June 21, 2020
In the church we talk about mercy ministry and justice ministry—acts of compassion and service for individuals—mercy—and efforts to change policies and systems in ways that benefit the needy and vulnerable in our society—justice. We volunteer with the emergency shelter and Family Promise and we support the Justice Matters homelessness research team. Ken Ratzlaf sings with the East Hill Singers (you can read about that later in the service) and we write letters against the death penalty and fight our local jail expansion.
It’s easy to think of mercy and justice as two separate, even competing, roles of the church. Some of you are more drawn to mercy ministry—you volunteer with service organizations in town and reach out to your neighbors and each other with food and flowers and cards and encouragement. Some of us gravitate more toward justice ministry—we push for full inclusion of LGBTQ people in our denomination, we show up for Justice Matters efforts (or even start working for Justice Matters), we share pertinent information on Facebook and support political candidates we believe will implement more just policies.
Sometimes there’s tension within churches around these mercy and justice ministries. Mercy people may wonder why more people aren’t showing up for LINK or making phone calls to check on people living alone. Justice people might question the priorities of those who aren’t signing their petitions and coming to their meetings. Or, as I see more of at Peace, mercy people feel guilty for the petitions they don’t sign and justice people feel guilty for not serving at LINK.
It is so interesting to me that the earliest church apparently struggled with this same tension. They are busy doing their mercy ministry—feeding the widows—when a group comes along and says, wait a minute, what about the justice? You Hebrews aren’t giving our Hellenist widows their fair share of food.
A little background is probably helpful here. At this point in history, following Jesus is still a movement within the Jewish faith. They are not trying to start Christianity, they are trying to be Jews who follow the Jewish Messiah named Jesus.
So, Hebrews and Hellenists are all Jews. Hebrews are Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine. That’s who Jesus was. That’s who the twelve apostles are and the women who announced the resurrection. The Hebrews are the power center of this new movement.
But along the way—maybe you remember Pentecost—some other Jews have heard about and decided to follow Jesus. These Hellenists are Greek-speaking Jews from other parts of the world. Many of them are descendants of people displaced by the Babylonian exile in the 6th Century BCE. Others had left the Jewish enclave of Palestine for their own reasons, living in other parts of the world and adopting more of the dominant Greco-Roman culture.
Many of these Hellenists, though—these dispersed Jews—made their way back to Jerusalem eventually. It’s a lot like how Mennonites leave the greater Newton area to live in far-flung communities with worldly people only to return in retirement and find a nice apartment at Showalter Villa.
Jerusalem was a gathering place for Jews—both Hebrew and Hellenist. But the Hebrews were in charge of the early Jesus movement and the Hellenist widows were not getting their fair share of food.
It is encouraging that when this injustice is brought to the apostles’ attention, they work quickly to address it. They appoint a group of seven people to oversee the food distribution and make sure everyone gets their fair share.
Looking at this story helps me to understand some important ways that mercy ministry and justice ministry are connected.
First, the church doesn’t take this step toward justice to live up to some abstract ideal of “doing justice.” They do it so that Hellenist widows have enough food to eat. The justice work has a concrete goal of relieving people’s suffering—they do justice because they love mercy.
This story also shows that if we don’t consider issues of justice alongside our service efforts, we can end up doing harm when we intend healing. I’ve been thinking about those poor Hellenist widows. When the Hebrew widows receive all the food, not only are the Hellenist widows still hungry, but now they also feel like they are not fully a part of their community. The church layers spiritual pain on top of physical distress.
There’s another connection there are glimmers of here, but mostly I’m thinking about from experience: serving others helps us realize and better understand the injustices in our world. When we hear the stories of the people we serve at LINK, of the guests at Family Promise, we quickly realize that the systems in our society don’t work as well for some people as they do for others.
And a final connection between justice and mercy that this story leads me to consider: doing justice can, in the long run, free up the church’s time and energy for other vital forms of mercy and service. The Justice Matters homelessness research team has encouraged our local leaders (who have agreed!) to participate in the Built for Zero movement—an alliance of over 80 cities and counties committed to ending homelessness—not to providing enough shelter beds, but to ending homelessness. Imagine if all of the energy that now goes into volunteering at the shelters could be freed up to do other types of outreach and service–not because we quit caring about people who do not have homes, but because everyone has a safe place to live!
While I believe it is important to recognize a distinction between mercy ministry and justice ministry—so we can appreciate and participate in both—I also believe that the two are connected in vital ways. And have been since the earliest days of the church.
So this conflict in the early church is relevant to us in a vague way of addressing our call to mercy and justice; and it also bumps right up against a major justice issue that we are talking about right now: the sin of racism.
I do want to be clear that this story is not about racism per se. The concept of race, as we understand it, didn’t exist in the first century.
(For those interested in the construction of race, I recommend the podcast “Seeing White” and episode 2 in particular. According to Ibram X. Kendi, a historian, Guggenheim Fellow, and author, race was invented in Portugal in the mid-1400’s by the biographer of Prince Henry the Navigator.) So this isn’t a story about racism, but it is about structural prejudice and discrimination within the church.
To understand what this story teaches about discrimination, you have to know something that I neglected to tell you earlier when we were talking about how the church leaders, who were Hebrews, addressed the complaints of the Hellenists. I reminded you that the leaders chose seven people to oversee the distribution of food—to make sure it was fair. But I didn’t remind you who those seven people were:
Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus.
These names are notable because they are all Greek names. It seems that the Hebrew leaders of the church, the people in power, addressed the injustice that was brought to their attention by welcoming Hellenists into new leadership roles in the church. It may seem from this brief story that the Hellenists are given a lesser role, that there is still a hierarchy at play, which may be true to a certain extent. But as we continue in Acts we will learn that Stephen does not stick to “waiting tables.” In his role as church leader he is soon preaching to crowds—and becomes the first martyr for the faith.
Those in church leadership do not just take steps to ensure that the food is distributed fairly, they work to more fairly distribute the power as well. If we truly want to address injustice, we have to pay attention to power. And those of us with power have to be willing to share power—which means we will have less and others will have more.
I imagine this was a scary move for the early church and I know it is a frightening prospect for many people today as we talk about dismantling systems that have upheld traditional power dynamics in this country for centuries.
I imagine it was a scary move for the early church. And I knowit was a vital move. If the Hebrew Jews had not fully included the Hellenist Jews, how would they ever have included the Gentiles? And if they hadn’t included the Gentiles, how would the movement have spread beyond Palestine? How many of us would be trying, today, to follow the way of Jesus in this world?
Because the early church worked—albeit imperfectly—toward justice within its movement, we gather today as followers of Jesus, committed to do justice and love mercy in this world. May we, as they were, be guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit in this work. Amen.