Sermon for Raysville Friends Meeting
Reading: Isaiah 5:8-26
I’ve read some of Krista Burdine’s sermons on her blog, and I have read her lessons in the Sunday School quarterly. I liked all of her messages on Isaiah in this quarterly, except for today’s. We might not come at the text with the same background and experiences, but, this is the only passage where I feel like offering a rebuttal… (though, to be perfectly fair to her, I contacted her to ask a clarifying question, and learned that she was assigned the title.)
It might seem a rather silly thing, but, I don’t like seeing this passage as written in opposition to “Materialism and Secularism.” Any time you have an “ism”, it represents a philosophical system, or a belief system. My big problem is that I cannot apply these much more recent ‘ism’s’ to ancient Judah: How can a Theocracy, with a King who feels he rules by divine right, and where the government and the temple system are so closely related it is hard to discern where one ends and the other begins be influenced by “secularism?”
Materialism is even more challenging to me, because the word means different things in different contexts. Philosophers such as Confucius are considered ‘materialists’, because they don’t talk about anything outside of the realm of human observation. Science is also a materialistic approach to understanding the universe, for the same reason. From the context of her writing, I can guess that materialism is “Economic Materialism”, which assumes that our value as people is tied to the our wealth. It is a world-view that assumes that a person’s life-goal will be to acquire wealth, and that success and happiness can be measured by personal wealth. This word view has been summed up in the 1987 movie: “Wall street” with the following quote:
Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures, the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A
Again, this really does not seem to apply to ancient Israel. There was a real problem with Greed, and the people in power did not want to follow Torah in those places where it meant that they had to give up their wealth — but, I’m not really aware of anybody suggesting that greed is good. There is a difference between claiming one standard, but not doing it because it is too difficult or too expensive; and claiming an entirely different standard. I don’t think that Isaiah was speaking to secular economic materialists. I think he was speaking to a theocracy, made up of people who’s standards of justice were relational, and who valued even the poor — yet due to personal greed, and personal faithlessness all the way up to members of the priesthood, they failed to live up to the very standards and worldview they believed in. If they were secularists and materialists, they would not have been hypocrites.
I also don’t like it, because there is a real shift from how the Hebrews in a theocracy applied their faith as a people, and how later Jews and us Christians have to apply our faith. We live in a secular, and secularized society. Materialism is a widespread philosophy, not only in “capitalistic” nations like our own, but even in nominally communist nations like China. We really are facing world views that are radically different than what our faith teaches us.
When early Christians lived in a religious society, it was a pagan society. They worshiped a large number of gods, and the Emperor was also worshiped as a son of god. Jesus called the disciples to be Salt and Light. We are called to change the very flavor of the world, even though it is a world that we cannot control.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know the dangers of secularism and materialism. I used to live in China; China is very secular, and has largely adopted a harsh materialistic world-view that I can best describe as sociopathic. When I was there, breathing sometimes felt like choking, because the air was so full of soot. If you drank the water, you took a real risk with your life, because industrial waste is dumped directly into the rivers. While there were regulations, business owners did not care about the life and health of their neighbors.
In a couple of extreme cases, one food company mixed powdered milk with fertilizer, to make it look like it had more protein than it really did. That adulterated milk was sold to a company that made baby formula, and Chinese babies died in 2008. Another similar case had a Chinese company flour mixed with fertilizer, sold as gluten (because gluten has a higher protein content than flour, and fetches a higher price.) Nestle bought this adulterated flour, and in 2007, owners who bought Alpo dog food watched their pets get sick, and sometimes die.
These extreme cases show the folly of a materialism that is so focused that it values other human beings only as a way to acquire more personal wealth. I could give similar examples of extreme secularism through people such as Stalin — but this won’t really be necessary. It is enough to point out that no matter what we think about secularism, it is part of the society we live in. We can believe that no matter who is president, or governor, Jesus is still Lord — and I do believe this. We can elect a president who believes that Jesus is Lord, and most of the time, we do; but, no matter what we do, our society and government is secular. We cannot change the isims in society — but, we can ask Christ to change us, and heal us from the sins of greed and pride.
This is where I have a real problem with the approach. I feel like there are three important ways of approaching scripture: First, we figure out what it meant to the original audience, (In this case, the failing kingdom of Judah), then it is important to understand how the passage has been traditionally understood. Our Bible is a collection of writings that are not only considered God inspired, but considered to be relevant beyond the original context. There is a long history of application that we can consider. Finally, and in many ways most importantly, we have to consider how the passage applies to us.
The way this applies to the leaders in the Kingdom of Judah is pretty obvious. Torah called on those administrating the government to base their decisions on empathy. They were guided to govern in a way that would end generational poverty, and to do so because of a shared history that included being enslaved. This is a people who’s sense of justice includes the words: “Never again.” What we see, however, is that a few people tried to own everything, leaving others living in poverty without hope. The year of Jubilee was, at this point, several centuries overdue.
When I read ancient sermons, one that stands out is an Easter Sermon by Gregory Nazianzen in the 4th century where he compares “law” to “gospel”, and he finds that the calling of the Christian is somewhat more difficult than following the letter of the old law. He notices that, in the case of Isaiah 5, the “law” spoke against collecting wealth and property to the point of pushing out everybody else, and again exploiting the poor — but the Gospel calls us to give generously and willingly, and completely so we can take up our cross without any other burden and follow Christ.
My personal take way, informed our rich history of reading scripture, is that we really have no choice but to live in a world where there are all kinds of ‘isms’. There will always be people who judge others based on the contents of their bank accounts and stock portfolios. I don’t expect my government to seek advice from religious experts to make sure that it is a just government. I don’t expect this — and yet I still find these scriptures valuable.
This is why I started these messages with Torah law: This passage speaks of the goal to end generational poverty and servitude. The hope is that the people of Israel will make a place for others, not, as this verse says: “join house to house and add field to field.” When poverty takes away the very hope of livelihood, and in an farm dominated economy, that is land and fields, there is nothing that can be done. We cannot expect a jubilee, nor even a Sabbath year — so Christ called his disciples to do the things they could not expect the Romans to do. The goal remains the same, but a different community takes on the work of carrying out these goals.
The trick is to somehow create justice in a society filled with injustice. The law that Moses brought to the Hebrews assumed that they would create a just society. Gospel assumes Christians will live in an unjust society. Nazianzen observed that the life Jesus called us to live is more difficult — and it is more difficult, because we are counter-cultural — yet, we are also changing culture by living in this world.
If you look at the names of Hospitals, it is very likely that the hospital will be named for a Christian leader. Homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and rehab houses are, more often than not Christian missions. People believe that we have a higher standard, because they can see how faith can lead individuals to do good things, and groups to do great things. When they know the great things that Christians do — they expect it. I am personally amazed at how much faith many non-churched people have.
As far as something our community has a personal connection with; I am impressed with our sister meeting, Muncie Friends Memorial. This Saturday, just like every 3rd Saturday of the month, the meeting will have a couple hundred needy families from the area picking up food. Members of Muncie Friends memorial work to bring donated food into the meetinghouse, and set up a system to distribute it in an efficient and orderly fashion. If anybody wants to volunteer for something, I strongly recommend this as a service opportunity. It is a little thing, but it is an opportunity to be part of something good, and at the same time to remind ourselves, and our sister church that we are part of a larger community, with a shared mission and calling to live as Christ taught us to live in the world.