The Moral Arc


Today’s readings:
Psalms 122; 149, Isaiah 51:1-8, Galatians 3:23-29, Mark 7:1-23

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” However, he was not the first to use this particular metaphor. In 1857 Unitarian minister Theodore Parker used it in a sermon against slavery. Between Parker and King, other religious leaders also referenced the “moral arc.” This image endures because it bears out across time. Over the years, as discrimination has become less acceptable, increasing numbers of people have gained access to freedom and justice.

Jesus constantly expanded the circle of justice to include the disenfranchised and despised. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Distinctions that separate human beings have no meaning in the kingdom of God.

Since Paul’s time, the church has traveled the moral arc to challenge divisions and champion justice in the form of abolition, civil rights, child labor laws, and other social movements. Like society at large, the church experiences an uneven ebb and flow of progress, but on the whole it moves in the direction of justice. What barriers to justice is it helping tear down right now?

Popular wisdom says we are more likely to think of individuals and groups as our equals after we get to know them. While this is generally true, and while it is desirable to broaden our understanding of the world, a hard truth remains: we simply don’t have time to understand all the people Jesus would have us love. Does Christian love – expressed in mercy and justice – require us to understand its recipients? It does not, and demands to be extended especially toward those who remain alien to us.

Perhaps the only real division is between people we understand and people we don’t. Can we rise to the challenge of loving people justly even when our lack of understanding create social or emotional barriers? The road to justice runs straight through those barriers and often beyond our ability to see, but it is where Christ waits to meet us.

Comfort: The Kingdom of God is always expanding.

Challenge: Read or listen to MLK’s Sermon at Temple Israel.

Prayer: Infinite God, share with me your vision  so I may see beyond the horizon of my own limited understanding. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been part of a group that was excluded by the church? Have you ever actively excluded any group from church?

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In Equity


Today’s readings:
Psalms 56; 149, Isaiah 46:1-13, Ephesians 6:10-24, Mark 5:1-20

In his various letters, Paul reminds us again and again that in Christ all are equal. However, he also recognized that isn’t the way the world works. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells husbands to respect and love their wives, and wives to obey their husbands. By modern standards that’s a sexist stance, but at the time – when women were the property of their husbands – it was radical. He tells children to obey their parents, and fathers not to provoke their children to anger. In Christ, any authority granted us by culture is not ours to exploit or wield ruthlessly, but to execute justly.

Paul’s words for masters and slaves were controversial then and now, but for different reasons. He told slaves to obey with fear and trembling, and to serve with enthusiasm, and he told masters to stop threatening slaves and to “do the same to them.” Since he didn’t demand outright that slaves be freed, some people who aren’t fans of the Christian faith drag out this passage as if it we an overall Christian endorsement of slavery. (It may not help that some defenders of slavery actually did use this and similar scripture passages to support their position.)

We don’t know what Paul’s feelings about slavery were, since addressing slavery wasn’t his mission (though we do know he intervened on behalf of at least one runaway slave). Paul was introducing the gospel to people in their present circumstances; because he believed the return of the Lord was imminent, restructuring society would have been immaterial.

Of course slavery is utterly indefensible (and its abolition in the west was due in large part to Christian efforts), but let’s remember we still live with many social injustices that are dismissed even – and sometimes especially – by Christians as “the way things are.” From exploiting labor to dumping industrial waste on communities too impoverished to fight it, we are part of a world that turns blind eyes toward injustice. Changing society may be like turning the Titanic around, but what we are willing to tolerate or promote in our lives indicates how closely we take the gospel to heart.

Authority and privilege should be used – and if necessary sacrificed – in service to those who lack them. Unequal roles may be unavoidable, but expressing love, dignity, and spiritual equality within them is always an option.

Comfort: In God’s eyes, you are not defined by your position in life.

Challenge: Exercise any authority or privilege you possess as through it was entrusted to you for the purpose of spreading God’s love … because it was.

Prayer: God of mercy, teach me to be merciful. Amen.

Discussion: Has anyone shown you mercy when they didn’t have to?

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Love Equally


Readings: Psalms 122; 145, Amos 7:1-9,  Revelation 1:1-8, Matthew 22:23-33

Mosaic law contained rules about marriage which we consider unusual today. If a man died childless, his brother had to marry his widow. The intent behind this law was to protect the widow from poverty and disgrace as she would have no means of support. In a modern society, where women hold jobs and own property equally with men, this is an outdated and rarely practiced idea.

The Sadducees were a Jewish sect who did not believe in the resurrection as Jesus taught. Fearing his influence on the people, they tried to trip him up to diminish public opinion of him. They thought the following scenario would do the trick.

A man with six brothers died childless. Per the law, his brother married his wife. The second brother also died childless, and she married the third brother, and so on until eventually she had married  all seven brothers. Who, the Sadducees asked, would be her husband in the resurrection?

Jesus told them they were asking the wrong questions, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

That must have been a showstopper. Until very recently most people did not marry for love, but there have been rules about fidelity and ownership for a long time. The concept of women who did not need to rely on men was almost unthinkable. Jesus was saying, “I know the rules, but the current social structures are not the equality God ultimately has in mind for you.” While not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment, it sent the message that once the world was made anew, women would be independent.

Today in the western world, the equality shared legally (if not practically) by men and women makes love-based marriage the norm. Viewing others as equals – as fully human beings – makes other types of love possible as well. Empathy requires us to identify with another person, and if we don’t think of them as equal, that empathy is stunted. The church has traditionally promoted the values of faith, hope, and love as described in 1 Corinthians, but the Greek word (agape) for the type of sacrificial “love” intended can just as legitimately be translated as “charity.” English doesn’t really have an equivalent word. Maybe that’s why we struggle with understanding current social structures as anything other than vertical, with the “haves” obliged to show charity to the “have nots.”  When we realize we are no different, giving and receiving charity are no longer sources of obligation or shame, but acts of sharing between children of God as any loving family might perform.

Empathy and equality release us from the slavery of convention into the freedom of love.

Comfort: God loves you equally to kings and paupers, friends and enemies.

Challenge: What groups of people do you have trouble empathizing with? Make an effort to get to know them.

Prayer: The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. (Psalm 145:9)

Discussion: What prejudices do you struggle with?

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