“You are like Moses.” He smiled as he said it. I nervously laughed. No one had said that to me before. “What do you mean?” I said. He said, “You are a man of privilege, with years of education, training, influence and resources.” Then this wise African American leader asked the question. “What are you going to do with your privilege?” I took another bite of my cheeseburger.
I went back and checked. Moses was forty years old when he took his first stand on behalf of the oppressed. He assumed that the powerless would readily welcome his advocacy on their behalf. But Moses made a murderous mess of his first public attempt at social action. He used power like the worst of his majority culture had taught him and then tried to talk of reconciling. He had asked no questions and yet had the answers. Moses needed another forty years of learning before he’d become by God’s grace, the liberator history recounts for us. (Acts 7:22ff)
Know the Heart of the Sojourner
A sojourner describes a person racially and ethnically different than the majority. When the Biblical God later commanded his people through Moses not to oppress the sojourner, the reason was experiential. “You shall not oppress a sojourner,” because, “you know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 23:9; 22:21) Moses had privilege, the power to act, and the courage to risk it. But he did not yet know the heart of the people he tried to help.
As more of us with privilege find the courage to act, we are asking, “what can we do?” To begin, we need to learn the heart of those we propose to help.
This will take time and a willingness to listen to voices we’ve previously overlooked as our teachers. I’ve made many mistakes which I’ve written about here and there. But we can take a small step and:
Admit that injustice is real
“Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. . . “(Eccl. 4:1)
Such human misuse does not surprise the wise. “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter . . .” Why not? “for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. (Eccl. 5:8)
In this verse, the wise identify what we sometimes day refer to as a systemic problem. A system is nothing more than a collection of people accustomed to making things work on the basis of particular assumptions, routines, and practices. Notice first what the wise show us: there is no one to oppose the oppressor and provide comfort for the misused. Something in the assumptions, routines, and practices being used to get through a day is not signaling that comfort for the oppressed is a value. Notice second, this absence of value is part of the culture of accountability and expectation within the organizational structure. This is why Jesus’ personal actions on behalf of the powerless put him in jeopardy with prevailing systems of power.
Examine Your Biases
“Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly. (Lev. 19:15)
Just as with the race and ethnicity of the sojourner, so the Bible says that once we’ve seen the current economic class of a human being, we still have nothing we can use to judge who this person is. If we think someone is righteous because they are poor, or more trustworthy because they are rich, we mistake what it means to treat a human being justly. Jesus ate with the poor and the rich complained. Jesus ate with the rich and the poor grumbled.
Listen with Empathy to the Victim’s Cry
Behold, I cry out, ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered; I call for help, but there is no justice. (Job 19:7)
Job lost everything not only to natural disasters but due to criminal conduct. He cries out over the injustice perpetrated on his family. To do so doesn’t imply dismissal of other pained lives. Imagine going to the funeral of a grandmother. As you speak of her with tears and loss, someone tells you that you are insensitive and entitled. You are stunned. You ask him why he is saying this to you on such a terrible occasion. He answers you. “You act like your grandmother is the only one worth talking about,” he says. “Don’t all family members matter?” “Why, yes,” you say. “Of course all lives matter.” But to cry for the value of our grandmother, doesn’t mean we dismiss the value of uncles, aunts, parents, siblings, and cousins. It’s just that at this moment it is grandma who died.
Give Your Voice
Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Pr. 31:8-9)
Add Justice to Your Prayer Life
- intercession Lord, you know the hopes of the helpless. Surely you will hear their cries and comfort them. You will bring justice to the orphans and the oppressed, so mere people can no longer terrify them. (Ps. 10:17-18. See also Prov. 1)
- complaint/Lament Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (see also Ps. 44:24, 42:9; 43:2)
- petition Redeem me from man’s oppression, that I may keep your precepts.(Ps. 119:34) Like a swallow or a crane I chirp; I moan like a dove. My eyes are weary with looking upward. O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety! (Is. 38:14)
Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely. (Prov. 28:5) This means that if we want to seek the Lord, he will bring us into an understanding of justice for powerless neighbors. We cannot seek the Lord and see the plight of powerless neighbors as a side issue.
Notice How You Talk
The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice (Ps. 37:30) A Hebrew proverb explains itself by comparing the first part of the sentence with the second. “Utters wisdom” and “speaks justice” go together.
The wise speak of justice. Justice can only come about through wisdom. Do you talk like this?
Notice How You Think When Trying to Turn a Profit
A merchant, in whose hands are false balances, he loves to oppress. (Hosea 12:7)
Create Art/Add Songs of Justice to Your Play List
I will sing of steadfast love and justice; to you, O LORD, I will make music. (Psalm 101:1)
Pace Your Emotional Life
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart (Eccl. 7:7) When you witness oppression in real-time, the trauma stays with you. An eyewitness bears with the trauma of the one moment–relived over and again. Be careful. When you scroll and scroll watching violent injustices one after another after another, you need time to grieve, feel, lament, break down.
You cannot binge-watch murder like Law and Order or Game of Thrones. Pretend murders can entertain. The real thing is madness. Pace yourself.
Seek non-virtual relationships, not just virtual actions
“Give counsel; grant justice; make your shade like night at the height of noon; shelter the outcasts; do not reveal the fugitive; let the outcasts of Moab sojourn among you; be a shelter to them from the destroyer. (Isaiah 16:3–5)
Once we’ve taken virtual action by posting, we still have to open our non-virtual door and take a non-virtual step toward a non-virtual person.
Be careful before judging someone on the basis of their virtual life. Local non-virtual pursuits of relationships and justice can fill a day.
Watch out for Pride which Uses Injustice in the Name of Justice
“Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” (2 Sam. 15:4)
King David’s son imagined himself able to bring about a just society better than his Dad. He saw himself as societies’ rescuer and justified his use of injustice. Many died. Including himself.
Take Heart. Botched Attempts and Prideful Assumptions Needn’t Have the Last Word
Moses got it all wrong. But that wasn’t the last chapter in his story or theirs or ours. Grace came and spoke his name. Grace can speak our name too for One greater than Moses has come.
To consider more fully what justice is, who it is for, and why Jesus followers should care, watch this video message, entitled: What Can We Do To Help the Cause of Justice?
“I’m covered in Jesus’ blood!” A Christian almost sings this mantra to explain why Coronavirus can’t touch the faithful. The image the Christian uses disturbs us. A smiling white-teethed, human being poured over and dripping with the emptied blue-veined remains of another. It’s cult-like. Demented. The use made of the image bothers us too. Do you want to give grandpa good luck against disease? Verbally smear yourself with the blood of a first-century Jewish man and you won’t need a ventilator. Come on. This is the 21st century. Show me the love of Jesus. Tell me the wisdom of Jesus. But why this talk of blood?
Covered by the Companionship of Jesus
To answer this question we have to start with the “Blood money.” That’s what they called thirty-pieces of silver earned by Judas for betraying Jesus. But Jesus called him friend and Judas sold him out. Guilt haunted him. I’ve betrayed “innocent blood,” he said. It was like he struck a hornet’s nest hidden within the briars of his conscience. Each day he ran and ran, flailing and throbbing with sting and no relief. No wonder, the field in which Judas hung himself became locally known as “the field of blood.” Pontius Pilate must have likewise heard the hive. For Pilate lifted his water-dripped hands and cried out, “I am innocent of this man’s blood!” The crowds, mob-frenzied, rage-blinded, shouted back: “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:4, 6, 8, 24-25) The “blood of Jesus” refers to the death of Jesus; both the fact of it and the foul-play.
Have you ever been kissed and spoken to with nice words, but the kiss was poison and the words a signal freeing others to harm you? Jesus has too. In Jesus, we have a friend who knows the treachery of life first-hand. He is the companion who’s been there.
At our best, when we say we are “covered in the blood,” we invite a conversation, not about escaping sickness for ourselves, but about our being empowered by the sympathy of God.
Covered by the Forgiveness of Jesus
Perhaps you or
those you spend time with, don’t use the word “sin” in your daily lives. Maybe,
you’d even say, “I don’t believe in sin.” But maybe you can relate to Buddy
Wakefield. He dedicated his book of poetry “to awful men.” Perhaps Buddy and I
don’t agree on these things about Jesus. But Buddy helps me grow by his empathy
and skill with language.
He describes a “tyrant boy” full of anger and desiring power. You look up at the tyrant boy. He looks down and spits. “I love you,” you say, looking up, but at every mention of love, his spit spews down your face. You turn your back, the tyrant boy jumps down upon you and pushes your face through a puddle of mud. “If I can’t breathe, I’ll die here.” Then, you mud-speak the pain. “It hurts too much not to know how to stop the war.”
The war, the feud we don’t know how to stop, the ability to spit on love, our persistent desire to enjoy what isn’t love, each describe something of what Jesus meant when he spoke of sin. Jesus taught us to pray forgiveness, for how we’ve shoved others in the mud, and forgiveness for those who’ve likewise shoved us. The same Jesus who teaches us to bring such spit and mud to God in prayer also pours out his blood to end the war with peace. My blood “is poured out for many” Jesus said, “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28)
When we’re “covered by Jesus’ blood,” we learn to humble ourselves as needing pardon for sins rather than heckle others because we’re protected from sickness.
Why We’re Sarcastic About Christian Blood-Talk
I don’t speak of sin and forgiveness tritely. As a Christian, I resonate with the skilled and atheist actress, Kiera Knightley. She gives voice to wise skepticism. “If only I wasn’t an atheist,” she reportedly said. “I could get away with anything. You’d just ask for forgiveness and then you’d be forgiven.”
I understand her sarcasm. She, like most of us, will hear a Christian say the blood of Jesus gives immunity from sickness, while other Christians say the blood of Jesus gives immunity from consequences. Both appeals to Jesus’ blood offer escape from responsibility rather than reasons for embracing it.
If the blood of Jesus is nothing more than a good luck charm or a tampered jury, no wonder those we care about, dismiss Christianity as selfish and crooked.
A friend, who wasn’t a follower of Jesus at the time, told me why she objected to this nonsense about Jesus forgiving our sins through his death. Her name is Pat. “That just seems too easy,” she said. “You just say you’re sorry, all is well with God, and you can go on doing the same garbage again. You say God’s love is unconditional? That just doesn’t seem right to me.”
Pat was right. You and I would tell our loved one to set a boundary if another kept leveraging love and forgiveness language to further damage them. God is no different. Love has to be true. Forgiveness has to prove genuine. Any ordinary relationship depends upon these things to bend but not break.
I tried to say something like, “Pat, I don’t know if this will make any sense, but for Christians, God’s love isn’t unconditional. And just like any relationship, love isn’t easy at all. We are trying to say that Jesus met all the conditions of God’s love. Pat, forgiveness with God comes easy to us because God already took the hard part upon himself.”
Covered by the Authenticity of Jesus
But wait a minute. Didn’t Jesus speak of his blood in a provocative way? Yes, he did. Jesus told crowds of people who’d been following him, “unless you drink my blood” you won’t have a life with God (John 6:53-56). Offended, most left him. Why didn’t Jesus just clarify the metaphor he used? Because on that occasion the crowds were leveraging him rather than loving him and Jesus sniffed it out.
Sometimes we like Jesus’ provision of food but not his talk of faith. We like the surprise of his wonders, but not our surrender to his will.
Jesus called them on it. It’s like you’re talking to someone who begins to look at their phone. You keep talking. They keep scrolling. You begin to think they’re not listening at all. So, you start introducing subjects into your sentences like Pink Elephants and lollipop fairies, to see if they say, “wait, what?” or if they keep nodding and saying, “uh-uh.”
The wake up was needed because this was no fiction. Miracle would not be enough. Food would not be enough. Death was coming.
Those following Jesus treated him as a consumer preference, a lifestyle choice. But Jesus was trying to tell them about life and death, about every miserable and joyful thing. The image he chose had to wake them up. Any who’ve been terribly sinned against and any of us who know what it means to have sinned against others, need an image brutal and honest enough to enter the wreckage. In time, covered in blood, the image would be clear. The bloodied man cries out, “Forgiven them, they know not what they do.” God was taking the hard part upon himself. The conditions of true love were being met, not by us, but by HIm.
An ancient poem, called Dream of the Rood, lets us hear what the cross would say of Jesus if it could talk.
“The young warrior stripped himself then—that was God Almighty—
strong and firm of purpose—he climbed up onto the high gallows,
magnificent in the sight of many. Then he wished to redeem mankind.
I quaked when the warrior embraced me. . .
“They skewered me with dark nails . . .
They shamed us both together. I was besplattered with blood,
sluicing out from the man’s side, after launching forth his soul.
“Many vicious deeds have I endured on that hill—
I saw the God of Hosts racked in agony . . .
the corpse of the Sovereign . . .
All of creation wept, mourning the king’s fall—
Christ was upon the cross.
I Once Was Lost, But Now I’m Found
Years later, I
sat by Pat in Hospice. Bald now, her skin turned yellow, I was holding her
hand. Her liver gave out from years of heavy drinking. Somewhere along the
line, she’d found Jesus lovely though. We’d laughed a lot too. She’d confessed
the mud-shoving and spit she’d received from others and that she herself had dished
out. She’d realized too that she’d treated God like this and she wanted to love
him instead. Now, amid the jaundice of death, the ugly image of Jesus’ blood
made a lot more sense. It fit the grim occasion. She closed her eyes. I whispered
grace words with broken melody.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see.
Pat died. She had no good luck charm to stop it. But she was sheltered by His companionship, protected by His authenticity, guarded by His forgiveness, covered by the blood.
Buddy Wakefield, “Before Fealty” in A
Choir of Honest Killers (Write Bloody Publishing, 2019), 24.
Thoughtful non-Christians object to a god who seems to commend genocide. Sodom and Gomorrah represents one such account in the Bible. God appears to differ little from a religious terrorist in the eyes of some who read this account. How do we preach such a passage with such objections in mind, particularly for people who have little familiarity with the Bible? A place to start is with a question. We must ask ourselves, “how would this text sound to someone who only knows about the Bible, Jesus and Christianity through the scraps of caricature they have seen in sitcoms, the sad representations they’ve seen on the news, or the partial misinformation they have gleaned from movies or documentaries?”
In this text, at least three challenges surface for Western hearers. (1) The idea that God is unjust and lustful for destruction and would destroy an entire city and kill its inhabitants. Our hearers live in a world in which people kill in God’s name. This is their cultural grammar. God will seem no different than a religious terrorist and cultural backtalk will result. (2) the cruel choice of Lot regarding his daughters in Genesis 19:8 sounds little different from the physical abuse of women that humane and Jesus movements have tried to end and (3) the supernatural presence of angels in itself along with what will seem to a Harry Potter generation as the magic powers of fictional characters Genesis 19:11. I’m coming to believe that if we act as if these cultural voices do not exist, our thoughtful non-Christian hearers will render us clueless as to their questions, Christian hearers will never learn how to address such questions with their neighbors, and I myself, not as a preacher, but as a man will have forgotten what it is like to encounter these jarring statements in the Bible and follow Abraham’s lead in asking God my questions about it. For example, I have a daughter. I have no category as a man for understanding Lot’s actions with his. If I am dishonest about this, my hearers will rightly think me unfeeling, disingenuous, or trite. Jesus is none of these things. And, I desire that they experience something of what He is like when they come and hear His message proclaimed.
So, I’m asking myself, what would it look like for us to take just one of these points and for three to five minutes in the sermon to thoughtfully say, “you have heard it said, but Jesus says to you . . .” (Just as Jesus does throughout the Sermon on the Mount) What do you think? How do we grow in communicating such things? Here is my attempt at what it might sound like to take a moment in the sermon to address the first challenge.
[you have heard it said]
Now, I realize that for some of us, this text only affirms what many are saying today. Many are saying that “religion is the cause of violence in the world. The worship of God leads to anger, division, hatred, and violence toward our neighbors.” I think there is some truth in this statement. It is true that people have done horrible things in the names of their gods. People have even done horrible things to one another in the name of Jesus. How we, who have been called by Jesus to love our neighbors, including our enemies, can justify such things, warrants challenge. People have done horrible things in the name of God.
[but I say to you]
But, that being said, there are two things that I ask you to consider and then a point I’d like to make.
1. I’d like to ask you to consider that violence toward our neighbor is also perpetrated by those who are atheist or agnostic as the history of Russia for example will quickly reveal. Most bullies on the playground, most of the crime in saint louis tonight, most arguments between husbands and wives tonight, most bench-clearing fights on the baseball field or football field tonight will have nothing to do with one’s belief in God. I ask you to consider that violence rises in the human heart quite apart from religion. There is something in us that is bent toward disregarding our neighbor whether we are religious or irreligious.
2. I’d like to ask you to consider this biblical text itself. First, the issue is that an “outcry” from victims has come to God’s attention (18:20, 19:13). The issue therefore is not innocent people going to work in two tall towers in Manhattan or eating at an outdoor cafe in London. God is not targeting innocent civilians. Second, God is not in a heated rage smashing bottles and punching walls uncontrollably. He is measured, taking time to verify and reveal what is true (18:21, 19:1ff) Thirdly, our question is asked by Abraham. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous and the wicked?” Abraham asks and then charges that such an action would make God unjust. The Bible doesn’t avoid our question but raises it for us. God makes it clear that if there was a righteous one he would spare the city. Finally, we are told that what God finds out is this: “both young and old” are bent on raping and viciously mistreating the neighbors who come in to visit their town (19:4-5). This text does not reveal God judging innocent righteous persons with random and cruel death. It is the opposite! God is seeking to respond to the outcry of victims who have experienced the gang and mob violence of those who inhabit Sodom. The situation resembles the horrific news story from USA Today just yesterday. The headline reads: 200 Women Gang Raped Near Congo base-U.N. says. The story includes the sexual mistreatment of a gang on four baby boys. Read this story dear friend and then ask yourself how you feel and what response is appropriate to hear the outcry of the victims, to defend them from further harm, and to justly deal with the mob of 400 persons going about perpetrating such harm?
After these two considerations, my point now is this: Sodom and Gomorrah expresses how God actively upholds neighbor-love. To do so, God hears the outcry of the victim. God judges the violent offender. Perhaps you feel that God should judge gang rapists with milder means. But at least, you and I can dismiss the caricature of this story, the caricature of a god who lustfully rages about and kills innocent persons. This story is not that one. In this story God who created Eden and instituted neighbor love must continually deal with and disrupt an ongoing neighbor-hatred since Adam and since Noah and now at the time of Abraham. We are meant to learn from it that no amount of just judgment is sufficient to heal the bent heart of humanity and turn it toward neighbor-love. Your heart and mine, no matter how many times we’ve gotten in trouble justly when we were kids and now as adults, we still find disregard for neighbor more natural to us than any of us want to admit. This is why God will finally put judgment upon Himself, and send His own Son to purchase the neighbor-love that we ourselves cannot find . . .”
If you notice that your mood rises or falls with how people respond to a particular sermon watch out. You are likely to make a mess of the day for those who love you. You will be tempted to place great weight on their words and treat them as if they are like God to you. If they speak praise but without the right glow or admit that they did not get it, you might find yourself creating an argument by blaming them in some way. Or you might use words to excuse weakness or manipulate praise. When this happens (and it does to most of us), take note. Jesus says that after the word is preached we face foul opinions. What do we do now? (Matt. 13:21-22)
What if God gives the after-sermon as a flashlight of His grace by which to see our true condition in Him? In this light, it seems to me that one aspect of the after-sermon attack concerns the condition of our “rootedness.” When Jesus uses this metaphor in the parable of the sower and the seed, he describes the nature of our identity in Him–are we His or not? And He describes the degree to which we find our identity in Him. We are his, but now what? Can we live as if His opinions, threats and promises are more authoritative and powerful than what others say about us? (Matthew 13:21-22)
The after-sermon is one of God’s gracious ways of healing us from our pre-occupation and dependence upon our words and the words of others. As we learn this from Him we will sometimes find ourselves on Sundays like a man in a desert with no water. We keep looking to the words and glances of others with our empty cup hoping for refreshing drink. While we shake hands, we are attuned to every glance, every tone of voice, every word left out or spoken. When we do this we rest our justification on the praises or criticisms of human beings. We start asking for people to come through for us in ways that only God can. We start looking to people’s words for what only God’s words can provide. We anxious ourselves and fret about while we smile and talk about God.
We need to remind each other of this helpful fact. Saturday nights, Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings are a desert-classroom for preachers in which God gradually teaches us that no sermon or word about it can save us. The best of sermons, the worst of criticism and the heights of praise fall as dust in a man’s cup. Only Christ is true drink! Sunday by Sunday we find Him more and more and our cups begin to overflow even when our sermons were less or more than we or others hoped.