Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sermon: "Vineyard of Justice" (Isaiah 5:1-7)

Uzziah was 16 years old when he became king of Judah. And he was a great king! Abraham Heschel, the famous rabbi, scholar, and theologian, wrote that Uzziah’s fame was second only to Solomon’s.
So before I do anything else, let me tell you a little about King Uzziah...
According to the book of 2nd Chronicles, the 14th book of the Hebrew Bible, one of King Uzziah’s great accomplishments was to restore Eloth, the great port located at the northeastern-most part of the Red Sea.
Living in Long Beach, we know how important it is to the economy to have an efficient, functioning port.
The port of Eloth had been taken over and destroyed by another nation, but Uzziah recaptured it and rebuilt it.
The book of 2nd Chronicles says that Uzziah did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and that God gave him success. Just listen to this list of successes:
“He marched against the Philistines and broke down the walls of Gath, Jabneh, and Ashdod. Then he rebuilt towns near Ashdod and elsewhere among the Philistines. God helped him against the Philistines, the Arabs who inhabited Gur, and the Meunites. The Meunites paid taxes to Uzziah, whose fame spread even to Egypt because he had grown so powerful. He built towers in Jerusalem, at the Corner Gate, the Valley Gate, and at the Angle, and reinforced them. He also built towers in the wilderness and dug many wells for his large herds in the lowlands and the plain. He had many workers who tended his farms and vineyards, because he loved the soil. Uzziah had a standing army equipped for combat … Uzziah supplied the entire force with shields, spears, helmets, armor, bows, and sling stones. He set up clever devices in Jerusalem on the towers and corners of the wall designed to shoot arrows and large stones. And so Uzziah’s fame spread far and wide...” [2nd Chronicles 26:7-15]
The wealth and power of Judah under Uzziah’s reign was not limited to just the upper classes. Even the poor benefited, so that the gap between rich and poor was not so extravagant. The nation’s prosperity was shared among all the people. It was a good time in Judah, a great time.
And because things were good, and because there was a fair amount sharing of the resources in which the poor were not left out, God did not feel the need to summon any prophets to speak to those in authority. God only called prophets when the poor were left behind, when the benefits of the nation’s prosperity went only to the rich.
But then... in his power, Uzziah became arrogant. He began to act corruptly. The kingdom’s prosperity and power started to unravel.
The poor, especially, bore the brunt of this unraveling, while the wealthy and powerful used their power and wealth to cling to what they had.
When Uzziah died, and his son Jotham became king, things got even worse.
In the book of Isaiah we read that, in the year that King Uzziah died, when his son Jotham became king, God called Isaiah the prophet to begin his work. For most of Uzziah’s reign, when the gap between rich and poor was not too great, God didn’t feel the need to call any prophets.
But as God often did, when the rich began to hoard the country’s resources for themselves, and the poor began to suffer in greater measure, God called upon prophets to be the conscience of the nation, and to call the nation to repentance.
Prophets got their message across in diverse ways. Sometimes they spoke directly. Sometimes they spoke allegorically. Sometimes they used poems and stories. And sometimes, they even engaged in street theater.
Today’s passage is a poem that Isaiah wrote and recited, about a vine-grower who planted a vineyard. I wouldn’t be surprised if Isaiah recited this poem on more than one occasion while standing in an actual vineyard; prophets liked visual images to go with their stories.
In this story, this poem, the vine-grower planted his vineyard with great care, creating all the perfect conditions for growing the finest grapes which would make the finest wine, but in the end, all he got was wild, worthless, inedible grapes.
And now, people of Judah, he says: you tell me what I should do with my vineyard. What can I do, but tear it down completely and start over?
Then he says: the vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are its pleasant planting. God expected justice, but saw bloodshed.
The Hebrew poetry here has some wordplay: God expected mishpat, but got mispah. God expected justice, but got bloodshed.
God expected righteousness - sedaqa -
But heard a cry - se’aqa.
And, I should point out, it’s not just any cry; it’s the cry of a plaintiff seeking justice. It’s the cry of a mother weeping over her starving child. It’s the cry of people being oppressed. It’s the cry of distress.
God always hears that cry. When people have been treated unfairly and unjustly, and they cry out for justice, God hears that cry.
It was the cry of the Hebrews under slavery that led God to call Moses, to lead them out of slavery and to the promised land.
God hears the cry of the oppressed, the cry of those crying out for justice, the cry of the poor suffering under oppressive economics.
But apparently King Jotham, Uzziah’s son, did not hear that cry.
If he heard that cry, he would have acted differently. But instead, the rest of Isaiah chapter 5 shows how he acted.
In verse 8, Isaiah speaks prophetically against those who “join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no room for anyone but you…”
Apparently there was a housing crisis in Judah, affecting the poor, who could not find a place to live. In the time of prosperity, rents had gone up, and now rents remained high even though incomes for the poor had fallen. There was no place for the poor to live.
There was no sedaqa - no righteousness - there. There was only se’aqa, only a cry.
Southern California has its own housing crisis right now. Home prices are rising, and rents in particular are skyrocketing, even while poverty levels are rising. As people of faith, we know that God - through the prophet Isaiah - speaks to this. Isaiah had a message then, and Isaiah has a message for today.
In verse 10, Isaiah speaks against those who stay up, partying all night, drinking beer and wine, smoking fine cigars, enjoying wealth and luxury night after night, day after day, at the country club, at the mansion, at the palace… while ignoring the work of the Lord, the work of doing justice, the work of caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, the refugee, the uninsured…
If there are growing numbers of people who need help - growing numbers of poor, growing numbers of refugees fleeing terror, growing numbers of people dying because they are losing their health care, what right do you wealthy have to be celebrating a rising stock market, cutting taxes for the rich, using money to influence public policy in your favor? God is not pleased with such things.
That is Isaiah’s message then, and that is Isaiah’s message today.
In verse 18, Isaiah speaks against those who say “it’s all in God’s hands;” Isaiah speaks against those who say, “God will take care of it;” Isaiah speaks against those who say, “have faith…” as if such words are enough. Words are not enough; action is needed. So Isaiah speaks against those who send thoughts and prayers to those who are suffering, but do nothing to help.
God demands justice and righteousness from US. God demands that WE create a fairer, more just world. God demands that we stop the bloodshed, that we listen to the cries of those who are suffering.
All your thoughts and prayers don’t mean a thing if you are not willing to ACT for what is good, ACT for what is right, ACT for what is just.
That is Isaiah’s message then, and that is Isaiah’s message today.
In verse 20, Isaiah says: “Doom to those who call evil good and good evil, who present darkness as light and light as darkness, who make bitterness sweet and sweetness bitter.”
Those who rob the poor to pay the rich make the evil they do sound as if it is a good thing. They cut services for the poor to give the wealthy tax cuts, and say it will benefit the economy, that everyone’s lives will improve. They promote and enact racist policies, and say it’s about states’ rights, or about honoring our history.
But this evil is NOT good. God is against those who take the bitterness of racism, the bitterness of unjust economic policies, and make them taste sweet.
That is Isaiah’s message then, and that is Isaiah’s message today.
In verse 22, Isaiah speaks against those who pervert justice by accepting bribes, letting the guilty go free but robbing the innocent of their rights.
Isaiah speaks against those who accept bribes from the NRA, then say that mass shootings are the price of freedom. Isaiah speaks against those who accept bribes from insurance and pharmaceutical companies, then work to take health care away from millions. Isaiah speaks against those who accept bribes from giant corporations, then work to enact tax policies that cut social services to pay for the massive tax subsidies these corporations receive.
This is Isaiah’s message then, and this is Isaiah’s message today.
As a preacher, I don’t aim to be political. But I do aim to discover God’s truth in scripture, and share that truth. It’s what God has called me to do, just as it’s what God called Isaiah to do. It’s what God calls upon all of us to do: to speak for justice and righteousness, to act for justice and righteousness, to remove the bloodshed, to hear the cries,... As William Barber says, it’s not about conservative vs. liberal; it’s about right vs. wrong. It’s about moral vs. immoral.
Also: some people say, that all this Old Testament stuff was replaced by the New Testament, the New Covenant. It’s Jesus that matters. Not Isaiah. Not the prophets.
Well, let’s remember the first thing that Jesus did when he began his ministry: he walked into the synagogue. They handed him a scroll to read, which just happened to be the scroll of Isaiah.
He read it; the passage went like this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It was Isaiah’s message in a nutshell: do what is right. Do what is just. Proclaim good news to the poor…
Jesus read it, rolled up the scroll, and said: “Today, in me, this scripture has been fulfilled.”
Boom! Mic drop!
And the people realized that all that stuff Isaiah said, all his condemnation of the rich, all his words about helping the poor, all his words about justice and righteousness… everything Isaiah talked about, Jesus came to fulfill.
But those in positions of authority didn’t like this teaching. It was too political. It challenged those in positions of power and authority. It challenged those who had wealth. It challenged those who put prisoners in prison, and profited off of it...
They thought, “we need to silence him, right away.” They tried to grab Jesus and throw him off a cliff, but he escaped, and carried out three years of ministry before they were finally able to arrest him and execute him.
That’s what people do to those who speak prophetic truth. They vilify them. They defile them.  They crucify them.
And sometimes, they tweet about them.
All the while pretending that they are the holy, righteous ones.
But God’s truth cannot be stopped. Jesus proclaimed God’s truth of good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and release to the captives… and they tried to kill him… but they couldn’t.
Today, God still hears the cries for justice. God’s people still stand for what is right. And the words of Isaiah that were fulfilled in Christ will be fulfilled through Christ’s body, the church. The message is now ours to carry, ours to share, ours to proclaim. And we will do so, because we are followers of Christ.
No matter how broken this world gets, we will always be a movement for wholeness. We will always proclaim good news to the poor. We will always stand for justice and righteousness. We will always follow Christ. And we will never turn back.