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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on March 15, 2009

Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, & Endeavoring To Make Our Fellow Creatures Happy: A Reflection on Social Justice as a Spiritual Practice

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

—William Shakespeare (slightly adapted)

There’s an old joke, perhaps you’ve heard it. Here’s a version I found on the web, only slightly adapted.

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over crying out, ‘Stop! Don't!’ ‘Why not?’ he replied. ‘What is there to live for?’ I said, ‘There's so much!’ Then he asked, ‘Like what?’ I said, ‘Well, are you religious or atheist?’ He said, ‘Religious.’ I said, ‘Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?’ He said, ‘Christian.’ I said, ‘Me too!’ (I said this is a joke I found on the web. Might have been interesting to follow it the other way, but not this time…) I asked, ‘Are you Catholic or Protestant?’ He said, ‘Protestant.’ I said, ‘Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?’ He replied, ‘Baptist!’ I said, ‘Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?’ He said, ‘Baptist Church of God!’ I responded, ‘Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?’ He said, ‘Reformed Baptist Church of God!’ I said, ‘Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?’ He said, ‘Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!’ I yelled, ‘Die, heretic scum!’ and pushed him off the bridge.

Mohandas Gandhi famously noted while he liked Jesus a lot he wasn’t all that fond of the Christians he’d met. Of course this sort of thing isn’t just for religious folk. I’m passionate about social justice. But when I think of some of the social justice activists I’ve known in my time, I really understand what Gandhi means. A beautiful ideal can be badly handled by its supporters. Truthfully, over the years I’ve heard die heretic scum at social justice meetings a few too many times.

But I persist. And there’s a reason. I suggest we may share that reason, you and I who have gathered in this old Meeting House. You’ve heard it before. It is the good news that is proclaimed here. We are all in this mess together. This sad, terrible, glorious, beautiful mess, this is it. There is no other place. And, most importantly in this realization, is how you and me and the whole blessed world, we’re actually one family.

Sadly, we’re a seriously dysfunctional family. We treat each other like strangers. When the truth is we humans beings, wherever we are on this globe, we belong to the same immediate family, other animals are first cousins, trees and plants second cousins, and viruses and bacteria, well, they’re no more than fifth cousins, once or twice removed. The air and the dirt, well, they’re family, too, although I don’t think our branches of the clan have been on speaking terms of late.

But, family we are, flesh of the same flesh, blood of the same blood. And out of that knowing a spiritual ethos arises. Thomas Paine, in his Age of Reason said it succinctly. While I usually correct for archaic usages, here it is straight. “I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy.”

The call we hear from this pulpit and other pulpits in our tradition over and over again, is “olly, olly, oxen free.” Come home, come home. I suggest in a nutshell our spiritual discipline, the call of our tradition, is to come home. For many of us it has been no more difficult than walking through those doors. Although getting to the door may well have involved a round about adventure. And, for some of us the journey is the return of the prodigal. Well, maybe that’s true for quite a few of us.

But just having dreams of connections with each other and the world isn’t really enough. The great project here is to bring that invisible intimate to the visible, to manifestation and action. And we provide quite a palate of ways to do this. Many of us are attracted to disciplines of sustained attention like Zen and Vipassana. More have found the structured conversations of our Small Group Ministry enormously helpful. Others have used the practices of attention that one finds in adult spirituality classes or study groups. Each of these is a facet of the jewel of presence to our true nature, as intimates each with the other.

And today I want to discuss social engagement, service and action, as a particularly important option for us on this path of realization. Social justice is the most powerful of disciplines calling for not knowing. Not knowing how it will turn out, not knowing if it is of any use at all. Just not knowing. Not knowing until our hearts break and we discover the world beyond our selfishness and our isolation. Here in our vulnerability, in our broken-heartedness we are given a great gift. In our raw presence to the whirlwind we discover who we are. Here we find the one family.

At this moment the world is healed. And, sadly, in a moment, we will forget, and with tht forgetting the hurt returns. That’s just the deal. And so the project continues. There will always be another law to be challenged or enacted. There will always be another hungry person, a person who needs clothing, another who needs shelter. Practice is a magical word. It means both preparing and doing, both at once. But in that action heaven is revealed, hurt is healed, and lives are transformed.

So, that’s the why of social justice here in this place, at least as I understand it.

And if you want to find out for yourself; here’s a little of what you can find to throw yourself into. We’ve just started a local projects committee, and their first project is to see if they can help organize a feeding program for a homeless shelter in Warwick. Worth checking out. Among our ongoing projects are Holy Rollers, Peace Flags, Green Sanctuary and Habitat. We are of course long time supporters of the various projects of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. I know in the recent past some of us have expressed concern with racial justice. I hope to give that more attention as we go forward, along with issues of class.

I’m deeply moved by the Write-a-Thon sponsored jointly by our World Service Committee and Amnesty International. Letters written by us and many others just this year have been credited with helping to alleviate the suffering of Fathi el-Jahmi, a political prisoner in Libya. And we can celebrate the victory, already mentioned, in the release of Ma Khin Khin Leh, a young mother and prisoner of conscience, sentenced to life for protesting the unbearable conditions of the Burmese dictatorship. Letters written here at this church helped, absolutely no doubt about it, to win her freedom.

If you have a hankering for connecting with Unitarians from a completely different context and who have suffered mightily for their faith you might consider joining with the Transylvania Partner Church project. If the micro bank movement touches your heart, I hope you know we’re funding our fourth such, this one in Haiti.

Now just because I don’t like people ranking their project as superior to everyone else’s doesn’t mean I don’t rank projects. I just commit to seeing through my judgments as best I can, engaging with kindness and a little humility. So acknowledging that, I consider the most important thing we do in the realm of social justice here is our third Monday Food Pantry. Last month we provided food for seventy families, the month before one hundred and fifty families. Just over fifty members and friends of this congregation are part of the project; and it takes about thirty to run each session, each month.

I admit I’m personally attracted to what are sometimes thought of as larger projects. I like the thought of possibly shifting our communal perspectives, if only a little, it stirs my heart. But, you know, there is nothing in a world where the poor are with us, like actually making sure someone isn’t going to bed hungry today. So the food pantry, I believe, without a hint of hesitation, is the most important of our social justice projects. This is justice rendered to its core without affectation or inflation.

Still, there are those larger projects, and I have to admit they are personally what tend to call me. If you attended our Second Friday potluck and presentation the other night you witnessed the fire of the holy spirit descend upon this place when the Reverend Eugene Dyslewski from Riverside Congregational walked us through “traditional marriage” and showed us the relentless course of history and how marriage equality is nearly at hand. This is the work of the angels and I’m so glad to be able to share in it.

Those who like that legislative work, should note that today this afternoon at two, our statewide Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Rhode Island is gathering upstairs in the parish house to decide which three pressing matters with current legislation we’re going to give some attention to, to lobby through phone calls, emails, letters and personal visits. I will be presenting the case for attending to the bills regarding marriage equality.

This sets my blood racing. I love it.

But, whatever project you may consider joining, I hope you will consider joining one. For us I believe it a very important part of our lives, of seeing deeply into the way things are, and seeing our part in it, both to the ill and for the good. I believe with all my heart, that as we open our hearts, as we commit our hands, we discover the world transformed. Whenever we recall how our religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy, we discover the ways of healing for ourselves and for the whole world.

This is what we’re about.