Sermon: the Long Arc Toward Justice

Faces of Faith Series
July 15th, 2018

Daughters of Zelophehad: Numbers 27:1-11
The Parable of the Persistent Widow: Luke 18:1-8

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The story of Zelophehad’s daughters is one we don’t hear often, so take a moment and picture it.  Can you see it? The assembled thousands of Israelites, there on the banks of the Jordan River? After 40 years of wandering, they’re finally standing on the border of the promised land, about to cross over!

But before they go in, they’ve gotta get a few things straight…like who gets what land where. So as we arrive on the scene, Moses has just divvyed out the land they’re about to inherit, based on what he’s been told by God. Every one of the twelve tribes receives a certain amount of land, which may not be bought or sold, only inherited. And everything seemed to be going fine…until out of nowhere, these five women—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, Tirzah—appear in front of the whole congregation.

The Daughters of Zelophehad aced their high school theater’s production of ANY GREEK TRAGEDY YOU CARE TO NAME. (illustration from the 1908 Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons. Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Actually…let’s acknowledge that these women did not just appear from nowhere. Five sisters did not just wake up one day and think it sounded like a really good idea to get up in front of all their people and the highest of high priests and the prophet whose face shone so brightly from all the talks he’d had with God that he had to wear a veil and tell them that there had been a mistake.

These women had talked about this. And they had talked to other women about it. And some of those women had talked to men. And there had probably been letter-writing campaigns and sit-ins and protests, because this game of theological chicken that the daughters of Zelophehad dare to play is no one’s first resort. These women have done everything they could to make their voices heard, and no one in power was listening, and what they are doing in Numbers 27 is a last-ditch effort because they literally have nothing to lose, because their father is dead and daughters can’t inherit.

So Milcah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Mahlah, and Noah make their best argument before the whole congregation: don’t let our father’s name be lost.

Moses…decides he can’t speak to the issue. But he does go have a quiet word with God. And God says: “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying.” And God changes the law so that daughters can inherit!


I mean, they can only inherit if there are no sons. But still!

I mean, a little while later, some men notice a big old glaring loophole, which is that if the daughters decided to marry outside their tribe then the land is lost to the tribe forever, so Moses fixes that. But still! Daughters can inherit if there are no sons and they promise to marry someone inside their tribe!


I can’t help but notice that your rejoicing has become a little less enthusiastic.

Yeah. Ok. I get it. The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is remarkable and empowering…but it is also limited. The daughters are extremely careful to work within the strictures of an unjust culture in order to procure a limited amount of justice for themselves. Their argument isn’t, “Don’t let our names be forgotten”—it’s, “Don’t let our father’s be forgotten.”

Those women had never known slavery in Egypt, but nevertheless knew what it was to be under an oppressive power—patriarchy—that robbed them of agency and opportunity. But they had the audacity to believe, over and against assurance from the most trusted voices of authority in their lives, that that is not what God wanted for them. So they did what they could, where they were, with what they had. They won what they were able to win. It wasn’t perfect. But for that day, it was enough.

Perhaps that strategy is familiar to you—it’s been a common one throughout history. Jennifer M. [one of our fabulous congregants] wrote a beautiful reflection on one example of it in recent US history: the 1977 sit-in San Francisco Federal Building, a 25-day protest whose goal was to get the Carter administration to implement a law, Section 504, that helped protect the rights of people with disabilities. Not change a law, or make a law. Implement a law that had been in place for four years.

A poster made for the San Francisco sit-in by Ken Stein.

Two thoughts were running through my head as I learned more about this story:

The first was: Oh my gosh, how far we’ve come. Section 504 was a forerunner to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. I was five years old when President Bush signed it into law. I don’t remember what it was like for buildings not have handicap access ramps, or for there not to be a place for wheelchairs on the subway or train, when there wasn’t closed captioning or wheelchair-accessible bathrooms in public places. But my mother does. Many of you do. How much can change in a single generation!

The second thought that struck me was: how many times did this community have to lose before it won?

I’m not sure even it could keep track.

Judith Heumann, one of the leaders of the Disability Rights Movement, has a TED talk detailing what it was like to grow up in Brooklyn, unable to walk because of a childhood case of polio. She talks about how people would cross the street rather than walk in front of her parents’ house and risk catching what she had. About how a doctor suggested to her parents when she was two years old that they institutionalize her. About how the principal turned her away from her neighborhood school when she tried to enroll because it wasn’t accessible and how instead the state provided a tutor for her for 2.5 hours every week. About how she failed the medical portion of her teacher’s exam because she couldn’t walk.

All those little losses, before she even got into political advocacy and our legal system.

What gave her the strength?

What gives it to the persistent widow? How did she manage to keep coming back, day after day, expecting every time to meet with injustice, but still hoping?

What gave Milcah and Tirzah and Mahlah and Hoglah and Noah the strength to stand in front of the Israelite camp and tell them that there was more to God’s will than Moses had represented to them, that there, on the edge of the promised land, God longed for a justice that included them too?

What gave them the strength?


In 1853, an abolitionist minister named Theodore Parker preached what might be a piece of the answer:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
And while we can see only a little ways along the curve,
God sees the completion of its circuit.
Our Creator God knows
and works
and is
perfect Justice,
a Justice that is beyond our understanding
and yet also,
just a little bit,
within it.
And we perceive that perfect Justice
in the voices and the pleas of those who come,
like a persistent widow before an unjust judge,
and ask the powerful to see with their eyes…
and if the unjust are not willing to look,
that Justice is willing to pester the heck out of them
losing and losing
until finally
it wins.

We perceive that perfect Justice in Christ,
our God who became fully human
so that he could live and walk on the margins
and who heard and heeded the voices
that were so often ignored;
and who had mercy on the persistent
and who tells them and us over and over again
that their faith has saved them,
their faith that things could be different
and that God’s kingdom could come for them too;

We perceive that perfect Justice in Christ,
who was convicted by two unjust systems,
religious and political,
and who was put to death between two thieves;
who on the cross said
“It is finished”
because in that moment,
the moment that he died,
the arc of the universe was completed
and the circuit closed because in his dying,
in that final losing,
he won the victory for all and forever,
and broke the power of death.

I don’t get it either,
not fully,
because the arc of the universe is long
and my eye cannot calculate the curve,
but this I believe:
that God is perfect Justice and perfect Mercy;
that Christ died not to condemn but to redeem;
that the Spirit is among us and at work today,
and that even in the darkest times
when it seems like we are backsliding
and that the tenuous tendrils of peace and justice
that many have fought and sacrificed for
are being pinched off by the power-hungry and unjust,
God is at work.
God never slumbers or sleeps.

Martin Luther wrote: “The kingdom of God comes without our help.” And it does. The kingdom of God comes because it is God’s kingdom, and this is God’s world, and God has not abandoned it, but loves it so much that God the Son was willing to die for it.

Luther also wrote [and I paraphrase]: We pray, ‘thy kingdom come’ not because God needs the encouragement, but because we do. We pray so that it might come among us also.

What is it about today’s world that our children will look at in 50 years say, “Wow…how far we’ve come!”?

What is it about today’s world that persists against our apathy and injustice and keeps knocking on the doors of our heart, waiting for us to be annoyed enough that we’ll come before the whole world and say, “God wants something different”?

What do you need to get there? How can we give that to one another, for the sake of the perfect Justice that has saved us?

Because God is most certainly at work, and we pray that it is through our hands.

Oh God, your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

Section 504 protesters gathered at UN Plaza in San Francisco to protest government indifference and to insist that Section 504 regulations be signed.




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