Yesterday afternoon, on my way home from the prayer vigil gathered by Everett Mitchell at Christ the Solid Rock Church on the east side, I passed by, and was temporarily stopped on East Wash by the protest march as it went from the State Capitol to the scene of Friday night’s shooting. For a moment, I felt like the priest or Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, too focused on where I needed to be and what I needed to do, to enter into the pain and suffering of the moment.
Like so many of you, I was shocked and horrified when I received word of Tony Robinson’s death. All of a sudden, the talk we’ve had in Madison and Dane County over the last year and half, the very realities of racial disparities in our community, became concrete in an unimaginable and tragic way. The stories that have made the news across the country over the last years, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, stories that have laid bare the plight of young black men in our country; all of a sudden, that story became Madison’s story, our story. And indeed, it has made the national news.
The nation, likely, the world is watching us again, to see how we address this tragedy and to see how we address the racism in our city and county. How we respond will say a great deal about us as a city, as a community. It will tell us and the world whether the values to which we pay lip service are values that we can make real in the lives of the people in our city.
As I tried to gather my thoughts and figure out what I might say today, I turned to social media. The great 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth once said that the preacher should prepare his sermon with his bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In the 21st century, for me at least, preaching preparation includes paying attention to social media, to my twitter feed.
Today didn’t disappoint. After I came home, with images both from the prayer vigil and the protest in my mind, my twitter feed was utterly surreal. Images from the march were plentiful but so too were images from the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma march which was being commemorated yesterday. In addition to politicians and quotations from the President’s speech, there were also photographs from the standoff on the Pettus bridge 50 years ago, quotations from Congressman John Lewis, who was in the march and recalled his beating and arrest. As a nation, we have come a great distance from the place we were fifty years ago but the racial divisions in our city are a painful reminder of how far we yet have to go to achieve a just society.
A just society. As I write those words, I wonder whether they even have any meaning in twenty-first century America. Given the political climate in our state and nation, the growing divide between rich and poor, the powerful and the weak, I wonder whether anyone believes that a more just society should be a central goal of our common life. Given that even the judicial system seems to be more and more rigged toward the powerful and wealthy, what do we even mean when we use the word justice?
That question is brought into high relief by today’s reading from Exodus. The Ten Commandments, if you were to ask most people, are the bedrock not just of our system of justice, but of human morality. Given by God, they are eternal, unalterable truths and to the extent that we live by them, keep them, we are assured not only of our own and our society’s morality, but also of our very salvation. They are etched in stone, after all. If we want to know what justice, look to the two tablets of stone, the ten words etched on them that God gave God’s people on Sinai.
But let’s get real, folks. To what extent do we actually keep them? If we’re honest, how many of them will we break, either in fact or in desire in the next day or month or year? Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy? Actually resting on the Sabbath, on Sunday, who does that anymore? We run errands, clean the house, other chores, all the things we don’t have time for during the week—bearing false witness, coveting—those are pretty hard, too. And while we may have not killed anyone, how often have we wished someone were dead, or hated them—which Jesus equates with murder in the Sermon on the Mount. And idolatry—oh, we may not make or worship images of deities, but we certain live as though our true devotion were to something other than God—success, money, ambition, the Packers; any of those things. So the Ten Commandments become ten suggestions, ways we know we ought to behave, things we wish we did or didn’t do, but aren’t quite capable of living up to God’s standard.
And let’s be honest. For all the slack we’re willing to cut ourselves when it comes to our moral behavior, our keeping of the ten commandments, it’s likely that when it comes to other people, especially those who are different from us, from a different social class or racial make-up, we tend not to be quite so forgiving.
All of this is true as far as it goes, and I don’t mean to lay guilt trips on you. If I am, be assured I’m laying just as heavy a guilt trip on myself. But we miss the point of this text entirely if our whole focus is on the individual. The Ten Commandments are not only about personal morality. They are a vision of a just society. Rooted in relationship with God, the Ten Commandments are the expression of God’s covenant with God’s chosen people. They remind God’s people of who God is, what God has done for them, and how they are to respond to God. They are a vision of a God of justice.
“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The legal material recorded in Exodus is permeated with the Hebrew experience in Egypt. Repeatedly, instructions to the Israelites on how to behave toward others is based on their experience as slaves, sojourners and aliens in Egypt. Their experience of a God who delivered them from slavery and oppression shapes the vision of a just society as well as their understanding of who God is.
Their God is our God, a God of justice. God heard the groaning of the Israelites as they suffered in slavery in Egypt and God delivered them out of bondage into freedom. God called that same people to protect the widow and orphan, the stranger and alien, and God punished them when they did not. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, called his followers and us to bring into being a new community in which love breaks down the barriers that divide us. For that, he was crushed under the weight of Roman oppression.
His death on the cross, which as Paul reminds us was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, reveals the power and wisdom of God. The cross reminds us where Jesus stands, where God is present—in the midst of the world’s suffering and oppression, standing with those who are crushed by unjust economic and judicial systems.
The cross, the wisdom and power of God, is a beacon directing us where to stand as well. As followers of Jesus, as members of the beloved community called into being by Jesus, members of the very body of Christ, a body broken by oppression, we are called to stand for justice; we are called to work for justice. As our city struggles with tragedy and comes together to bring a more just and equitable community, I hope we as a congregation will join in those efforts. In the coming days and weeks, I will be working with other religious leaders to develop concrete actions we can take. I hope many of you will participate in our struggle to create a more just and equitable community.