Sunday, July 3, 2022

Phil Kniss: God’s thumb on the scale of justice

“Time, Money, and Justice”
Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Mark 12:41-44; James 2:1-9

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God isn’t fair.

Let me say that again,
    in case some of you think you misunderstood me.
    God isn’t fair.

The symbol of justice is often a balance scale,
    the kind with two sides,
    where you want the weight to be equal,
    and the needle to point straight up.

The statue of Lady Justice is often prominent on courthouses,
    including the U.S. Supreme Court,
    which has had some eventful weeks lately.

Lady Justice is nearly always holding a balance scale,
    and is blindfolded,
        to symbolize being impartial and fair,
        not letting emotions or passions or preconceived notions
            enter into the equation of what is just.

God is not like Lady Justice.
God is more like a shrewd merchant in a market.
    God keeps eyes wide open,
        reading the situation,
        and then putting a thumb on the scale whenever necessary.
    God is not unemotional.
    God has passions, and operates by them.
        Scripture could not be any more clear about that.
    God has a predetermined agenda,
        and actively works to see it fulfilled.

So God’s thumb is on the scale of justice.
    And we should all be glad of that.

Maybe that bothers you, to hear me say God isn’t fair.
    Let me tell you why you can relax about that.
    Well . . . that is, you can relax
        provided you’re already investing your sacred currencies
            where God is investing;
        if your time, your money, and all the other resources
            you have on loan from God—
            are being put on the same side of the scale,
                where God’s thumb is resting.
    But, if your investments are on the side of scale
        opposite God’s thumb,
        then maybe start worrying.
        Or, better yet, start shifting your investments elsewhere.

Scripture is really quite clear about God’s agenda.
    We are told countless times, from Genesis to Revelation.
        The texts we heard this morning,
            from the prophet Amos, and Mark, and James,
            are only a few examples of many.
    We are not left guessing
        about God’s fundamental nature,
        and God’s motivating principles.
    We know where God is invested.

We first learn it in the Creation story from Genesis,
    when God lovingly sculpted the universe
        and breathed life into it,
    when God made all living creatures,
        the pinnacle of which was the human creature,
        in whom God put God’s own image,
        into whom God breathed the Holy Spirit,
        and to whom God gave the holy calling
            of being God’s partners in taking tender care of
                the well-being of everything else in the world.

We know that God loves diversity,
    because God made the world that way.
We know there is a special place in God’s heart
    for the small, the least, and the most vulnerable.
And to the point of today’s service,
    we know that God loves justice.
Isaiah 61 could not be more clear:
    “For I, the Lord, love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.”

But, precisely because of God’s tender heart toward the poor,
    and the oppressed,
    and the vulnerable and abused,
    and the sick,
    and the imprisoned,
    and the blind and the lame,
    God is about justice, not fairness.

Lady Justice is blind-folded,
    so that her passions don’t get in the way.
    There is this notion that a blind and impartial and formulaic
        application of a code of law,
        is always to everyone’s best interest.
    And it probably is in most cases.

But God, with a thumb on the scale,
    shows partiality toward the poor and the oppressed
        and the sidelined.
    God knows that embedded in the systems of this sinful world
        is a deeply-rooted partiality toward the large and powerful
            and wealthy and well-connected—
                people like me, relatively speaking.
        When this world grants privilege, or gives people a break,
            it’s usually people like me.

    So what might appear to be fair or equal, on paper, on a scale,
        might be anything but,
        once the poor and oppressed
            step off the scales and into the real world
            where everything is stacked against them.
    Those on the unfortunate side of the scale
        sometimes need God’s thumb,
        in order for God’s justice and shalom to triumph.

    And because of what we know from scripture
        about God’s nature and God’s purposes,
        we can be confident God’s thumb is on the scale.

I said something similar to this, using a different metaphor,
    in another worship service some months ago,
    when we were thinking about justice.

I quoted Martin Luther King,
    who was quoting a writer 100 years before him,
    “The arc of the moral universe is long,
        but it bends toward justice.”

I said then that we trust the gentle pressure of the hand of God
    to keep the arc of the universe bending toward justice.
    Just like in baseball,
        we know a high fly ball will not rise forever.
    Gravity is gently pressing it downward, and it forms an arc.
    That’s how God’s hand is bending the arc of the universe
        toward justice.
    And that’s how God’s thumb, resting on the scale,
        will bring about a deeper justice,
        than some cold, formulaic, impartial application of the law
            will ever bring about.

I mentioned the momentous few weeks our Supreme Court has had.
    I’m no expert on the judicial branch of our government.
    I’m not even an amateur student of our court system,
        so I’m not going to comment on the legal merits
            of these recent cases—
            on abortion, gun rights, climate change, immigration, etc.

    I do know there are competing judicial philosophies at work,
        that shape how we read and apply the Constitution,
            and the respective weight we give to
                its literal reading, vs.
                the intent of the original writers, vs.
                what we assume the writers would think
                    if they were facing today’s issues,
                    or had today’s body of knowledge.
    Incidentally, this debate is exactly parallel to the debate
        we have in the church about how to read scripture.
        And I do know a little something about that.

So without getting partisan about the multiple layers
    of dysfunction going on in Washington right now,
    I would just say that our worldly court system
        generally assumes that justice can be obtained
        by pure logic and intellect
            and an unemotional sticking to the script.

    But God’s justice is always driven by the heart—
        a heart that is inclined toward those who suffer,
            that is tender toward the poor,
            that is emotionally invested in
                the health of this earth and its ecosystems,
            that gets angry when there is human oppression,
            that is stubborn about seeing that every human being
                is shown compassion and given care,
                especially when they need it the most.

I don’t expect our court systems,
    and I certainly don’t expect our elected representatives,
        and our president,
    to shape everything they do and say
        after these passions and heart commitments
            of the God we worship.

    In fact, I tend to worry
        when our governmental leaders make the claim
            that God is on their side,
            or they are just doing what God wants them to do.

Being tuned in to the heart of God is our job,
    as members of Christ’s body, the church.

Now, we should certainly advocate for policies and rulings
    and executive orders
    that are more in line with God’s definition of justice,
        with God’s heart, as we understand it,
        even if we don’t put ultimate trust or faith
            in politicians to bring about God’s will.

We always have work to do in this world,
    to add our weight to the side of the scale where God’s thumb rests.
    We always have work.

We don’t like it when our senator or congress-person or president
    or federal judge makes a decision we think is harmful.

    But we should not despair,
        because our work as God’s trustees,
            God’s stewards of sacred currency,
            that work continues,
            and God’s thumb is on the scale.

    And neither should we shout too loud with songs of rejoicing,
        when politically-driven rulings go the way we think they should,
        as if they are somehow bringing in the Kingdom of God.
        Because our work as God’s trustees,
            God’s stewards of sacred currency,
            that work continues,
            and God’s thumb is on the scale.

Thanks be to God!

And we are going to sing our confession today.
    Find “Kyrie eleison, Have mercy,” in your bulletin.

We will sing:

Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy.

As we come before you with the needs of our world,
we confess our failures and our sin;
for our words are many, yet our deeds have been few;
fan the fire of compassion once again.

When the cries of victims go unheard in the land,
and the scars of war refuse to heal,
will we stand for justice to empower the weak,
till their bonds of oppression are no more?

If we love our God with all our heart, mind, and strength,
and we love our neighbors as ourselves,
then this law of love will heal the nations of earth,
and the glory of Christ will be revealed.

God, renew our vision to be Christ where we live,
to reach out in mercy to the lost;
for each cup of kindness to the least in our midst
is an off’ring of worship to the throne.

—Phil Kniss, July 3, 2022

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