'Tis a great honor, a
high honor, for Sarah and myself to be with you for this Cornerstone
Sunday. And to congratulate you as a community for proving that great
good can be done under a big dome :)
In the late 1990's, I got a call from Mary Anne Wells-Borg, who is
Priest and Canon at Portland's Episcopal Trinity Cathedral (you may know
her, and you may also know her husband, Marcus Borg). Marcus has taught
at, if it's not an unspeakable term here, at Oregon State University :),
for many years. She said "Would you like to come out and give a series
of lectures, on the historical Jesus?". And I said "I'd love to". And
she said "One other question: would you be willing to preach on
Sunday?". And I said "Of course".
She said "I didn't know you preached". And I said: "Nobody asked me for
30 years" :) I left the Catholic priesthood in 1969, and it was almost
exactly to the day, nobody had asked me. So I began to realize that I'm
going to be giving a sermon in different churches across this country
and Canada, oh, maybe 1/2 the Sunday's of the year. Glorious! I can get
away with one sermon! :)
But then I started to think, if that's true, and I only get to give 1
sermon, what has that sermon to be?
So, always the first sermon. And if
the only sermon, I knew immediately the text I had to use. It comes down
to this question: if you only had one text in the entire Bible, or if
the whole Bible was gone except for 1 text, what would you try and hold
onto, to redeem the whole thing? Maybe if you only had one verse?
And so when Dan asked me to preach on Cornerstone Sunday, I couldn't
think of anything else to say. Because this is the cornerstone, or for a
more organic metaphor, the root (the difference with the organic
metaphor is you don't see the root, but you know everything depends on
it; if you ever deal with apples, you know what that means -- don't
touch the root, it's down there somewhere, controlling everything), of
the Bible, of Christianity. This is the root of it all. So, my chosen
text was Psalm 82.
And if you're thinking, couldn't I have at least come up with something
from the New Testament? No :) Because if you really want to accept the
Kingdom of God, follow the Son of God, or take the Spirit of God, then
you better know first the character of the God you're dealing with. It's
all about character. Is this a God you want to meet in a dark alley? And
nowhere else in the entire Bible can I see more clearly in a text (in a
person, of course, Jesus), but in a text, the character of the God worth
living for. And if unfortunately ever necessary, worth dying for. Psalm
There's another reason I like it. There's so much "bully" stuff in the
Bible -- you know, "I'm the only God, there's no other God but me", etc.
Eventually one says, 'yeah, yeah, we got that, we got that by the end of
Genesis. Cool it. We got it. Repeating it is not going to help' :)
This is serenely peaceful. None of that bully stuff. It imagines God
seated in heaven, surrounded by all the Gods and Goddesses -- the powers
that be, who run the world. God is like the Supreme leader. God is the
CEO of the Gods. So it's quite lovely, it's like the CEO sitting down
with upper management for a performance review :) And it is,
unfortunately, about down-sizing upper management. A new concept,
So are we ready? Here we go:
1 God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
[Now, here is the bill of particulars -- here's the indictment from God to the powers that run the world:]
2 ‘How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right [the right] of the lowly and the destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’
[You might notice 'the wicked' frames the whole indictment]
Now, I want to focus on the word
'justice'. I want to make two distinctions to understand it as the root
of the Bible. And I'll focus each of the distinctions around one
One word that kind of jumps out at you is the "right" of the lowly and
the destitute. I mean, you know, the duty of charity, the duty of
alms-giving, of welfare, of course. But the 'right'? Who gives all of
these people rights?
Or put it this way: how did this small little people come up with such a
weird idea? Such an absolutely counter-intuitive idea that God is really
interested in the rights of people? Certainly not that clearly evident
if you look around.
Where did Israel, this tiny little pip-squeak nation, the hinge of the
great continents then known to the Bible (Europe, Asia, Africa) come up
with this vision of God? It's certainly not something empirically
verifiable. Here's where they got it. They didn't get it from thinking
about human rights, that wasn't on their horizon. Nor democratic rights
either. Or even about civil rights. That was just not there. And there's
no point in projecting that back onto them, because they came upon it
Here's what they said, in effect, without ever saying it, it was just
their obvious way of doing it: what do you think of a householder? If
you wandered into one of the peasant farms (98% of the world at the
time), how would you judge a householder? You wander in across the
fields, what would you think? Are the fields well-taken care of? Is
everything as it should be for this time of year? How about the draft
animals? Oxen, or donkeys. How do they look? How about the kids?
Well-protected? Well-sheltered? Well-fed? Is a sick child getting more
than their fair-share of attention, maybe? Is a pregnant mother getting
And if you're saying 'yes' to all of these questions, you're assessing
the householder. Hmmm, well-run, nice show. May be a little bit jealous,
but that's life :)
But supposing, supposing you come in and you find the horror, the
appalling horror, that some of the children are starving while others
are over-fed. How frighteningly obscene would you judge that
householder? And it really wouldn't make any difference if it was a poor
household or a rich household, you'd make exactly the same judgment.
The rights of everyone in that
household are not respected. That's where they got their vision. They
imagined God, then, as the householder of the world-house. Hmmmm.
Now, they might say 'father' because that's the patriarchal delusion,
that fathers run houses. But if you know the Mediterranean, you know
that's just a delusion :) So, scratch 'father' if you will, and put in
'householder'. Because that's what they're thinking, God is the
householder of the world-house, or the homemaker of the earth home.
And everyone on there has rights. They're the 'familia' rights that
everyone has in a household. To get how much? To get enough. If the
household is poor, you make the same judgment -- is everyone getting a
fair share? If the household is rich, is everyone getting a fair share?
Fairness is the key. I call it "enough-sim" rather than egalitarianism.
So that's the first thing.
We're making a crucial distinction between (listen carefully)
distributive justice and retributive justice. Retributive justice is
about punishment. That's the way we use it all the time, almost 100% of
the time, if we talk about 'justice' we're talking about punishments.
Distributive justice is the most basic understanding of justice
throughout the Bible when it is not qualified. When Israelite peasants
are shouting out for justice, do you think they're really asking to be
punished fairly? They're asking for a fair share of the earth.
In fact, if you even use common sense, you couldn't have retributive
justice unless you had distributive justice first, because even
punishments have to be distributed fairly. The basic meaning of
'justice', unqualified, is distributive justice. And the fact that we've
started to use it, basically, and without qualification, to mean
retributive justice is an indictment of our conscience.
Alright, second distinction I want to make. This comes out of that
mention of the orphan, and it comes up again with Jeremiah, the widow,
the orphan, the resident alien. Now, are these some kind of weaklings?
Are widows all incompetent? And are orphans (which in the Bible means
children without a father, not just without any parents), couldn't you
have a brawny orphan who is as capable as anyone else? And this resident
alien -- why do you keep hearing about them? I was a resident alien in
this country for 50 years, I didn't find it that disadvantaged. I wasn't
allowed to vote, but I lived in Florida, so it made no difference in any
case, right :) Why are they picked up in the Bible?
It's not personal. It's that these are structurally, systemically,
get-at-able. They're the vulnerable ones.
In a patriarchal society, if you
don't have the father, the husband, to protect you, we can get you. If
you're a resident alien, don't have tribal protection, we can get you.
It's not how competent you are, it's how get-at-able you are.
So a second important distinction about justice in the Bible, is between
our language. Systemic, structural injustice (the injustice of systems),
and personal or individual injustice (which we all understand -- that's
stealing from you, or something like that). It's a crucial distinction.
Let me exemplify it from Jesus.
Remember the parable of the workers in the vineyard? It's high-harvest
in the vineyards and the Master goes out at 6:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m., 12:00
noon, 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m. And he brings workers into the vineyard,
and then at 6:00 p.m. he's going to pay them all off, and everyone gets
a full-day's pay. And right away, from Matthew on, we zero-in on whether
that's fair. Is it fair that everyone gets the same? Is it an
individual, personal justice or injustice to do that? And we all want to
debate it. And maybe we're talking about God.
But wait a minute, back up the exegetical cart. A lot of trouble went
into telling that parable about 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.
and 5:00 p.m. And in the morning, it's mentioned that they're all
standing there idle. Is that fair? They're in at 6:00 a.m. in the
morning, they're in the square of the village, what do you think they're
there for? And at 5:00 p.m., the Master says, "Why are you standing here
all day idle?". And you can imagine them saying through gritted teeth:
"Because nobody has hired us".
Now, here's the function of that parable -- it is to provoke (my
language). It is to provoke an awareness in the audience between
structural, systemic injustice and justice, or personal and individual.
If everyone wants to talk about the people who are there getting more or
less, then the parable is a failure, Jesus -- don't use it, or move on.
If everyone walks out that morning and says "Lovely parable this morning
Rabbi", you're a failure.
If somebody says "I want to know why he said that. People have been
looking for work all day, and at 5:00 p.m. they're accused of being
idle. I don't think it's fair to accuse the work-less of being lazy. I
don't think that's fair". Now we're moving somewhere.
If somebody else wants to bring the discussion back to the payments, and
someone might say "I want to know, how does it happen that at
high-harvest in the vineyard, when we should be able to get top denarius
for a day's work, and they should have to come out here at 6:00 a.m. in
the morning and get us all, this cheap-skate can saunter out at 6:00
a.m., 9:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m., and he knows
we'll still be here. And then he can act generously at the end?". Now
we're rolling Jesus. Now you're getting somewhere. You've taught them
(and it doesn't make any difference what language you use) something
very profound: systems suck. That's Aramaic :)
If they don't get it, then there's nothing you can do, if they just want
to debate personal injustice. But it's too obvious, it's too
provocative. Somebody is going to be mad -- and should be mad -- at that
"why do you stand here all day idle?"
So, the root of the Bible, or to use
today's metaphor, the Cornerstone of the Bible, is this justice. I will
get to Love, hang on there.
OK, let me finish this up really fast. What happens now [in the text of
Psalm 82]? The rulers are going to make all sorts of excuses, they're
going to say "We'll do much better, we were so busy, we have to run the
whole world, and we're sorry". The text continues:
5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
They don't even get it. It's like
"Huh, who brought up this justice thing? Isn't it about power, and
Who brought up justice? And then there comes this line -- this is the
line that I balance the whole Bible on. It's a line we should write
across the bathroom mirror so it's the first thing we see every
bleary-eyed dawn. We should write it on our hearts, our minds, and our
consciences. We should write it on our foreign policies, and our
domestic programs. It is the scariest line in the entire Bible:
shakes the foundations of the earth.
If it was just something that annoys
God, there's always mercy and forgiveness, or whatever. But this says:
"The foundations of the earth are shaken". And I don't see any footnotes
that say "Don't worry, I'll fix it up".
Now, let me turn to that other word.
OK, Ok, I've talked a lot about justice, fine, fine. We talked about
distributive justice, and we're talking especially about systemic
injustice. Alright, fine.
But the Bible also says God is love. It does say that God is a God of
justice, but also a God of love. So how do we get these two things
together? Sometimes you make the fatal mistake of opposing them -- that
justice is about punishment, so instead of punishment we have love. No.
We've established that justice is about distributive justice.
On one level, you could almost say, well, they're kind of the same thing.
When Paul talks about loving the community, he really doesn't think
about having a warm-fuzzy feeling, he thinks much more about having a
warm meal. So he comes very close to meaning the same thing, but there's
some kind of a difference.
On the one hand, why is it that
groups and individuals who have the most magnificent vision of social
justice, sometimes end up in bloody slaughter? Why does it keep going
wrong, even when it seems to start off magnificently? Maybe the best way
to establish distributive justice is to kill all those who won't get
with the program (?).
And on the other hand, this word 'Love', which is surely the most
important word in the English language, we have to use for our favorite
candy bar and for the soul-mate of our life. Boy that's a stretch. We
have to use it for our favorite football team, and for God almighty.
Granted, that may not be much of a stretch :) Go Ducks.
That's an awful stretch for a word. It's almost like a hollow word, a
gloriously hollow word in a way.
So here, I think, is the problem: we have separated two things that
cannot be separated, and then we've got neither. Think of this example:
when a human being dies, we say the body and the soul are separated.
Flesh and spirit is separated. We don't get two things, we get what's
called a corpse.
Justice is the body of love. Love is the soul of justice. Justice is the
flesh of love. Love is the spirit of justice.
You separate them, you don't get either, you get neither. You get a
Let me put it in an aphorism, in honor of Jesus, who was so good at
Justice without love is brutality. Love without justice is
In conclusion: a few years ago, in the late 1940's, I was at a boarding
school in Letterkenny, in Donegal, Ireland. And when we learned poetry,
we always learned the whole poem by heart, as we were supposed to be
able to discuss it without a text. And so I learned John Keats' "Ode on
a Grecian Urn" when I was 13 or 14 years old. And the last 2 lines of
truth, truth beauty, -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
So I would like to suggest to us an
ode, on a Biblical urn:
love, love is justice, -- that is all
we know on earth, and all we need to know".
[Amen from the congregation]