Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon: "Whose Lives Matter?" (Isaiah 5:1-7)

We start today with chapter one, verse one.
The book of Isaiah begins with these words: “The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.”
Notice how this first verse mentions the kings who reigned while Isaiah prophesied?
This first verse clearly sets Isaiah’s work in a political context. The connection between Isaiah’s message and the rule of the kings is clear. Imagine if Isaiah were alive and writing this today, and began by saying “The vision of Isaiah which he saw in the days of Clinton, Bush, and Obama.” For Isaiah, it’s clear that religion and politics DO mix.
So, in 60 seconds or less, what do we know about these kings of Judah: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah?
Well, Uzziah built up the economy and the military strength of Judah. Everything was great, especially for the wealthy and the powerful – you know, the people who matter. However, all this greatness went to Uzziah’s head. As the 26th chapter of 2nd Chronicles notes, “When he had become strong, he grew proud, to his destruction.”
Eventually Uzziah contracted leprosy and so the kingship was taken over by his son Jotham, who continued his father’s policies. In the meantime, the neighboring nation of Assyria was growing in power, and becoming a threat.
After Jotham came Ahaz. By this time Assyria was gaining control over parts of Judah, and other nations also began posing threats. Ahaz saw Assyria as the lesser of these evils, and made an alliance with Assyria for protection against those other nations.
And finally, Hezekiah. Hezekiah saw Assyria as a danger to Judah, so he made an alliance with Egypt for protection against Assyria. When the king of Assyria – Sennacharib – did invade Judah, even Egypt was unable to stop Assyria, and Assyria gained control over all of Judah.
Isaiah looked at these shifting alliances and believed that the problem was that the kings of Judah had put their trust in human institutions and human rulers, rather than in God. They made alliances with other nations, instead of making an alliance with God.
Proof of this misplaced trust could be seen in how the kings of Judah had ignored God’s instructions to care for the poor and downtrodden. They had neglected to care for them as God had instructed. In their arrogance, they had worked to protect the wealth of the wealthy; they had worked to protect the power of the powerful; but they had ignored the needs of poor and the oppressed.
And when you do that, everyone loses.
Which is exactly what happened when Assyria invaded and took control.
Isaiah had something to say about that. He said that Assyria was a tool that God was using to renovate the house of Judah. Any big renovation begins with a demolition phase, and that’s what the invasion of Assyria was accomplishing. Everything old and bad needed to be got rid of, so that the new house could be built.
“Therefore… God stretched out his hand against [Judah] and struck them… He will raise a signal for a nation far away… Their arrows are sharp, their bows are bent” [5:25]. Assyria was on its way.
Or, to change the analogy: the vineyard that was supposed to produce delicious grapes good for eating or winemaking instead produced nothing good or edible. The only thing to do, then, is to tear it down and start over.
And here’s why:
God expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
God expected righteousness, but heard cries of injustice, cries of despair, cries of suffering at the hands of others.
And those cries always find their way into God’s ears and into God’s heart. God heard the cries of the Hebrews enslaved to Pharaoh years before, and now God heard the cries of the poor and the oppressed in Judah.
Regarding the arrogance of Judah, Isaiah says in chapter 2: “The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted.”
You know this is important to Isaiah, because he repeats it, almost word-for-word, just a few verses later:
“The haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.”
And all because of what Isaiah describes in chapter 5: the kings and the people have ignored justice. They have not done what is right. They’ve indulged themselves in parties, drinking from morning to night, while many live in poverty. They have not protected the vulnerable. The wealthy and powerful have taken pride in their wealth and their power, while neglecting the growing poverty and helplessness of so many.
They even boast in this. Isaiah 3: “The look on their faces bears witness against them. They do not hide it. They even tell the innocent how fortunate they are.”
Imagine, a wealthy person telling poor people how fortunate they are, or a free person telling slaves how fortunate they are… Ridiculous, right?
Strangely enough, a few weeks ago Michelle Obama gave a speech in which she mentioned how she wakes up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.
Which led Bill O’Reilly to argue that those slaves were “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government…” so what’s the big deal?
And that is exactly the kind of privileged, arrogant, racist language that Isaiah so sharply condemns. “They bear witness against themselves when they tell the innocent how fortunate they are.”
We NEED Isaiah’s voice today. We need to hear his words, and listen to his message. Because what’s happening today isn’t so different than what was happening 2700 years ago when he wrote those words.
Today, just like 2700 years ago, there are those who – as Disciples pastor William Barber put it – “say so much about what God says so little, and who say so little about what God says so much.” In other words, there are so many who are silent about things like injustice and inequality and poverty, even though the Bible shows that these are PRIMARY concerns of God; meanwhile, they talk on and on about things that the Bible really says very little on.
William Barber has read Isaiah. You’ve heard of William Barber, right? If you haven’t, go home and google him. Read his speeches. Watch them on youtube. Or call Chalice press and order one of his books.
William Barber has read Isaiah. And Isaiah calls upon us to “pay people what they deserve; share food with the hungry...” and let their cry be heard.
Jesus quoted Isaiah. And Christians have seen Isaiah’s words as foreshadowing Jesus’s ministry. There is a strong connection between the message of Isaiah and the message of Jesus; and the message of Jesus is good news to the poor, the captives, the oppressed, and all those who are made to feel unaccepted.
Basically, what Jesus and Isaiah are saying to the world is, Poor Lives Matter. Broken Lives Matter. Bruised Lives Matter. Oppressed Lives Matter.
They say this, because these are the lives that are being ignored. These are the hearts that are crying out to God.
Meanwhile, those in a position of privilege turn their back on this message. “Why do you say, ‘Poor Lives Matter?’ Why do you say ‘Oppressed Lives Matter?’ ALL lives matter. You shouldn’t single anybody out.”
And yet, they have already been singled out. They have been singled out by a society that refuses to grant them equal rights, equal opportunity, equal freedom.
Isaiah didn’t say, “rescue everyone; defend everyone; plead for everyone.”
Isaiah said, “rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” He specifically mentioned those who suffered from the injustices of his society. Society tried to ignore their cries, but Isaiah wouldn’t allow their cries to be silenced.
Today, in Sparta, Georgia – 100 miles from Atlanta – police are being dispatched to the homes of the town’s 180 black residents, to issue a court summons. They are being summoned to court, to prove their residence. If they fail to show up, they lose the right to vote.
None of the town’s white residents have received a summons.
Meanwhile, we are 2½ months away from the first presidential election since the Supreme Court removed the racial protection clause of the voting rights act. The court removed those racial protections, saying that they were no longer necessary since racism doesn’t exist anymore. Yet the removal of those protections is exactly what has allowed actions like those happening in Sparta to take place. Racism clearly does exist. And the people are crying out.
But there is another court, a court even higher than the Supreme Court. And in that courtroom, according to Isaiah, “the Lord rises to argue his case.” In that courtroom, the cry of the people is heard. In that courtroom, the Lord declares: “You elders and princes and people, it is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? [3:14-15].
The Lord presents his case to the people. “Go ahead,” God says; “judge between me and my vineyard. What more could I have done?”
Even to those who are guilty, the verdict against them is clear.
In the first chapter of Isaiah, God says: “I don’t care about your worship services, your sacrifices, or your proclamations. In fact, if you come before me but have not sought justice, have not defended the poor, the weak, or the oppressed, then it is all offensive to me. I hate it all. I despise it. Instead, learn to do good. Seek justice. Rescue the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow.”
This theme continues all the way to Isaiah 58, where God calls upon the people to “loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free; to share bread with the hungry, to house the homeless poor, to cover those who are naked.”
Do this, God says, and “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly. You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
That is our calling. And that is why we declare that Black Lives Matter, and Brown Lives Matter. That is why we declare that Queer Lives Matter. That is why we declare that Poor Lives Matter. That is why we declare that Immigrant Lives and Refugee Lives Matter.
Because God hears the cries of the oppressed, and pays particular attention to those cries.
Because Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor and the oppressed.
Because we are called to heal the brokenness of the world, and allow God to work through us in bringing about a kingdom of healing and wholeness.

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