The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; 2/9/14; Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9 (10); I Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

Okay, this is one of those “don’t shoot the messenger” sermons.  I didn’t write these scriptures, and I didn’t assign them for today, but this is what we have, and this is what we have to wrestle with, and the “we” includes me, as well as you. 

So, hang on, and here we go.

Isaiah 58—Thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: Shout out, do not hold back!  Lift up your voice like a trumpet!  Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.  Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

This is a convicting passage, hard to hear, brutal to receive.  This is chapter 58, and best I can tell, Isaiah has been railing about these issues since chapter 3.  There Isaiah says this: The LORD rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples.  The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.  What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord GOD of hosts.  In chapter 10, Isaiah gets sharper: Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! 

God is not happy with the state of the house of Jacob, i.e. Israel.  God’s chosen people have forgotten why they were chosen—always for service, never for privilege.  God sees a situation where the elders and princes, the elites of the day, are getting rich on the backs of the poor.  God isn’t just addressing individuals here; God is addressing the nation.  God sees workers who are being oppressed, homeless poor who have nowhere to lay their head, and those who are naked, completely vulnerable.  God sees a society where the fabric is so torn that the people at the people at the top can’t bear to see the people at the bottom—“they hide from their own kin”—they have forgotten that the poor and oppressed are family to them.  God sees a world where those in power are writing ordinances that continue to fill their own coffers and statutes that continue to stack the decks against the poor and put justice for the needy out of reach.  And the most galling part of all of this is that it’s all being done under the guise of religious piety.  The elders and princes and priests are still keeping all the appointed fasts, and making all the appointed offerings, all done decently and in good order, and all the while the world outside their doors is absolutely falling apart.

This is painful to hear, painful because it is way too close to home.

You can’t turn on the news right now without hearing some story about income inequality and reduced social mobility.  Let me run down a couple of the statistics.  The Dodd-Frank rule that came out of the 2009 financial meltdown requires public companies to disclose the pay gap between CEO’s and their workers.  The Securites and Exchange Commission is still working to implement this rule.  The Washington Post reported this past June that the ratio of CEO pay to average, not lowest paid but average, worker pay is 273:1, 273 times more.  In 1965, that ratio was 20:1.  The average pay for CEOs of the top 350 firms was $14.1 million in 2012, up 37.4% from 2009.  The most egregious case is JC Penney.  That CEO made 1,795 times more than the average worker—that works out to $26,625/hr vs. the average worker whose rate was $14.27/hr, and by all accounts, he did a lousy job lasting just 17 months in the job.

In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that 95% of income gains from 2009-2012 went to the wealthiest 1%.  During that period, the top 1% saw their incomes climb 31.4% while the bottom 99% saw growth of .4%.  Granted, the top 1% lost a ton of money (36.3%) when the financial markets tanked, but a whole lot of people at the bottom lost their retirements, their pensions, their wages, and their jobs (11.6% loss of income).  Those at the top have recouped those losses almost completely (31.4%), the bottom 99% have not (.4%).  Last year, the richest 10% received more than half of all income—50.5%, the largest share since such record-keeping began in 1917.  The bottom 90% share of income is below 50% for the first time ever. 

And closer to home, the US Census Bureau reported that the poverty rate in 2012 in Watauga County was 29.5%, almost 1 in 3 of our neighbors is living in poverty.  22% of our children, in our county, are living in poverty, 1 in 5.  And the Federal Poverty Level for a family of four is $23,492.  See how far that annual income will take you in the High Country. 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, this isn’t ancient Israel; this is us.  This is us.

Can we hear the God who speaks in Isaiah addressing us?  Can we hear the cries of that God trying to shake us out of our complacency?  Something is dramatically, drastically wrong in our society when one person is making millions and millions a year, thousands and thousands an hour, and 1 out of every 3 of our neighbors is living in poverty.  Something is wrong.

And turning to Jesus isn’t going to make today any easier.  He tells us clearly, “You are the salt of the earth; but if you’ve lost your capacity to get in there and season the food—what good are you? You are the light of the world. You can’t hide your light; you need to throw your light everywhere, especially into the dark places where no one wants to look.”  And then, in the lines that are going to spin us right back to Isaiah (there’s just no escaping Isaiah today, sorry),   Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished… For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Ouch. 

Jesus hasn’t come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them.  What did the law say about such matters as we have been discussing?  Well, there’s the manna principle from Exodus 16: “Gather as much as each of you needs, according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents…those who gathered much had nothing left over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed”—and if you tried to hoard it, it rotted.  There is the year of Jubilee put forth in Leviticus 25 which was all about debt forgiveness and redistribution of land which prevented an accumulation of wealth because the land belonged to God anyway.  There was the law not to glean to the edges of your field in Leviticus 19, so that the poor would have food to eat. 

Jesus didn’t come to say Isaiah was irrelevant, but he came to embody that teaching at every turn.  Remember, it is Isaiah that Jesus will use to preach his first sermon in Nazareth when he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him, then he said, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” Jesus isn’t going to let us off the hook.  No, he’s going to place us more firmly on it—our righteousness has to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.  The concerns of the prophet must be our concern as followers of Jesus.

Is there hope?  God offers us a way forward in Isaiah.  It’s a hard one, but there is a way forward.  We are to loose the bonds of injustice, we are to undo the thong of the yoke, we are to work to free those who are oppressed, we are to break the yoke that treats people as a beast of burden, a means to an end.  We are to deal squarely with the food insecurity that exists in our county, 24.2% of our kids are food insecure, 1 in 4, we are to deal squarely with this, and share our food to alleviate it.  The homeless poor are our responsibility.   Those who are vulnerable and exposed are our responsibilityThe poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed—these are our kin; these are our family

And this can’t just be us as individuals doing individual good works.  We must do that; that is a given as a follower of Jesus, but it can’t be only that.  The prophets address the nation.  So does Jesus in the well-known Matthew 25 passage “as you did these things to the least of these, who are members of my family, you did them to be”—when the Son of Man says that, he says it before the nations. The prophets address squarely, and to their own detriment, the power structure that is crushing the poor, and so must we.  We might disagree on precisely how to address these powers and structures; we might disagree on policy approaches, but we cannot abdicate our responsibility to call out the powers-that-be when the policies, the ordinances and statutes (to use Isaiah’s words), that are the works of their hands are afflicting so many.  These are not partisan issues; these are foundational moral issues for people of faith.

God has a dream that all of God’s children not just survive, but thrive.  You see, Jesus, and the God whom he enfleshes, they are never about scarcity; they are not even about enoughness; they are about abundance.  A quote from Sr. Joan Chittister came across my email this week, and it stopped me cold.  She says this, “Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security.”  Let me say that again, “Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security.  The purpose of wealth is reckless generosity, the kind that sings of the lavish love of God, the kind that rekindles hope on dark days, the kind that reminds us that God is with us always.”  God has a dream that all of God’s children thrive, and as we join God in this dream, Isaiah tells us exactly what will happen: “Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

Isaiah says it better than I can.  Today, he gets the last word.  Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

February 9, 2014