Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

What Is God’s Justice?

What Is God’s Justice?

January 18, 2009

Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday

UU Society of Sacramento

Hymns: “Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield,” “We Shall Overcome,” “We’ll Build a Land.”


Today’s reading comes from the New Testament’s Gospel According to Luke, Chapter 4. It is an account of Jesus reading aloud from the Hebrew Scriptures. So Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And he was handed the book of the Prophet Isaiah. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where this was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because he has anointed me To preach good news to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. Then he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”




Many who care about peace and justice are happy and hopeful about Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. This includes me. But perhaps we risk putting too many demands on one leader to turn things around, too many expectations for purity of principle. After all, politics involves compromise, and some spinning of the truth sometimes. Obama is eloquent, exciting and inspiring, but he is a politician, not a prophet. In the last primary election season the candidates who resembled prophets the most were Representative Dennis Kucinich on the left, and Representative Ron Paul on the right. How can you tell a prophetic politician? They are the ones about whom commentators will say, “They don’t have a chance to win a general election.” (Either I am too young to remember all the prophets who ran for President and lost, or my memory is too weak, but I’m sure some of you remember them.) While most politicians and public officials are not prophets, they do need prophets, and so do we. We need whistle blowers to speak up, activists to speak out, and community leaders to hold politicians’ proverbial feet to the fire. They need to feel enough public pressure so they will have no choice but to do the right thing and move us toward justice and equity. Martin Luther King Jr. brought national attention to the plight of African Americans and the poor. He led a movement to convince Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, as well as Congress, to make civil rights a reality. As a moral leader, King conveyed the anguish and hopes of millions of people. He called on the nation to embody our founding principles of equality, freedom, and fairness. And he spoke for God, as he understood God in the Scriptures and in the African American tradition which had formed him. In King’s view, personal salvation was not separate from salvation of the community—our personal fates, he said, are tied together “in an inescapable network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny.” King spoke as a prophet. The Greek origin of our word prophet means “one who speaks on behalf of another.” In both Hebrew and Arabic, the root word is the same: nabi. It means “one who is called.” How do we know if a prophet is really called by God? How can we tell which ones are the false prophets? For example, what conservative and fundamentalist religious leaders condemn as evil, I might praise as progress, and vice versa. How can we tell the ones who got the real divine message from those who misheard it, mangled it, or quit listening before God was done speaking? This is a question for which the Bible is our friend—not, however, by selecting single verses and spinning them to our own ends, the way a TV evangelist can do so well. Rather, we can look at the whole books of the Bible and the centuries they span. The editors and compilers of the Holy Scriptures chose to include some ancient books and leave out others. Jewish and Christian communities have kept those books at the heart of their worship for ages and ages. And the heart of the Holy Scriptures for me is the prophetic tradition. Even to those who not believe in God in any traditional sense, or even at all, the words of the prophets are an inheritance. They are to all of us as much an inheritance as any other ancient and enduring literature. The old prophets are not only a good measure for modern ethics, they are the ones who got the ball rolling. Historically speaking, according to scholar Lawrence Boadt, the Bible’s prophets brought a new, ethical dimension to Israel’s understanding of itself. No longer was the worship of God’s name enough: to be God’s favored people the nation had to be to practice righteousness. At Tuesday’s inauguration ceremony we will hear a prayer of invocation by the Reverend Rick Warren, a best-selling author and Evangelical pastor from Southern California. Barack Obama has received criticism by many political and religious progressives for this choice. To me, the problem with Warren lies in his choice of the parts of the Bible to emphasize, and those to minimize. He says: –It’s important for us to recognize that there can be multiple opinions among Bible-believing Christians when it comes to debatable issues such as the economy, social programs, Social Security, and the war in Iraq. But for those of us who accept the Bible as God’s Word and know that God has a unique, sovereign purpose for every life, I believe there are five issues that are non-negotiable. To me, they’re not even debatable because God’s Word is clear on these issues. — Warren’s five non-negotiable issues are abortion, stem-cell harvesting, cloning, euthanasia, and marriage for same-sex couples. This was reported by the Reverend Martin Marty, a Lutheran pastor and professor emeritus of American church history from the University of Chicago. Marty writes that Warren “chose these five [issues] about which the printed Bible displays only a few inches of text that can even be used as inferences to support them. [He chose them as] as ‘non-negotiable’ themes.” On the other social issues, those which do seem negotiable to him, Warren “shelves the multiple yards of printed biblical texts.” Let’s take some of the so-called debatable social issues. While I can agree with Pastor Warren that Social Security policy is debatable, the Prophet Zechariah proclaims that the members of a community have a responsibility to one another. God says: “Do true justice, show compassion and mercy to your brother, do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner or the poor; and do not plan evil against one another in your hearts (Zech 7:9-10).” God furthermore has sent the Prophet Isaiah to “set at liberty those who are oppressed; and proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” This passage refers to the release of indentured servants from their burdens, and the acceptable year of the Lord is the jubilee year, when families are forgiven their debts. With credit card companies and payday lenders charging interest rates that amount to modern-day usury, the ancient words of the prophets can remind us: financial exploitation of people is evil in any age. Another so-called negotiable issue for Warren is that of war. While the decision to enter any particular conflict should be up for debate, a nation mired in violence or always at the ready for war is a sinful one. The Prophet Isaiah declares God’s opposition to militarism: “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4).” This is nearly identical to a passage in the Bible’s book of the prophet Micah (Micah 4:3). Our opening hymn this morning, “Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield,” was given to us by the African American tradition. Its refrain comes from these two prophets: “I ain’t gonna study war no more!” Eight hundred years after Micah and Isaiah, it was a Jewish prophet named Jesus who preached: “Blessed are the peace makers, for they shall be called the children of God (Matt 5:9). How about the treatment of immigrants and refugees? It’s an issue of great controversy right now. In the book of Exodus God commands the Hebrews to welcome the foreigners in their midst: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex 23:9).” That sounds non-negotiable to me. In page upon page, the moral issues at the heart of the Scriptures have to do with how we treat one another, especially how a society treats the weak. The major prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures give warnings: Unless attitudes change, unless the nation alters its present course, doom awaits everyone. Amos tells Israel it has no reason to be so proud and confident. Instead of God fighting for the Hebrews against their enemies, God will turn on them. In a contemporary translation of Amos, God says: –Because of the three great sins of Israel—make that four—I’m not putting up with them any longer.
 They buy and sell upstanding people. 
 People for them are only things—ways of making money.
 They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes. 
 They’d sell their own grandmother ! 
They grind the penniless into the dirt, shove the luckless into the ditch. — It is because God has loved Israel, the prophets preach, that the nation and its people are held to a higher standard of behavior than other nations are. God’s favor brings with it God’s judgment. Perhaps this is a lesson for our own country. Often we praise the United States as blessed and exceptional, special among nations, a model for the world. Barack Obama himself has said that “in no other country on earth would [his journey] even be possible.” But if we are uniquely blessed, should we not be held to a higher standard as a nation? The prophets of the Bible did their preaching in times of peace, prosperity and freedom as well as times of war, dispossession and exile. The first prophetic wave took place before and during the rise of the powerful Assyrian empire. The Assyrians dismembered the Hebrew kingdoms of Judah and Israel. This wave of prophets included Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah of Jerusalem. They began writing in the 700s BC [or BCE, before the common era]. The next group of prophets wrote in the 600s and 500s BC, before, during and after the new empire of the Babylonians destroyed the holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Babylonians deported thousands of the leading families of Jerusalem in order to prevent further revolts in the city. Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Second Isaiah are among the prophets of this time of dispossession and exile. Ezekiel says that God has employed the Babylonians as instruments of punishment for the sins of Judah and Israel. The punishment theme is a common one for the prophets. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Lincoln wonders if God’s judgment against American slavery will cause the Civil War to continue “until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.” The Bible’s prophets attack the people for worshipping false gods and practicing temple prostitution. They warn that such betrayal is leading to ruin. In Jeremiah, God cries out to Jerusalem for its sins of idolatry: “How have I wronged you, that you turn against me? Did I not bring you out of bondage in Egypt? But you make idols with your own hands; you bow down before rocks and trees! … But where are your gods, which you made for yourself? Let them arise, if they can save you in your time of trouble (Jer 2:28).” I part company with Jeremiah on the issue of the free practice of religion, which is guaranteed in the U. S. Constitution. Yet it seems now our nation is suffering from having followed the high priests of high finance and worshiping the false gods of greed and wastefulness. Belligerent nationalism is another false god. When we bow down to it, we blind ourselves from the kind of patriotism that allows for a loving critique when we fall short of our nation’s founding principles. Martin Luther King challenged our modern idolatries of racism and militarism. Speaking against our war in Vietnam in 1967 at New York’s Riverside Church, King said: “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation.” King urged us to see where we’re headed, and choose the other way. The choice, he said, is either chaos or community. Amos warns Israel of the disaster on its way, but he worries that there won’t be much to save, even if Israel turns back now: just as a shepherd who rescues a sheep from the mouth of a lion may only come away with “two legs or a piece of an ear (Amos 3:12).” The prophets not only attack people who turn away from God toward pagan idols, they also accuse the pious of hypocrisy. Too much of their worship of God is empty because it ignores the needs of the world outside the Temple walls. Here, for example, is the scorn of God as told by Amos: “Take away from me the noise of your festal songs, I will not listen to the melody of your harps. Rather, let justice flow down like mighty waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing river (Amos 5:23-24).” For his book entitled The Message, Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson has translated the Bible into words that can sound to us in the clear and strong way the Scriptures sounded to the people who first heard and read them. See if Amos’ words remain relevant: –I can’t stand your religious meetings. 
 I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
 I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals.
 I’m sick of your … your public relations and image making.
 I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. 
 … Do you know what I want? 
 I want justice—oceans of it.
 I want fairness—rivers of it. 
 That’s what I want. That’s all I want (Amos 5:23-24). — Many of the ancient prophets had priestly training and religious occupations. By their social criticism, however, they lost the favors and protections of the establishment. But others were ordinary people who felt called to speak up. Amos explains himself: “I’m not a prophet! And I wasn’t trained to be a prophet. I am a shepherd, and I take care of fig trees. But the Lord told me to leave my herds and preach to the people of Israel.” Modern prophets can still be found among religious leaders, but in these times many of the brave challenges to complacency and the status quo come from people in other fields: poets, novelists, singers, investigative journalists, and local community activists. The late James Luther Adams was a Unitarian minister, activist and theologian of the last half of the 20th century. He says that all church members—all of us—have a role to play in reading the signs of the times, in speaking up, and in working for a better world. The liberal way of religion is not one of acting as if the world’s problems will take care of themselves if we merely indulge our private longings. We must live in and love the world, and strive toward an inclusive and fair human community. In recent years religious liberals and others have expanded this vision of community to include nature, and work for a sustainable environment in which all forms of life can flourish. Prophets warn of coming disaster if we do not change our ways. The role of prophet is that of cranky critic. This is an easy role, for many of us, and a familiar one. Yet prophets also hold out a bit of hope, for they must give us a reason to change. In Ezekiel, the nation is like a field full of dry bones, but the spirit of God will blow on those bones, bring them together, and give the nation new life. Isaiah of Jerusalem gives an image of the lion and the lamb lying together, in peace. Second Isaiah describes the people’s return to a time of celebration so joyful that the hills and the trees can’t resist breaking into song. Prophets cast a vision of a better life, a reason for moving forward. At its heart, the prophet’s message must be a message of love and care. We need—and we need to be—prophets in our own times: to honor our shared heritage, to accept all God’s children in their diversity and uniqueness, to defend the natural environment. We must love the world as it is, and the world we strive to bring into being. Let us endeavor to be such prophets. Let us speak and let us act always with love. Benediction Based on Isaiah 55 And now may you go out with joy and be led forth with peace. And as you go, may the mountains and the hills before you break forth into singing, and may all the trees of the field clap their hands. Amen.


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