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Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field until there is no more room…Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink…Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes…Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! Woe to those who aquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their right! (From Isaiah 5:8-12; 18-23)
I once heard someone say, “God’s judgment is nothing more and nothing less than allowing the consequences of our actions to run their course.” I’m not sure I totally agree with that assessment, but I do believe it’s a good starting point for reflection upon today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah.
I doubt Isaiah of Jerusalem’s message of “woe” was a popular one. His critique of the lifestyles of the upper eschalons of society (royalty, the priesthood, the “wealthy”) probably didn’t garner him any invitations to the best parties in town. After all, he seems emphatic in his assessment that the only way any of the systems he’s criticizing will be redeemed is through their obliteration. And the people who are portrayed as the cause of the woe coming upon the nation are the people in power — the people who had forgotten that they had a responsibility to employ their governmental, religious or economic power for the good of the whole society, not simply for their own benefit.
Sounding a warning is often the role of the prophet. Living with the awareness that much of the message will either go unheard or be outright rejected is an occupational hazard of the job. Preaching God’s truth to people who continuously call “evil good and good evil” is a thankless one. Speaking for those who are squeezed out by greed or who are deprived of justice because of systemic corruption can (and often does!) lead to the prophet’s own demise.
Isaiah sees with the eyes of God-inspired vision. And the picture isn’t a pretty one. In offering his message of woe, I don’t believe he is calling down God’s judgment. Rather, I think the prophet is lamenting, in advance, the inevitable outcome of the attitudes and behaviors he witnesses all around him.
The Advent collect for this week asks God to “give us grace to heed [the prophets'] warnings and forsake our sins…” I suspect that if we fail in our “heeding” and “forsaking”, then our own set of “woes” are right around the eschatological corner — not because God wills such a thing, but because we did.
..Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flame by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy and a pavilion. It will be a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and the rain” (Isaiah 4:5-6)
A word of explanation for the blog post titles for the past two days (and going forward through Advent):
Four years ago, when I was writing as “Tosa Rector” over on another blog format, I used the Daily Office readings from Isaiah as the basis of my daily Advent reflections. For those who may not know, the Daily Office lectionary repeats every two years, so the Episcopal Church is re-reading the same chunks of Isaiah again this year. I went back and looked at a few of the things I wrote in 2008, and decided, it wouldn’t be a huge blogging offense to re-publish the posts on my “Soulwerker” site. I will not simply copy and paste, though. If there’s a need for some updating or editing, I will be sure to do so.
Happy reading. Happy Advent!
Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen; because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord, defying God’s glorious presence…The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” says the Lord of hosts. (from Isaiah 3:8-15)
In today’s reading, the oracle from Isaiah of Jerusalem reiterates the connection between the equitable treatment for the poor (or lack thereof) and the faithfulness of the covenant people to the terms of the covenant given to them by God. As the Israelites made their way from slavery in Egypt toward the Land of Promise, they received the gift of the Law. While the Law spelled out in detail the various sacrificial rites, holy days and the like, it was not simply a customary for worship. The Law also contained provisions for the care of the poor and the stranger.
Time and time again in the Law, the Israelites are enjoined to remember their treatment as poor slaves in Egypt. They are commanded to remember what it felt like to be an “alien” — a stranger in a strange land. This collective memory is to be employed in real time to facilitate a society that is both hospitable to the stranger and merciful to the poor. Through these concrete actions, the people would give witness to the covenant that existed between Israel and God.
Isaiah of Jerusalem is apalled at the lack of attention given to the poor by the leaders of his nation. As he walks the city streets, he can see the results of a nation that has forgotten its covenant with God. He cries out, “O my people, your leaders mislead you, and confuse the course of your paths.”
In this first week of Advent, with its focus on the Second Coming of Christ, we could easily begin to believe that ” The Judgment” is out there in the far-away-future. We could fall prey to either dismissing “The Judgment” as an overly-imaginative mythology that has no place in rational thought, or overly-indvidualize it by believing that it is some sort of divine hazing ritual to determine whether or not we get through the “Pearly Gates”. Just as the Kingdom of God is already here but has not yet arrived in its fullness, judgment is right here, right now as well. The cries of the poor and the mistreatment of strangers in our midst are witnesses against us — by their very presence we are judged. How are we participating in crushing them? How are we complicit in “grinding their faces”?
One of my favorite theologians has this to say regarding the connection between Christ’s judgment and the unheard cries of the poor and disenfranchised:
“Injustice cries out to high heaven. The victims of injustice never hold their peace. The perpetrators of injustice find no rest. That is why the thirst for righteousness and justice can never be repressed. It keeps alive the remembrances of suffering and makes people wait for a tribunal which will make right prevail. For many people, the longing for God is alive in this thrist for righteousness and justice.” (Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, p. 334)
The Kingdom of God will come in its own good time. To be sure, we cannot build God’s Kingdom with human hands. What we can do is give witness to the seed of the Kingdom that is present within each of us through our faithful care for those at the margins in the here and now. Without such care, without such hospitality, our talk of the Kingdom becomes little more than religious gibberish.
I took Spanish for five years in public school, beginning in eighth grade and continuing through high school graduation. As I recall, I mostly made “A’s” and “B’s” on the tests. I could conjugate verbs with the best. Vocabulary tests? I aced them every time. Reading passages and writing paragraphs in the language? I was passable. Translating from Spanish to English? No problem. Conversation? That’s another story. I never got too far beyond, “Muy bien, gracias.” I learned all the parts of the grammar, but I never learned how to put it all together. I now know I never learned to “think” in Spanish. I always “thought” English and then translated into the (most of the time) appropriate Spanish equivalent. In short, I couldn’t navigate the language in conversation because it never seeped into my being, it simply remained as random words floating around upon my cerebral cortex.
I’ve just finished teaching a group of adults and young adults in preparation for our bishop’s visitation this coming Sunday. He will be receiving many of the adults into the Episcopal Church. He will also administer the Rite of Confirmation for the young people who will be confirming the promises made on their behalf by their parents at their baptisms, as well as for a couple of folks who were baptized as adults. As I have chatted with these folks over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the language of the faith and how that language is taught and learned in the church. Words like, “Trinity”, “Incarnation”, “repentance”, “grace”, “redemption”, “Eucharist”, “mercy” (and lots, lots more!) get tossed around with ease in the liturgy. Preachers use these and other churchified words in our sermons without too much thought. I’ve been reminded, though, that most of these words function as “vocabulary words” for Christians. They are the sorts of words folks hear in the context of church, but may not ever encounter outside of an hour or two on Sunday. How can we expect people to become fluent in the faith if the only thing they get is a few weekly vocabulary lessons over the years?
Somehow, we’ve got to figure out how to connect those religious/churchy words to lived experience. Somehow we’ve got to get those words out of the Bible and dusty theological text books and into hearts, minds and souls. In the meantime, perhaps it’s time for me to take another shot at Spanish. Maybe making the effort to finally get a foreign language into my being will teach me something about teaching the language of the Faith.
I don’t know when it happened, exactly. When I started thinking from my heart more than from my head. When relationships became more important than technicalities. When having folks gathered became more desirable than making sure everyone passed some membership test for inclusion. Lately though, as I’ve read friends’ blogs and this or that press release from the Episcopal Church, or read how folks are wrestling with some of the issues being bantered about inside the walls of the ecclesiastical battle zone, I’ve realized it’s time for me to cease and desist from my “if we all love Jesus, we can all get along” fantasies.
I have recognized in myself a desire for peaceableness, that may have been misinterpreted as complicity with the status quo. I have recognized an activism for justice that, while passionate (and even, from time to time, articulate) does not sufficiently plumb the depths of the Christian theological tradition. I have slacked off in my fervency for being able to give account of my faith. I’ve been relying on whatever I happen to retain in my memory from seminary and a few continuing education classes since then. I have mostly kept my opinions to myself and figured the part of Christ’s Church to which I belong would wobble around long enough that something would change. I would wait for change, but I didn’t see myself as having any way to contribute to whatever change might be on the horizon. I have been too timid. I have been too cautious. I have been too worried about keeping my nose clean and my mouth shut. I’ve got plenty of things from which to repent. So, I’m turning away from the intellectual atrophy today. I figure it will take a good year to get my brain back in shape. But nothing much will change until I do.
By the way, I don’t intend to lose heart. Relationships are still more important than technicalities. Gathering people around a table (whether the table is in the rectory, the parish hall or the sanctuary) is still more desirable than tests of membership. We probably won’t all get along, even though we all claim to love Jesus. And, yes, I realize most of the battles we fight inside the Episcopal Church are pointless (or even laughable) to the broader culture, but maybe we have to fight them precisely because we want to open our doors to those who pass by them on Sunday mornings on their way somewhere else. The love of Jesus and the call of the Gospel is probably enough for those outside our walls. For those inside the walls, a bit more intellectual fortitude will be required.
In a couple of hours I will travel to Madison, WI to participate in the annual business meeting for the Diocese of Milwaukee, commonly called “Diocesan Convention”. This gathering, comprised of the clergy in this diocese and laypersons who have been elected by their respective congregations to serve as deputies, will, amongst other things, worship together, receive reports of various sorts and conditions, hear the annual address from our bishop, approve a proposed budget and possibly pass another resolution or two. Betwixt all of this activity there will be opportunities to catch up on news from other parts of the diocese, greet folks we don’t get a chance to see that often, and maybe share a few stories, a few burdens and (hopefully) more than a few laughs.
This will be my ninth convention as a clergy person in the Diocese of Milwaukee. In addition I attended two conventions as a clergy in Southern Virginia (but they call their conventions “councils”), plus eight conventions in the Diocese of Florida (five as a deputy; three as a seminarian). The people are different. The venues have varied. The food quality uneven. But a few things remain remarkably consistent — governed by Robert’s Rules, guided by constitutions, canons and bylaws, most of the business, most of the time is transacted with the formality and decorum Episcopalians are known for.
Conventions, by and large, are reliable. If you sign up to go, you generally know what you’re going to get. Conventions don’t change much. And those who attend aren’t much changed by them. Most of the time most people don’t expect much to happen at a convention. Most of the time conventions fulfill those expectations. But I wonder…
What would happen if someone presented a “lately occasioned” resolution calling upon this diocese to liquidate its endowment fund and give all the money to the poor? What would happen if we spent a few hours listening to testimonies from folks about how some of our parishes’ ministries, in their respective communities, offered in the Name of Jesus had changed their lives? What it would be like for us to take a recess in the middle of our meeting and head out to do some hands-on ministry in the greater Madison community — what could a few hundred fired up Episcopalians accomplish in that span of time?
I know, I know. Most folks in attendance at a diocesan convention agreed to participate in a business meeting, not a revival. I understand that, as of now, business has to be transacted, ballots cast and decisions made — in decency and in order. I do believe, though, that where two or three are gathered in the Name of Jesus (regardless of where they’re gathered!), the Risen Lord is in our midst. He is as present at a business meeting in a hotel conference room as he is in at a Sunday liturgy in a church building. In the flurry of paper and the serpentine “rules of debate” this weekend, I will do my best to keep in mind this promise of Jesus to his followers. I plan to be on the lookout for glimpses of Jesus in the faces and stories of my fellow Episcopalians over the next twenty-four hours.
Who knows? In spite of our best planning and just when we least expect it, the Risen Lord could overturn a few conventions this weekend. He’s reliable like that.