A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 3, 2018
Psalm 146:5-9; Ecclesiastes 3:16-17 RSV
A photograph in USA Today a couple of weeks ago (May 21, 2018) caught my eye and jumped out at me and gave birth to today’s sermon topic. The photograph was of Robert F. Kennedy and farm labor leader Cesar Chavez breaking bread and celebrating a Catholic Mass together. Kennedy and Chavez, sitting side-by-side, appear to be the most unlikely of companions: Kennedy, a picture of New England wealth and prestige dressed in an expensive suit, and Chavez a picture of poor farm workers in the most common clothing. Yet, the two men were united in “a shared vision for economic justice for all Americans.”1
It was March 10, 1968. Kennedy had flown from Washington, D.C. to Delano, California, to join thousands of farm-workers at a Catholic mass celebrating Chavez’s end to a 25-day fast. The farm-workers looked upon Kennedy as the first major political candidate to support their movement for justice and better working conditions. At that time, the farm-workers earned less than one dollar per hour and did not have toilets in the fields where they labored. Kennedy had already been there two years earlier and showed sympathy for their cause, and he already “had a record of supporting the poor and under-served” and addressing poverty and hunger issues.1
Less than a week after that meeting, Kennedy announced he was running for President. He won the California primary three months later, on June 4, 1968, and then was shot and killed just after midnight at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles – 50 years ago this week. Hence, the timeliness of today’s sermon focus. Kennedy’s assassination marked a tragic and pivotal event in U.S. history. The attack upon Kennedy might also be seen as an attack upon social justice. His death proved to be a powerful set-back to the causes and forces working for justice in our country. How might American history have played out differently had Robert Kennedy not been killed and gone on to win the Presidency?
Only two months earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis where he had gone to stand with garbage collectors in their push for justice and better working conditions. As the attack upon Kennedy can be viewed as an attack upon social justice, so it could also be viewed with the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Those who herald the call and take the stand for justice and positive change, it seems, put their very lives in mortal jeopardy. Why is that? Why is there such hatred among many toward justice that they are willing to lynch, shoot, murder, crucify those who work for it?
We dare not forget that justice is a core principle in both Judaism and the teachings of Jesus. We have seen the belief that justice is at the heart of the nature of God in the 146th Psalm. The Lord God “executes justice for the oppressed; [and] gives food to the hungry,” the Psalmist proclaims (Psalm 146:7). The Lord God is concerned with those who are bowed down; the Lord God watches over the sojourners [or immigrants, as some translations render it]; the Lord God upholds the widows and orphans. Justice.
The writer of the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes warns that God will judge those who replace justice with wickedness.
Justice was at the heart of the eighth-century Hebrew prophet Amos who called to account those who “oppress the poor” (4:1). And then Amos thundered, “let justice roll down like waters” (5:24).
The Hebrew prophet Micah summed up the entire religion of Israel in one sentence: “to do justice, and to love kindness or mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).
Then Jesus – in the spirit of the psalmist and eighth-century prophets – called his adversaries to account, accusing them of focusing on minor, insignificant issues and placing unnecessary burdens upon the poor and already-oppressed, while ignoring the “weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). I have noted previously that Christian theologians such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan contend that it was Jesus’ stand for justice for the oppressed and stand against the religious-political establishment that ultimately got him crucified. To reiterate, justice is at the very heart of what it means to be Jewish, to be Christian, to be religious.
And yet, as we look around us and see all that is going on in the world today, it appears that justice is constantly under attack, sacrificed on the altars of racial prejudice and bigotry, greed, lack of human compassion. To give a few examples:
In spite of civil rights legislation and measures toward greater justice, Black Americans continue to be discriminated against, and Black men, especially, are the target for unwarranted police brutality and murder. Spanish-speaking Americans continue to be singled out, dehumanized, and abused and threatened for something as innocent as carrying on a conversation in their native language in a fast-food restaurant, when any others who might carry on a conversation in their native language probably wouldn’t even be noticed. There seems to be a growing mentality of white superiority – white only country – among many in today’s America. There seems to be an intense hatred among many of those who want to emigrate to America seeking a better life or asylum, when America was built on immigrants. Where is the justice in ripping families apart – in separating the breadwinner from a household and leaving the rest of the family destitute, or snatching children from their parents – simply because they are seeking a better life for themselves? I have to agree with writer Michael Gerson who stated this past week in The Washington Post, “if there is one area where the teaching of the Christian faith is clear, it is in the requirement to care for the vulnerable stranger.”2
And there is a related matter that concerns me: The criteria of what it means to be “Christian,” and especially “Evangelical Christian,” seem to have shifted dramatically in the past decade. From all appearances, based on much of what we see in the media, anyway, being Christian or Evangelical Christian in America no longer has anything at all to do with morality, compassion, respect, ethical treatment of others, and justice.
In all my forty years of preaching, I can’t remember ever having been as distressed over the state of national and international affairs as I am today. As we as a nation stray further from standards of morality for our national leaders; further from compassion, respect, and ethical treatment of others; and further from a commitment to justice for the poor and oppressed, we are marching down a dangerous path.
Nineteenth-century naturalist John Burroughs, who began to write a lot about religion in his later years, wrote, “Those nations will become the most powerful that are the most just, the most humane, that develop in the highest degree a world conscience, and realize the most intensely that the nations all belong to one family, in which the good and evil of one are the good and evil of all.”3 One might conjecture that the reverse would also be true: Those nations will become the least powerful that are the least just, the least humane, and that develop in the least degree a world conscience.
And Unitarian minister James Luther Adams contended, “Sin does not derive from the fact that we participate in a material world but rather from our disobedience to the divine demand for love and justice.”
When I think about the fact that this week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, it causes me to be very sad. Kennedy had a good heart; he had a heart of compassion and respect for the poor and oppressed of our land, and he was determined to try to do what he could to make a difference. The fact that he wasn’t given a chance to do so is nothing short of tragic.
But it also makes me sad to realize that fifty years later, a battle is still being waged against social justice, and in many ways our nation seems to be regressing in matters of justice, compassion, and especially in respect for others.
Justice – it has to do with respect and fairness and the ethical treatment of all people and doing unto all others as we would want them to do to us. Standing for justice is not easy; it can be costly. But if we don’t take a stand for justice, then who will? May it be so. Amen.
1Rebecca Plevin, USA Today, Monday, May 21, 2018.
2Michael Gerson, The Washington Post online, May 29, 2018.
3John Burroughs, Accepting the Universe. P. 142.