Great Spiritual Migrationby Rev. Dale Azevedo, Sr. Minister          –          April 1, 2017

I had a wonderful time a few weekends ago at Super Saturday, a major church leadership workshop hosted by the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut Conferences of the United Church of Christ. We had over 750 people registered with the opportunity to attend nearly 60 different workshops throughout the day. I had the pleasure of attending an informal discussion with Brian McLaren in the morning, who was the key note speaker and is a renowned thinker in the progressive Christian movement. Although Brian spent most of his time with us discussing the revitalization of the progressive church (check out his latest book, The Great Spiritual Migration), he veered off at one point to highlight the distinction between direct service and social justice. I had never heard this distinction made so clearly and was quite struck by this revelation.

Direct service is defined as reaching out to meet the needs of those around you; giving food to the hungry, donating clothes to a thrift store, operating a food pantry or soup kitchen, even buying lunch for the homeless. Social justice, on the other hand, approaches these same issues but from a different angle. Instead of just offering services to the poor, social justice advocates seek to address the systems that lead to the situations in the first place. The distinction is made clear in the oft-quoted proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a life time.” In many Dorothy Dayinstances, direct services addresses the symptoms of an issue, while social justice attempts to address its underlying causes.

Churches have long been good at direct service. We are not so good with social justice. That’s because making this migration from direct service to social justice is messy. It ruffles feathers. When you start asking questions about and trying to change underlying systems, those who are comfortable in the status quo feel threatened. They push back. They may even get angry. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, expressed it this way, “If you feed the poor, you’re a saint. If you ask why they’re poor, you’re a Communist.” Unfortunately for those of us who like to be comfortable, Jesus was a feather-ruffler. In fact, Jesus ruffled enough feathers that both his religious leaders and the Roman government wanted him dead.

Have you read our mission statement where it declares our purpose is to “…work for justice and peace…”? Or the banner hanging in the sanctuary that says, “Reject racism. Fight for the powerless.”?  These things can only be accomplished by making the migration from direct service to social justice, by wrestling with the deeper issues in our society and culture, by picking at the problems beneath the surface and ruffling feathers, and yes, by engaging in political discourse.

Since I published my blog post on February 1st discussing politics and religion, Brendan and I have received some pushback for bringing politics into the church. And believe me, I get it. I don’t like politics and I don’t like it upsetting my church (or my life for that matter). I, like many of you, want to be comfortable, in life and in church. But I often struggle to “give thanks” for my personal comfort when I am increasingly aware of those around me who don’t experience my sense of comfort. I read a quote earlier this year that said, “Democracy is working when the common people don’t have to worry about it.” That quote struck me because for most of my life I haven’t had to worry about our democracy. According to this quote, it must have been working (at least for me!). But in the past years I have begun worrying more and more about our democracy. I feel that some of our basic freedoms are at risk, especially for others. And if other people’s freedoms are threatened, then mine can be too.

Now let me bring this back to Jesus. If we see part of our mission in serving God as MLK-DD-MG“…work[ing] for justice and peace…” then we must do that. We must continue our good work of direct service, because people around us are suffering. But we also need to look at these issues from a social justice perspective. Because no matter how much we help people who are struggling, there will always be others who struggle unless we address the underlying causes. That is what Martin Luther King Jr, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, and countless other servants of God have done. And we can’t do that without getting a little bit uncomfortable. We can’t do it without allowing ourselves, and our church, to feel threatened. And that is hard. But perhaps that is what Jesus was referring to when he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

This migration from direct service to social justice is one of the many things that Brian contends the church needs to do going forward. It is all about becoming relevant again. For generations, the mainline church was a powerful part of our American experience. Unfortunately, in recent decades we have lost this status. In fact, for most in our culture, the modern church is irrelevant. We stand for nothing, and make little positive difference in the world. So, in order for us to survive and, more importantly, to serve our purpose, we must become relevant again and this shift in focus is one way of doing that.