Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 7th, 2016
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-41
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Here’s a trick question: who was the prophet Isaiah talking to in our first lesson? If you were listening, it sounds like Sodom and Gomorrah. That’s how Isaiah starts out, in verse 10: Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! Except Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t exist anymore by the time of Isaiah. They’d been destroyed a thousand years earlier in the time of Abraham.
As it happened, Isaiah was talking to the people of Israel. God’s people, who worshipped the Lord, who had a covenant with God. But things were rotten in the state of Israel. And that’s why Isaiah starts out by talking about Sodom and Gomorrah. Because all the sins of Sodom? They were happening in Israel. And the people of Israel didn’t think there was anything wrong. They thought, “oh, we’re God’s people, we worship God, we have the promise and do all the right things in worship and read God’s Word, so we can do anything we want and it’s just fine.” And Isaiah wanted to point out the problems in that argument. It’s like if I saw a group of Americans doing and saying racist things, and being nasty to Jews, and called them out by saying “Hey, Nazis, listen up!” Everybody knew how bad Sodom and Gomorrah were, back then, just like everybody knows how bad Nazis are now. So if you described someone as being from Sodom and Gomorrah, people took notice. It was a harsh condemnation.
But what they were being condemned for will shock you. See, when we think of Sodom and Gomorrah, we think sex, and more specifically, homosexuality. But that’s because we modern people are obsessed with sex and sexuality. The ancient Hebrew people heard the story differently; to them, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was inhospitality. Sodom and Gomorrah attacked vulnerable people they should have been protecting. The sexual aspect of it was just the cherry on top the sundae of evil. The prophet Ezekiel is the only person in the entire Bible to explicitly name the sin of Sodom, and here is what he had to say: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” In other words, the people of Sodom were rich and prosperous, and they ignored the vulnerable in their midst. In their power, they cared only for themselves. To Ezekiel, being a Sodomite has nothing to do with what you do in bed. It’s about how you treat those less fortunate than you. To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who feasts while others starve. To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who ignores injustice as long as it only affects other people.
And what about Isaiah in our reading today? What has him so concerned about the people of Israel? What are they doing, that is so terribly bad that he calls them Sodom? Here’s what he tells them to do: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. In other words, pretty much the same thing as Ezekiel. You see, in Isaiah’s day, there was great injustice in Israel. Rich people cheated poor people. They had altered the good economic system that God had given them so that it benefitted people at the top of society and was harsh and unfair to people on the bottom. If you came from a rich family, it didn’t matter how terrible you were, everything would be forgiven you and you would get every opportunity there was. If you came from a poor family—or were orphaned or widowed, and had nobody to speak up for you—well, no matter how hard you worked, you would never get ahead in life, because the whole system was rigged in favor of the rich and powerful. Poor people were more likely to be convicted of crimes, not because they were more criminal, but because the justice system was biased against them. I’m sure there were a lot of justifications for it; I’m sure that the people at the top of the pile had a whole lot of arguments for why it was right, and fair, and good that they had everything and others were barely scraping by. But the fact remains that it was evil and unjust in God’s eyes.
And so God told Isaiah to call them out on it. God told Isaiah to tell them, with no sugarcoating, what he thought of their arrogance, their hoarding of God’s abundance, their injustice, their lack of care for those around them. They were just like Sodom and Gomorrah, no matter what pretty justifications they had. And all their wonderful worship was useless as long as they continued in that evil. They said all the right words and did all the right things in worship, but it didn’t matter one bit. All their beautiful worship, all their fancy words and emotional songs and all their reading of Scripture was not only irrelevant, it was offensive, as long as they kept preying on the poor and vulnerable. And it wasn’t enough for the people of Israel to say, well, I don’t do that, I’m a good person. There were some individuals in Israel even then who acted with justice and mercy as God commanded. But the society as a whole was corrupt. The society as a whole was unjust. The society as a whole was cruel and ignored—or even attacked—the most vulnerable people among them. Even though you make many prayers, God said through the prophet Isaiah, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
This reading should make us nervous. There is goodness in America; there is justice and mercy. But there is also injustice in America. There are opportunities for growth in America, but there are also people who are oppressed, because of the color of their skin or their religion or where they grew up. We Americans are, as a nation, very prosperous. As a nation, we are by far the richest country in the world. Yet nationwide, one in every five children goes hungry sometimes because their family cannot afford food. There are hungry people here in Underwood, and in all the small towns across North Dakota. There are people incarcerated on minor charges because they couldn’t afford to pay the fines. There are people incarcerated on major charges who got much harsher sentences than others who committed the same crime because their skin was darker. There are orphans and abused and neglected children in America who receive the care and support they need, but there are also children failed by the system, children who fall through the cracks, children left to struggle through it alone. There are elderly people who receive the support and care they need as their health declines, but there are also others who don’t because we just don’t know what to do. There are hungry people, sick people, disabled people, jobless people in America who get the help they need to get back up on their feet; there are others who get ignored because we’re more worried about the possibility of fraud than about making sure that people get the help they need.
And I wonder what Ezekiel or Isaiah would call us? What words would God give them to describe us? Now this was the sin of our sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. Does that describe us? As a nation, as a church, as a people, does that describe us? We have slipped up far, far too often, and let our prejudices and our greed and our fear shape our society instead of the justice and mercy God requires of us. How much blood is on our hands?
We Christians, we know God. We have God’s Word in the holy Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord, we have beautiful hymns, we have the faith handed down by our ancestors and inspired in us by God. And these are all important. But as God told the Israelites in our reading, our worship means nothing if it is not accompanied by care for the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable people among us. That care comes in many forms: government policies, private charity, our business practices, our community’s treatment of the people in our midst, and the way we live our everyday lives. Hopefully, that care is a part of all aspects of our lives, just as our faith is. Too often, we as individuals and as a society fall short of the care God asks of us.
Seek justice, God says. Rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall become like snow. May God forgive us our sins, wash us clean, and guide us in the path of his justice and mercy.