[Manuscript for the sermon preached (with PowerPoint slides) at Rosedale Congregational United Church of Christ on October 30, 2016.]
It is a delight to back here at Rosedale Congregational United Church of Christ again today, and I bring you greetings from Rainbow Mennonite Church, which is less than a mile and a half from here. I am happy that in recent weeks your pastor, Pastor Ruth, and my pastor, who is also Pastor Ruth, have become friends.
I had the privilege of being with you on the Sunday after Easter, and now today is the day before what is known as Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a Catholic priest and university professor, posted 95 topics for debate on the cathedral church door in the German city where he lived. That is usually given as the beginning date of the Protestant Reformation. October 31 is the day before the celebration of what the Catholics call All Saints Day. Thus, the night before was called All Hallows’ Eve—and that is where the name Halloween came from.
But I am not going to talk more about the Reformation, and certainly not more about Halloween, this morning. Rather, I want you to think with me about justice, one of the key terms found in what we have read this morning from the first chapter of Isaiah. I rarely preach from the Old Testament, but this morning’s Scripture reading is one of my favorite Old Testament passages.
Here is the first thing I want to talk about this morning:
< I. God Hates Religion >
The first parts of this morning’s Bible passage are used by some people, including me, to emphasize that God hates religion.
Look again at verses 11-15 of today’s Bible reading:
11 What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the Lord.
I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts.
I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you,
this trampling of my temple’s courts?
13 Stop bringing worthless offerings.
Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
14 I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
The same sort of thing is found in the fifth chapter of Amos, another Old Testament book named after a prophet:
21 I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
22 If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food— I won’t be pleased;
I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
23 Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
Both of these Old Testament passages make reference to common religious activities of the Israelite people of that time: offering of sacrifices, persistent prayers, singing and playing music. All of these things were done as religious activities seeking to gain God’s favor: forgiveness or financial blessing or whatever. People are religious for a lot of reasons—but it is often for the purpose of trying to get something from God.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with praying or singing—or giving offerings, although we don’t offer animals as a part of our religious activities now. The question is about why we do such things. We can, and should, include prayers, singing and music, and the giving of offerings in our worship of God. These are expression of our faith in God and our thankfulness to God for his love.
The problem comes when such activities become religious practices done mainly for the purpose of trying to get something from God. Religion, though, has often become self-centered and linked to oppression of others for one’s own benefit.
God’s hates religion when it is connected to unloving actions toward others—or when it is done without concern for those who are oppressed. This was the problem of the slave owners in the past: most were religious, but their religion generally did not lead them to deal with the oppression of the slaves. There are similar situations today: people practicing religion with little concern for those who are oppressed by racism, sexism, economic exploitation, and other evils in society. One of the best examples is how some religious people treat LGBT people because of their religious beliefs and their cry for religious freedom, which is often a call for freedom to discriminate against other.
But now let’s move to the next point:
< II. God Loves Justice >
Let’s read the next verses in the Bible passages. First, Isaiah 1:16-17.
Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil;
17 learn to do good.
Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.
And then look at these two verses from the fifth chapter of Amos:
“Hate evil, love good,
and establish justice at the city gate.”
Notice two things about this verse: The second line amplifies the meaning of the first line. Also, in ancient Israel the “city gate” was the community center and the place of the law court—thus, it was highly important to establish justice there.
Next is the well-known verse found in Amos 5:24:
“. . . let justice roll down like waters
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
After the sermon this morning we will sing, “Let justice flow like streams / Of sparkling water, pure, / Enabling growth, refreshing life, Abundant, cleansing sure.”
“Justice” is a word with a lot of different meanings, so we need to think a bit about the different kinds of justice. First, retributive justice — the theory of justice which holds that the best and most appropriate response to a crime is proportionate punishment. This kind of justice is usually associated with the way criminals are treated. This is not the kind of justice written about in the Bible.
This was how Hillary Clinton used the word in the last presidential debate. She said, “I was in the Situation Room monitoring the raid that brought Osama bin Laden to justice.” And you know what that means: since he was the head of the terrorists who carried the 9/11 attacks, “justice” meant his execution. So that is what is meant by retributive justice, the theory of justice which holds that the best and most appropriate response to a crime is proportionate punishment.
A second form of justice is restorative justice — a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. This is a rather new emphasis that is much better than that of retributive justice. This is still not the main way justice is written about in the Bible.
A third kind of justice is called “distributive justice.” It emphasizes the fair distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. This is also often called “social justice” and is the primary meaning of justice in the Bible. This is the kind of justice that is meant when Isaiah 1:17 commands, “Seek justice.”
Distributive justice is closely related to other forms of justice. For example, racial justice: All people treated equally and fairly – by the police and everyone else. Also economic justice: All people being able to earn a living wage and to have adequate healthcare.
The former was a theme of the new movie released this month, “The Birth of a Nation.” The very first screen of that movie projected the words of Thomas Jefferson: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Those words, written in 1781, were about slavery—and his opposition to it. He thought God’s justice meant the eradication of slavery—but not by the means that Nat Turner sought: armed rebellion.
Now, 150 years after the Civil War, there still doesn’t seem to be racial justice in our country. According to a recent survey, nearly 2/3 of white Americans think police treat people of all ethnic groups the same. But only 21% of black Americans and 38% of Hispanic Americans think that. While there may be some problems with it, there is reason to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now let’s think just a bit about the difference between equality and justice. Here is a slide showing equality: The boys all have a box to stand on, so is that equality? What is the problem? The little boy can’t see the ballgame, of course.
Now look at the slide showing justice: The tall boy had to give up his box. Is that fair? Well, he can still see the game. The question is Why did he do so? Because he wanted to, because he was asked to do so, or because he was forced to do so.
Is this related to seeking economic justice? Perhaps. Economic justice is related to the tax structure whereby the very wealthy pay much and the very poor receive support from the government. That is called theft by some, and income re-distribution by others. Economic justice is also related to raising the minimum wage to a livable wage. Further, economic justice is related to providing healthcare (including the expansion of Medicaid) to all people in the nation. – Let’s turn now to one more important consideration:
< III. Seeking Justice by Voting >
Let us look at one more Bible verse, this time from the New Testament: “Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Douay-Rheims, 1582, 1899). More recently, Stephen C. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change (1982), p. 104: “First of all seek the Reign and its justice.”
Here is Dr. Mott’s explanation. When reading the Bible, “A rule of thumb is that when one sees righteousness or judgment in the context of social responsibility or oppression, one can assume that justice would be a better translation” (p. 59).
So what does this have to do with voting? It is often said that people should not be one- or two-issue voters. Examples: my father wouldn’t vote for Roosevelt because of Prohibition. This year some people won’t vote for Clinton because of abortion. But many issues need to be considered. We need to take many factors into consideration when voting. It can be quite a complicated.
But I have a confession to make. I am a one issue voter. While working on this sermon, though, I decided that. That one issue is God’s Kingdom and its justice. I will vote for the candidates who are seem most likely to do justice in what they do as an elected official.
This is what I urge for all of you voters—and I hope you are all registered to vote and will vote on Nov. 8. Seek justice! The one decisive issue: God’s Kingdom and its justice. What a candidate will do is not always easy to know – but we have some indication. Pay attention to what the candidate(s) has/have said – and what they have done in the past. Don’t be misled by what others say about them.
So, here’s how you should vote as a Christian. Vote for the Party/candidate(s) who are most clearly for justice. Vote for the Party/candidate(s) who are for overcoming oppression in order for there to be justice for women, for people of color, for LGBT people, for economically poor people, and even for immigrants.
Concerning the latter, consider these words from Deuteronomy 10:18-19 (CEB): “[God] enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt.” (These were spoken to the Israelites; does it have anything to say to Americans today? What do you think?)
So this is my message to you today: Seek justice! May God help us each one to do so in this election season and at all times.
The final word: Isaiah 1:18.
Come now, and let’s settle this, says the Lord.
Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.
If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool.