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Bringing Justice to Victory: Sermon by bishop Mary Ann Swenson

Sermon by bishop Mary Ann Swenson, Vice-moderator of the WCC Central Committee

27 May 2019

In 1948, the year of the first WCC assembly, the pastor of a church in Evanston, Illinois, (which would become the site of a future assembly) wrote to his congregation:

“The church has responsibility not only for the individual life but also for the character of civilization....growing numbers of us are coming to recognize the importance of the Christian church.  The church makes possible the public worship of God, religious instruction for children, a Christian rite for the solemnization of matrimony, a Christian service for the burial of the dead, a pastoral ministry in time of need.

The church keeps alive a sanity, a moral standard, a faith  and hope without which today’s world would certainly and quickly succumb to the forces of evil, unreason and destruction.

The church combats cynicism, defeatism and despair.  It rejects utterly the idea of the inevitability of war, believing that with God all things are possible, even peace.

It feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, cares for the sick and the morally wounded.  It seeks to overcome evil with good and to bring about the reconciliation and healing of the nations.

The church under God  is the hope of the world.”

One of the parishioners of that congregation was Dr. Georgia Harkness, seminary professor and ecumenist, and years later a role model for me in my journey...and this message from her pastor was the inspiration for a hymn she wrote, “Hope of the World.”

Even though the tune is difficult, I sing this hymn still:

“”Hope of the world, thou Christ of great compassion, speak to our fearful heart by conflict rent.  Save us, thy people, from consuming passion, who by our own false hope and aims are spent.”

After 70 years lifting up the church as “the hope of the world” in today’s complex global context it may feel to some on the one hand wildly romantic and idealistic; and on the other hand, it often feels to me like the only true HOPE we might cling to.

That dynamic of hope in the midst of uncertainty and conflict would be very familiar to the people for whom Matthew was writing:

We know that Matthew’s writing was a re-working of the gospel of Mark, and that both of them were dealing with the after-effects of the Jewish uprising against the Romans, which led to the destruction of the Temple and the scattering of the Jewish people.

For Mark, this meant both opportunity and necessity to reach beyond the broken Jewish community to write to the Gentiles, people who had no history or relationship to the authority of the Torah.

This evangelism, this hospitality to those outside the original Jewish-Christian community is a kind of DNA at work in Matthew’s writing,, although it took a different direction:

After the loss of the Temple, the Jewish community was not only physically broken, it became theologically fragmented, because the Temple, which had been the force for centering and ordering the life of the faith community, was now gone.

One of the scattered groups was in Antioch, and they had become followers of Jesus; they affirmed Jesus as the new center for interpreting the scriptures and ordering their lives.

But their argument ‘did not carry the day’ with the mainstream network of synagogues...so they found themselves at odds not only with the imperial power of Rome, but also with their own faith community.

Matthew’s gospel is therefore written as a ‘counter narrative’ that teaches them how to live an alternative existence in the context of these competing and dangerous forces.

For them, to be a Christian disciple was a third way through the dilemma of a broken world; for them, Christianity was indeed “the hope of the world,”...and to be hope for the world meant to be open to the world...at the core, to be hospitable to everyone, Jew or Gentile.

To be Hope of the World in our time means that we recognize that God reveals in Jesus a reality that ought to be, that there is not only a chance but the call through Christ to join in creating and welcoming the kingdom that God desires — that is, to BE disciples “for the transformation of the world.”

Our brother and sister whom we remember today were just such disciples, and brilliantly so:

They not only lived but led us through the tension between what the world is and how we as Christians ought to live in order to be the hope of the world. Because of them, we know the credibility of transformation.

Let me share just a few examples of their witness:

Norman Tendis was a Lutheran pastor from Austria who came to the WCC part time with enthusiasm and vision for economic and ecological justice.  He had made his church a place where all are welcome:  charismatics, migrants, people of all Races and language, all genders and sexual orientation and beautiful music from traditional worships songs to Bob Marley and Swahili songs.   His church stood for the human rights of every human being and the rights of the earth.  At the WCC he was giving direction to the work of Public Witness and Diakonia.  When we lost him, he was on his way to the UN Environment Assembly where they would create a roadmap for congregations and communities and churches to be involved in an economy of life and ecological justice.  The resource has been developed and wherever it is used he will be remembered...And we will remember his spiritual integrity and care for God’s creation.

Robina Winbush was a Presbyterian clergywoman and ecumenical officer for the PCUSA.  I had known her for many years, but one of my most vivid first memories was listening to her outspoken witness at a central committee meeting in 2012.  After that I worked with her on Churches Uniting in Christ, Christian Churches Together, and the National Council of Churches.

Her life was committed to serving God’s church faithfully and intelligently and imaginatively.  She was about honesty and truth and compassion and sincerity and sometimes even comedy.

Just as Norman was a champion for economic and ecological justice, Robina was a champion in the church’s struggle against racism.  Her influence and insights and intuition were powerful and profound and precise.

It was no surprise that she went to her heavenly glory on her way home from standing in solidarity with Palestinians living in occupied territory...and her last words, “come Lord Jesus” became a prayer for justice for women and  Africa and all who suffer ....and her ongoing prayer to empower young people in the ecumenical movement...a prayer illuminating her concern for the oppressed of every society...

What Norman and Robina poured their lives into and what they preached was that when we propose the transformation of the world, what we are talking about, what we are doing, what it comes down to, is accomplishing Justice....and doing so in a Particular way....

Remembering again the disciples of Jesus for whom Matthew was writing...they were at a double disconnect, as people of Israel, they were disconnected from both their heritage identity and economic Well being by Roman power, which made them servants in what had been their own land and country:  ...they lived with the very real, practical consequences of injustice.  They were also disconnected from their community of synagogues, because they found in Jesus a new and different way to interpret scripture, and from that, how to be in relationship to God and neighbor.

The living presence of God in Jesus, and the post-resurrection spiritual presence of Christ, together formed a new religious compass for living in the world, and that compass pointed beyond the current reality, toward a kingdom defined by justice.

Today we too live with conflicting understandings of how to live, what we are to aim for:....so we aim for justice thinking that as church we have responsibility not only for the individual life but also for the character of civilization...feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and the morally wounded....understanding the church under God as the hope of the world.

That hope is for food, for health, for justice, for equality , for all; and in the eyes of God, all means all.  Only then is justice brought to victory.

Norman and Robina lived in that hope for justice, and embodied that hope;

They saw not only the injustice and worked for equality, but like the Matthean community of early Christians, they recognized in Jesus a powerfully alternative way to transform the world - a different way to bring equality into the world.

Hear the scripture again:  “here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.  I will pour my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.  He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.  He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory...and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

The language of Isaiah that Matthew uses — the Jewish scriptures he quotes for his broken synagogue readers — includes the languages of victory and triumph,..

...but not the kind of victory they have seen and suffered and known to well; the victory of triumphant Roman military power, the use of force to destroy, the conquering that magnifies injustice.

Instead, it is the victory of the crucifixion: Those who would save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it....it is the victory not of the sword, but of the broken bread:  take and eat, for this is my body given for you and for many...it is the victory of the incarnation itself, because by becoming fully present with us, God establishes an ultimate and perfectly inclusive equality, and that is the hope of the world.

Or as The last stanza of Georgia Harkness’ hymn says, “Hope of the world, O Christ o’er death victorious, who by this sign didn’t conquer grief and pain, we would be faithful to thy gospel glorious; thou are our Lord! Thou dost forever reign.”