Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service.
Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear.
Isaiah 58: 6-8
The title of last week’s sermon was “Searching for a Miracle.” In the 5th chapter of Matthew we witnessed ordinary folk flocking to Jesus. Many had heard about this new upstart teacher with healing capacity. Many had heard about this man with a heart of compassion and hands of care. If they could only get close to him. If Jesus could do for them what they heard he had done for others, then maybe, just maybe, he could miraculously improve their lives. People wanted healing. They were searching for a miracle.
But what did Jesus do? He flipped the script. They came searching for a miracle, and he told them that they were a miracle. They came looking for a blessing, and he told them that they were already blessed.
Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
And blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
This week’s lectionary lessons extend this theme. Beyond the beatitudes Jesus keeps on preaching. Beyond the blessings he keeps on teaching. Beyond this revolutionary view of God’s kingdom, Jesus provides an ethical mandate to live out in Caesar’s kingdom.
In the gospel lesson that was read for your hearing, pay attention to how Jesus speaks to the crowd. You are the Light of the World. Do not hide it. Let your light shine. Let your light shine so that others might know the goodness and grace of the God you serve. Then Jesus goes on to make his case about how we should treat one another in interpersonal interactions. Mutual respect. Kindness. Compassion. And attempts at understanding—even for those with whom you disagree. This, Jesus teaches, is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
Jesus isn’t being original here. He admits as much. But rather Jesus is appealing to the best of the Hebrew prophets. You’ve heard of Amos. You’ve heard of Hosea. You’ve heard of Jeremiah and Isaiah. These courageous freedom fighters from the 8th century before Christ’s birth left a template for this sort of ethical teaching.
This is what we read in the 58th chapter of the book of Isaiah. Here the prophet begins the chapter with words of condemnation. Isaiah condemns their religiosity. Isaiah condemns their piety. The people fast, and then they exploit their workers. They pray, and then they strike each other with wicked fists. They come to the house of the Lord, and then tighten the chains of injustice. So God tells the prophet Isaiah, “raise your voice like a trumpet, and declare to my people their rebellion.” Condemn them for their wicked and unjust ways.
Now typically when we think of prophets condemning the community, it is directed at those who have turned away from God. Condemnation is reserved for those who explicitly reject the faith. This is not the case here. These people Isaiah condemns are not irreligious. They are not impious. Nor are they unobservant. That would have made this critique too easy. To the contrary, these people were very religious. They wore it on their sleeves. And herein lies the problem. The prophet views their religion as self-serving. He regards their religion as self-righteous.
Isaiah condemns an approach to the faith where our rituals and traditions fail to move us toward greater care and compassion toward others. Isaiah sees their prayers as empty and rituals as self-serving — little more than selfish thoughts and vain desires cloaked in religious garb. We might impress one another. We might develop some social capital based on our religious associations and church memberships. But Isaiah is clear. We are not impressing God.
God wants us to move beyond an isolated and insular faith. Our religion should not just be about a relationship with God in some sort of spiritual vacuum. To the contrary, the quality of our faith must be defined by how we develop caring and compassionate relationships with one another. This should be the measure of our faith.
I do not mind saying it, particularly during these scary times when it seems the earth is unraveling. I am sick and tired of watching so-called religious folk use their faith as a means to acquire worldly power. I am sick and tired of witnessing religious groups use their faith as privileged markers of distinction and exclusion. Too many people are perverting the richness and beauty of their faith across this globe. Because they are using it as a weapon to bludgeon rather than a suture to heal.
Any religion that cannot make us more responsible for our world. Any faith that cannot make us more attuned to one another. Any God that cannot make us more kind, caring, and compassionate to one another is a God that is not worth worshipping. It’s a religion not worth having. It’s a faith not worth sharing. It is little more than a narcissistic ideology; an egoistic agenda that consecrates our own crap and baptizes our own bull.
This is why we have to condemn overt declarations of piety as not just self-serving, but also as self-righteousness. There are few things more dangerous than a self-righteous religion. Self-righteousness causes us to view the source of evil as always outside of ourselves. We believe that our motives and actions are right and pure. All others are a potential evil enemy.
This is the problem with all forms of fundamentalism, extremism, and jingoistic nationalisms. Privileging the humanity of any one group of people over another contradicts any idea of the parenthood of God and siblinghood of humanity. We can never declare that some people are more special than others. Nor can we act as if some deserve rights, privileges, and protections today just because they were born in Atlanta rather than Aleppo, or Washington, D.C. rather than Darfur.
Either we believe that all human beings were created equal or we don’t. Either we believe that God endowed all human beings with inalienable rights, or we do not. But if these are universal beliefs that inform our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, then we cannot pick and choose to whom these truths apply. Race, ethnicity, religion, or geographic boundary does not determine whom God loves. Thus, race, ethnicity, religion, or geographic boundary cannot determine who we treat with respect and dignity.
There are too many examples in the history of the world where self-righteousness led to widespread injustice and even genocide. Recall the Spanish Crown of the late 15th and 16th centuries. Consider how they perverted Catholicism with their colonization of the Americas. The lenses of self-righteousness blinded them to their own greed, violence, and avarice. A religion of self-righteousness caused them to regard indigenous, native populations as simply “heathens” in need of control and containment, not humans endowed with dignity and precious personality. Thus, in the span of fifty years, seventy million native peoples were exterminated across the Americas.
Recall the internment of some 120,000 people of Japanese descent during World War II. It did not matter that over sixty percent were American citizens. The federal government imprisoned the Constitution and arrested human compassion. Fear masquerading as self-righteousness left a lasting stain on this nation. We should always remember the later words of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—words that should serve as a guide and a warning for us today. “Grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.” Yet these are the moments when we must cling more closely to our core principles.
Or think about how groups like Al-Qaeda and Isis have perverted Islam for their own bigoted ends. They are so certain that they carry the will of God, and they are so sure of their righteousness. This is what can lead them to murder, terrorize, and destroy any and everything in the name of their hateful and malevolent God. As novelist Anne Lamott once put it, “you can safely assume that you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
This is why I fear that the clear and present danger in our nation today is not that we will be overrun by radical religious terrorists from somewhere else. My fear is that we Americans will become more and more like the very people we seem to fear. Our self-righteousness will blind us to our own pathology. Our self-righteousness will cause us to misdirect our fear, and thus misdiagnose our own failures as a nation.
For instance, does anyone find it odd that the same week that the President signs an executive order to restrict entry from seven Muslim countries in the name of keeping violence out, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ease regulations on background checks for gun buyers with mental illness? Blinded by self-righteousness. Or does anyone else find it strange that the same President that is promoting an “America First” agenda, is expected this week to sign a Senate approval that will allow coal mining debris to be dumped into American streams?
I hear the voice of Isaiah this morning, “You are a nation of religiosity, but you are too self-righteous. You are a nation of fasting yet you do as you please. You have become a nation of quarreling and strife. You cannot expect to do as you do today, and expect your voice to be heard from on high.”
Fortunately, the prophet Isaiah turns from condemnation to recommendation. The prophet tells the people that you know the kind of faith God wants from us. God wants us to fast, in order that we might feed the hungry. Pray so that we might see the refugee and house them. Worship so that we might see the naked and clothe them. Then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing will quickly appear. If you want a miracle, build it. Build it by one generous act of justice at a time.
This is an important point I took away this week from a powerful book I read this week. It was Melissa Fleming’s A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea. Fleming provides what many consider the miraculous account of a Syrian refugee Doaa Al Zamel. In 2015, the nineteen year old was crammed on a smugglers boat with over 500 refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The boat was rammed and sunk by another ship. And though nearly everyone, including her fiancé perished, Doaa remained afloat for four days. She even secured and protected two infants while floating at sea.
Many read her story as a miracle. It is indeed a tale of the human spirit, resilience, and sacrifice. But there were other parts of the story that caught my attention. Long before her miraculous feat at sea, Doaa tells of so many miracles that she experienced after fleeing war ravaged Syria to Egypt. Small, random acts of kindness that literally kept her family afloat.
There were Egyptian families that would come by their home with food and blankets, realizing the family was in need. There was the hotel owner in coastal Egypt that allowed Syrian refugees to live in his hotel rent free during the winter months. There was the shop owner that gave young Doaa a job, and paid her wages even when she was sick. And there are numerous other occasions when someone simply affirmed the humanity and dignity of this young Syrian refugee with a kind word or a smile.
Despite her family’s pain. Despite their suffering. Despite having to abandon their home in Syria, other Muslims stepped in to open a door of hospitality. Others stepped up to offer a spirit of grace.
I want to argue that these kind acts constitute the true miracles of her life. They represent the miracles of our lives. Many of you want to know what you can do in the face of overwhelming injustice. Many of you feel helpless like our nation has become a cruel and twisted reality show. But I am here to say that I am hopeful this morning. Watching lawyers turn airport terminals into law offices on behalf of total strangers. Witnessing entire neighborhoods turn out to greet their neighbors at airports across this country. These are the acts from which miracles are built. These are the acts from which our healing will emerge.
Spend this week building a miracle. Go speak to the person you may have otherwise ignored. Donate to a cause that you have not traditionally supported. Go volunteer your services to an organization that is doing the heavy lifting among the impoverished, refugee and/or immigrant communities. In other words, let your light shine! For with each act of grace, each act of care, and each act of compassion, you and I are building a miracle.