SERMON ~ October 30, 2022 ~ “Systems 101”

October 30, 2022 ~ Proper 26 ~ Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (If All Saints not observed on this day) Celebrated in Some Traditions as Reformation Sunday ~ Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144 Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 32:1-7; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10 ~ Note: November 1, 2022 ~ All Saints Day ~ Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE:

Systems 101

“Cease to do evil, / learn to do good; / search for and seek justice, / rescue, help the oppressed; / defend and protect those who are orphaned; / plead the case of those who are widowed.” — Isaiah 1:16c-17.

I suspect all of us take note of milestones in personal life, private events. And we also take note of milestones when it comes to societal life, public events, public life. We celebrate these markers in some way.

Corporate, public milestones get celebrated in a universal way, observed by a whole community— a Fourth of July parade, a remembrance of the observance of 9/11. There may be very private aspects to these public observances but they are communal.

Other milestones can only be described as very private, very personal, most often observed only by an individual or family members or close friends. Both of these kinds of milestones, the public and the private, each also break into two categories. There are events we celebrate with joy and events we observe with solemnity.

Among the private events we observe with joy are wedding anniversaries and birthdays. The private observances we mark with reserve and solemnity might include marking the anniversary of the date on which a close friend or relative died.

In our history, the history of this country, there have been many points of public distress. These range from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the assassination of Kennedy to the tragedy of 9/11. And there have been events we observe filled with joy— V.E. and V.J. day, when the astronauts landed on the moon, when the Red Sox won the Word Series. (Did I say that out loud?)

Needless to say, the further into the past we go, the less likely an event is to stir our emotions, however significant. After all, when was the last time we observed the date of the assassination of Lincoln? April the 15th if anyone is interested.

The more recent the event, the more fixed it is in current memory, the more personal it becomes. Therefore, even though these events, especially the recent ones, are observed in a public way, the personal pain of these memories bring is real.

It is likely the most private person among us participates in public moments, public markings and the most public person among us experiences private moments, private markings. That there is a tension between public and private cannot be denied.

Late this week I will observe a hard personal anniversary. It is the thirtieth-ninth anniversary of my Mother’s death. She died at a young age as those things go, 58.

Further, she died because of cancer of the bladder which, even that long ago, took only about ten percent of those who dealt with it. She was simply in the wrong group, not the ninety percent who survive but among the ten percent who don’t make it.

There is no denying this: the fact that she died young and that the disease takes a small segment of those who contract it does not feel fair. She died before I met Bonnie so she never met Bonnie. Bonnie never met her.

There are days I still feel some personal pain about this. It leaves me asking the question ‘is there, was there anything just in that?’ (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah: “Cease to do evil, / learn to do good; / search for and seek justice, / rescue, help the oppressed; / defend and protect those who are orphaned; / plead the case of those who are widowed.” (Pause.)

The words of the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah are written over the course of nearly 300 years between the late Eight Century and the mid Fifth Century Before the Common Era. Scholars think there are two or even three prophets recorded in the scroll. They do have an argument about that— two or three.

But there is no argument about the overarching thrust of the scroll. Isaiah addresses justice. So, what is justice?

What does it mean to do justice, see justice, experience justice, seek justice? Is any kind of justice— personal or public justice— real, attainable? And what is the tension among these, personal and public? (Pause.)

I’ll come back to those questions in just a bit. I just want to take a little journey somewhere else. I called this sermon Systems 101. Why?

If you go to a typical undergraduate class in systems this is the first rule you will learn: there is no such thing as a perfect system. It does not exist.

Equally, if you do a Master of Divinity Degree a required course will be Systematic Theology. Obviously, there is a problem with giving a course the title of Systematic Theology. There is no such thing as a perfect system.

However, I did not say ‘there is no such thing as a system.’ Systems exist— hence Systematic Theology— and systems are necessary, helpful and serve us quite well.

The job of anarchy and an anarchist is to abolish and/or obstruct systems. The last time I looked neither anarchy nor anarchists serve anyone except those who enjoy wallowing in chaos— no, thank you— not my cup of tea.

So again and to reiterate, every system has a flaw, probably many. That brings me back to what I believe is the key issue this passage presents: there is a tension between our private needs and our public needs between private joy and public joy, between private pain and public pain.

We do have private needs, private joy, private pain. We do have public needs, public joy, public pain. It seems to me all these— needs and joy and pain— are inexorably intertwined.

So, if a perfect system cannot be constructed— and I don’t think it can because joy and needs and pain all tug at one another— if a perfect system cannot be constructed what is justice?

Or as I asked earlier, what does it mean to do justice, see justice, experience justice, seek justice? Is any kind of justice real or attainable? Is justice personal, private public, communal? (Slight pause.) Hard questions, these. (Slight pause.)

I think we make a basic mistake in our perception of justice. We perceive justice as an end, understand justice as a result. That’s where the words from this passage are instructive.

For me the passage has a clear outline of what justice is about. Justice takes action; justice moves. Justice is, therefore, both for each of us and for all people. But of upmost importance, justice is a process, not an end. (Quote:) “Cease to do evil, / learn to do good; / search for and seek justice, / rescue, help the oppressed….” (Slight pause.)

That brings me back to my mother and what she taught me about how justice really functions. We lived in Brooklyn, New York— the 1950s mean streets of Brooklyn. When I was about seven I saw a mugging take place outside the front window of the house. I was the only one there watching.

Well, I ran and got my Mom. She rushed into the street. She was all of five foot two but shouted so loudly the attacker ran off. She brought the victim, a woman who was probably in her seventies, back into the house and called the police. (Slight pause.)

Action, you see, shifts our focus. Action takes the focus off us and places it on anyone who is denied justice. And action helps us realize that if any one person is denied justice, then we are all denied justice.

To be clear: action does not remove pain. Action, if anything, makes us more aware of pain, ours and others. Action does not eliminate need. Action, if anything, makes us more aware of need, ours and others.

I think these words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sum up where we need to be in our struggle seeking justice. (Quote:) “I have not lost faith. I am not in despair, because I know there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I would add the arc of the moral universe invites us to action. Amen.

Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Benediction and Response. This is an précis of what was said: “When the reading from Isaiah was introduced you heard it said that for the prophets sin means corporate sin, the sin of the community. The only remedy for corporate, communal sin is communal justice— justice for all people. What is justice for all? These are much more current words, a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt (quote): ‘The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.’”

BENEDICTION: O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our striving for justice and truth, to confront one another in love, and to work together with mutual patience, acceptance and respect. Send us out, sure in Your grace and Your peace which surpasses understanding, to live faithfully. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

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