We as humans are more interested in taking than receiving. Because of this, we are not accustomed to living a life of gratitude. To view justice and peace as a gift, versus something to be established via human ingenuity, is a radical reorientation. But that is just what the Word of God means to do: reorient us. God’s Word provides a counter-text for the community of faith. This counter-text puts a major emphasis on God’s shalom. Shalom is the Hebrew word for the socially and individually restorative peace and justice of God. Our texts today detail how God expects the world to work. But, as is to be expected, humans tend to have “better,” more “efficient” ways to establish peace and justice.
Both the fascists and the neoliberals alike are convinced they are the final authorities on what constitutes as “justice” and “peace.” One group speaks of “law and order” while the other group speaks of “mandatory minimum sentencing.”
|By Philip De Vere (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], |
via Wikimedia Commons
In Isaiah chapter 1, the prophet has rather adversarial language for those who have convinced themselves they’ve got justice and peace figured out and all that remains is making a few sacrifices, having some parties and singing a few worship choruses. Isaiah perceives the foolishness of the people and, as Isaiah tends to do, he lets them have it starting in v. 10:
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,[a]
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
To say Isaiah is harsh here is putting it mildly. Isaiah uses poetry to break through the ideological safeguards his listeners have created. Isaiah’s listeners are likely the “urban elite” who rarely think about justice and peace for those on the margins because they have found themselves in positions of prestige and power. These people are not compelled to think about the orphan, the widow or the oppressed because they are established citizens with rights, privileges, food, housing etcetera. Maybe they thought to themselves, “This is all the justice and peace that’s needed!” It seems as though it never occurred to them the justice and peace they established for themselves excludes and oppresses the vulnerable of society.
So YHWH, through Isaiah, labels their rituals of thanksgiving as “abominations.” These acts are not done as a response to God’s gift of justice and peace; these “sacrificial acts” are half-assed attempts at diverting God’s attention away from the poor and oppressed. I can hear these disobedient people saying, “We’ve perfected the whole justice and peace thing. Look at what we’ve accomplished! Now, pay attention to our personal piety, our immaculate festivals, our abundance of material goods that we are willing to let you in on, God!” But God’s not buying it. In fact, Isaiah says God “hates it.” God hates it because the people have convinced themselves they have it all figured out and all that’s left is to congratulate themselves by giving thanks while the orphan and widow suffer evil under their heel. The dire tone of this passage is crystal clear as God does the unthinkable: compares the people of Judah and the city Jerusalem to the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Sodom is especially infamous for its alleged sexual immorality. I’m confident everyone here has heard a sermon where the preacher has explained that the reason Sodom was judged by God was due to their “homosexual perversity.” Well, that’s just not what the text tells us. The prophet Ezekiel tells us why Sodom was judged, chapter 16 verse 49:
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom, “As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
Two important things to notice: ONE) Sodom’s judgment has nothing to do with people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans or Queer and everything to do with exploitation of the poor. The sooner we Christians get that through our thick skulls the better. TWO) Both Ezekiel and Isaiah poetically connect the accumulation, arrogance and abusive attitude of the powerful with the violent exploitation of the poor.
Today, in our own city, the powerful continue to exploit the poor but try to tell us it is for the sake of “peace and justice.” The city of Chicago continues to assure us the reason so much of the city’s budget goes to the police department is to maintain “peace and justice.” God forbid that that money be put towards preventative programs, mental health facilities or restorative justice initiatives! They tell us the blacksite known as Homan Square is not a torture dungeon, but simply a storage facility for police cars, equipment, weapons. There have been activists across the street from Homan Square occupying a space known as Freedom Square for 17 days straight. Well for what reason? Because they wish to expose how the police stockpile and exploit under the guise of “peace and justice.” The psalmist, like the activists at Freedom Square, exposes the oppressor’s propensity to accumulate and abuse all for the sake of “security.” Psalm 33 verses 16 and 17:
16 A king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
17 The war horse is a vain hope for victory,
and by its great might it cannot save.
This passage should scandalize us when we hear it. It should scandalize us just like it would have scandalized the original hearers. Think about it… the king or, for us, all state authority, is not the final arbiter of peace and justice. The warrior or, for us, the police officer, is not the one who will save us as a result of better, stronger weapons. The war horse or, for us, the military-grade tank, will not give us the hope of shalom, but only more violence and carnage. Here the psalmist exposes just how disastrous it can be when humans foolishly convince themselves that through their own might, justice and peace can be attained!
The people this sort of “might-makes-right” attitude impacts the most are the vulnerable or, as the psalmist puts it, “the poor and needy.” Psalm 37 verses 14 and 15:
14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to kill those who walk uprightly;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.
Violence consistently and disproportionately plagues the vulnerable. But there is a cycle to the specific sort of violence I am talking about--it is a vicious cycle. Those on the top exploit those on the bottom, which often leads to those on the bottom responding with force. The biblical witness understands this vicious cycle and therefore chides the powerful for abusing the powerless. Dissimilar to our society today, you will not catch the Bible proclaiming, “Black Lives Matter activists are responsible for being nonviolent if they expect the same from police.” Against this popular opinion, the bible demonstrates an awareness to the ways in which the vicious cycle of violence finds its genesis in the powerful exploiting the powerless, moves to the powerless avenging injustices, resulting in the cycle beginning all over again.
I want to make two very crucial points here: Firstly, while I consider myself to be a proponent of militant nonviolence, to me, it seems completely bass ackwards to criticize oppressed people for violently responding to those who abuse their positions of authority. Secondly, while I wholeheartedly believe that the cycle of violence is only perpetuated by retaliation, it does not mean that the oppressor and the oppressed are both equally victims. A somewhat controversial example is this: For the 5 police officers murdered in Dallas--the sacredness, the quality of their lives are just as important as the lives of Laquan McDonald, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin. But the quantity of systemic injustices perpetrated against people of color by the police is one major point of departure that needs to be recognized if the cycle of violence is to ever be broken. The person who helped me understand this truth was Martin Luther King Jr. As he reflected on the emergence of “black rage” in 1967, and an increasing amount of young people who were becoming disenchanted with nonviolence, King was tempted to paternalistically chastise youth who had given up on radical pacifism. But as he thought more about the systemic conditions that created ghettos, economic inequality and police brutality, he was forced to conclude that he could not speak out against the violent retaliation of the oppressed without speaking clearly against the violence of the powerful. For the psalmist, this means critiquing the “king” and the “warrior.” For Dr. King, and for us, this means critiquing the politicians and the police.
At this point, you might be thinking, “It sounds like we just need to try harder to make sure the vulnerable experience God’s justice and peace.” If you are understandably thinking that, listen closely to our gospel reading for today found in Luke 12, starting in verse 32:
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Stop. Did you hear that? The kingdom of God, where justice and peace are perfectly embodied, is not something we can make or take with our own hands, it is something our extravagant, faithful, loving, merciful, righteous God gives to us as a gift.
|Francisco de Zurbarán [CC BY-SA 4.0], |
via Wikimedia Commons
This free gift given to us by our God should illicit a life oriented towards thanksgiving. The thanksgiving God desires is peace and justice. Thankfully, we do not have to scramble around worrying about how to create this peace and justice; all we need to do is look at the kingdom-oriented life of Christ to get an image of what justice and peace are actually supposed to look like.
Back in Luke 12, Jesus shows us what a kingdom-oriented life of gratitude, justice and peace looks like, verse 33:
33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Those who live a life of thanksgiving cannot help but be generous to the poor and needy. These folks cannot control their desire to see the vulnerable lifted up because they have the gift of the kingdom, that is, Christ Jesus, living inside of them.
As is our custom here at Church on the Block, the first Sunday of every month is when we gather together to partake in the Eucharist. The word “Eucharist” is derived from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” We come to this table with thanksgiving because we know Christ’s presence is mediated through this meal. And where the gift of Christ’s presence resides, God’s peace and justice abound. By eating this bread and drinking this “wine”, we consume peace and justice. And then we go out from this place, with peace and justice in our bones, to live a life oriented towards thanksgiving.
Our posture when approaching this table is key. By posture, I do not mean credentials--this table is open to everyone. The way we should approach this table is with a posture of thanksgiving, hands out, ready to receive the good gifts God wishes to give us.
As we prepare to enter into this time of thanksgiving, I would like to invite everyone in the room to come forward and be filled. With hands and hearts prepared to receive the gift that is Christ’s body. As you receive these gifts, don’t thank me, thank Christ. Once you receive the bread and the juice, return to your seat and when I ask, please stand and proclaim the Mystery of Faith. We will all say together, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Then, together as a body, we will eat the bread and drink the cup. Let us pray.
Lord, we thank you for the gift of your son, who perfectly embodied a kingdom-oriented life. As we partake in this meal, we pray that your peace and justice would live in us. We renounce our sinful desires to take matters of peace and justice into our own hands. We pray for you to remind us that peace and justice can only come from you. Once reminded Lord, we pray that we would live lives of thanksgiving. Remembering the poor and needy, just as Christ demonstrated for us. Lord, we remember you. Please, remember us.
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