Isaiah 40:1-11 NRSV
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
In Bible Study this week we read chapters 22-24 in Exodus. Among many other things God told the people of Israel these things, which are re-stated over and over again throughout the Old Testament: 21Don't mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. 22Don't treat any widow orphan badly. 23If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I'll hear their cry. 24I'll be furious, and I'll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.
25If you lend money to my people who are poor among you, don't be a creditor and charge them interest. 26If you take a piece of clothing from someone as a security deposit, you should return it before the sun goes down. 27His clothing may well be his only blanket to cover himself. What else will that person have to sleep in? And if he cries out to me, I'll listen, because I'm compassionate.
In those same passages it becomes clear that individuals can only prosper as long as the community is stable and working in balance. The laws allow for restitution, not retribution. There was no such thing as a giant lawsuit – the value of any item, injury or damage was known in advance.
In Exodus 22, in the middle of this list of laws and punishments God promises the people of Israel what sounds like the ultimate peace of heart. “25If you worship the LORD your God, the LORD will bless your bread and your water. I'll take sickness away from you, 26and no woman will miscarry or be infertile in your land. I'll let you live a full, long life.“ If you worship me, if you obey me, this is the peace of heart that will come again upon the people of Israel. Long healthy lives. Healthy babies and many of them. No enemies to worry about.
But . . .the leaders of Israel ignored those laws and because they did, because greed and the lust for power replaced the kind of balanced community the laws provided for, the entire nation was lost. They didn’t simply suffer military defeat as they had every other time they’d “done what was evil in the sight of God.” This time their temple was destroyed, the crops were burned in the fields, all the wealth of the nation was taken away and the leadership – the nobles and priests – were taken away into captivity. Their children are taken away and raised as Babylonians. Those who were left behind had to scratch out a living as best they could, for the bulk of their wealth – their crops, their herds, the very fish from the waters of Israel – went to support their overlords. All went to Babylon.
Israel has been punished for their pride and their disobedience. They have lost far more than just their wealth and power, status and prestige. They have lost their homeland and their children. They fear the loss of their language, their culture, their very identity as a people. They had lost hope. Psalm 137 makes their feelings very clear,
“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked us for mirth,
saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
There was no peace in their hearts.
And now God says to Isaiah, “Comfort my people. Tell them the time of their imprisonment is over. Tell them to have peace in their hearts. Tell them they need have no more worries or concerns.” They will be returned to their home. They will liberated, even as they were liberated from slavery in Egypt. They will be returned to the land promised to their ancestors.
In a recent Christian Century magazine, Bill Goettler, assistant dean of ministerial studies at Yale Divinity School and co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church of New Haven told a story about a homeless man he has known for a couple of years. Danny slept in the doorway of a local business, careful to leave before anyone arrived for work in the morning so he didn’t frighten them. He could be seen around town selling newspapers, washing windows and collecting things to recycle. He worked hard to get the few dollars he needed for food. Sometimes he’d come around to the church asking for a bus pass or a few dollars or some food. And whenever he saw Goettler, he’d say “Reverend, Is this the way it’s supposed to be?”
The short answer is NO! It’s not supposed to be this way. It’s only this way when the leaders forget in whose name they are leading, who put them in positions of power and trust. It’s only this way when society becomes unbalanced. When it becomes clear to everyone that “winning” is more important than fairness or compassion or mercy or what’s good for the community. When a candidate for president claims that people who are poor and jobless have only themselves to blame. When the most popular TV shows feature groups of people placed in a difficult environment and, rather than being told to create the best community they can, are encouraged to manipulate each other, to lie, cheat and steal in order to win a large sum of money.
There is no peace when people have no place to sleep, no job or hope of one, no way to support themselves or their families. There is no peace when the wealthy have the power of life and death over the poor.
When Israel behaved this way God paid attention. God promised Israel more than just peace of heart if they worshipped their Lord. God promised destruction if they oppressed the powerless among them. “23If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I'll hear their cry. 24I'll be furious, and I'll kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows, and your children will be orphans.”
I think God means it. And I think God’s promise to bring destruction upon those who oppress the powerless is beginning to come true here. Maybe destruction won’t come at the point of a sword but when I look at the news I am beginning to see an upswelling of rebellion against that lack of compassion and mercy that is a plague upon our nation. There’s the non-violent Occupy movement, of course, but there are other examples of civil disobedience that are as wonderful as they are unexpected.
In Atlanta this week, Chase Bank foreclosed upon a home and deputies were sent with a moving van and a writ of eviction. This is never an easy job for the police When they arrived and saw the homeowners they called their supervisor and said, “We’re not going to do this.” They could not in good conscience remove 103 year old Vida Lee Hall and her 83 year old daughter from the house they had called home for over 50 years. Their call was passed all the way up the chain of command to Sheriff Jackson, who backed them up in their refusal to obey the writ of eviction and called them back to their station. I first saw this story Wednesday on MSNBC, where Laurence O’Donnell said “Laws alone cannot make a Just society Laws must be tempered with mercy. We have a more just society because Sheriff Jackson of Atlanta followed his conscience instead of the law.” I think it is only right that Sheriff Jackson and his deputies chose to protect the powerless instead of serving the wealthy. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that those deputies went home that night with peace in their hearts.
Marine Corps Lance Corporal Scott Olson, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, appeared on the Rachel Maddow show on Thursday. You may know that he is the man who suffered a serious head injury at Occupy Oakland when the police were trying to move the protestors from their location. His story became the motivating force that reinvigorated the movement around the country and inspired even more people to actively participate. During that interview he said, “I want more than anything to see more people get involved. You can't effect change sitting at home. The occupy movement is about coming together and learning each others stories and creating community.”
And did you know that the Occupy movement is changing focus? As more cities are moving the Occupiers out of parks and other pubic spaces, people are now occupying properties where, for example, a single mother and her children are about to be evicted because, as in so many other cases, the bank wouldn’t negotiate her mortgage payments. Instead of occupying public property for all the 99%, they are occupying private property to help individual members of the community. This isn’t new. Communities did the same thing during the Great Depression, standing with their neighbors against the bankers.
When the people of Israel behaved as community, when they obeyed the laws that were intended to keep their society in balance, when they cared for the powerless among them with mercy and compassion, they had peace. Not just political and military peace, but peace that comes from within. When the people of Israel had this peace of heart, the kind of peace that is one of the blessings showered upon them by God, then they were free.
A friend of mine recently shared this quote from the Dalai Lama: “The basic foundation of humanity is compassion and love. This is why, if even a few individuals simply try to create mental peace and happiness within themselves and act responsibly and kind-heartedly towards others, they will have a positive influence in their community.”
Author and Holocaust Survivor Eli Wiesel said, “Peace is our gift to each other.”
The deputies in Georgia gave peace when they chose compassion over blind obedience to the law. The Occupiers seek peace by bringing international attention to the plight of the powerless, calling for the kind of economic justice that is rooted in compassion and mercy. As Christians we are required to love our neighbor, to bring that peace that surpasses all understanding into the lives we touch as we go about our daily business. This love, this peace-giving, is the form of worship that the prophet Micah declared God most desires of us, more than thousands of rams or rivers of oil or clouds of incense, but rather to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Blessed be the God of Israel!