Bending Toward Justice

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December 23, 2018. On this Fourth Sunday in Advent, Pastor Stephanie preaches on reasons to be hopeful, the Magnificat, and the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.


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I first heard the proclamation on the radio in the morning news several days ago: Merriam-Webster declared that its chosen word of the year for 2018 is “justice.” Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large, explained to the Associated Press why this word was chosen. “Searches for ‘justice’ throughout the year, when compared to 2017, were up 74% on the site that has more than a million page views a month and nearly half a million entries. To be word of the year worthy, an entry has to show both a high volume of traffic and a significant year over year increase in lookups,” he said. “We are not editorializing. We looked at our data and we were ourselves surprised by this word. This is a word that people have been clearly thinking about for this entire year.”


Why would you suppose this would be the case? Yes, there was the Supreme Court Justice nomination and confirmation process that dominated the news for weeks. And yes, there is the ongoing story of the Mueller investigation, with the various courts of justice involved. Both of those undoubtedly prompted many of the lookups. But also, Sokolowski noted that there are verifiably more stories and op-ed articles with a high degree of reader interest on where we are in this country in the areas of criminal justice, racial justice, and social justice in general. These are hopeful signs. At least I want to believe that the curiosity in referencing this word is borne out of a longing for true justice to reign. Don’t you hope for the same thing? I think we have reason to hope for what is happening. There is a deep restlessness to see justice given and received as normative. For justice to describe the way things are rather than merely what we feel they should be.


Well, the theme of justice in Mary’s song in our gospel reading, commonly called the Magnificat, is unmistakably present. Mary praises God for scattering the proud, for bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. Mary’s song celebrates that the least of these, the lowliest and the humblest, are lifted up, while the injustices perpetrated by the high and mighty will come to an end. You’ve probably heard the phrase “those who sing pray twice.” There’s something about a song that reaches us to the depths of our being. A song can put into words what we are often incapable of expressing in other ways, and Mary’s voice echoes throughout the years as a refrain of hope, joy, and praising God for reorienting actions of justice. She voices the hearts and minds of generations of people for whom injustice has long been the norm. She uses verbs that indicate that there is a reason to hope in the present, that God has already done marvelous things like bringing down powerful ones from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things. She sees that God is also currently showing mercy for those who honor him.


When my husband shared an article with me a few days ago, I could not help but see how it illuminates God bringing justice around the world. Even if the author did not use the phrase we use in the ELCA, “God’s work, our hands,” his conclusions are the result of many, many hands engaged around the world to bring about God-inspired justice. The article is titled “Four Reasons to Be Hopeful,” and it starts out by saying that 2018 has not been an easy year in many senses. Kind of an understatement, I thought. But I kept reading because I’m a sucker for anything that promises hopeful news. The author writes, “Under the radar, some aspects of life on earth are getting dramatically better.” I will share three of the reasons here.


Extreme poverty is falling. You’ve probably heard over the years, and the decades actually, that millions of people in underdeveloped countries have been living on roughly one to two dollars per day, as inconceivable as that is to imagine. But many studies have shown that there has been a huge decline in the number of people for whom that is true. That statistic has gone down, from 36% of the world’s population in 1990, to 10% percent in 2015. That’s still too many to be sure for those people affected, but it’s a hopeful trend.


A second hopeful sign is that child mortality is falling. It has plummeted from 1990 to 2017, according to the United Nations Population Division. An overall improvement in global public health has accompanied the decline in extreme poverty. One good example: kids who were born in 2017 in developing countries are much more likely to not only reach five years of age than they were before, but to be able to live many more years after that — well beyond the same kids who were studied in 1990.


A third hopeful sign: we’re getting better at preventing preventable diseases. One of the most effective preventative measures in this report is the one I chose to highlight because it’s the growing use of bed nets to prevent malaria. Bed nets are a highly effective intervention that prevent infections that can lead to death. The number of people contracting malaria in Africa in the last couple of decades has dropped dramatically. For several years, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other churches and agencies have advocated for donations to be sent to purchase these bed nets. It’s always great to hear how effective our giving has been in being a blessing to the lives of others. These gifts have fostered health and extension of life. Justice for the lowly is being served. Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” God has done and is bringing down tyrants from their thrones. Whether they are actual people or whether they are systems of discrimination and oppression, God is lifting up the lowly. We can sing about that along with Mary.


Now we said that this is the fourth Sunday in Advent. I will bring you back to the first Sunday, if you can remember some of the readings from that day. But that is the time when we celebrate John the Baptist crying in the wilderness for the low places to be raised, for the mountains to be raised up, for the rough places to be ironed out, and he concludes, “Where all people will see the action and the salvation of God together.” Advent now comes to a conclusion with the proclamation by Mary that God is the great leveler of all of those things that have been uneven and unfair. God is the great judge meting out justice so that all people, whether they are brought low or raised up, can see the goodness of God as God turns the world as we have known it in its struggles upside down. Mary’s song is a celebration of what God has done for her and does for everyone. That is why Martin Luther wrote about this song of Mary that, “She sang it not for herself alone, but for all of us to sing it after her.”


And sing it we will. We will close the service today by singing the “Canticle of the Turning,” with the passion and fervor of Mary for the great things God is doing. We’ll sing these words:


My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
Fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
Dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!


This morning we will sing. And we will pray. And we will gather at the Lord’s table for all people as expressions of our faith in the God who brings justice and makes all things right. And today also, we will baptize a little baby boy, because we also affirm our faith in the God who is making all things right in the Rite of Baptism. It calls for followers of Christ to live into reality that is not yet fully seen, but coming into being because of God’s trustworthy promises. As people of faith, we baptize our children as a sign of hopefulness. It is a sign of our trust in the God who is degree by degree turning the aspects of the world that need correction upside down. Or you could also say that God is turning the world right side up.


In faith we say together: amen Lord, may it be so. Thanks be to God.


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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot