Is 58:6-12 – Chapel Sermon at Valpo Chapel – On the Way – Justice
Deaconess Karen Melang
Feb. 25, 2011
The recently returned exiles who first heard Isaiah’s words were looking for a spiritual practice that worked for them. They chose a fast carefully orchestrated to show God how terribly humble they were, but this humility turned out to be nothing more than a thin veneer over their own self-interest.
And still they had the nerve to complain to God: We fast, but you do not look at us. We humble ourselves, but you do not notice.
Isaiah shakes his head and passes along God’s powerful word:
Is this not the fast I choose?
Remove the chains of oppression and injustice
And let the oppressed go free.
Share your food with the hungry,
And open your homes to the homeless poor,
And do not refuse to help your own relatives.
It’s not about you, says God. It’s about your neighbor. It’s about kindness, it’s about justice. Your oppressed, hungry, homeless neighbor needs you. The point of this spiritual practice, says God, is not that I notice you, but that you notice them.
In Matthew 25, Jesus ups the ante. Our needy neighbor is precisely where we see and serve God. Seeing Jesus in our needy neighbor is one mark of living in the way of God’sjustice. God does not simply look out for the poor – but according to Jesus, the poor are the closest thing we’ll find to God on this side of heaven.
Given this surprising reality, I have God walking through my office door on a regular basis. Before I started working for Habitat for Humanity 12 years ago, I had never really known many poor people. Now I know lots. And many of them honor me by telling me their incredible stories.
Lori told me the minute I met her that she was a recovering meth addict, of which there are not many – meth kills so many of its victims. But Lori survived. “Now,” she said, “I’m only addicted to my son.” Lori told me about her turnaround, her repentance, her Prodigal-Son-in-the-pigsty moment: I didn’t want to be the kind of person who steals money from their parents anymore, she said.
Kerri lived in a teeny, rickety rental the day she told me that she had a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old and she just found out she was pregnant again. She was thinking about an abortion, but her husband said, “I think if we had a Habitat house and a little more room, we could manage.” Every time I see little Cody, he makes me smile.
Then there are Mike and Karla and their 3 kids, all disabled, and all five of them in a one-bedroom apartment. And all the people in the trailer parks who pay outrageous amounts for utilities this time of year. So much heat seeps out of their trailers that families use multiple space heaters and caulk their back doors shut –the perfect environment for devastating fires.
We deaconesses pray a litany that says “Enlighten our eyes to see you in our needy neighbor.” When I meet low-income people, I try to be present to this sacred moment, pregnant with God’s presence. Before the conversation starts, I try to remember to look into their eyes and think, “Yup, it’s you.”
Where is Jesus showing up in your life? What is Jesus’ story? What does Jesus need?
A second mark of living in the way of God’s justice is being willing to, even intentional about, crossing borders and moving into new territory. There are all kinds of borders to cross, but I’ve found you can take a risky journey close to home.
I decided to visit a new Latino grocery store in our small and faltering downtown. I went without my usual long list. I was just going to browse and cross borders.
I was surprised by how much energy it took to get ready for this visit. There was lots to worry about. Would I be able to understand the signs? Would anyone be able to speak English to me if I needed information? Would there be any other Anglos there?
None of my worries were worth having. I was the only customer in the store at the time. Employees seemed genuinely glad to see me. I could figure out enough of the signs to manage. There were not many brands I recognized. The meat and fish counter had items I’d never seen before. I managed to choose a few things from the bakery.
Happy with my purchase and relieved that I had managed my exotic journey, I left the store. For perhaps 15 full minutes, I had felt like an outsider in a Latino market in a smallish city in Nebraska.
This is how newcomers to our community feel all the time, I thought. Crossing into new territory had opened my eyes just a little. Of course, bigger trips yield bigger understandings, but even small trips are worth taking.
Where can you go to move beyond your comfort zone? Where could you see more, hear more, feel more about those you share space with? Maybe you ought to plan a trip.
A third mark of living in the way of God’s justice is to take the first step toward justice, no matter how small, and not be overwhelmed by all that desperately needs doing. St. Theresa of Avila once said, “Sometimes the devil gives us great desires so that we will avoid setting ourselves to the task at hand by serving our Lord in possible things. Instead we are content with having desired the impossible.”
Sometimes something quite small and almost easy is just what needs to be done.
In my community, Fremont, Nebraska, people with names like Marcos and Maria, Eulogio and Aracely, Milagros and Santos are becoming far more common. Meatpackers need them.
In June of last year our community passed an ordinance that among other things prohibits landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. The ordinance has not been enforced, and it is currently awaiting a court decision.
You can imagine its chilling effect especially before the election and just after. This sort of legislation brings out the crazy in some folks. Citizens were told to go back where they belong, and little kids were harassed on their way to school.
About a third of our 50 Habitat families are Hispanic and one day the ordinance fall-out hit us right between the eyes. The big white sign that had said Another new house built by Habitat forHumanity, now said Habitat for Mexicans. It was a small thing really – just some marker lines on a big white sign. But it was a punch in the stomach to me.
I reported the vandalism, and the police told me to cover the graffiti as soon as possible. When I told Kathy, our board’s treasurer, about the incident, there was something in her eyes that is hard to describe. She is a quiet person mostly, an accountant. “I’ll paint the sign,” she said, and I could hear a steely determination in her voice.
She painted the sign, though she told me that while she did, she wondered if someone was watching from behind closed curtains. “I was just a little scared,” she said, but every day for many days after, she drove out of her way on the way to work to go by that sign to be sure it was still OK.
What small steps toward justice can you take today?
May God enlighten our eyes to see Jesus in the face of everyone we meet and especially in the faces of the poor.
May God give us the courage to move beyond our borders and there to see and hear and know reality in new ways.
May God strengthen our minds and hands to act with justice and not to be overwhelmed by this old world that – at this very moment – is passing away.