This Lent, we join the prophet Amos in declaring, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” May the waters of justice and righteousness wash over and renew us this Lenten season. May God’s love engulf and surround us, sending us out as tributaries to water a dry world thirsty for righteousness.
Romans 8: 31-39
“So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? [God] didn’t spare [God’s] own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t [God] also freely give us all things…? “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us. “Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, We are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter. “But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.”
“I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food— I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
The first waterfall I ever saw pretty much distorted my understanding of waterfalls for the rest of my life. I was ten years old, and we were on a boat called the “Maid of the Mist.”
We all had on these ponchos on as we approached Niagara Falls from the Canadian side, and I’ll never forget the sound, the sheer thunderous volume of the water, roaring down, and the “mist” that these falls caused which actually sprayed us with water.
Since then, I’ve seen other waterfalls, some beautiful and big, some just a weak trickle during times of drought. And I know most of you are probably more familiar with the waterfalls of Yosemite which I have yet to experience. But I’ve never felt that sheer force of water as it generates the power and sound and splash as I have at Niagara Falls.
This Lenten Season, the image we are using with our “Roll Down, Justice!” theme is that of waterfalls. And I don’t want you think of those small trickles of water you may come across on a hike here and there, I want you to think of those giant falls in Yosemite after a good winter of rain or of Niagara Falls in its full glory.
Because that’s what it’s like to be in the presence of God. You don’t even have to be standing right under it to get soaked in love and mercy and blessing. You just have to kind of get close to it. Proximity drenches you, splashes you with that mist.
Usually, during Lent, we consider images of wilderness and desert, bareness and thirst. But this year, we bask in God’s goodness, in God’s abundance, in waterfalls that can’t help but roll down thunderously. Because that is God’s way.
That is what we mean when we say “Roll Down, Justice!”
We would be remiss, however, if we didn’t pause to consider how this country began this Lenten season, with news of yet another mass shooting this time on Ash Wednesday at a high school in Parkland, Florida. As we try and wrap our heads around the 17 innocent lives lost that day, we acknowledge that the tears shed by those parents, students, friends, teachers, and quite frankly by us, that that, too, is “Roll Down, Justice!
Because while I do not believe God causes shootings or disasters or horrible tragedies, I do believe that tears roll down the face of God at the horror and pain we undergo as humans.
“Roll Down, Justice!” It is both a statement of a reality we have yet to fully live into, and it is a plea, a desperate call to action when we don’t see that justice enacted in our day to day lives.
And you all know this, injustice is everywhere. We are bombarded with news of injustices.
And it is tempting to just turn it off, to look away, to tune out. And sometimes, we need to, for our own self-care and needs. Sometimes we just need the silence.
But we mustn’t be tempted to retreat into our comfort zones, or to numb ourselves to the pain. We must face the pain, turn towards it, let it wash over us, too.
Glennon Doyle Melton, a New York Times Bestseller who started off as a blogger says this:
“If we stopped being so afraid of pain, we would find our power… If we stopped being so afraid of pain, we’d become the kind of Americans our nation needs. We cannot afford to become numb to the pain of these difficult days. The pain has woken us and united us. It is a painful gift. But it is a gift. Our collective pain will become our collective power… Our power to rise is inside of our pain. First the pain, then the rising. First the pain, then the rising.”
Turn towards the pain, and then maybe, just maybe, justice will start rolling down because we cannot be unaffected. We cannot refuse to do something about the pain, to respond with compassion and hope and love.
Cornel West, with whom I don’t always agree, but you can still learn from and quote people with whom you don’t always agree, says this: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Marcus Borg, who I’m generally inclined to agree with much more often, says it like this:
Justice is the social form of compassion. As the social form of compassion, justice is about politics, not in the modern sense of electoral politics, but in the sense suggested by the root of the English word. It comes from the Greek word polis, which means “city.” Politics is about the shape and shaping, the structure and the structuring of the city, and by extension, of human communities more generally, ranging from the family to society as a whole… As such, justice is the political form of compassion, the social form of love.”
So you see, justice is simply an extension of love, how love is shown and embodied when we move from one on one interactions, which are so important, to communal interactions. If we face the pain and love the people before us, justice is simply the next logical step.
Dom Helder Camara experienced this. He was a Catholic Bishop in Brazil during the military regime of the country. People say he was often called the ‘Bishop of the slums’ for his time spent with those who were the poorest in his society, those living on the streets and in the slums. And he noted this: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
You see, the bishop didn’t want to just address an immediate need, which we absolutely must do, but he also wanted to know why, why were people hungry in the first place? What put them in that position? And could a society exist where people might not be hungry? That questioning of “why?” was threatening to the social order.
But you see, that is justice. Feeding those who are hungry is compassion. Creating a society where people no longer hunger is justice. And we need both because both are an extension of love.
This congregation embodies this. It is something you have already committed to do.
When the Poverty Task Force was formed after hearing about the youth’s experience on a mission trip, you asked, “What are the root causes of poverty?” and “How can we break cycles of poverty?”
We still address immediate needs of course: We cook and serve meals at the Interfaith Winter Shelter; we provide lunches through Pack-a-Sack; and help out at St Martin de Porres.
But we also partner with nonprofits in this city that are trying to keep people from having to get a meal at the winter shelter or through pack-a-sack.
Through education and transitional housing, through providing job and interview skills as well as a safe place for young, at-risk teens, The Boys and Girls Club, SF Achievers, Raphael House, and New Door Ventures, ask the questions “why?” and do something about it. We, as a community, volunteer our time and gifts and financial resources to these organizations, knowing that we can’t create just communities on our own, but we must work with others.
And as people of faith, we acknowledge we can’t do this on our own at all. We need God. We need that higher power that sustains and inspires and gives us hope. We need God because God is already doing the work of justice in this world, and we only need to come alongside to help in that work.
Because God is love, God is all about justice.
When we pray, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” that is a prayer for justice, a prayer that our society may reflect God’s vision for a just world.
But like our Lenten Prayer Poem says, “We can’t offer what we don’t have.”
None of this is possible if we do not love ourselves, if we do not experience the depth, width, breadth of God’s endless love for us. And that’s why our passage from Romans reminds us that nothing can separate us from God’s love, absolutely nothing.
Because it was already sealed and done long before we could ever even respond. For some of us, it was at our baptisms. The waters of justice that we call to roll down are the same waters that claimed us and sealed us as God’s own in our baptism.
In our baptism, we are named and claimed for God, called as God’s beloved children. We are given a gift that we never deserved, a gift that will never be taken away, the gift of God’s love, the gift of new life, the gift of hope and joy and freedom.
And it overflows.
This morning, our communion table rolls down, and our baptismal font overflows.
One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 23. It holds so much beautiful imagery, but the one that sticks with me, particularly for ministry, is verse five when it says, “My cup overflows,” or in the King James Version, “My cup runneth over.”
You see our cups need to be filled, so that we have something to offer. We have to experience and know God’s deep love for us and for the world, so that we can attempt to love others through our compassion and through justice.
For some, I know that you experience that love most profoundly when you are serving others. That is beautiful. Whatever fills your cup, tap deep into that. And from that overflow, give unto others.
This Lent, our baptismal font overflows; our cups overflow; the waterfalls of justice roll down unrelentingly.
God’s love is enough.
Beloved child of God, be filled. Your cup runneth over.
“So, may justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!”