Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

(This sermon is entitled "Then Shall Light Break Forth". The text is Isaiah 58. 1-12)
They had come back from exile. Little handful of Jews. Bringing what few belongings they could carry. A few animals. Their children. Sometimes their grandchildren. For fifty years they had dreamed of this day. Homecoming. Seeing old relatives, friends they had been separated from for years and years. Just being home—touching the base once more. Feeling they were where they were supposed to be. It was wonderful.

But it wasn’t that easy. Those of us who have gone back know that. Some years ago I went back to my twenty-fifth high school reunion. I had looked forward to it for months and months. But when I got there some of the old feelings I thought I had forgotten returned. The Class President was still running for office. The person voted the person who had changed the least wore a toupee. Old feelings for people I didn’t particularly like returned when I saw them after all those years. And the worst of it all was that I had the feeling, the balding middle-age man, that I was eighteen again, with my saddle oxfords and blue wool Baker High School sweater, sitting in the tenth grade wondering who I was and what I would do. Going back has a double edge always.

Israel knew that. Back home many of their relatives had died—or grown apart. The years had taken their toll and widened the distance. Some of their children had intermarried in Babylon and did not return with them. And that was a grief. Looking around, most of the landmarks: the Temple, their homes—the communities had been destroyed. As far as they look in any direction—everything needed attention. Everything.

And when times are hard people get conservative. They think about their own interests. They adhere closely to the old rules. They long for structure, limits, regulations—guidelines and sometimes dictators. Back in Israel they fasted. They observed every temple regulation as Leviticus required. And they began to rebuild. Farms, homes, and religious institutions—even the Temple began to take shape again.

Isaiah 55-66 addresses this very difficult time. Darkness, like a depression, settled over them and all they did. In their disappointment and frustration they saw no end to all this work and rebuilding. Doesn’t it ever get any easier, they asked? We’ve asked it too; doesn’t it ever get any easier? And so Isaiah came, saying let me tell you what God demands. Not fasting. Not attending synagogue. Not even keeping the Torah. Let me tell you how the light will come. Let me tell you how the dawn will bread. Let me tell you what healing is all about. Let me tell you what real religion really is.

There is an old Hebrew tale where the rabbi asks his students: “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the days begins?” One of the students raised his hand, “When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?” The rabbi shook his head. “No.” Another raised his hand: “It is when one person can distinguish between a fig tree and a grape vine?” “No,” the rabbi said, "Tell us the answer,” another student said. And the old wise teacher said: “When you look into the face of human beings and you have enough light (in you) to recognize them as your brothers and sisters. Then you will know the light has come." Isaiah, then, gives his people and us three ways that we might better look into the faces of our brothers and sisters. And this is what God asks:


You recognize your brothers and sisters when you loose the hands of injustice. (58.6) And so he gives us this word, justice. It was first a legal term. They would keep the law given through Moses. This was their standard. They would obey what Yahweh had asked them to do. Justice was a rare word—then and now. It was not used often then or now. It was used interchangeably in the Bible with the word, righteousness.

It is also a judicial word. It meant fair. People are treated equitably. God was just—fair. He had a special regard for the poor, the weak, and this was the policy demanded of God’s people. But we know better. If there is one word that characterizes our tortured history in race relations it is injustice, inequity. We know that when you stand before the bar of justice—is that what we call it—those with the high-paying lawyers don’t serve as much time as those who have a public defender. Those with connections get their children off when they are arrested for drunk driving or possession of particular substances. We know that most of those on death row are from poor families—black or white. And not long before his death Martin Luther King began to see that is wasn’t a race problem as much as it was an economic problem. Tell me are there as many pot holes in the ritzy section of your town as you will find on the other side of the tracks? You know the answer. Inequity.

Do you know the book, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored? It was written by Clifton Taulbert. He grew up in a small town in Mississippi as a “colored child” (his words). He is now President of Freemount Corporation, which is a marketing and consulting firm. He is a best selling author and speaks all over the country. But in his book he tells about growing up in a tiny place called Glenn Alan, Mississippi. Life was hard. But his family worked hard. He started work in an icehouse when he was twelve years old. Moving around huge three-hundred-pound blocks of ice with his Uncle Cleve. It was difficult work, especially for a boy, but he was told if he worked hard, by the end of the summer. Before he went back to school Uncle Cleve would reward him with a trip to the circus in Jackson. So he worked and got ready and looked forward to the trip. He fantasized about the animals and the band and the beautiful women in sequined tights and acrobats on the high wires. He couldn’t wait. Finally the day arrived. Clifton got up early, put on his Sunday best, was ready at three o’clock in the morning when Uncle Cleve arrived. They wanted to be there by the opening at seven AM. It took a long time to drive that 150 miles from Glenn Alan to Jackson, but they finally got there. Clifton had never seen anything like Jackson, Mississippi. It was big and bustling with tall buildings and people everywhere. Finally they found the circus. They paid their money, bought their tickets, went through the gate and followed the crowd to the main tent. It was wonderful, sitting there—watching the sights, the sounds and the wonder. The band was playing, people were yelling and you could smell the popcorn everywhere. And then it happened, an usher came over to them and said, “You’ll have to leave. I am very sorry, but this ain’t the night for the Nigger’s.” And he and his Uncle got up and left the tent and went back home. Clifton said it was a long way back home. And they rode in silence. And he kept trying to hold back the tears and nobody said a word.


You recognize your brothers and sisters when you undo the thongs of the yoke and let the oppressed go free. (58.6) If the first word is justice, the second word is freedom. When Israel heard this word, freedom it stirred memories. They thought of that exodus when their forebears had crossed the sea on dry land to freedom. They thought of that second exodus when King Cyrus had come into Babylon and set them free and let them return home. Freedom. Wondrous word. Freedom from fate, from blind, impersonal, powers. Freedom from “this is the way it is.” Freedom from “this is the way the world works.” Freedom from sin. Liberated from the power that cripples. We heard Sam Smith speak here Wednesday night. How drugs and alcohol put shakes on his hands and feet and his soul and he did not care. Freedom breaks the cycle of whatever addiction we are hooked on. Alcohol, work, applause, success, making it, sex, exercise, material things, attitudes that misshape. Whatever it is that diminishes us. One man’s tombstone read: Born a human being, died a banker. It was not enough. He was never free.

There is a freedom from evil powers. Paul calls them powers and principalities. Carlyle Marney wrote a whole book calling them Structures of Prejudice. In which we devise systems where circuses only admit certain folk and gold courses and country clubs welcome everybody for a price, of course, except Negroes and Jews and the poor. It is a world gone wrong when there is not a place at the table for everyone. I had a friend who lived at a street person in Chicago for one weekend. He was given five dollars and dressed like a homeless person and had to make-do for himself. He was white. And he said on Sunday morning it was cold and he decided to get in out of the cold and go to church. And he said they let him in but it obvious they he was not welcomed. They kept looking at him with his smelly clothes and three-day beard. The powers and principalities are even in churches and in the hearts of Christians.

There were also the powers of death. William Stringfellow used to talk about how every institution gives itself to the powers of death. Government, business, education, religion. What have I left out? What is this charade in Washington? It is not life giving. What is this resistance to gun control when little children are dragging handguns to school all over this country and AK-47's are treated as handguns? It is the power of death.

That freedom also touched a people who loved the law. And then and now there was a religious law that bound them down. A fundamentalism that was more concerned with rules and regulations than people’s rights. And we have heard this book, this wonderful book used as a club against blacks and women and against gays and we might even add Muslims. Where did we forget those words from the freedom book, Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”(Gal. 3.28-29)

There was freedom from economic oppression. What was their year of the Jubilee all about unless it was that every seven years all the debts would be erased and people could start all over again. It was a dream that one day you would get out from under this heavy, heavy load. Rome ruled in Jesus’ time. Rome pushed them around and made all their decisions. Talk about big government. They had no free, these Jews. And they read Isaiah 58 in the synagogues and in the little house churches to know that there would come a time when they would be oppressed economically no longer.

In 1944, two weeks before the invasion of Normandy, Justice Learned Hand of the Supreme Court wrote these words about liberty. They are as fine a definition of freedom as I could find.

“I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”


You recognize your brothers and sisters when you share your bread with the hungry, you bring the homeless poor into the house, when you see the naked and cover them, and you do not hide yourself from your own kin. (58.7) The light comes to the compassionate.

I like the definition of this word that Frederick Buechner gives us. “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

Isaiah says it is not once but twice. If you let your finger move on down the page not only does he talk about compassion in this seventh verse but he returns to this theme in the latter part of the ninth verse: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”(58.9b-10)

This is our job always. A friend of mine, John Tadlock was Campus Minister at Jacksonville State (AL) for a long time. He told me one day about a young man from Fort Payne, Alabama that came to Jacksonville State as a freshman. Lonesome and looking for friends, he wandered into the Baptist Student Union. They sounded a call for Choir members and so he stayed. He had a pleasant bass voice. But he couldn’t read music and everybody else in the choir could read music. There were a lot of prima donnas and, of course, several music majors. He was quiet and friendly and didn’t say much. The Choir paid little attention to this newcomer. They told their in-jokes and had the best time with each other. A couple of them made fun of him behind his back because he was from little old hickey Fort Payne. Somebody laughed because he couldn’t read music. He finally got the message. You see, people always do. He quit coming to choir. He quit coming to BSU. He joined PiKA fraternity. If you go to the BSU office today at Jacksonville State you’ll see a framed picture of the visitor’s card that the young man filled out his first visit. Of all the people that sang in that college choir, music majors and all, only one has ever sung at a Governor’s inaugural ball. His name is Randy Owen, lead singer in the band, Alabama.

Maybe Isaiah was right after all. Your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly when you loose the bonds of injustice, when you let the oppressed go free, when you share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.

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