Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Guiding Light

Isaiah 58:1-12 Common English Bible (CEB)   

58 Shout loudly; don’t hold back;
    raise your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their crime,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 They seek me day after day,
    desiring knowledge of my ways
    like a nation that acted righteously,
    that didn’t abandon their God.
They ask me for righteous judgments,
    wanting to be close to God.
3 “Why do we fast and you don’t see;
    why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?”
Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want,
    and oppress all your workers.
4 You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast;
    you hit each other violently with your fists.
You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today
    if you want to make your voice heard on high.

5 Is this the kind of fast I choose,
    a day of self-affliction,
    of bending one’s head like a reed
    and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes?
    Is this what you call a fast,
        a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 Isn’t this the fast I choose:
    releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
    setting free the mistreated,
    and breaking every yoke?
7 Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
    and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
    covering the naked when you see them,
    and not hiding from your own family?
8 Then your light will break out like the dawn,
    and you will be healed quickly.
Your own righteousness will walk before you,
    and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and God will say, “I’m here.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the finger-pointing, the wicked speech;
10     if you open your heart to the hungry,
    and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted,
    your light will shine in the darkness,
    and your gloom will be like the noon.
11 The Lord will guide you continually
    and provide for you, even in parched places.
    He will rescue your bones.
You will be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water that won’t run dry.
12 They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account;
    the foundations of generations past you will restore.
You will be called Mender of Broken Walls, a Restorer of Livable Streets.


I love this passage. It’s long, but every word is golden.  The people of Judah had complained to God that they weren’t being heard.  They were tearing their garments as in mourning.  They were putting ashes on their faces. They were praying more loudly. They were making more and larger sacrifices.  They were fasting!  And yet, for some strange reason, God wasn’t giving them what they wanted.  It was as if they thought that if they did these things, that they would sort of buy God’s goodwill and receive a reward for their outward show of religiosity.   And God said to Isaiah, “Tell my people that they are making the wrong sacrifices.  I don ’t need them to sacrifice bulls to me, when there are people starving in the streets.  I don’t need them to give up food for a day or a week when there are children dying of hunger.  I don’t need you to put more gold in the Temple treasury when there are families who can’t pay their rent.  I don’t need you to tell me how good and obedient you are to My will, when you oppress your workers.  I don’t need you to bow down in humility, when you fight among yourselves to prove who is most powerful.  Why do you ask me what I want from you when I have told you over and over and over again?  Did I ask you to do any of these things?  No.  This was all your idea.  What I asked you to do is justice.  What I asked you to do is take care of the hungry, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan, the stranger from another land who has come to live among you. I asked you to speak kindly to one another, with compassion and mercy.  When you are doing all those things, then you will be like a watered garden.  When you are doing these things, then all good things will come to you, and your name will live on forever.”  

Well, we know what happened to Judah.  They did not do what God said.  And they were defeated.  The Temple of which they were so proud was torn down, it’s gold and treasures taken off to Babylon.  The people were enslaved.  The rich and powerful were taken away in chains.  

You would think it would be easy, doing justice the way God asks.  I mean, how hard can it be to make sure all the hungry are fed, and all the homeless are housed, and all the mentally ill are cared for, and all the elderly widows and orphans have a safe place to live, and all the immigrants are treated fairly?  

I know.  That’s a trick question.   It’s not easy at all.  The Temple was supposed to receive 10% of everything every person earned.  And with that 10% they were supposed to feed the hungry, care for the widows and orphans, pay the priests and temple workers, do all the upkeep for the temple - buy the lamp oil, keep a stock of incense, buy the wood to burn sacrifices, and so on.  They depended upon over and above gifts to do other necessary things - roof repair or whatever.  (Does any of this sound familiar?)   It simply wasn’t possible, given the ever increasing population, to care for everyone and do everything else God required with just the 10% that (hopefully) came in from every person.

Nor did the law say in any way shape or form that only the Temple was supposed to help the helpless.  This was the responsibility of every individual.  Some, then as now, didn’t see it as their problem.  Some, then as now, thought the Temple should do all of that sort of care.   Some, then as now, thought only those who deserved help should get it.  The leaders of the nation were constantly being called out by the prophets for their lack of care for those who most needed their help.  And, then as now, the leaders very often ignored the words of the prophets.  In the case of Israel, that always led to a bad end.

Today, given the current political climate and the news stories that are pinging my phone every hour or so, many of my friends and colleagues are going to be preaching strong sermons about exactly what justice is today.  They are going to be telling their people, plus everyone who reads or listens to or or watches their sermons on the Interwebz, exactly what everyone needs to do to make sure that justice - God’s justice- is served.   They will speak of demonstrations that can be joined and political actions that can be taken.  They will speak strong, harsh words and give very specific direction about what everyone needs to do next.

And while I personally have opinions about what is right and just, I also know something that we really hate to say out loud.  Justice is hard.  Deciding what is just is hard.  There is no black and white, right and wrong, one way or another, my way or the highway with social justice.  I wish there was, but there isn’t.

For example.  I am kind of Green.  When I lived in Southern California I went to Sacramento once a year to lobby for clean energy bills and against those that would add more pollutants to the air.  If if was up to me, the Parsonage would have a nice yard of river rocks or maybe be xeriscaped, so that we didn’t have to waste water keeping the grass alive.  But . . . if we do that, what will Arthur do?  Who’s Arthur?  He’s the lawn guy.  He has a family to feed and rent to pay. If we took out the lawn, we wouldn’t need him.  So, is justice saving water or saving his job?  I will choose saving Arthur’s job every time.  

When I lived in Pennsylvania back in the day it was a no-brainer to boycott California grapes.  I was all for the Farm Workers Union.  I even sent a copy of Cesar Chavez’ biography to my brother for a Christmas gift one year.  He was not pleased.  You see, my brother was a produce broker in Texas.  I thought I was doing the just thing. (Well, except for the book.  That was just me tormenting my big brother.) Then I came here, and heard another side of the story.  And I have to wonder if I did the just thing, after all.

Some of you know that I don’t shop at Walmart.  It was not easy to make that decision, but until the way Walmart employees are treated changes dramatically, I will continue to boycott.  No - you don’t have to.  Because here is the thing.  Although they have a bad reputation for employee care, and although every time they come into a town all the small businesses that can’t compete eventually close, Walmart does a lot of good stuff in the community.  They give employment opportunities to the mentally challenged and elderly.  They give scholarships and school supplies to local kids and they make large donations to a growing number of charitable organizations.  Opposing the way they oppress is justice.  Supporting the good they do is also justice.  So, your choice.  And quite frankly, it would save me a lot of time and gasoline if I would shop there instead of Target, and I’m kind of Green, so there’s another justice issue I get to deal with.

Justice is hard.  Deciding what is just is hard.  Doing the just thing is often even harder.  And yet, this is what our Lord requires of us.  To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God.  To feed the hungry, to lift the yoke of oppression from the workers and the strangers in our land, to bring the homeless poor into our shelters, to cover the naked with clothing.  

And now, like so many of my colleagues and friends, I will give you all very specific directions about what to do next.  

Pray.  Pray for discernment, so that you can say to yourself and to God that you have made a decision about what it means to act justly.  And then, go, out to where the restless, hungry, homeless, oppressed crowds are thronging, and do what is just, following God’s guiding light, which is Jesus, the Christ.  

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