Sermon: Pathways of Prayer – Social Justice

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Preached on 17th February 2008
by Reverend Keith Harbour

1.      You may think Prayer and Social Justice are opposites, one about  passiveness and relationship with God, the other about action, doing things for others.

2.      ‘Pathways of Prayer'  There are many ways of praying, none should be exclusive, none should be the one and only way to pray.

         John Greenleaf Whittier ‘O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother'‘To worship rightly is to love each other, Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.'   Being, as the St Francis' Prayer suggests, instruments or channels of God's peace, is about living a prayerful life.

3.      The definition I always prefer to use for prayer, relationship, firstly our relationship with the living God, but issuing from that our relationship with other people, whoever they may be, and also our relationship with God's beautiful world.  Prayer as relationship is about working for Social Justice.  Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, his ‘Abba Dad Prayer' is all about relationship, it is a dialogue relationship, Jesus in dialogue with his ‘Abba Dad' about what must be done.  Jesus in deep relationship of his ‘Abba Dad' means that Jesus is empowered to do God's will.

4.      If Prayer as relationship, we are, as in Gethsemane for Jesus, seeing  prayer as empowering us to do God's will.  It follows, that one of the Pathways of Prayer is indeed Social Justice.  But that raises the question WHAT IS SOCIAL JUSTICE?

5.      One clear fact - Biblical, Christian and Social.  There can be no peace without Justice.  We pray for peace, but peace is never going to be easy, either within us or within the world, but there can be no peace without justice.  But what do we mean by Social Justice. 

         I believe it is following the Jesus Mission Statement we heard in Luke 4.  Putting things right, making amends, improving the life of the downtrodden, supporting those who are in the margins. 

         Who are in need of Justice?  EXAMPLES - Young Eastern European girls, sold and captivated into prostitution.  Children in Asia again sold and captivated into prostitution.  Very young children captivated and forced to work, often in chains, in India and Pakistan.  The innocent victims of war, oppression, unjust regimes.  Those who are downtrodden because of the colour of their skin or their race.  People caught in the poverty trap.  People whose human rights are violated.  People imprisoned for no reason other than false justice or their political and religious convictions.  People handicapped by illness of one form or another. 

People who have no one to turn to, to help in times of crisis and loss.  And so I could go on, with an almost endless shopping list.

6.      Two falsehoods perpetrated by religion.  I am putting on my radical hat and suggesting we need to look extremely carefully at values we have often taken for granted.

6a.    Firstly, and I think for Christians very orthodox.  Having wealth and material prosperity does not mean you are a good person.  Certainly at the time of Jesus and on into our Victorian era, and I suspect by some American Telly Evangelists today - if you are good, if you obey God's laws, you are bound to prosper in material terms.  The Teaching of Jesus stands totally opposed to this view.  In fact according to most of Jesus' teaching, the poor, the destitute, the financially disadvantaged are the ones who are not only going to be blessed by God, but are, in their poverty actually being blessed by God.  It is the rich and powerful who are destined for damnation, while the poor and destitute receive Glory.  Beyond any doubt, Jesus indicates that God deliberately discriminates in favour of those who suffer from lack of Social Justice.  Following from the Jesus, ‘Abba Dad Prayer' in Gethsemane, prayer is that which aligns us to God's will - so we too should positively discriminate in favour of those who suffer from lack of Social Justice.

6b.    Secondly, this is a more radical a view, ‘Sin and Punishment' are not to be equated with each other.  Human nature suggests different, we are brought up believing that if you have made a mistake or fallen into error, the only way to be brought back into line with the law of love is to suffer some kind of punishment.  The whole area of ‘Sin and Punishment' seem to go inseparable together.  Certainly the Old Testament points in that direction but so could some, but not all, of the teaching of Jesus.  Time does not give me the opportunity to go into this in detail, suffice it to say that most of us expect that if you are really, really bad, you will end up in hell.  In fact some Christians actually believed that if you were really, really good, in heaven you would get a grandstand view watching those who were really, really bad, suffering eternal torment in the fires of hell.  The Roman Church invented the theory of limbo and purgatory to avoid the torment of eternal damnation,  naturally it became very popular and raised a fortune for the church because you could actually purchase time off purgatory.  Again the rich would do OK while the poor were left to suffer.  The Christian Church does have a lot to answer for on judgement day, or does it? ? ? ? ? ?

         Let's get back to this Sin and Punishment theology, something you will find in almost all religions I include atheism and humanism here.  But is not the real teaching of Christ, the real fact of the life and death of Christ is ‘Free, Undeserved, Unconditional, Unmerited Love'. 

That is exactly what the word GRACE means, and I would want to say quite unequivocally, you cannot have a Christian faith without GRACE nor without unconditional love.

7.      I raise this in the context of ‘Prayer and Social Justice' because some people who are Socially Disadvantaged are also those who have fallen into crime, fallen into drug abuse, fallen into the depths of sin - I am convinced the way to offer them Christian Love is not to condemn them, not even to blame them, but to accept them JUST AS THEY ARE, WARTS AND ALL.

         And that needs prayer, I can only do that, with the love and grace of God flowing through me, without that I would condemn them and when they suffer I would say "It serves them right."

8.      Now a story, a very Christian story, very much a Jesus Story, but not from our Christian Faith, rather from Zen Buddhism.

         When Bankei held his seclusion weeks of contemplation and meditation pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend.  During one of these gatherings a pupil was caught stealing.  The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled.  Bankei ignored the request.  Later the pupil was caught again in a similar act and again Bankei disregarded the matter.  This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition, asking for the dismissal of the their brother, stating that otherwise they would all leave in one body. When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him, "You are wise brothers," he told them, "you know what is right and you know what is wrong.  You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong.  Who will teach him if I do not?  I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave."  A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen, and all the desire to steal had vanished from him."

         Zen Buddhism may have us forgive twice.  The disciples of Jesus reckoned on 7 times, Jesus actually told them 70 X 7.  And on the cross he did promise the dying thief paradise tomorrow, NOT after 25 years in limbo!

9.      I suggest we should adopt our Methodist Christian roots.  C.W. writes ‘Outcasts of men to you I call, harlots and publicans and thieves! He spreads his arms to embrace you all; sinners alone his grace receives." AND ‘Jesus I fain would find thy zeal for God in me, thy yearning pity for mankind thy burning charity'.   Love, Grace and Justice outflows from God to all, and as good Methodists it should be out-flowing from us to all.  Finding God's Burning Charity in us, requires much prayer, letting that burning charity flow through us and out of us also requires much prayer.

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