The Challenge of Preaching Social Justice

Since we are in the midst of a worship series during Lent that involves a keen attentiveness to matters of social justice, I thought it would be a good idea to wade around in the idea of what “social justice” even is. When I was a pastor in Morris, I convened a group of church people for a year long “Covenant Discipleship Group.” The Covenant group was an intentional revival of the “band meetings” or “class meetings” of the early Methodist movement. The purpose of the group was to come up with a covenant in four areas and then hold one another accountable each week to how we lived out that covenant. The 8 or 9 people involved collectively came up with the covenant in matters related to worship and devotion, mercy and justice.

Those were the four “points of the cross,” and they were related to each other. Worship and devotion were directed toward God, both collectively (in worship) and individually (in devotion.) Mercy and justice were directed toward our neighbors, both collectively (in justice) and individually (in mercy.) It was said that acts of mercy were individual acts that sought the alleviation of particular ills that we encountered in the moment. Acts of justice were directed toward the systemic causes of particular ills that we encountered. They might be achieved personally (in touching base with representatives) or collectively (participating in a protest, going to a meeting that sought better food security in a neighborhood.)

If you look in our hymnal’s table of contents, there’s a section under “Sanctifying and Perfecting Grace” related to “personal holiness,” and another collection of hymns related to “social holiness.” John Wesley said,

Solitary religion is not to be found there. (the scriptures) “Holy Solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.”

It is an important component of Wesleyan theology that every expression of holiness find its way into relationships with others, interpersonally, and on a larger scale, socially.

“Social Justice” is a commitment to see the hopes and dreams that we might have for ourselves and our smaller family groups writ large for our whole society. Social Justice is an effort to curb our natural inclinations toward tribalism or divisive rhetoric.

I have served churches in a variety of contexts, from ranch towns to oil towns, from wealthy urban to poor urban, and from progressive, insulated college campuses to conservative, isolated chicken-plant towns. Social Justice means something in all these types of places. Some people are suspicious of the idea. I think we can do our best ministry because you, my congregation, knows me well enough to trust me. I might speak up with a voice that you long to hear and would affirm, and you also might feel comfortable disagreeing with me and letting me know it. I appreciate being your minister in both cases. This kind of divide might be more noticeable when we’re focusing on the theme of social justice. Usually, our scriptures and our heritage of faith point us in a pretty clear direction on matters of social justice, but sometimes that direction runs counter to what we might find “mainstream” in our culture here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Sometimes, the way is not so clear at all.

I want to take a moment and acknowledge that sometimes the theme of social justice may create divisive conversations in smaller groups, or be difficult to hear ‘preached from the pulpit’ because we are “political animals.” My own political leanings may sometimes bleed through what I say, and if that offends you, I regret any discomfort it may cause. Like most people, I have loved ones with whom I have political disagreements. That doesn’t stop us from loving each other or encouraging each other. Sometimes, such relationships bring about the most important conversations since different values are held and explored rather than “talking into the echo chamber.”

It is a commitment of mine to be as non-partisan as possible when I’m preaching because I hope God’s inspiration comes through what I say and don’t want to place any obstacles to people receiving what God might be saying to them. My prayer for that moment is real,

“May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.”

However, that doesn’t mean that a sermon can simply be boiled down to platitudes. Sermons can challenge as well as inspire, and that is the way sermons have always been. I sometimes fail to deliver the word that I feel put on my heart—sometimes because I say too much, and sometimes because I hold back too much. I’m thankful that you, as a congregation, are engaged by what I bring to the pulpit each week. I look forward to continuing on with the “Roll Down Justice” theme throughout Lent so that we might better know who we are as a “Kingdom People,” and what we can do about the very real, very current problems in our society.