The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant; …I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[i] Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the long-awaited Messiah, and also, God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant lands, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews, people like many of us. How will we know? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work? What will be the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit among us? Justice. Justice to the nations. These opening words of Isaiah, God’s prophet, about the forthcoming Messiah, and then, later,when Jesus, the Messiah, begins his ministry, his opening words are about justice.[ii]
In the scriptures, the moral notion of justice is broader than what is dictated by law or custom. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due, especially the poor and the weak. The Prophet Isaiah continues, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” The descriptions of God’s servant not breaking the bruised reed nor quenching the smoldering wick show a gentle and dignified respect for others, especially the weak, and paradoxically,even a detection of strength in their weakness.[iii] Strength comes out of weakness.[iv] There is evident in another’s courageous weakness. And the Prophet Isaiah closes with the words, “He [that is, the Messiah and we, the Messiah’s followers] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth…” The Messiah’s mission begins and ends with justice. The biblical notion of justice is that everyone is given their due. Justice!
Today we remember the baptism of Jesus, a baptism in which we share. Momentarily we will be invited to renew our own baptismal promises. There is one question in our Baptismal Covenant which I find particularly poignant. We all will be asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”[v] The English word “dignity” comes from the Latin, dignitatem, which means worthiness. The English word “worthiness” comes from an Old English root from which we get the word “worship.” That to which we give the highest renown and reverence we worship. So our pledging to respect the dignity of every human being is about our ascribing worth and worthiness to others, reverencing them as persons – as children of God – and acknowledging God’s image in them.
Why bequeath dignity to others? We pledge to bequeath a reverent worthiness to other people – especially those who could seem to us among the least, or the last, or the lost – not to show the love of God to them. It’s not that, at least not at first. We’re reminded about doing this, we renew our pledge to do this, so that we will first receive the love of God in a way which we cannot buy or control or predetermine. We receive a much fuller presence of God, in the face and form of those whom we could deem the most poor or pathetic.In respecting the dignity of every human being, especially those who show up poorly on our own lists, we will especially know more about the breadth of the love of God. Experiencing this, we will know so much more about the love of God that we can’t help but share it. To love as we have been loved.
We pledge to respect the dignity of every human being. We pledge to ascribe worth to all others. This pledge goes without saying about those whom we love, value, respect, identify with, and are grateful for. Towards them we need not pledge to give respect and dignity. Rather, we make this pledge to respect the dignity of those whom we could otherwise scorn, curse, hold in derision, and reject. Why? We learn something about the magnanimity of God’s respect for the dignity of creation, and about the limitless breadth of God’s love, by bequeathing dignity on those whom we may find have no dignity, at least in our eyes. To ascribe them their dignity, their worthiness: their worthiness to be alive, to have needs, to have hopes, to have convictions and values which we may or may not share. To push his point, Jesus even says two more very extreme things. Jesus reminds us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[vi] Love your enemies… or, if you don’t call them enemies, then love the people you find appalling, abhorrent, perhaps whom you could otherwise regard as jerks. And then Jesus says that this is not just about “them”; this is about “me.” Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[vii] The least on our list.
Back to our Baptismal Covenant. In the same breath that we pledge to respect the dignity of every human being – especially to respect the dignity of those who, in our eyes, may have no dignity – we also pledge “to strive for justice and peace among all people.” This echoes what we heard in our first lesson appointed for today from the Prophecy of Isaiah: about establishing “justice and peace among all people.” This is also what we reaffirm in our own Baptismal Covenant.
Here’s where I need to make an admission. I don’t quite have my bearings on this, what this means for me and for us now: about establishing “justice and peace among all people.” The outcome of our recent presidential election was not my preference, but it clearly was the choice of so many people in our land. (In all fairness, half of our voting public was inevitably going to be mightily disappointed in the outcome of our presidential election. Had the outcome been different, what I’m about to say would still pertain.) Especially now, I find this a compelling baptismal pledge we are asked to renew – “to strive for justice and peace among all people” – as I can anticipate so many people being left behind. What I am clear about is that what we read of Jesus in the Gospel accounts. The Gospels came out of time with many parallels to our own day. The government of the people of Palestine had been taken over – the omnipotent Romans were in town and were in charge – and the rich were getting richer and the poor, poorer. The religious authorities actually only had authority among the religious, and not much authority at that. And there were religious zealots, whose ends justified their means, so they were convinced. Women and children were the most vulnerable, by far. Segregation and discrimination by religion, by class and caste, by ancestry, by age, by appearance was rampant. Those of the service industry – the servant class – were often foreigners without citizenship and little or no rights.
This is the cultural backdrop for what we know of Jesus, and what Jesus calls us to be and do. This is the context in which Jesus says that “the greatest are the least” because there were so many small people; why he says “the last will be first,” because so many people were losing; why he says that “the greatest among you are the least,” because there was so much flaunting of power and prowess; why he promises us “peace, not as the world gives,” because Jesus’ peace was not contingent on the world being at peace or the nation being at peace.[viii] He promised an inner peace, beyond understanding, which will fill us and then teem out of us.
Consider the Gospel stories coming out of the most adversarial of conditions in Jesus’ home country. Jesus’ promises of his presence, his power, and his provision were spoken during a time of great uncertainty… which is also why he says repeatedly, “Don’t be afraid,” “Don’t be afraid,” “Don’t be afraid,” because there was so much about which one could otherwise be afraid.
Respect the dignity of every human being. That seems clear to me. If you find someone whose dignity you do not experience, and for whom you find respectability wanting, rather than that being an obstacle, consider that an invitation. You’ve been given a gift. If you find some person or some group does not have dignity, give them dignity. And by all means, don’t curse them. Remember Jesus’ saying in a very sorry context, “bless, don’t curse,” when it would be so easy to curse.[ix] Cursed people do not get better. Pray God’s blessing be upon them, to multiply the good and redeem the bad. Pray for the intervention of God’s blessing, that God be at work in them, in an amazing way, through whatever they’ve got up their sleeve.
And as for our pledge to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” I don’t have a big plan figured out. In the meantime, I find relentless opportunities, almost each day, where justice and peace are sorely needed. It’s not on a global level. I’m clearly not up to that, at least not today. But it’s on a local level. Sometimes under the roof. It’s to strive for justice and peace among those whom we’ve been directly given to share life: our household, our neighborhood, our city, our colleagues, those whom we pass on the streets. Don’t wait for a big plan. Start with a small practice, and the ripples of grace will have a power that can do infinitely more than you can ask or imagine.[x]
And that’s the other thing Jesus talks about to a subjugated people of an occupied nation: power. You will have the power you need.[xi]
Don’t wait until you have a plan. Move ahead with a practice. Jesus gives you a baptismal promise. It’s Jesus’ promise of his presence, his peace, his provision, and his power. He made his promise to us during his earthly life, in a time of incredible adversity for so many. And Jesus will make good on his promise. With that, you can do it!
[i] Isaiah 42:1-9.
[ii] See Luke 4:16-21, Jesus’ reading from Isaiah 61:1-3 when he begins his public ministry.
[iii] Insight from the commentary on Isaiah 42:1-7 in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Raymond E. Brown, SS, ed. (1990), pp. 334-335.
[iv] St. Paul attests to this in 2 Corinthians 12:9.
[v] See “The Baptismal Covenant” in The Book of Common Prayer (1979), pp. 304-305.
[vi] See Matthew 5:43-45.
[vii] See Matthew 25:35-45.
[viii] A riff on John 14:27.
[ix] Luke 6:28.
[x] Ephesians 3:20, 21 – “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.”
[xi] Acts 1:8 – “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be [Jesus’] witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
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