Texts: Jeremiah 5:27-29, Deuteronomy 16:20
Today is Children’s Sabbath. Today, we join churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other places of worship all over our nation to raise awareness of our sacred charge to nurture and protect our children and the poor. Each year, the Children’s Defense Fund establishes a theme for Children’s Sabbath; and this year’s theme is Pursuing Justice for Children and the Poor with Urgency and Persistence. I want to start this morning with a story about urgency and persistence.
For one year, every Wednesday night, there was a Pullen child who, upon seeing me enter Finlator Hall, would either come running to me or excitedly yell at me from his seat, “Nancy, can I spend the night with you tonight?” Somewhere along the way, I had said to this 4-year-old that one day he could have a sleepover at my house. Every Wednesday night, for an entire year, he would ask me if this was the night. And every Wednesday night I had an excuse as to why it was not a good week – I had a funeral, or a wedding, or yet another sermon to write, or a meeting to attend. But several months ago, with a new sense of urgency and a determined persistence in his voice, Nghia greeted me a bit differently. He said, “Nancy, this week I will have a sleepover with you at your house.” In that moment, I knew there were no more excuses. This wasn’t can I or when can I. He made a clear statement, “This week I will have a sleepover with you at your house.” No more excuses. The sermon writing, the meetings would have to wait.
Today, our nation’s 16.4 million children who live in poverty, who are waiting for us to end child poverty in our rich nation, are pleading with us saying, “This week, today. Please, no more excuses.”
The hungry children whose parents are waiting to hear if the SNAP program – food stamps – will be cut or preserved, whose meals depend on the decision of a budget by the so-called Super Committee, are pleading with us saying, “This week, today. Please, no more excuses.”
The three-year-old waiting for a place in Head Start to be funded, the toddler waiting for a quality child care spot, the child at the bottom of the list for affordable housing, are pleading with us, “This week, today. Please, no more excuses.”
The nation’s uninsured children, who rely on Medicaid, which is now in jeopardy, or on health reform threatened with repeal, are saying to the pundits and pastors, congregations and candidates, and Congress, “This week. Please, no more excuses.”
In our passage from Deuteronomy today, we are not only warned of the dangers of distorting or subverting justice or delaying justice. We are not told to wait on justice or watch out for justice. We are told to pursue justice. The Hebrew word for “justice,” mishpat, occurs in its various forms more than 200 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably. It means acquitting or punishing every person on the merits of the case, regardless of race or social status. Anyone who does the same wrong should be given the same penalty.
But mishpat in the Hebrew scripture means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means giving people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. Mishpat – justice – is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care.
If you look at every place the word justice is used in the Hebrew Scriptures, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, justice describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor – those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.” The justness of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the widows, the orphans, the immigrants, and the poor is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice. In the biblical text, to “pursue and do justice” means to defend and care for those with the least economic and social power; and in our society today, that includes our children.
There can be nothing accidental or incidental, apathetic or apolitical, about pursuing justice. Once after marching with Dr. King in Selma, Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “It felt as if my feet were praying.” Of this passage in Deuteronomy, Rabbi Heschel wrote, “The term ‘pursue’ carries strong connotations of effort, eagerness. This implies more than merely respecting or following justice”; we must actively pursue it. We must keep praying for our children with our feet. And not just our children who live in our homes and eat at our tables. Our children are also those who live in Chavis Heights, at the homeless shelters, in cars, on streets, and in the neighborhoods on the other side of town.
The writer of Deuteronomy couldn’t have envisioned our jammed email inboxes, phones that ring off the hook, computers waiting for us to finish memos or sermons or lesson plans or grant reports. But maybe the writer knew, nonetheless, that there would always be competition between our to-do lists and the call to do justice. And that if we are not to be forever distracted and derailed from doing justice by the rest of our over-full lives and competing demand and our bad excuses, then we would have to pursue – actively pursue – justice with focus, urgency, energy, imagination, and determination.
Our church has a history of pursuing justice. There are so many Pullen stories of justice that we could tell this morning that it is hard to even know where to begin. I think of the stories of Bill Finlator befriending blacks during the civil rights movement. Or his protests of the Vietnam war – praying with his feet week after week in front of the old downtown Post Office with other Pullenites. I think of the story of the people who formed a small mission group in 1984 to explore ways to alleviate Raleigh’s critical shortage of housing for the homeless after two homeless men died from the extreme cold on a Raleigh street because the city had no homeless shelters. Their efforts we now call Emmaus House and the Wilmington Street homeless shelter.
I think about the story of several Pullen people who befriended death row inmate Harvey Lee Green and asked our congregation to allow him to become a member of our church before his execution on September 24, 1999. Harvey Green was a member of Pullen when he was executed by the State. I think of the justice story from one year ago, when this congregation, issued a public statement on marriage equality stating that, as a faith community, we would no longer participate in the unjust laws of our State. Or two years ago when a number of Pullenites stood up for all of Raleigh’s children and their right to a fair and equitable education.
And the Pullen stories of justice go on and on…justice stories of Pullen people welcoming a family of Montagnards to Raleigh in 2001– men, women, and children who had been hiding in the bush country of Vietnam for years after the war ended because they didn’t know that the fighting had stopped. Or the justice story of Pullenites relocating an Iraqi couple who had to flee their homeland for safety.
There are more Pullen stories of justice…the story of the Pullen-Wiley Partnership, a mentor-tutoring program for elementary children who are struggling in school. There are stories of our youth gleaning sweet potatoes for area soup kitchens that feed the hungry, and going to Hazard, Kentucky to work with the housing authority there to better the homes of the poor. There are the justice stories of our young adults bagging food at the Food Bank for non-profits who are doing their best to feed the homeless and hungry in our community. And there are Pullen stories of relationship justice – befriending our neighbors in Cuba and Nicaragua and the Republic of Georgia and in Zimbabwe.
Pullen Church is a gathering of people who are steeped in stories of doing God’s justice in the world – of taking on the sacred charge of caring for the vulnerable: children, widows, immigrants, prisoners, the stranger, the homeless and the hungry, the outcast and the lonely. In so many ways, this congregation throughout its history has prayed with its feet and hands. That is why so many of us came to this church. And why so many of us stay in this community.
And now, the stories must continue. The call is clear, “justice and only justice, you shall pursue.” I am wondering this morning about the stories of justice future generations of Pullenites will tell from this pulpit about the year 2012 or 2013? What stories of justice will our Pullen children write for other Pullen children about the year 2014 or 2015?
Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, has rightly noted that: “Our nation’s greatest deficit is not one of money but of values and priorities that leave millions of children without hope or a vision of the future worth striving for in our militarily and materially powerful but spiritually anemic nation.”
We have to set aside our excuses, whatever they may be, and focus on our right priorities.We cannot wait on justice to be done. We must continue the Pullen story and deliberately seek out the places of injustice with effort and eagerness, and then pray with our feet.