Sermon: July 3, 2011
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The Isaiah reading begins this way: The Lord rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the people. The situation is clear: it is a heavenly law court. God is both prosecuting attorney – to argue his case – and judicial magistrate – God stands to judge the peoples.
Israelis on trial for its failure to live up to its covenant obligations – its failure to carry out the laws God gave it, as a condition for living in the Promised Land. I want us to listen to these 3 verses very carefully.
Verse 13 presents God as both prosecuting attorney and judge. The first part of verse 14 tells us who the specific defendant is: The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people.
The religious, political, and economic leaders are on trial. King, military commanders, priests and Levites, newly-emerging upper economic class: the elders and princes stand for all the leadership in Israelat that time. They are all on trial.
The second-half of verse 14 contains the charge: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses:
The property and valuables of the poor are in the houses of the religious, political, and economic leaders. They have devoured the means of production and livelihood in ancient Israel.
Verse 15 is the evidence. It is grim, gruesome, and graphic. God testifies against the elders and princes: What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?
In normal times, grapes are crushed in the vineyard after workers put them in huge, stone vats and stomp out the valuable juice for wine. But now, says God, the leaders have crushed out the life-force of the people, trampling over them for gain.
In normal times, workers grind corn and grain on a millstone, and the resulting residue falls into bushel baskets as valuable flour.
But now, says God, the leaders have ground the face of the poor until there is nothing left. The residue is for the rich. Workers and the poor are commodities for the wealthy and the political elite.
These are powerful, painful, vividly violent images, filled with sadistic and gruesome occurrences; but they show what the rich are doing to the poor in ancient Israel.
The prophet’s words are not just indictments of individuals (except as they, by direct implication, call out the king). They are also an indictment of leadership, of the way things are, the ordering and structuring of society, the politics of ancient Israel.
The indictment of these same people is found in the reading from Amos; but there is an added element, expressed in 2 phrases:
“They hate the one who reproves in the gate.” “You who push aside the needy in the gate.”
In ancient Israel, the gate leading into the city was where court was held. People would bring their complaints against other people to the gate of the city, and there a well-respected elder would hear the case and decide it.
Where someone was found guilty of an action, the guilty party was reproved: rebuked, made to stop his action, told what he had to do to make reparation – all based on Israel’s law.
But rich people and rulers didn’t like to be reproved for what they had done. They hated the ones who reproved in the gate. And sometimes, they were able to fix the judicial system in their own favor by buying decisions from the elder who was judging the case.
Of course, the poor and needy didn’t have that recourse. So they were pushed aside in the gate.
Do you see what the prophets are talking about? This is not just individual, personal morality – it is also politics and political policy. The prophets are condemning a political system, and political leaders, who cater to the richand powerful:
Who devour and crush the poor, and grind them into dust;
Who make money from limiting the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Homestead Act, so they can give money to their rich backers;
Who take away vineyards and fields, senior health care programs and economic safety nets so their princes and corporate sponsors may prosper;
Who pay so that injustice in the gate becomes violent.
It is a gruesome image the prophets present – life distorted and deformed by greed and overweening self-concern.
For anyone with empathy and compassion, it could be overwhelming – were it not for the young man who walked into a synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah which was given to him, and read:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant. Everyone was staring at him. There were no shuffling feet, no coughing and whispering and rustling in the pews. No antsy children waiting for Sunday School, and no car noise from outside the windows.
Attention was focused on him. He said: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
The poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed – all who are held back or held down, held up or held under, by circumstances or by other people, are liberated from whatever limits them. They will experience freedom and fullness, release and good news.
They will know God’s love and grace – enacted in the structures and politics that formerly held them captive.
A few weeks ago, there was a religious vigil in Madisonat the Capitol. At one point, people were invited to go inside and stand in solidarity with those committing civil disobedience against parts of the state budget that would hurt immigrants and poor people.
I was standing in the crowd as it started to move up the steps toward the Capitol doors. An elderly woman, who had been sitting nearby on the cement wall along the walkway, got up with help and started walking slowly up the steps toward the Capitol.
I overheard the discussion in her group of friends about whether they should go inside; and when one of them asked her why she was going, she said simply: Because God is in there, standing with the protesters.
God sent Jesus to preach Good News to the poor.
If you were to ask me when I could see God’s action in human political life most clearly, I might point to times of freedom for those whose were held in some sort of captivity.
The events at the end of the last century in the Union of South Africa. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Actions of Martin Luther King that brought civil rights and real, tangible hope were other times. The Iowa Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriages, and the vote in NY this year to the same effect, may also be seen in the context of God’s guiding hand.
God sent Jesus to proclaim release to the captives.
Several years ago, we went with another couple who are good friends to Old WorldWisconsin. We looked at cabins and displays showing the way people lived 150 and 200 years ago in this state.
As we were leaving the last display, Joan and Inne were walking in front and Deeand I in back. Joan and Inne were saying how they would not have wanted to live in those times – with the uncleanliness and filth, farm animals living all winter inside the homes, and other issues.
Dee and I looked at each other. One of those in front of us had had cancer surgery and chemo, the other had had brain surgery. We said to them: Of course you wouldn’t live in that time; because if you did, you’d both be dead.
God sent Jesus to bring recovery of sight to the blind: to heal all our brokenness, and restore all the goodness and wholeness of God’s creation.
Undocumented immigrants who cross into the U.S by going from northern Mexicointo Arizonacan face sweltering heat in the Arizonadesert. Some have died doing just that.
Now there are churches who put out large containers of water for immigrants to find, and who drive through the desert looking for people who need help.
God sent Jesus to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
God’s concern for our individual morality is obvious. But the Bible contains much more than that. Jesus told the Sermon on the Mount in a country that was occupied by the Romans.
When he said, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, part of the meaning people would have heard is that they were supposed to love their Roman oppressors.
I remember that every time I think of 9-11, or see a story about the memorial being built at Ground Zero.
The coming of Jesus into our world is a gift of God – it is God active in the midst of our individual lives, and in the midst of our nation and our world. Christ’s teachings, and his grace, have a bearing on any nations’ politics.
Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. One part of abundant life is a political system that cares for workers and the poor; that emphasizes children, whom Jesus welcomed so strongly; that is open to immigrants, and people who are different; that looks for ways to better our world by working from the bottom up.
On this 4th of July weekend, it would be good for each of us to look at our country in that light. What is our country doing well now, and what are we doing poorly?
Where is God already working to bring peace, to lift up the poor, to release the captives, to provide healing, to bring the good news of God’s favor?
Where might we join Jesus in God’s work?
Elie Wiesel once said this: Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
God is active and at work in our world. Where can we follow Jesus into God’s life with humankind? Amen.