I want to talk about prophets. Not the financial kind, though I will allude to that too, but the human kind. And I want to ask the question: for whose sake does a prophetic message matter? Hold onto your seats. We are going for a ride.
What does a prophet do? What makes a prophet? According to my study Bible, first and foremost a prophet is a messenger. A prophet brings a message from God to a specific person or group. Prophets make pronouncements about international and social affairs, and critique religious and social practices that do not honor God. Prophets also point to the consequences of unjust political social, economic and religious practices. The wisdom of the prophets then and now points to how these unjust practices lead to death. Let’s talk about Isaiah. Scholars divide the book of Isaiah into 3 sections: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Isaiah. 1st Isaiah reflects the time period before the Babylonian exile, 2nd Isaiah clearly reflects the Babylonian exile and 3rd Isaiah reflects the beginning of the restoration of the Judean community. It follows then this book contains materials dating from several centuries. The first section, chapters 1-39, is ascribed to Isaiah ben Amoz. It covers the period of time when the Assyrian empire was rising and threatening Israel. 2nd Isaiah covers the time when the Babylonians had control of Israel and exiled most of Israel’s leader. The 2nd section was written by an anonymous prophet, in the style of the original Isaiah. 2nd Isaiah covers chapters 40-55. 3rd Isaiah is the rest of the book, including the selection we heard this morning. It covers the period of the early part of the restoration of Jerusalem and was written by a variety of hands. It is important to note that the restoration of Israel had not been complete. 3rd Isaiah provides a word of comfort and words of warning. Kinda like a good Pastor.
So. What did Isaiah say to us this morning? Did you notice? Did you notice that Isaiah says “For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Israel’s sake I will not rest. The nations shall see your vindication. And all the kings your glory. You shall no more be termed forsaken and your land shall no more be termed desolate. But you shall be called my delight is in her. “
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent.” When I read that I was like whoa! Cause this is Martin Luther King weekend and I naively thought that we participated in social justice to help other people. Instead, Isaiah reminds us that we work for justice not to help other people, but to ensure our own survival. Really. We work for justice not only to help other people, but to ensure our own survival. Many people call me a social activist. Many would tell you that I understand what justice should look like. And yet. I keep seeing things dimly. Despite a 30 year history of working for some of the most important causes, I need to be reminded that this is not only for others, but also for my own salvation. Yes, my own salvation. Our own salvation. We have so many idols. We believe that we can make it on our own, through our own efforts. We rely of our own strength instead of relying on God. We believe we DESERVE everything we have as if people in Africa or Latin America don’t deserve clean drinking water, or access to aspirin, let alone 3 sets of clothes. Most of us have more clothes than many small 3rd world cities. Many of our pets have more toys than whole 3rd world countries. And we complain and worry instead of adjusting our life styles. Instead of being grateful that we were born here, we hoard our belongings and fear that others will take away some of what we have. We built higher fences, demonize people who try to come here and we talk about our way of life as if it were sacred. What does that way of life look like? Some would say it looks like rape of the environment that is resulting in climate change, a dependence in oil that leads us to prop up dictators who have oil fields until those dictators are no longer useful to us, or threaten to go to other suitors. And then we call the ensuing wars national security. Rubbish. It’s all rubbish. Despite living lives of ease compared to much of the rest of the world, we complain. We complain when we have to wait for an elevator or a car appointment or the newest gadget to come out. We complain when we can’t find clothes that fit right or are in our favorite color, or God forbid our internet is slow. I complain about some of these. And I know that I am not alone. Notice I have been saying we???? My niece Whitney lived in Amman Jordan for 4 years. Whenever one of her ex-pat friends would complain about something, she would gently chide them for whining about first world problems. So. Here we are worshipping in a pre-school setting and not having easy access to the things we were used to having. It is hard, it is disconcerting and yet we have each other and a church bank account. What can we learn from this time of dislocation and uncertainty? There are people sleeping on grates. There are folks so lost to addiction or fear or mental illness or plain old stubbornness they have become totally isolated. It is true that everybody has a right to worship God as their conscious dictates. Our Muslim brothers and sisters finally have what this congregation had for over 50 years – a building to call home. It’s their turn. Let’s celebrate for them. And let’s be patient. Years ago I heard an acquaintance pray for those afflicted by privilege. American Christians have that affliction. It has come to bite us. We have put too much stock in our buildings and not enough in really deeply living a life of faith and trust and service. We have made idols of the way we do things and have not asked visitors how they would like to do things. We have invited them to join our club and have not asked them what they think the club should look like, or be like. And we wonder why the church is shrinking. Many religious people believe we are in the middle of another Reformation. I believe we need it. I don’t underestimate or shrug off that it is painful, but I believe we, the church in America, needs it. Our idols are getting in the way of our relationship with God. Our idols are preventing us from genuinely following Jesus. We became a club, not a faith based community and our salvation is at stake.
The same can be said of our country. We are mired in 2 wars that have been going for years without and real exit strategy. We have bombed Iraq back to the 6th century and left a vacuum for extremism to flourish like poison ivy. That war was based on lies and carried out in an attitude of hubris, of pride. And the consequences will last decades for us and the people of the Middle East. This is not the first time the US has meddled, disastrously, in the affairs of other countries. I cut my teeth on social activism by protesting the covert wars our country engaged in in Latin America. You know how we mark September 11th? The country of Chile marks that same day but for different reasons. September 11th was the day a military coup killed President Allende. This coup was financed and supported by US military advisors.
At home we are experiencing another paroxysm of racial polarization with brown and black bodies taking the brunt of it as usual. The state of Pennsylvania ranks 3rd for the worst funding of public schools. And yet. For the first time gay folks can get married, most everybody can get health insurance and the death penalty is on hold in most states anyhow. We are seeing the end of an 8 year term of the first African American President. Progress has been made in some fronts. But our work is not done. 3rd Isaiah was written at a time when Israel had just been through occupation and exile and was just starting to rebuild. Just starting. This church made the hard but necessary decision to try to be more faithful by selling this building that began to consume us. Like the people of Israel there are delays in rebuilding the Temple. And it won’t look the same. But the goal is to be faithful. Not prosperous. God doesn’t need our edifices. God needs our hearts. Now is not the time to quit, or too waste too much time whining about how uncomfortable we are. Others are far more uncomfortable. Now is the time to think of the ways we can be faithful, even here in the midst of this uncertain time and, and to think of ways we can be faithful in the new space. This is not a time to slack and complain. We have work to do. Our country needs us to look at that work and find ways to do some of it. Our faith dictates that we look for the broken, the imprisoned, the hungry, the homeless, the isolated and bring them the good news of Christ’s love for every last soul. Our country, our city, our brothers and sisters need us to find new ways to address the injustices that sap the life out of the least of us. It is only by doing that, It is only by truly following Jesus even and especially when it is uncomfortable will we know the difference God’s grace can make in our lives.
One last thought. It is my deeply held conviction that the purpose of the Gospel is to make room for something different to happen. We have to make the room though. And then do that something different. Our lives depent on it. All of our lives. So let’s work for justice, acknowledge our own privilege, reach out with humility to those that pay the price for our sins. And let’s stop whining. Let’s promise each other we will stop whining. We will deal with what comes our way being grateful for this community, the blessings we have had and the blessings yet to come. Our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters of every kind depend on it. Let’s make room for something different to happen. Let’s just do it…. Amen.