Great Ends of the Church-Social Righteousness (Galatians 2:15-21)

This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church on June 16, 2013. The text for the sermon is Galatians 2:15-21. It is the fifth in our Great Ends of the Church series.

The light can be seen at the end of our Great Ends of the Church tunnel and I’m hoping today it isn’t a train.

Today we tackle what is probably the most political of the Great Ends…the promotion of social righteousness.

Over the last five weeks we have been studying the Great Ends of the Church as laid out in the Presbyterian Church USA constitution. The great ends have been with us since their formal adoption in 1910.  There are six Great Ends of the Church and so far we’ve taken a peak at

·      The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
·      The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the people of God
·      The maintenance of divine worship
·      The preservation of the truth

And today we will look at “the promotion of social righteousness” and come back next week as we finish up our series with the “exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”

In a report from the General Assembly Council (that’s a governing body of the denomination it would be like the session here at our church, or the church board, or the vestry depending on your tradition.) to the 1997 General Assembly it says,

“It sometimes seems that we get caught up in the details of our work, telling the story of how well we have carried out our responsibilities and lost sight of why we are doing what we do. These principles help us refocus on Jesus as the reason for mission as related to this report.”

The paragraph provides a concise answer for anyone who asks how the Presbyterians understand their task as church.

We also understand from the Apostle Paul that it is not through these actions but by God’s grace we will be saved. Yet we are compelled to live our life in Christ, with Christ, with those who Christ lived with, the outcast, the unclean, the poor, the widow, the orphan.

It is precisely because of the grace that God has shown us that we respond in these ways. These guideposts, these great ends, on our journey are not meant as a new law but are meant to help us as we seek to articulate the vision and mission of First Presbyterian church Nebraska City.

When I began to prepare this sermon, I do what I always do when I have a question. I post it on facebook and twitter. You see I have a little over 1,200 people that follow my tweets and about 800 friends on facebook. Not everybody sees everything but it usually starts a good conversation or at least I can get some answers. The question I asked was “is there a difference between social righteousness and social justice.“ It was shared by several of my friends that have significantly more connections than I and I got one response.

Now you’re probably asking yourself what the heck do those mean?

Well your not alone, the one response I got was from a Presbyterian pastor in Vancouver, Washington named Josh. He said, “Social justice has to do with making relationships right? (between different races, for example)--so I say, "No."

We might need to take a step back.

I think it might help to explore what social righteousness and social justice mean, at least as I understand them.

For me social righteousness means living out the call to a righteous life; which means for me, loving the lord God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself.

Social justice as defined by the National Association of Social Workers is “is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.”[1]

So there is no difference what we call the greatest commandments and the view that everyone deserved equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities.

Seems about right…right?

Well, earlier I mentioned that this is probably the most political of the great ends of the church. Many in the church cannot reconcile the call to proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind and the promotion of social righteousness. Like blogger Megan Handly Katerjian says,

“Since the modernist-fundamentalist debates of the early 20th century, social justice has been championed as the cause of the theologically liberal and gospel proclamation as the cause of the theologically conservative.”[2]

Here’s the thing…I don’t think we need to get down in the depths of political side taking. What I think we are called to do is to live out the words of Jesus. I know, or at least I assume, that we all want for, like the prophet Amos says, justice to roll down like an ever-flowing stream. The thing I think we disagree on is the irrigation system.  The way we create a just world, the way we set up systems to be good stewards of the resources that God gave us and at the same time honor the commandments to love the lord God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love our neighbors as ourselves. That means practicing what you preach, that means doing unto others what we would have them do unto us. That means doing what we can, when we can and not turning our backs on the least of these.

When we start to think about the least of these though, we often can get overwhelmed and don’t do anything. We see the divorce rate, the number of unemployed, the number of people in prison, the number of kids on free and reduced lunches, we see the violence and those caught in the crossfire of parents, drugs, and war. It’s just too much. It’s so much that we get paralyzed and turn a blind eye to any of it because we can’t stop it, we can’t change it, we can’t do anything. So we focus on ourselves.

When I start to feel helpless like that, I think about the first time I walked into Lied Lodge when I came last November for my interview. One of the first things I saw was a quote that I’ve shared with you before by Margaret Meade. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This quote was shared this week by one of my friends as well which I don’t think was a coincidence. This quote always gives me hope that while I am here I can always live into the life Christ called me to doing what I can when I can. During our discussion at the Men’s Prayer Breakfast this Thursday morning I was reminded of a story that you may have heard.

A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied,

“Well, I made a difference to that one!”

The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.[3]

There are a lot of starfish out there. There’s a lot to do and we can only do what we can do. There are opportunities around us; there are starfish at our feet. Whether that is breakfast for middle school students once a week, whether that’s a greenhouse on our lawn, a weekly meal for those who are hungry or in need of some companionship, a visitation ministry for people who can’t come to us, a day care and preschool, it could be the next Presbyterian People Mover or the next Respite Care Program or the next Best Flood Friends.

The truth is whether we do it all or not, whether we save all the starfish or none, it won’t save us but it will help us to live out our life of faith, help us promote social righteousness, help us see the very face of God in those whom we serve and each other.

I guess today, we are left with just one question. What starfish are you picking up first?






[2] http://www.pfrenewal.org/missionally-minded/382-upholding-social-righteousness-through-21st-century-eyes
[3] http://www.ordinarypeoplechangetheworld.com/articles/the-starfish-story.aspx