Rev. Martha Jacobs
MLK Shabbat Service Sermon
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
January 12, 2018, 8:00 pm
Temple Beth El
Were a modern day Isaiah to speak the words that Robin Stout just spoke to us, today, they would be almost too hard to believe. So, I can imagine for the people who heard this during Isaiah’s time, around 750 BC, it was also too hard to believe that this kind of transformation was possible. Isaiah was struck by the moral breakdown of his time. He was trying to remind the people of God’s love and faithfulness to them and the need for them to keep their side of their covenant with God.
Through Isaiah, God proclaims a passion for justice and righteousness, the kind that sustains and shapes a community. In this context, righteousness refers to being personally upright and mindful of the poor, ensuring distributive justice, which means being concerned with the distribution of goods in the best interests of all of our society. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by his words and actions reminds us, righteousness and justice go hand in hand. They are necessary and required for equal treatment for all people.
Of course, who makes those decisions about the distribution of the goods of our society, can be a part of the solution or a part of the problem. We are seeing that played out right now in our society, as those who have power and the financial wherewithal to survive and even thrive, think that those who don’t have financial stability or have health or other problems, have them because of their own doing, or rather, lack of doing. They say that these individuals are living off the government, sitting back and letting others do for them.
By taking away their safety nets, those in power, truly believe that somehow removing those nets is going to change their life situation and that they will find jobs, suddenly recover from health problems and poverty and lack of or access to a good education and other social norms that many of us take for granted. That is their vision of justice and righteousness, which is certainly not in keeping with what Isaiah is referring to.
The vision that Dr. King saw is that without equal access, equal treatment, equal pay, without fear of reprisals for speaking out when there is an injustice, the best interests of all of those in our society, are not and will not be met. As we have recently learned, even women and men who appear on the outside to have power and self-respect, were treated as less-than by those who had power over them and thought they were immune to treating people with respect. And, they often threatened those who might have come forward to tell their story of being sexually abused or harassed, or physically made to feel less than. The “hashtag Me Too,” movement, I believe, is more pervasive than anyone imagined. It has raised again the issue of respectful and equal treatment for everyone, which is certainly a part of Isaiah’s message.
So then, what does equal treatment include? According to Isaiah, it includes healing, liberty, release, and comfort. He believed that these ideals should guide the people in their actions. They are grounded in the phrase “the year of the Lord’s favor” which is a reference to the Jubilee Year, when debts are wiped away, slaves are freed, fields are allowed to rest, and land is returned to its original owners as outlined in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Isaiah is telling the people that God’s deliverance is real, tangible, and of this world. I can’t even begin to imagine what that might look like in our lifetime. It is so far from anything I can picture right now based on decisions being made in Congress and in the White House.
But, if deliverance is not in another place and time and, instead, is the reality of this world as it should be, then Isaiah challenges us to think about how we might participate in ensuring God’s “real world.” This means that we need to turn our attention to those who are named as the recipients of Isaiah’s good news: the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, the mournful, the faint of spirit.
This text reveals God’s special attention to, and concern for, the lowest and the weakest among us. In order to participate in God’s mission of restoration and transformation, Isaiah is telling them, and us, that the people of God are sent first to those who most need to hear that God will provide for them and will redeem their losses. In other words, the least must and will become the first.
To make this transformation and restoration happen involves a socioeconomic and a non-gender preference reconfiguration of community. Not surprisingly, God has shown us how to do this. God has planted this reconfiguration and restoration with great care, wielding not a sword, but a garden spade – Isaiah says, “As the earth brings forth its shoots…God will cause righteousness to spring up.”
The proclamation of this kind of freedom rolls down like waters to tend to the dry, arid ground that engages with God. From it, sprouts forth the beloved community that Dr. King strove for. It is the beloved community about which he dreamed when he looked out from the Birmingham Jail, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and from all of the bridges, water fountains, bathrooms and buses the Civil Rights Movement defied.
As we know, Dr. King wanted non-violence. However, those who felt threatened by the changes that were afoot for our nation, used violence to try to stop the changes that were occurring in our “real world.” And, we see that continuing to happen today, as White Supremacists and others have brought violence into cities like Charlottesville and sexual predators have tried to silence those over whom they have had power.
Several days ago, Rabbi Jaffe and I spoke about this evening. I mentioned that I was going to use this Isaiah reading, and he reminded me that Isaiah’s words are spoken in temples in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As I thought about that, I realized that in churches in the weeks leading up to our remembering the birth of Jesus, we read the same passage. So, for both of our religious traditions to have this reading at such an important time in our faith traditions, to me, means that we need to pay extra attention to Isaiah’s prophesy. This passage is filled of promise and reassurance. The themes of justice, hope, anticipation, and deliverance are words we need to hear at these important times in our religious lives and also in our secular lives. They are a reminder that God has not forgotten us.
Isaiah tells us that God’s presence before all the nations is both viable and real. It is up to us to remind those who are oppressed, brokenhearted, feel like they are captives and prisoners, those who mourn, and those who can’t feel God’s Spirit, that God’s presence is real. Our response to God’s preference for the least of these in our world today, is to make phone calls, to send emails, to march, to get to the voting booths, to speak out when we see injustices. To see that the least of these who are not being treated as God’s creation, are helped and protected, whether they are children, women, men, African-American, Caucasian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, American citizen or not. God’s preference is for all people to be treated equally and with respect and love.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge that there are many people, including some in this sacred space, who are feeling “oppressed,” “brokenhearted,” “captive,” or “imprisoned” in some way. They are wondering, like me, when God’s transformation as described in Isaiah, will take place. When will those who mourn receive the oil of gladness instead of ashes, those who have a faint spirit feel the mantle of praise? When will they be called oaks of righteousness? When will we be clothed in the garment of salvation, the robe of righteousness?
Well, as I was working on this sermon, I recognized with a deeper understanding and affirmation that God brings about transformation through us and through our life together. So, it is up to us to help make that happen. When we seek to make systemic changes together, we can make a difference in our world, especially for those who have no voice, who have no power, who can’t move out of the place where they are now. Dr. King showed us how to do that, and more. So, the question that arose within me as I was working on this sermon that I leave with you, is this: As we hear the very familiar words of Dr. King and Isaiah, and live in our real world today, in what ways can you make a difference and bring God’s good news of transformation to others?