Word of Equity and Power
Sunday, August 26, 2018 @ Knox-Metropolitan United Church
There are several strengths to our use of the lectionary which decides what scripture passages are read on a given Sunday. It covers a fairly broad cross-section of scripture and provides a sequence from week to week. It ties together the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles or letters and the Gospel. It protects the congregation from a narrow preoccupation with one part of scripture. Perhaps most significantly it means that we are reading the same passages as millions of others around the world at the same time.
And the lectionary is not new. The Talmud claims that the practice of reading appointed scriptures on given days or occasions dates back to the time of Moses and began with religious festivals like Passover. Within Christianity, the use of pre-assigned, scheduled readings from the scriptures can be traced back to the early church and seems to have been inherited from Judaism.
And most congregations are fairly flexible with the lectionary, so for instance, I chose the passage from Isaiah 40 which was outside the prescribed passages, for reasons that will become obvious.
The downside of the lectionary is that it can take passages out of their context or keep them from being tied to larger swaths of scripture. In other words it leaves the possibility of missing the forest for the trees. It also leaves out much of the Bible altogether which means that we do lose some rich spiritual resources and raises questions about how those decisions of what is left out are made.
And so while I will be speaking to this morning’s readings, I want to have a broader biblical reflection on the issue of human equity and equality under a sovereign Lord as a component of the kingdom or reign of God.
When Saskatchewan Conference of the United Church of Canada recognized my co-worker Bonnie Morton and myself for gaining Designated Lay Minister Status in 2011 we were presented with a Bible of our choosing. The ‘New Revised Standard Version’ is my personal favourite but I had enough copies so I like Bonnie chose the ‘Poverty and Justice’ Bible which highlights almost 3,000 passages that relate to these themes. It advertises itself as highlighting the issues closest to God’s heart. Certainly the extent of these passages makes tiny the number of verses on themes which have been of great focus and often divided the churches.
Biblical justice is not primarily about legal norms. It has a strong focus on distributive or social justice and is a spirit of solidarity with the cause of the poor and oppressed. It involves a commitment to changing social structures and conditions that create poverty and oppression. This is also true of the word righteousness that often runs parallel with justice. While charity work remains necessary we must be active in advocacy and justice work if we are to live out biblical faith.
In the words of Lilla Watson, an Indigenous leader from Australia, ”If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because you see that your liberation is bound up with my liberation, then come let us work together.”
It is this spirit rather than just legal norms that brings about true justice. Whenever I think of legal norms I am reminded of the story of the man who was convicted of stealing a can of peaches. When he went before the judge for sentencing, the judge asked him how many peaches were in the can. The man answered that there was two peaches. In that case, said the judge, I order you to two days in jail. At that moment the man’s wife leapt to her feet and said, “Your honour, he also stole a can of peas!”
Concepts of equity or equality can be found throughout all major faith traditions and I believe through reason to secular society. And they are certainly not outside of our faith tradition where they are often pictured in terms of physical geography and nature that might be summarized as God above on the mountain and everyone else on the plain. There are at least 57 verses with this clear levelling theme.
Thus, we hear in this morning’s passage from Isaiah 40, “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
This builds on Isaiah 2 that states, “For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is high and lifted up; against all the high mountains and the lofty hills; against every high tower, and against every fortified wall. 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 Isaiah 26 reads, “Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord God you have an everlasting rock. For God has brought low the inhalants of the height; the lofty city is brought low. God lays it to the ground, casts it to the dust. The foot tramples it, the feet of the poor, the steps of the needy. For the way of the righteous is level.”
The prophet Ezekiel uses a forest metaphor to make a similar levelling suggestion. In Chapter 17 we read, “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree … I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.”
In preparing the way for Jesus, John the Baptist quotes the Isaiah 40 passage and Mary borrowing from Hannah’s prayer and celebrating the incarnation in the magnificat shows the levelling force of the gospel, foreshadowing Jesus ministry.
“God has brought down the
Powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry
With good things,
And sent the rich away empty”
And whereas Matthew refers to the sermon on the mount, Luke makes a point of saying that Jesus presented the Beatitudes which begin with, “Blessed are you who are poor; for yours is the kingdom of God,” not on a mountain but on a level place.
One last scripture on this point. It comes from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians in chapter 8. ”I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack.‘ “
This reminds me of the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The best of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
But it is not just the scriptures themselves but the context they were written in that tells us about the concern for equity.
American evangelical leader Jim Wallis says that we can get a better view of the prophetic concerns by looking at the discoveries of biblical archaeology. When they dig down into the ruins of biblical history they find periods of time when the houses were more or less the same size, and the artifacts show a relative equality between the people, with no great disparities. Ironically, during those periods, the prophets were silent. There was no Micah, Amos, Isaiah or Jeremiah because there was nothing to say. But then they dig down into other periods, like the eighth century B.C. and find remains of huge mansions and tiny shacks, with other evidence of great gaps between rich and poor. And it is during these periods that the voice of the prophets rose up to thunder the judgement and justice of God.
The gaps between us tear the social fabric, break down community, are very costly and diminish us. And they appear to be of great concern to God.
There is a growing body of public health research that shows that beyond a minimal amount of wealth, the health and quality of life of a society depends less on its overall wealth than on how equitability its wealth is distributed.
In their book, ‘The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everybody,’ epidemiologists Richard Wilkenson and Kate Pickett show that those societies with less income inequality have higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality, better general health, better mental health, fewer addictions, less crime, less violence, better literacy and education rates, a higher status of women, polls show higher levels of trust between people, greater amounts of international aid and greater environmental sustainability.
Perhaps what is most surprising about the ‘Spirit Level’ research is that it isn’t just low-income people that benefit but that every stratum of society including the richest are better off in more equal societies. In fact the evidence suggest that every level of society is equally better off on a wide range of health and quality of life factors.
The research shows what we have often felt intuitively, morally or spiritually. Equality is good.
But returning to the Word our readings speak not only a word of equity but words of power. The Isaiah passage concludes with reverence for the word of God which will stand forever. In our Gospel reading from John, Jesus says that the words that he has spoken are sprit and life.
And the letter to the Ephesians speaks of the Word as the sword and armour of the Spirit.
Communion is a time when we remember the Word and Jesus, the Word made flesh. Part of the symbolism of communion is that by partaking of the bread and the wine, the Word or narrative becomes a part of the us and we become a part of it. Thus our Gospel passage begins, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” We need to remember this. It is why renowned theologian Karl Barth said that the church must always maintain a focus on the scriptures or it will lose itself.
Now I am certainly not saying that the Bible or our faith tradition is the only belief system that makes positive change. In fact very often it has been and is a hindrance. Nothing has hurt the Bible or the name of Jesus more than their use in glorifying oppression or to deny the spirituality and the positive contributions of others. But we are people of the book and it is what makes us unique. If the church is grounded in biblical thought, it should be a worshipping counter-culture committed to faith and action. If our faith cannot be shown in action against evils such as racism, poverty and oppression, it will, as James says, be dead. But in the battle against these evils, we will most certainly need all the spiritual resources, nourishment and grounding that we can get.
In the battle against these evils we should try to be as effective and results oriented as is possible. But as followers of Jesus and the Word we are not called to success or popularity. We are called to faithfulness and obedience. We are in the words of the Letter to the Ephesians to stand firm. Stand firm because God will use human obedience to mold the future. Such is the power of our God.
Thanks be to God and to God be all the glory.