Just a few minutes ago, we asked you, “What’s one of the first times when you were young you remember being aware of injustice?” Let me tell you mine. When I was a kid, I lived in a house with a small patch of woods behind it, and this was one of the places the kids of the neighborhood would congregate. Like every neighborhood, ours had its cast of characters, and the scariest of them all were these three siblings from the Dodge family. The two oldest were big and tough, and the youngest was little and scrappy, but they all seemed mean and hard. And one day, the oldest Dodge kid got into an argument with another guy in the neighborhood a year or two younger than him. I remember that kid had a new black jacket on, it might have been a leather jacket, and it was really cool looking. And what the Dodge boy did was he took that black jacket from the other guy, and he pushed him hard down this grassy hill, where the guy – without his jacket – tumbled over a few times, rolled to a stop, and ran all the way home. We all scattered – this was the closest thing to a brawl we’d seen in our neighborhood. And I wondered what would happen.
And here’s what I heard. That kid went home, and his parents took care of him, he said they were really nice about it and everything. And his dad even tried to talk to the Dodge boy’s father about what his son had done. But I know that kid never got his jacket back. I don’t know why, or what happened to that really cool, new black jacket, but I know that this kids’ property was never restored to him. And that made me so angry.
I watched what it did to this kid I knew too. How that experience kind of put him in his place, taught him something about himself – that no one was going to stand up for him, that he wasn’t protectable, or worthy of protection. And it taught the rest of us something about the world too: that violent people are often not restrained and they are not subject to justice.
The scriptures affirm this, that we live in a world full of violence and injustice.
Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 (NRSV)
4 Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; 3 but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
People who have power often use their advantage to oppress people who don’t. People who have take from those who had less in the first place. Neighbors bully their neighbors. People with opportunity hoard yet more opportunity to themselves. Systems protect privilege.
And we see or experience this, and sometimes, we shut down a little. We feel weak, helpless, powerless, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, who wonders if life is so unjust that we’d be better off if we’d never been born into this evil world.
And there will be evil and injustice that we name today, and that can make us feel small and sad.
But sometimes, we hear of injustice, and our minds or our bodies tense up a bit, ready to fight, to take action. We get angry. I’m not always comfortable with anger, but a wise therapist once told me that when it comes to things as they shouldn’t be, don’t be afraid of anger. Angry in this case is much better than sad.
Because with anger, we can feel power and agency. We can take action. And that’s good. Along with connection, humility, freedom, and everyone, action is one of our core values at Reservoir. And I don’t know if you’ll get angry or not today, but I will encourage us to action.
Today, we’re participating in Freedom Sunday, where hundreds of churches are talking about injustice, and particularly the injustice of modern day slavery, and are stirring to action in response. Freedom Sunday is an initiative of one our partners, International Justice Mission. IJM is the world’s largest anti-slavery organization. They employ lawyers, criminal investigators, trauma social workers, and all the various admin folks that support them all around the world to protect the world’s vulnerable poor from the world’s violent. They’ve already rescued 45,000 people from oppression – stuff like child slavery, sex trafficking, unjust land seizures and imprisonment. And they’ve strengthened systems and communities to protect 150 million people from violence around the world. IJM’s vision is to rescue millions, to protect half a billion, and to make justice for the poor unstoppable. Through our partnerships team at Reservoir that gives away a tenth of all tithes, donations, and offerings entrusted to us, we support the work of IJM financially. We hosted their Boston-area prayer gathering earlier this year. And we are excited to be participating in today’s Freedom Sunday.
My hope is that today leaves us more angry than sad, informed and curious and inspired and empowered. Let me pray that this will be so, and then we’ll dive into a moment when Jesus announces his mission for justice before we hear more about the work of IJM.
The Bible’s good news memoirs of Luke record one of the moments when Jesus is launching his life’s work and announcing his plans. Jesus has just returned from a few weeks alone, on retreat, in prayer, and he’s back in his hometown on a Saturday, doing what he’d done most Saturdays of his life, attending worship in his local synagogue.
It’s apparently Jesus’ turn to open up one of the scrolls of Hebrew scripture, to read it, and say a few words. And here he goes.
Luke 4:14-21 (NRSV)
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
I imagine Jesus with a gleam in his eye, ready to shock his family and friends with something they’ve never heard. Bibles then weren’t bound in books, but each section hand copied onto scrolls you’d unroll, and Jesus is given the scroll for the book of Isaiah. And I don’t know if Jesus turns to what was the scheduled reading for the day, or if he chose this section of Isaiah himself, but he turns and reads these words, where the identity of the first person was unclear. Who is it that has this Spirit of God, empowered to reverse injustice, and bring cheer and liberation and healing and freedom? Is it Isaiah? Is it this unnamed servant of God that speaks four other times a little earlier in Isaiah’s writing? Here this person says they’re going to inaugurate a great season of liberation, what gets called the year of the Lord’s favor?
It sounds like this great year of Jubilee, which is described in Israel’s founding constitutional lawbook. This was to be a year, every fifty years, when debts were cancelled, prisoners and slaves freed, land seized and purchased returned – a great economic reset, a year of good news and justice to everyone who’s been pressed down or who had slipped behind or been left out of prosperity and good news. This Year of Jubilee commanded in Israel’s law, best as we know, never historically occurred. All that good news and justice was too much, too costly, so it was never practiced.
But Jesus stands up, in his little backwater hometown synagogue, and says – in effect – I’m the one, and the time is now. Jubilee has arrived. Freedom, justice, good news has begun. This is the year of the Lord’s favor.
We go on to find out that this was a real shocker for Jesus’ hometown. Some of them are silent, some of them turn and whisper, others – after Jesus provokes them a bit more – get aggressive and angry.
Any time you hear that justice might really be possible, that there just might be good news for the world’s most disempowered, it’s provocative.
I remember when I first learned there were people doing this work around the world. It was the late 90s, and my wife Grace and I attended an event where IJM’s founder Gary Haugen spoke. Haugen had attended Harvard University just down the street from here, after law school he worked in civil rights enforcement for the US government and eventually directed the UN’s investigation into the genocide in Rwanda. An impressive career. But Haugen was aware that Rwanda was not a one-off. It was unique in many ways, but Haugen knew that all around the world, whenever systems of law enforcement and public protection are broken, the disempowered suffer. And as a follower of Jesus, he knew that we still live in the year of God’s favor Jesus announced, that this is a time for all of humanity to know the goodness of God, to enjoy God’s love and healing and inclusion and forgiveness and presence, and to make good news happen in the lives of the poor, to liberate from slavery and oppression and violence.
So he described the work that IJM was beginning – founding national field offices, led by local leadership, where professionals would investigate and document injustices, force change in law and infrastructure, rescue victims and get them access to healing and recovery services, and bring perpetrators to justice.
Over the last 25 years, IJM has helped us see the scope of the problems of injustice in the world. 4 billion people live outside the protection of the law. More than 40 million people are held in slavery today. One in four of them is a child. Human trafficking generates revenues of about $150 billion dollars per year. Two thirds of that is from commercial sexual exploitation.
IJM is moved by Jesus, though, to push back and to liberate. IJM has rescued more than 17,000 people from forced labor slavery. They’ve rescued more than 3,600 people from commercial sex trafficking. The facts are great. But the stories are better. My family are something called Freedom Partners with IJM, which means that we send a little money their way every month, and we get to read stories again and again of liberation.
I want you to hear and see one of these stories today. So let’s cue up that five minute video we have prepared. Our church supports IJM’s field office in Ghana. When we restarted our church partnership with IJM, we had the choice to connect to the work of a particular field office, and we chose their office in Ghana to honor the number of West Africans and Americans from West Africa in our congregation at Reservoir.
The center of IJM’s work in Ghana right now is rescuing children from slavery in the country’s fishing industry. Almost 10% of Ghana’s population of 25 million people live on less than $2/day, creating some of the conditions that make children vulnerable to child slavery. I want you to see and hear the story of one child:
There’s something especially horrible about a child’s experience of injustice, whether it be a small thing like the neighborhood bullying I described, or a really large thing like a child pulled into slavery. And something so good about justice, dignity, and freedom brought to bear here.
And to understand why this story is such good news here, let’s pause for just a second and think about our series on an embodied faith. Imagine for a moment that you were on that rescue boat cutting across the waters of Lake Volta, the one that had the IJM and law enforcement personnel on it that rescued Foli.
What would you want to do for him? Would you want to tell him God loves him and then leave him with his uncle? Would you hope to tell him about the love of Jesus – uplift his soul in some way – but leave his body a slave? Of course not. You’d want to bring him into your boat, put your arm around him, comfort him, restore him to the safety and love of his grandfather and his hometown, to make sure he is protected and provided for. All of this you’d see as the love of God for him, right?
Well, Jesus is no different. Jesus, as the perfect image of the invisible God, the accurate, embodied, human reflection of the love and character of our eternal God, announces his mission as the year of God’s favor – a time for good news, for freedom, for healing and sight to the blind, and for liberation. Not just freedom for our souls or spirits, but for our whole persons. Remember what I taught two weeks ago – we’re all one thing. You can’t split up a person into different parts without losing something. And Jesus loves the whole of who we are and is determined to liberate and heal the whole of who we are, that all of us, in our whole personhood can know and embody all of God’s goodness and love.
If Jesus were in that boat, he would have done the same as we would. In fact, I suggest that in a way, Jesus was in that rescue boat, through the hands and feet and bodies and of Foli’s liberator. Just as Jesus was in the boat with Foli, when he suffered the pain and confusion of captivity. Because Jesus is always in the boat with us. God is with us. And Jesus is particularly in fellowship with the marginalized and oppressed and suffering, and Jesus is with the people who continue his embodied mission to bring good news, to heal, and to liberate.
You’re going to have a chance in just a little bit to join my family and to join Reservoir Church and to get behind the work of International Justice Mission today, if you like, to become what IJM calls a Freedom Partner, a participant in this work of liberation. But before I share that invitation, and a few others, I want to be clear that joining Jesus in God’s work of good news liberation is not just an *out there* issue that happens among the globally most desperately poor.
To join Jesus in this year of God’s favor, this season of Freedom Jubilee, is a daily work for us everywhere, in our minds, our bodies, and our communities.
I was with a group of clergy not long ago, and we were sharing scriptures and stories for why we do what we do, and a colleague of mine, a rabbi, told the story of his own bar mitzvah when he was coming of age as a boy. Have you ever been to a bar mitzvah? They’ve long, you know. My first one was a bat mitzvah technically, for one of our neighbor’s daughters. And Grace and I sat through like a three-hour Saturday morning service, almost entirely in Hebrew. And later on as we kind of delicately asked our neighbor if that’s how it usually went, she was like, Oh, sorry, I didn’t tell you, almost nobody stays for the whole thing. People kind of come and go, as they like, and make sure they’re there for the end, in time for when we break for the big meal.
So last time I went back to that same synagogue for another bar mitzvah, we took donut breaks and just made sure we were there for the big moment, which – at every bar mitzvah, is when the teen or preteen reads from the scriptures in Hebrew, and gives a short teaching about that scripture, how to understand it and live it in the world. Kind of like we heard Jesus do earlier. Except the kids don’t usually say, “Now’s the time. I’m the one.” Well, maybe the funny ones do. I don’t know. I haven‘t seen that.
Anyway, my colleague told us that his bar mitzvah scripture was from the prophet Micah, the sixth chapter, the eighth verse, where after the prophet tells the people that God doesn’t need all their religious practice, he says what God does want is this:
Micah 6:8 (NRSV)
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
And this rabbi said that his mother made him promise to add “and your fellow man” to the end of the verse. So what he actually proclaimed, in Hebrew, was “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God and your fellow man.” He told us, ever since my bar mitzvah, this has been my life story, and my life’s work.
Which was fun for me to hear today, because not being Jewish, I never got a bar mitzvah, but this line from Micah is at the heart of my life calling as well. I’ve shared many times that in my late 20s, when I was unemployed, unaccomplished, and at the peak of my vocational and financial anxieties, afraid my life would be a failure, I had this game-changing experience at sunrise along the ocean, when I had a clear sense of the inner voice of God assuring me that I already knew my life calling, that it wasn’t tied to any particular job, but that I would could a life committed to healing and justice and wellness – my own and others. And this verse was part of how I knew that to be true.
That my own life story and work was to be connected to God, not in any grandiose or overly certain way as if I had no doubt, but to stay with faith, to humbly walk with God. And that my life story was to love mercy, to get excited about love and generosity and gentleness and goodness wherever it was to be found in me, or in anyone else. And that my life story was to be part of doing justice, to be an opportunity maker, a way maker, a restorer of things lost and taken.
In this violent world, Jesus gives us the good news both that we are to be healed and liberated, and that we are to be healers and liberators.
It’s been sixteen years since that experience I refer to, and my own track record isn’t particularly accomplished or anything in living this life call. I’m no Gary Haugen history maker or anything, but what I have discovered is that injustice and the oppression of our bodies isn’t just found in far-off, dark corners of the world, but all around us. And so the opportunity to be freedom makers and liberators abounds as well.
This is true in our city, in our workplaces, on our computer and phone screens, and even in our mirrors.
We learned about Foli’s story today, but do you know where the greatest amount of human slavery, and child slavery occurs in our world today? Certainly the industry in which human slavery is generating the most profits?
It’s in the human sex trafficking industry. Where every day, poor families in debt are tricked to turning over their children to traffickers, where kids are lured into child brothels, or increasingly more common, into rooms where they disrobe or perform sexual acts on camera for pornography consumers all around the world.
IJM works on freeing people from the sex trafficking industry too. Our Boston prayer event earlier this year zeroed in on this issue. But even without supporting IJM, each of us can contribute to the reduction of child slavery and sex trafficking by simply not being a consumer of pornography. That actually helps.
I’m not a big fan of pornography’s impact on users. From research and sadly, from a little experience as well, I’m convinced that porn has a corrupting influence on our sexuality. It makes it more misogynistic, more selfish, more compulsive, less relational, and generous. But apart from that, the research and writing seems clear that porn consumption drives world sex trafficking. Your clicks and streaming on your phone or laptop are part of an economic chain that drives rape, abuse, oppression, and slavery.
So listen, I don’t want to shame anyone here, but what we do or don’t do with our technology and our sexuality has an impact on other people’s freedom or slavery. I think we need to know that if we want to be good news, freedom partners.
Once we embrace an embodied faith, and once we own justice and mercy as central to God’s life for us, once we understand that Jesus is still on mission with the year of God’s favor and freedom, we can see the opportunity to be freedom partners, and justice makers everywhere we go.
In our companies’ HR and benefit offices. In our town’s zoning policies and local schools. In this fall’s elections. Maybe even in your mirror. I’ve been kind of obsessed for the past twelve months with the accounts of those of us who have had harm done to our bodies. I have my own experience with sexual abuse, and there’s been #metoo, and #churchtoo, and our own Speak Out Sunday about sexual assault and violence at Reservoir, and now this past week another wave of stories about violence done to our bodies and what happens when apologies are made or not, when amends are made or not, when the truth comes out and justice is done, or not.
For those of us who had done violence to someone else’s body, and that’s some of you – you’re terrified to admit it because of the fear and the shame, but for those who have done harm to someone else’s body, there’s no freedom for you without some kind of confession and attempt at justice or amends. This may be super-complicated, but I’ve said this before, if that’s you than as your pastor, I want to talk to you. You need to see me.
And for those of us who have had harm done to our bodies, and that’s many of us, freedom might even come when we look in the mirror, and with the help of God and friends and therapy try to see our body as beautiful and sacred again. It might come when we recover our voice and tell our story, when we learn that our truth is worth hearing, when we find an area to fight and gain our strength again.
If that’s your story, this is a sermon, not trauma therapy, so I want to leave it at that for now, but know that you have the fellowship of a tender mother God who will hold and comfort you. You have the fellowship of Jesus, God in our body, who knows the experience of violation, and is close with us as our friend and advocate.
Know too that you are loved and valued in this community. Know that you have the support and the prayers of your pastors. And know that we’ll believe you when you speak out.
Let me close before we pray. Take out your programs again. Two invitations for you. The first:
A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing:
Humbly walk with Jesus by pursuing freedom and justice in your home, in your workplace, in your city, and in your world. See today’s half sheet for specific next steps.
Take a look at that half sheet. We’ve given you ways to give. This is how you become a freedom partner, it’s like $24/month or more of steady giving to IJM. This is a joy for my family, I hope it will be for you. There are ways to show up. Our church will be organizing for criminal justice reform, for protection for immigrants, for equitable health care costs, and more in Greater Boston this fall, and we’d love for you to be part of those efforts. And there are ways to learn more. You can get an overview of what Reservoir is up to on the “Neighboring and Justice” part of our website, or join your community group in some Bible studies and materials our pastors have prepared to engage our community in learning, talking, and praying about being part of Jesus’ call to freedom, justice, and mercy.
Please don’t drop this half sheet in the recycling on the way out. Hold onto it, pray about it, do something with it.
And lastly, our
Spiritual Practice of the Week:
Dare to see each human body you see this week as sacred, worthy of love, mercy, and protection.