Text of this message is Isaiah 1
Most of you who know about my spiritual journey know a few things about me. One thing you may or may not have figured out at this point is that I am a both a committed Christian, and I am a recovering fundamentalist—or at least recovering from my fundamentalist upbringing.
I grew up in churches full of wonderful folks that loved Jesus and loved God’s Word. And for that, I will forever be thankful. I grew up going to camps with Bible quizzes and in Sunday School classes that emphasized and rewarded memorization of Scripture. This is a good thing.
The struggle that I had with churches that were more fundamentalist was two-fold. Strangely, both of these struggles were born out of the values that the church taught me in the first place, love of Scripture and love of Christ.
The first struggle I had as I grew both in my knowledge of Scripture and as I matured intellectually was that a lot of the things that the church I grew up in passed off as Christian doctrine were not as much doctrine as they were legalisms. Pastors would yell at kids who walked into church with earrings, but there were places I found in the Old Testament where men were commanded to have earrings. We were told that guys and gals should not swim together in modest swimming attire, but David danced in his undies through the palace complex of Saul—and Scripture seems to commend him for it. I was told that the Bible said that the King James Version is the only true translation of Scripture into the English language, when in fact a little bit of research and intellectual maturity blow that whole theory out of the water.
The second struggle I had was that although the church commended teaching the “whole counsel of God”, there were themes that pastors never shared about in their messages, and never taught about in their studies. One of those themes was God’s call to stand for justice for the oppressed, and to be compassionate toward those who were suffering and less fortunate. Sure, when we had people in our church who had a hard time, we would help them out. But, there was no dealing with all that Jesus and the prophets had to say about social justice and compassion for the poor and how that ties into a life of holiness.
It was not until I was a sophomore in college and taking a “Themes in Biblical History” course that encountered what the Scripture had to teach on such matters. Particularly through a book by a man named Ron Sider called, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger”.
This passage we are looking at here is one of the many throughout Scripture that encourages the people of God to turn their attention toward those that are denigrated and forgotten, those that are ignored and denied a fair shake, those who are poor but denied mercy. God says, through the prophet Isaiah, that if we pay attention to those who are mistreated and forgotten, and take up their cause, then he will support us and bless us. But if we neglect those folks, then there will be a price to pay.
The picture Isaiah paints is pretty vivid. They come to church. They are at all the special services. The people of God take all of their special offerings. They sing the right songs in perfect pitch. They observe everything correctly. And yet, as they lift up their hands in praise, there is blood on their hands. Not the blood of the sacrifices, it is implied, but the blood of their neighbors whom they have robbed, ignored, mistreated and neglected.
God says he is sick and tired of all of their worship services. They are all just a big show. The people of God have gotten the ritual, but missed the call of God that the ritual pointed them toward. And so God is present at their offerings, Isaiah says, but he has his face in his hands and is trying to put in his earplugs. Their worship was a joke. It was a joke because their lives and their actions didn’t match what they were professing with all of this religious show.
This message was not all that unusual. Amos called the wealthy church folks in his time “cows”. Micah calls people to “do justice, and love mercy”. Ezekiel points to Sodom and Gommorah’s ignorance of the poor, not their sexual indescretions to explain why the communities had fire and brimstone poured down upon them. Jesus referred to the Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs” because they were like the people of Isaiah’s day. They had the appearance of religiosity, but the evidence of actually loving God and loving neighbor in their life was lacking.
You see, we human beings have a tremendous ability to compensate for a lack of authentic, personal faith with ritual and rules. People will argue denominational polity for hours in service to their religious heritage, and then be rude to the person serving them the meal afterward. They will wear a cross that goes from their collar to their belt, and ignore their grandmother dying in a nursing home a few blocks away, begging for a visit. They will go to a church service and go to eat afterward, talk about the sermon and the music at the table, and then neglect to give the single mom with three kids to support a decent tip as they walk out the door of the restaurant.
And yet, at the same time, when faith is combined with love of neighbor that leads to action, amazing things happen, and God works. There can be no doubt that many of the advances of our society for equality and justice have been born in the church, and led by believers that obeyed God’s call to free the oppressed and have mercy on those everyone else ignores.
The abolitionist movement was spearheaded and led by persons of Christian conviction. If you want to see a perfect example of this, watch the movie Amazing Grace, which chronicles the story of William Wilberforce. He spent most of his life seeking to abolish slavery in England, because he was a Christian who believed that God was a God of justice for all people.
The women’s sufferage movement was, in the beginning, a Christian movement, advocating for the rights of women. It relied on the example of Jesus and teachings of Scripture as it called for American Christians to honor the voices and rights of women.
The civil rights movement was born in the church, and carried on by the church. And, although the leadership was dominated by the people who were oppressed because of their skin color, the movement was given credibility, power, and strength by white persons of priviledge who went to places like Alabama and Mississippi to fight for the rights of folks that were being denied basic equality because of the color of their skin.
Nearly every evangelist of days gone by partnered their evangelistic outreach with ministry to those who were less fortunate. St. Francis cleaned lepers wounds. Preachers like D.L. Moody and John Wesley founded and supported orphanages. The earliest Christians were known for adopting abandoned children and taking them in as their own. Doing justice and aiding the oppressed has been something many churches have done since the beginning.
And today, here in Hot Springs, we do many things to help and remember those in need. We have a spaghetti supper to help out folks with a meal. We have a clothes closet to help people with those needs. We are active in the ministerial association, which gives to others in need. We try and make sure each child has a fair start in school in our community with our school supply and backpack drive. We also send medical missions to Haiti, so that people can, for at least a little bit, have some of their basic health care needs addressed. These are all good things.
Having said that, there is still much we can do.
When we hire somebody to do work for us, do we pay them a fair wage, or do we tend to pay them as little as we can get away with?
Do we spend our money where people treat their employees well, and pay them a living wage?
There is a business, based out of California, which has long committed to do just that. It is called In-and-out burger. It is a drive-through, like McDonalds. It charges a little bit more, and offers a high quality product. One of the reasons that it costs a little bit more is that the employees are paid a little bit better. Managers at an In and Out can make enough to live comfortably. Why do these people do this? Out of Christian conviction. Doubt me? Visit one sometime and look for the Bible verses on the wrappers and boxes they serve their food with. It is a good witness. There are folks I know that live in that area. They admire their stand for their employees, and they know why they do it. They community is blessed by Christians who do justice, and help the oppressed.
What companies do you buy your products from? To they treat their employees right?
Do you stand up for people when they are being treated poorly by others?
There is a television show called “What Would You Do?” The whole premise of this show is putting people in situations where they have an opportunity to act to support others when they are being treated unjustly. In a store, a restaurant, on the street etc.
Are you aware of how our economic policies make it nearly impossible for peasants in other countries to earn a living wage?
Are you aware of how many people are being sexually trafficked in America and overseas? Or how big of a problem prostitution is in the Dakotas? Especially during rally time and hunting season? Do you say or do anything about it?
Are you aware that our neighboring county is either one of the poorest or the poorest in the nation nearly every year? Does that concern you? Do you think it breaks the heart of God?
Are you aware of how long it is taking our government to provide care to soldiers it was promised to?
Do you think that is right?
Have you seen racial prejudice at work around you? Do you speak out against it? Do you stand up for those who are mistreated because of the color of their skin, or where their family comes from? Why not?
There are a number of ways we can look out for the widow and orphan. That we can stand up for the oppressed. That we can do justice for those who are mistreated, and show compassion for our neighbors that have been hit hard by life and circumstances. And we can repent for the injustices we have stood for and perpetuated, been the beneficiaries of and been silent about.
And when we do that, God promises his forgiveness and grace to be active among us. Though our sins were like scarlet, they will be white as snow it says. God’s grace is promised to be active in our lives. It will also flow through us. As we stand up, and do justice, in the name of Jesus. Amen.