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Executive Orders

Did you hear those words? “What does God require of you, but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” How’s that for an executive order?! The Lectionary nailed it with this week’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. We have orders from God. We are those called to a lifestyle of justice, kindness, and humility.

I feel like I woke up this week in an America that I don’t recognize. Overnight, we have become a place where the huddled masses are turned away without regard for those who have already suffered more than we can imagine. In rural Rutland, Vermont, the first two of twenty-five Syrian families arrived recently after years of background checks and preparation. Twenty-three other war-traumatized families were expected to arrive in the very near future. They will not find safety in our country, perhaps ever. They are among the many innocent victims of war from Muslim majority countries who are indefinitely barred from entry by executive order. People were pulled off planes yesterday in Europe, and working immigrants with green cards who were unfortunate enough to have traveled outside our country were told that they could not return to their families, homes, and jobs. The executive order was issued on Holocaust Remembrance day, an irony or perhaps fitting when we remember that Ann Frank and her family were denied entrance as refugees to our country as well.

An executive order is a powerful thing. When issued from the highest office of our country, it has the potential to shape the soul of a nation.

Other executive orders that have been issued since we last met for worship include those that jeopardize health care for the most vulnerable of our society including those with pre-existing medical conditions, and direct the construction of a two-thousand mile-long wall as part of a security plan which threatens undocumented immigrants in our own community, and re-starts efforts to complete the halted Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines despite serious threats to the environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights. There is more, in the form of executive actions and offhand executive comments on matters such as torture, reproductive rights, and federal LGBT employment protections. We are living in a new reality and cannot pretend that our voices are not needed to resist the forces of oppression.

An executive order is a powerful thing. And when issued from the supreme being of the universe, it has the potential to shape the soul of humanity.

Last Sunday morning, the children entered worship as usual as we sang “We are Marching in the Light of God.” Some of our children took part in the Women’s March in Denver and in Washington D.C. Some experiences were shared, and Eddie read the words out loud to us from a sign brought to church by Janet and Cole after the march. It read, “She (meaning God) has told you what is good; and what does she require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly… Micah 6:8.”

In the Gospels, Jesus is asked what the most important commandment is, and he responds by saying “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul mind and strength, and love you neighbor as yourself.” In doing so, he actually summarized the ten commandments which are about loving God and loving people. Micah 6:8 says the same thing, but it’s actually a bit more specific. In other words, it tells us exactly how to live out that love. And it is expressed in the strongest terms as a requirement.

“Do justice.” The prophet didn’t say “think really hard about what is good and just and admire it as a worthy concept.” He said, “Do it!” Do justice! The people receiving the prophetic words of Micah were living in exile and preparing to return to the Promised Land where they hoped to re-establish a monarchy and get their collective lives back after years of captivity in Babylon. Micah didn’t mince any words when he spoke of those who had gotten Israel into that mess in the first place and whose quest for power and wealth continued as a driving force that affected all of them. He spoke about flesh being torn apart; a metaphor for a people divided as ruling classes increased their wealth at the expense of the poor. When the prophet spoke for God and said “Do justice,” it was very clear what he meant. The systems that perpetuated poverty had to be dismantled, and the use of power for personal gain had to stop.

The Dalai Lama has said, “I believe in justice and truth, without which there would be no basis for human hope.” We cannot separate truth from justice. Justice is a practical acknowledgment of what is true. Fully embracing truth always leads us to justice. If it is true that all people have value, then our only moral response is to seek justice for all people. If truth has ultimate value, then we do not manufacture or attempt to promote “alternative facts.” We do not intimidate the media or tell them to shut up. We do not halt scientific research or try to change or deny accepted scientific fact because it might be economically expedient to do so.

Doing justice is hard work, but that doesn’t mean it is terribly complicated. Picking up the phone and making calls to those who represent us is a simple matter that mostly requires our time and our will. Call, write, gather, march, volunteer. All of it matters! Last Sunday I was fumbling with my words with the children, trying to find something simple and clear to say, when I saw JoJo’s shirt with big letters covering her front that said “Stand up, Speak out.” The perfect message for all of us. Standing up and speaking out when we believe that something is wrong is doing the work of justice.

There is a Hebrew word in Micah 6:8 that is difficult to translate. It is the word “hesed.” What does God require of you, but to do justice, to love “hesed,” and to walk humbly with your God?”

We don’t quite know how to translate the Hebrew word hesed. In one version of the Bible it comes out as “mercy,” but that is not quite what hesed means, so in another version it is translated “kindness,” but that is not exactly what it means, either. Bible scholar Katharine Doob Sakenfeld says that none of the words we use to translate hesed, kindness, mercy, love, loyalty, are quite adequate. She suggests that hesed is when you are in big trouble and something really bad is going to happen to you and there is one person or group or institution that can help you and they really have no reason to go out of their way to help you… but they do. When there is someone who needs help, and their life will be much worse if they don’t get our help, and we have no particular reason to help them… but we do, that is to bestow hesed.

We show hesed when we work for justice. We also show hesed.. or we don’t.. in the ways we engage the powers that be and how we interact with one another in times of crisis. It is enormously tempting to pit ourselves against the world and use the same tactics that we find deplorable in others. Reaching inward and tapping our Higher Power to show hesed to those who do not is one of the ways we can start to change our world for good.

The Jesuit priest and social justice activist Daniel Berrigan said, “We are called to live nonviolently, even if the change we work for seems impossible.” He went on to say, “It may or may not be possible to turn the U.S. around through nonviolent revolution. But one thing favors such an attempt: the total inability of violence to change anything for the better." We can never allow the violence of hatred to overpower our better instinct to love. And Jesus has told us to love even our enemies and pray for them.

The prophet Micah spoke to a divided people with clear words regarding justice, but he managed to keep people together by pointing them toward the common good. His position as prophet was critical, but he didn’t use it for personal gain. Eventually the people listened to the multiple prophets in Israel and their hope and their home were restored.

Several years ago, a new ministry colleague moved to a neighboring congregation and I befriended him. It didn’t take long to realize that he exhibited many the signs often associated with pathological narcissism. He had a staggering lack of empathy for others. He expected other people to adhere to rules that he himself did not follow. His sense of superiority and entitlement were remarkable. He sought out admirers and blatantly used them toward his own ends. He lied a lot. By his smooth talking he had acquired a position of responsibility that he was clearly unqualified and unprepared for. When people began to question his behaviors, he rebuked them strongly. The result was that a congregation that was otherwise stable and healthy quickly devolved into chaos. It wasn’t just that people were mad at their ill-chosen leader; in their anxiety and frustration, they turned against one another. Long-time friends became foes, and those known for their civility behaved in ways that were frightening. It was painful to watch, and much long-term damage resulted.

We are already seeing signs of such chaos in our country. Executive actions bring about strong responses from other nations and leaders that heighten our collective anxiety. Social media is erupting and it is hard to separate what is true from what is fake news. Friends and family members are at odds with one another and even those with similar social and political views are finding reason to be uncivil with one another. That’s what happens, I think, when any human system is infected with poison.

Showing “hesed” to one another has never been more important. Being right or righteous is not the only thing that matters. Loving mercy and kindness can’t be jettisoned just because we’re angry. Preserving and modeling decency is important as we work together for justice. I read an article this week titled “Resistance as a Spiritual Discipline.” When we believe that something is inherently wrong, it is right to resist rather than passively participate. And when we see resistance as a spiritual discipline, I believe we are able to keep a focus that is not merely political but is primarily rooted in our faith.

The prophet said to do justice, love mercy, and finally “walk humbly with God.” When we’re angry and filled with righteous indignation and deep concern for the impact of injustice on those who suffer, it’s easy to become arrogant and overly certain about everything. Humility in the face of power is effective and is even required if we are going to make a difference. We can’t know all of the answers, and having the humility to listen to those we disagree with is critical, I think, to building whatever bridges can be built. A sign I read at the Women’s March last week quoted Angela Davis, saying “Walls turned sideways make great bridges.” That is hopefully true for a wall dividing nations, but it can also happen when we put down the defense of our own walls and find ways to cross the gap between ourselves and others.

This may sound like a political sermon, but it is not intended to be so. It’s not about being Republican or Democrat or having any other political or partisan perspective. The pastoral and prophetic words of Scripture that address injustice speak to every situation in every century where power is abused and people and creation itself suffer as a result. Not to speak would be to pretend that we are not in crisis and that our faith is irrelevant.

Yesterday, I heard of friends arriving at airports and seeing crowds of people peacefully protesting the deportation of immigrants arriving by air from seven Muslim-majority countries. Late last night, I read the news that a federal judge, responding to a lawsuit from the ACLU, had issued a temporary stay for those persons who have just arrived from banned countries. It’s been reported that green card holders returning to the U.S. will now being considered on a case by case basis. The situation will likely change from day to day as the chaos is sorted through. What all of that says to me is that our voices do matter; that paying attention is important; that we are not powerless in the face of injustice.

God has shown us what is good: to do justice, to love mercy and kindness, to walk humbly. We can see a better future ahead where all are treated with dignity. We will get there together. In the meantime, what does God require of you?

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