Pentecost IX (O. T. 19); August 11, 2019
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
I'm going to elaborate briefly, and will try to be simple, clear, and measured, but the summary of today's message is this: anyone who says that politics does not belong in Church is denying the Bible.
I would love to get down-and-dirty with this harsh, beautiful, and stirring prophecy of Isaiah, to go through it with you line-by-line. Instead I'll apply it more generally, but please note this: the Prophet's words are judgment against a people and against the people's government. The people are doing their religious duty, but the Lord God is weary of people making sacrifices, singing hymns, saying their prayers, and failing to serve the needs of the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. God judges us when we use our religion as a cover for injustice.
So, that is the first takeaway from Isaiah's prophecy. If your religion does not affect your politics, then you're not doing it right. You and I have a responsibility not just to be members of a church, to get good feelings from worship, and to give some money from time to time, but actually to be disciples of Jesus, people of God. There is a familiar line in what Guy read to you (Luke 12:32-40): "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." People often turn that around, but Jesus has it right: your heart follows your money. Wherever your money is invested, that's where your heart is going to be. And so most of us make our decisions about voting and public policy based not on what the Bible says, but on how it will affect our family's income. That makes sense, and Jesus knows it: your heart follows your money. And he forces us to ask ourselves whether we're putting our treasure (money, vote, energy) where it will be faithful to the Word of God.
Second takeaway: as far as God is concerned, government does have a responsibility to the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. You will hear people in this country say that government has no responsibility for social well-being. People are allowed to think that, but not if they believe the Bible. Remember the beginning of Isaiah's prophecy of judgment was against the rulers, and then also the people.
Let me try to tease out something appropriate to say about the matter of gun violence in this country. It's come to the foreground again, after last weekend's two attacks, but the reality is that mass shootings are a small percentage of the deaths by gun violence. In 2018, there were 39,773 deaths by gunshot in the United States. Nearly two-thirds of those were by suicide; less than one percent were from mass shootings such as what we see on the news; and the remainder were from homicides, home defense, and accidents. So the Prophet Isaiah says three things to this situation. First, government has a responsibility to respond. Government is the agent by which communities supervise ourselves and so government has a responsibility. Second, people of God are not permitted to use our religion as an excuse not to advocate; indeed, the Prophet says: "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." Our faith in God is not a substitute for action; rather, it is to motivate us to action on behalf of those who do not have social power. And the third thing the Prophet says is that the problem is deep, that our society is sick. The suicide rate in this country, plus the fear many of us now have to go out to public gatherings, come from a deep illness in our social fabric that government cannot solve. We have Good News that can address that sickness, and there is part of our evangelistic challenge.
So far I have said that the Prophet claims that our faith in God demands political involvement and, second, that government has a responsibility to those who are out of power. But I will not claim that the Prophet states what the government is supposed to do. That is where people of faith may disagree: we must agree that people of faith are required to hold the government accountable for the weakest in our society – represented in Isaiah's day by the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow – but we may disagree with each other on what the government is to do. If the preacher says that governments must take action in light of the epidemic of gun violence in our society, I am on firm Biblical footing. But if I say, "And this is what that action must be," then I am expressing my own opinion.
Yes, this is a heavy sermon, isn't it? These are heavy times. But to the third takeaway, and then I'll be done. This story is a good lead-in. In a previous church, I had a wonderful friend and parishioner, Dr. Campbell. Now his political views and mine were completely at odds, but we loved each other. Anyway, in a sermon one Sunday I wanted to play on our political stereotypes in America, so I said something about "God-fearing Republicans and godless Democrats;" Dr. Campbell loudly replied, "Amen!" One of the few times I've gotten an Amen in a sermon.
Anyway, the third takeaway is this: the Prophet Isaiah reminds God's people that we are to be the Kingdom of God. We have a loyalty that is higher than loyalty to a political party, higher than loyalty to the nation, higher even than loyalty to a college football team: the Kingdom of God. And though some of us think the priorities of the Kingdom of God are reprinted in the platform of the Republican Party, and others think they are the platform of the Democratic Party, they are not. And the United States of America is not the Kingdom of God. Isaiah's country, Judah, was supposed to be the Kingdom of God in its government and organization, and you can tell from the reading that they didn't get it right.
Part of the work of Jesus is to create a new Kingdom, one that has no political parties, no national borders, but that consists of that fellowship of all who know that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Our life – the way we treat each other, the way we treat people who are different from us, the causes we advocate and the decisions we make – is the work of the Kingdom of God. We need always and in everything ask the question: What does Jesus want me to do? Not, "What will make me feel safe?" Not, "What will improve my stock portfolio?" But, "What will help the oppressed, the orphans, and the widows?"
The Prophet concludes by reminding us that the Lord will sort it out for us, forgiving us and cleansing us. Isn't that what Christ does? We won't get it right all the time, but do not despair. Christ offers forgiveness and new possibilities; your pastor is simply urging you to put your heart in the right place. Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master