“A Peculiar People: Choosing Justice over Fairness”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
October 20, 2019
1 Corinthians 8:1a, 7-13
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
Luke 14:1, 7-11
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
This morning we are continuing our sermon series on A Peculiar People – God’s invitation to us to become God’s own particular people, but also to maybe be a little weird as we do it, a little countercultural, to go against the grain.
Today we’re talking about choosing Justice over Fairness.
Most of us grew up with the teaching that fairness is a virtue: you should cut the pie into identical slices for each person having dessert; you should wait your turn in line instead of cutting to the front; you should treat everyone equally.
In some ways fairness is a great ideal, and one we should keep teaching our children: “You’ve had that toy for ten minutes, now it’s your brother’s turn to have it for ten minutes.”
But fairness isn’t exactly a Gospel ideal.
Take a look at the image on the front of your bulletin.
There are three people standing outside a baseball field trying to see over a fence to watch the game. One is tall; one is of medium height; and one is short. Fairness – everyone getting the same thing, the same assistance to see over the fence, means that the tall person has a great view, the medium person has an obscured view, and the short person can’t see a darn thing. That’s because fairness, in the strict sense of the word, doesn’t acknowledge that people start from different places and so may need different things to get the same result.
Fairness, in this sense, is giving everyone the same thing regardless of need. Justice, on the other hand, is giving people what they need in a particular situation, regardless of whether it’s what everyone else has. (You may have also heard this referred to as Equality – everything the same – vs. Equity – each person has what they need.)
Obviously baseball did not exist in biblical times, but this concept of preferring justice over fairness certainly did. In fact, it’s at the heart of both the Torah and the Gospel. It’s why orphans, widows, and strangers – who didn’t have the family and kinship networks that others did to help them survive – are expressly named in the Hebrew Bible as deserving special treatment.
It’s why in Jesus’ ministry, the sick, the excluded, and the oppressed aren’t just included, they are given preference. It’s why Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard owner who pays all his workers the same wage regardless of whether they worked 8 hours or 1 hour, because all of them need the same amount of money to feed their families that night.
This sense of choosing justice over fairness pops up in today’s reading as well. Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee, enjoying a fancy meal with men of power and influence, when he gives them advice about what to do when they are invited to a similar banquet by one of their peers: Don’t take the best seats, he says, in case someone more important than you shows up and you’re humiliated in front of everybody when the host asks you to move. Instead, take the worst seats in the house – assume you are no better than anyone else – and free up the best spots for those you might assume aren’t worth it.
Jesus is asking his dining companions – and us – to become aware of the power, security, and privilege we already have and to intentionally give up our seats to make room for those who have traditionally been shut out or shut up – recognizing that they might benefit from that best seat a lot more than we do.
I wanted to talk about this because we all sometimes get tripped up when it comes to various “isms” – systemic ways that people are silenced or shut out based on some core aspect of who they are. Things like racism, sexism or ableism.
When we get called out about the ways we benefit from such oppressive systems, a common response is to cry “reverse discrimination.” The idea is that we all want to make things fairer for those who have experienced injustice – women who have been sidelined from public life or who make less money than their male counterparts; or people of color who are battling the deep-rooted effects of genocide, enslavement, or bigotry; or people with a disability who could actively participate if society wasn’t set up to keep them out.
But we also all get uncomfortable when making it fairer for someone else starts to feel less fair to ourselves – if we have to spend money, or step down to let someone else lead, or open up a program to more people and increasing the chance we might not get in. So we call the process of having to give up a little of the privilege that we have – as white people, as men, as straight people, as cisgender people, as citizens – reverse discrimination. It’s a way of saying “I want you to be included, but not if it means I have to change or give something up.”
I grew up going to church camp every summer, and I vividly remember one breakfast where we all showed up at the dining table, hungry kids, and were assigned to our tables not by cabin but by continent. And the breakfast at each table was the average of what someone on that continent would get, calorie-wise, for breakfast. I was at the South American table, and my breakfast was two French toast sticks. I was still hungry after that breakfast! But not far away was the North American table, and they had eggs, and bacon, and fresh fruit, and donuts – something we normally didn’t have available – and juice. And we all watched the lucky kids at the North American table enjoying this delicious feast.
I was really disappointed in my meager breakfast – but I can only imagine how the people sitting at the US table would have felt if they had suddenly had to share all their food with everyone else, leaving them with a lot less (although still enough).
Reverse discrimination is a very powerful feeling and it’s one that needs to be acknowledged. If you are just one person who has never personally owned a slave or killed a Native American or said a slur or built a wall or underpaid a woman or bullied someone with a disability or legislated against gay or trans folks – it can feel really unfair to be saddled with an impingement on your own rights or your own comfort because you’re part of a system of oppression that you never wanted to exist in the first place. It often feels like an unjust sacrifice to have to adjust your own life to accommodate someone else getting justice.
But friends, here’s the uncomfortable truth. The Gospel is not fair. Jesus is not fair. What they are, though, is equitable. What they are is just.
Jesus specifically states that he did not come for those who are well – those who are already well on the road to the kindom of heaven because they follow the law. Those folks had the benefit of a caste system that let them pursue years of religious education instead of having to learn a trade. They had the support of a family culture to reinforce their observance of the law, and they had the wealth it took to make the appropriate sacrifices and pilgrimages as dictated by first century Judaism.
No, Jesus didn’t come for them – he came for those who struggled, who were waylaid by cultural norms that said they were unclean and social structures that stripped them of voice and power and opportunity.
Jesus didn’t come for the tall person in our illustration, or even really for the average height person who can still see over the fence without a box. Jesus came for the shortest person.
That doesn’t feel very good, does it? In all the ways I am privileged – in all the ways I am the mighty, the powerful, the wealthy in this country and in this world – Jesus did not come for me. It is a stark and unsettling truth to confront. It does not feel great to be sitting near the front of the banquet – to be sitting at the dining hall table stacked full of donuts and eggs and bacon and fresh fruit – and be told you need to move down the table, you need to move to the table that only has one French toast stick for breakfast so others can have a turn. It feels like something is being taken away from us.
I think this is why Jesus advises us to sit far down the table to begin with. To assume that some people – indeed, many people – are going to need more boxes than we are because of the accident of our birth or even the buffer of what we have worked our whole lives to build. It is easier to stomach justice and equity when we know, coming in, that in some ways we have far more than others whom society values less than us, and that helping our sibling get fed is likely going to involve ceding our place at the table – moving down to the other end of the banquet hall.
Now, I admit, this is not the most feel-good line of reasoning. If you’ve ever heard two kids arguing about who gets to sit in the front seat or pick the music for the car ride, you know that saying “Well, you are 3 years older and have gotten your pick for much longer than your sister, so for the rest of the year it’s her turn” doesn’t really make for the most persuasive argument. It may be logical, and it may be equitable, but it doesn’t really get to how we feel about it. It doesn’t speak to our hearts.
That’s where Paul comes in. He wrote to the church at Corinth where they were having a dispute about whether it was okay to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Some church members had been so accustomed to eating the meat from pagan ritual that, even though they had converted to the Christian way, they couldn’t get the association with idolatry out of their heads and they just felt wrong partaking. Other church members had no trouble disassociating the meat from a ritual they didn’t believe in anyway and feasted merrily away at the ancient church potluck. If it didn’t bother them personally, why refrain?
Paul says that it’s our responsibility – even our privilege – as Christians to think about how our actions in our church community affect one another – that our decisions should be determined by the care we have for each other as siblings in Christ, not simply by our own preferences. Paul makes an eloquent, impassioned plea for putting each other’s tender, vulnerable places first:
“Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”
He voluntarily becomes completely vegetarian for no other reason than the building up of his siblings in Christ. Imagine that, bacon lovers!! As anyone knows who has chosen to eat vegetarian, this is a major adjustment, a big inconvenience in many ways. Yet there is joy in Paul’s words – a knowledge that it becomes easier to give something up, to cede your place, when you know and love the people for whom you are doing it and you respect the place from which they are coming.
You can see this same principle applied in decisions churches make like not using wine in communion so that those who struggle with alcoholism aren’t disturbed by the presence of alcohol, or using exclusively gluten-free bread (even though it often tastes awful) for communion so that those with gluten sensitivities can share the same bread as the whole body instead of having to eat a few measly squares set aside for them.
Hopefully you can tell by the fact that we here at Park Avenue do one of these communion practices, but not the other, that there are a lot of different, Christian ways to handle questions like this. The point isn’t to automatically cater to the people with the greatest need or the greatest injustice in a situation – the point is to put their point of view first in discussions about how to live our life together.
It is a difficult, but essential Christian practice to learn to recognize when we already have a great place at the table and to move down before we’re asked, making room for the voices that society has squelched or that circumstance has silenced, in order to hear from them first. Afterwards, we may indeed be asked to move back up the table; if so, great! But really, we shouldn’t expect it. All we should expect is that God will smile at our willful humbling of ourselves for the sake of the dignity of our neighbor and our care for the tender, embattled places in our neighbor’s heart. That’s a pretty substantial reward when you think about it.
You may have noticed that my sermons, the prayers we say, the hymns we sing, and the scripture we read all use gender-neutral language for God. In the two places we use “Father” in spoken worship – the Lord’s prayer and baptism – I add “Mother” language to balance out the male imagery.
This sometimes makes for awkward scripture reading – avoiding pronouns for God can sound like the needle is stuck on the record: “God didn’t send someone else to help Israel; God’s own self did it. Out of God’s love and compassion God redeemed God’s people.”
And it means that we use the Blue Hymnal, written at a time when male-only language for God was the norm, a lot less than we otherwise might, even though its hymns are beautiful and hold deep meaning for some of us.
Many of us – myself included – grew up with male-gendered language for God and, while acknowledging its problems at a larger level, don’t have a personal issue with it – our go-to image of God may even be male.
But we don’t use male language in worship because what we sing and say in worship is a public experience, and I never, ever want worship at PACC to be painful for people who experience male language for God not simply as one out of multiple equal options, but as a terrible reminder of a male abuser or of a faith tradition that hurt them. That may sound extreme, but I know many people for whom that is true; and I want us to choose to avoid causing them pain over any preference for favorite hymns or cherished pronouns.
I also know how hard my God-as-male upbringing made it for me to even consider feminine language or imagery for God, or to think of God as anything other than a man – even though female and non-gendered images of God are all over the Bible! It’s still a struggle in some ways, and that makes me sad. I want to avoid that uphill struggle for our children, and for people who are new to our community.
Our individual preferences for language about God are important and deserved to be acknowledged. But Paul reminds us that we’re not all on an even playing field – we aren’t all able to see over the ballpark fence – and if male language for God exacerbates a deep wound for one of us in a place that is supposed to be a healing fount of Jesus’ love, or if it tips the scales for impressionable minds about who God can be and whether they’re included in our image of God, then we should go without. We should give up our place at the table.
Whether we’re discussing language for God, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, any kind of xenophobia…privileging the voices of those who have been wounded, those who have been excluded, those who struggle more against something than we do – well, you’re right. That isn’t fair. It is the Gospel.