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 God’s presence and God’s power? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work, the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit? Justice. Justice to the nations. What will be the preeminent work and witness of the Messiah? Justice.[ii]
In the scriptures, 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, “abruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” which shows a kind, gentle, dignified respect for others, especially the weak.[iii] The Prophet Isaiah closes with the words: “[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 understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due. Justice!
Who is in the family? Who belongs to us? Devastation by disaster is prompting some politicians to reconsider the good of government aid. If for a hurricane, Garrison Keillor asked last week, why not for cancer?[i] Should not disaster relief and health care be provided for everyone? Should we not expect each to be costly and worth it since we’re all in this together? Hurricanes and health care are just two of many ways our country is divided about who belongs and how we take care of each other.
In our gospel story this evening, Jesus called those who were following him together, and he named twelve of them apostles. These were set apart to be Jesus’ close friends, to receive his further instruction, to be powerfully sent out teaching and healing on his behalf.
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. While washing their nets lakeside, Jesus had come along with a crowd. He asked for a boat from which to speak. Then Jesus said: “Put out into deep water and let out your nets.” Simon said: We’ve been out all night and caught nothing! Yet if you say so, I’ll try. Suddenly there were so many fish, Simon had to yell for other boats to help. The boats began to sink because of the fish. Seeing this, Simon Peter fell at Jesus’ knees and said: “Go away, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus said: “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you’ll be catching people.” Simon, Andrew, James, and John then left everything and followed Jesus.[ii]
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]
Marks of Mission IV
One of the most radical things I have done in the past few years was to grow radishes in the vegetable garden at Emery House. Now I know that doesn’t sound very radical. After all you can buy perfectly good radishes at the grocery store. Or can you?
I built a number of raised beds and in one of them I planted radishes. Radishes are fun to grow. First of all, I am quite fond of them. Secondly you can plant them quite early in the spring. And finally it’s only about 21 days between planting and eating. If you want to discover the joys of vegetable gardening, radishes are a great way to begin. They are one of the closest things to instant gratification in the vegetable world.
In the Gospel record, we read of three presentations of Jesus at the Temple. Today, the first of the presentations, marks forty days following Jesus’ birth. Two things were required of Mary and Joseph according to the Law of Moses: Jesus’ parents were required to present Jesus in the temple, dedicating him to God as their firstborn son.[i] Also, there was Mary’s need for “purification.” We read in the Book of Leviticus that a new mother was to be ceremonially purified by a priest forty days after childbirth.[ii] A second presentation was when Jesus was age 12, when he greatly impressed the temple authorities with his precocious knowledge.[iii] And a third, when, as an adult, he was presented with the goings on of Temple – what was going on, outside and inside the temple.
One of the many highlights of my life in the last dozen years or so has been my ability to travel to Jerusalem on a number of occasions. If you have never been, I can’t encourage you enough to seize whatever opportunity arises and go. Your life will be immensely enriched, your heart broken and broken open, and your faith challenged and changed. If you have been, you will know what I say is true.
I won’t ask for a show of hands this morning, but I’m wondering how many of us know a person or a family who is living below the poverty line. The U.S. Census Bureau defines that as a single person who makes less than $11,491 per year, or a family of four that earns less than $23,018 annually. In 2010, the Census Bureau tells us, over 15% of the people in the United States were below the poverty line (15.3%). The percentage for children was even higher: 21.6% of children living in the United States in 2010 were living below the poverty line – that’s one in every five children in one of the wealthiest nations on earth. If you know a person or persons who live with this kind of poverty, I’d like you to picture them and keep them in mind for the next few minutes.
“No one can serve two masters for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth”
There probably isn’t anybody in this room that needs to be told that as Americans we lead very privileged lives. “Welcome to the world, America,” was a phrase many of us heard in the wake on 9/11. It reflected the view that America and its citizens are largely insulated from grim realities that are the stuff of daily life for billions who share the planet. I thought about that the other day as I drove down Somerville Avenue. There’s a string of gas stations along the avenue and I couldn’t help notice that gas prices had risen about thirty cents since I bought gas the previous week. I thought, “Welcome to the revolution, America;” that the effects of popular revolutions that we’ve all been reading about have finally come to our shores.
One of my favorite buildings in all the world is the Chartres Cathedral in North France. I had the privilege of living in France for a year near Chartres and I used to love visiting and getting to know the amazing work of art.
I especially loved the stunning west front of the cathedral and those incredible stone carvings of Adam and Eve, the prophets, apostles, saints and martyrs. But at the very center, that favorite scene of all: the Last Judgment. And it was illustrated by that favorite symbol – the weighing scales. Each poor soul would in turn, stand before the terrifying judge of all, as his good works were put into one side of the scales, and his evil deeds into the other. Would he be a sheep or a goat? If his evil deeds outweighed his good, down he would go into the fires of hell. But if on balance he had done enough good works, up he would go to join the heavenly host. And what a host! You’ve never seen such smug, self-satisfied faces as those in heaven! And we may sympathize with the view that if they are the ones going to heaven, I might prefer the other place!
Over the past few days I have been re-reading Brian McLaren’s book, Everything Must Change.1 McLaren tells us that, for the past several decades, he has been wrestling with two important questions:
The first question is, “What are the biggest problems in the world?” by which he means, [What are the] “problems that cause the most suffering in the present, that pose the greatest threat to our future, …[and] that lie at the root of what’s wrong with the world.” (p.11) He speaks, among other things, of the challenges of global poverty, environmental destruction, and the increasing level of, and potential for, violence in today’s world.
The second question he asks is, “What does Jesus have to say about these global problems?” As a “follower of God in the way of Jesus,” McLaren insists that Jesus’ words and actions have much to teach us about how we should live in a world facing such enormous problems as these.