”  ¡Salir de sus sillas y cantar!
Like I said, I’ve preached that sermon myself.  More than once.  Every choir needs a little encouraging now and then.  But this one time I had an honest-to-goodness revelation!  Suddenly I didn’t hear Amos telling us to get out and work building justice in the land.  I didn’t read those words as an encouragement to put more energy and more commitment into some social justice project or other.
But let justice roll on . . .  Pero corra el juicio . . . 
Suddenly I saw this river – fast and free-flowing.  Almost at flood stage.  Unstoppable.  A seething torrent.  Roiling.  White water of a class V or VI.  A get-out-of-the-way-because-I’m-comin’-through-and-nothing’s-gonna-stop-me-now kind of river.  You get the picture?
This is the river of justice, rolling on like a never-failing stream.  Flowing on.  Rich, and full, and life-giving.  A little dangerous too, maybe, but powerful.  And beautiful.  Awe-inspiring.
Except that it’s not flowing.  It’s dammed up.  I don’t know how.  Maybe some beavers got to it.  Or it was buried during a mountaintop removal.  Or some folks built a dam thinking that it could generate power for I don’t know what.  Or maybe people got to littering and stopped it up, and fouled it up, and filled it up so full of sludge and slime that now that river’s all backed up.  I don’t know how it happened; I just know that it happened.  That mighty river, that never-failing stream, has been clogged up and it just isn’t flowing anywhere like it used to.  Oh, maybe a trickle here and there, but nothing like it’s supposed to be – swollen with spring melt and flowing free.
I got this picture and suddenly realized that Amos wasn’t telling us to go out and make a river of justice.  He wasn’t telling us to construct a concrete culvert and to start pumping water into it.  Not at all!  The river’s already here, he’s telling us – we just got to get out and let it flow!
That’s the message I want to share with you tonight, my new friends.  Justice, righteousness . . . we aren’t responsible for going out and making them.  Creating them.  Building them.  Developing them.  They’re already here.  All we have to do is clean out the muck, get out the gunk, jettison the junk that’s been damming up the works for far too long.    That’s what our job is.
I want to remind each of us and us all that we’re not responsible for it all.  The river can take care of itself, thank you very much, and if given half a chance it can wash away any obstacle.  To mix my metaphors, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  We just have to get it rolling.  And believe me, that’s hard enough.  We have to clear away all of those things that are damming up the works – the things that have gotten there by accident, the things we’ve put there on purpose, the things that some people think make life better and more enjoyable for them (even while there are people dying of thirst just a few feet downstream).  Our job is to do what needs to be done to let justice roll.
Nothing more.  And, of course, nothing less.
¿Es una buena noticia?  Is this Good News?
Let the people say, “Amen.”
Print this post


Lynn said...

Amen, Erik, amen!

Kim Wilkens said...

I'm so glad you gave us all a new perspective on the "river of justice." Let it flow!

Kim Wilkens said...

Just watched "Pray the devil back to hell" from PBS's Women, War & Peace series and I saw that vision of an unstoppable river of justice made real by the women of Liberia.