Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
From Charity to Justice: United Methodists and the Work of Justice
Last Sunday, we learned about the words righteousness and justice, words sown all throughout the scriptures. We listened to words from the prophet Isaiah, as we heard about God’s desire for us to work for justice, to be repairers of the breach and restorers of the street. We learned about rectifying justice, the work of “giving people their due, whether protection, or punishment, or care,” (1) and we learned about God’s vision for what we call primary justice, righteousness, when all people are set in right relationship with God and one another. Our right relationship with God and one another is God’s vision of wholeness for the world, and the work of justice to which we are called is to act in ways and work for change that will bring us closer to that vision. Next week, we’ll spend more time thinking about how we do the work of justice, and what that might look like in our lives, in the life of our congregation and community. How do we begin? How do we build on what we have? But today, we’re going to spend a bit more time grounding ourselves, taking a good look at our call to justice, and our particular place as people called United Methodists in the work of justice.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was a priest in the Church of England active in the 1700s. He didn’t set out to form a new denomination. Rather, he was interested in the renewal of the church. He believed that we were called to a more active faith and discipleship than he saw in the church around him. And for Wesley, this deep and active faith must be expressed in the context of community. You can’t be a disciple on your own. You can’t be faithful by yourself. Only in the context of loving and serving one another can you serve God. Wesley wrote, “[Solitary religion is] directly opposite to … the gospel of Christ … ‘Holy solitaries’ [that is being holy on our own] is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” (2) In other words, we can’t truly draw closer to God unless we are also drawing closer to one another.
John Wesley was deeply disturbed by the extreme poverty and gap between rich and poor he saw around him in England, especially knowing that he lived in a country of abundance. He wrote, “Why are thousands of people starving, perishing for want, in every part of the nation? … Such is the case at this day of multitudes of people, in a land flowing, as it were, with milk and honey! Abounding with all the necessaries, the conveniences, the superfluities of life!” (3) Wesley was known for doing his part to practice what he preached. Wesley gave away as much of his income as he could, keeping his budget fixed and giving away the rest no matter how much he earned; indeed, Wesley was known to say “if I leave behind me ten pounds [when I die] … you and all mankind bear witness against me, that I lived and died a thief and a robber.” (4) In my own experience, I’ve let my “expenses” and “necessities” grow right along with my income, and I marvel at Wesley’s faithful discipline.
Still, he went beyond charity to working for systemic change, working for justice, in both teaching and practice. For example, Wesley opposed the use of liquor, but although he had moral concerns about alcohol, his primary concern was for the economic injustice involved in the sale of liquor. Half of the wheat produced in Britain was going to the distilling industry which made wheat expensive and in turn made bread expensive and beyond the means of the very poor. High prices for meat were caused by gentlemen farmers finding it more profitable to breed horses for export to France and to meet the increasing demand for horse carriages than in producing food for local use. Pork, poultry and eggs were so expensive because owners of large estates were earning more from cash crops than from leasing land to small local farmers. (5) Wesley called on the government to intercede in these economic situations that resulted in injustice and oppression of the poor. He called for the creation of employment opportunities, tax increases, and debt cancelation. He argued with those who called the poor “idle” and lazy, calling their claims “wickedly, devilishly false.” (6) Wesley also became a fierce critic of slavery, writing, “There must still remain an essential difference between justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy … Where is the justice of inflicting the severest evils on those that have done us no wrong? … I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice.” (7)
Wesley’s commitment to justice carried into the denomination that formed from his movement. In 1908, the Methodist Episcopal Church developed a Social Creed. In this statement of faith, Methodists called for equality across economic classes, for the rights of workers to organize and seek better working conditions, for the abolition of child labor, for the suppression of the “sweating system,” what we would call “sweat shops” today, for a fair work week, and for a just living wage. Some of those justice issues seem very contemporary, but United Methodists have been working for these causes for more than a hundred years now! The Companion Litany we shared today was adopted in 2008 to accompany our currently Social Creed.
Last week we heard about the mission of The United Methodist Church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.” We work to fulfill this mission in part through the work of justice. And to help us in this work, we have a document called the Social Principles, and a resource called The Book of Resolutions that helps us figure out how we might work for justice when it comes to the environment, the political world, our global community, economics, and more. I’d love to share more about it with you if you’re interested. In the User’s Guide to The Book of Resolutions are these words:
Our church's public witness is first and foremost to be judged by God by whether it supports justice, love, and mercy, particularly for the poor and powerless ... Most importantly, The United Methodist Church believes God's love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers. So we care enough about people's lives to risk interpreting God's love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex. The church helps us think and act out of a faith perspective, not just respond to all the other “mind-makers-up” that exist in our society.
“We care enough about people’s lives to risk interpreting God’s love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex.” I love that statement, and I hope it is a true one: we care enough about all of God’s children to stand for justice, even when it is hard, even when it is confusing, even when it gets complicated. To me, that’s what it means to be a United Methodist working for justice, a disciple of Jesus seeking righteousness.
When we shared in our Companion Litany today, the words were based on Isaiah 61, our scripture reading today. Like last week’s text, this passage come from the third part of the book of Isaiah, representing a hopeful time for Israel, a time when the Israelites had returned home, and were thinking about the future that God wanted for them. Isaiah writes, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” God’s people will be oaks of righteousness. “I love justice,” says God, “I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” Just like new life springs up in the garden, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up in our midst. These hopeful words are words of life and promise, a vision of God’s reign and realm fulfilled. This is the very scripture text that Jesus reads after he has started his preaching and teaching ministry. It’s kind of like the text for his first sermon. When he finishes reading it, he says to the people gathered: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It’s a kind of mission statement, one that Jesus claims as his own, one that describes his purpose in the world: good news for the oppressed, healing for the brokenhearted, freedom for those who are captive, God’s favor, comfort and joy from God who loves justice and righteousness. Let’s be people who risk interpreting God’s love for God’s brokenhearted people. Let’s be people who are ready to stand up for justice, proclaiming freedom and release, good news instead that breaks systems of oppression. Together, we can work through the complexities, the details – when and how and in what ways we will live out the work of justice. But we know why: God loves justice. And we love God. So we seek to make God’s ways our ways. The spirit of God is on us too, even today. Let’s get to work, announcing the good news. Amen.
(1) Tim Keller, http://archives.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/what-biblical-justice
(2) John Wesley, Preface, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739.
(3) John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon the Present Scarcity of Provisions,” in The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, Volume 11, edited by Thomas Jackson, 53-59. London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1872, 53-54.
(4) John Wesley, An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, in Albert C. Outler, John Wesley, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964,) 422.
(5) Johnston McMaster, “Wesley on Social Holiness,” The Methodist Church in Britain, January, 2002, http://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/emtc-paper-wesley_on_social_holiness.doc, accessed March 18, 2014.
(7) John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Slavery,” IV.2, 1774, in Global Ministries, http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/The-Wesleys-and-Their-Times/Thoughts-Upon-Slavery, accessed March 19, 2014.