Freedom Bound: The Path of Justice

November 29, 2015
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; I Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

It is advent again. In this congregation it is a bit like what Jesus says about the fig tree in the passage from Luke: Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  Here, in this space, you look around and you see the signs that advent is here. There are the candelabrum and advent candles designed and built by David Conrad, the new visual display by Michelle, in the back a new banner for the season. The signs are all around us. We are once again in the season of watching for the small – and large – ways that the Holy is coming into the world.

This year the advent theme in much of Mennonite Church USA is “Freedom Bound.” This clever phrase, coined by Eva Beidler’s nephew Ken, is a good one to ponder in the next month. The biblical texts this advent and Christmas season talk about freedom, and the ways we are bound; we may find ourselves surprised by the ways that we experience freedom even in places that do not feel free.

While “Freedom bound” has a certain provocative twist, it is a tricky theme for white people to work with – especially as we become more aware of the legacy of slavery in this country, the prison industrial complex, persistent and pervasive racism, and what feels like routine police violence against black people. How can white people use the phrase “freedom bound” with integrity?

We might start by acknowledging the obvious – that we are not all white in this congregation, we are not all solidly middle class, we do not all have the same experiences and the same family configurations. No matter where we find ourselves, the reality is that some of us know the justice system from the inside or have family members with a connection to the “system.” The idea of longing for physical freedom is not an anomaly in this community, even if it goes unspoken.

Those of us who have not experienced the “system” can still enter into the theme. We may not be bound in a literal walled prison but we may know the confinement of alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, other illness. Any time we prefer to hide in what we perceive to be the safety of the closet, we are bound – though a part of us longs for freedom, for companionship, self-determination, to be known and loved for who we are and who we can become.

Each week in this season we will focus on a different path. Today the “freedom bound” theme is the path of justice. As I prepared this week I continually found myself saying the “path to justice.” The path to justice. As a country, the United States has a history of attempting to rescue other countries that we perceive to be bound – by dictators or leaders we do not approve of. The predominant tool in this country’s tool belt is military strength. The pentagon has all kinds of ways and weapons to help other people in other countries get on the “path to justice.”

I imagine that when the US military is working at capacity to bring “freedom and justice” to an oppressed place, it feels like the description in Luke – signs in the sun, moon, and stars distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming

The path that the pentagon takes is the path to justice; it is quite different than the path of justice. The path to justice might take us any which way, through dishonesty and violence and injustice until we reach what we imagine is justice. The problem is that it is immensely hard to get to justice if we do not take the path of justice.

It is undoubtedly more complicated than a misunderstood preposition (and even noticing the preposition shows my privilege) but how we walk the path of justice is just as important as the destination of getting to justice.

Jesus’ whole ministry is about the path of justice. Those who walk on the path of justice with Jesus know that when you walk the path of justice there will be some kind of response from those you encounter. For Jesus, the response is often a great show of faith or someone being healed after many years of illness. Crowds gather and receive unexpected food and rich people are baffled. Other times the response is less joyful: the religious authorities get angry and plot against Jesus or the Roman authorities get suspicious and create their own plots. The path of justice is not without danger.

By the time we get to Luke 21, Jesus is in his last week of life. He has walked the path of justice and it has gotten him closer to injustice than he or the disciples care to contemplate. Luke writes a long description of what happens when the temple of God is destroyed: There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

This scenario is all too real in every generation, when we place our trust in the building or religious institution as the dwelling place of God. But the crumbling of what we know as the temple or church, does not necessarily deter Jesus followers from the path of justice. Those on the path of justice understand that the way is not easy and yet there is a kind of freedom when life is not defined, as Luke says, by drunkenness and worldly cares. And Luke says, Jesus followers pray for strength to escape, to find freedom in the physical body as well as mind and spirit.

Thankfully, Luke’s description is not the only one we have of the path of justice. We also have words of hope and assurance from Jeremiah. The days are surely coming, says YHWH, when I will bestow on Israel and Judah all the blessings I promised them. The promised blessings will become apparent and there will be one who brings justice and integrity. In fact, it will be so clear that the land will be called “YHWH is our justice.”

It is a beautiful promise and vision. As Christians we have understood that the one who brings justice and integrity is Jesus – though knowing the torture he endured, it is not a completely comforting thought. As the contemporary hands and feet of Jesus we too find that it is not all healing and eating abundant food together. The commitment to do justice on the way to justice is not easy, even as we walk together to the land called “YHWH is our justice.”

The many paths we see up here this morning are a reminder that there is not just one path to justice, one path of justice. There are many paths that we can take as we walk with justice and integrity. It is up to us to live our chosen paths as the path of justice. When justice and integrity are woven into the fabric of our lives we walk the path of justice and God is present with us.

As a college student I somehow believed that the path that was most directly linked to justice was social work. And it may be. But it was not the path for me. Could I still be a Jesus follower as a music major? What about my friends who were art majors and business majors?

I am grateful that with time and experience my understanding has expanded. There are many paths of justice and they are present in this congregation – all the way from art and business and music to education and social work –  and construction, engineering, linguistics, toxicology and videography. We walk together these many paths of justice even as we follow Jesus and look for signs of his life in the world  – and signs right here among us.

My deep hope in this advent season, and all seasons in this congregation, is that this is a community of freedom and safety, a place where we honor diversity and the many paths of justice. When each of us offers ourselves we help to create the path of justice, when we invite others to join the journey, the path expands so that we get ever closer to Jeremiah’s vision of a land called YHWH is our justice. May God be present with us as we together walk on the path of justice to freedom, joy and wholeness.