Social Justice


Micah 6:8b (NIV)

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Sermon - Thoughts and prayers? Do good, seek justice!

Sermon Transcript by Rev. Dr. John Squires - 11th August 2019

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 & Luke 12:32-40 

Today, I want to speak about thoughts and prayers. That is a phrase which seems to have entered common usage in recent years. When tragedy strikes, there is a strong impulse for us, as people of faith, to respond, “my thoughts and prayers are with you”. Our thoughts, to show that we are thinking about the other person in the midst of the tragedy that they are experiencing; and our prayers, perhaps heartfelt, perhaps also to indicate that we are people of faith.

Indeed, just this week I found myself reaching for precisely this saying, when I learnt the news that some friends had lost a baby at a fairly early stage into the pregnancy. “My thoughts and prayers are with you”, formed immediately in my mind; then I paused, and modified what I said. Same intent, different words.

I am aware just how reflexive, and thus how common, this phrase is. I looked up the common usage of this phrase online, and found that the phrase thoughts and prayers has frequently been used as an expression of condolences for victims of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2010, the earthquake in Christchurch NZ the next year, the earthquake in Mexico in 2017, and Hurricane Maria in that same year.

In addition, “thoughts and prayers” have also been offered to victims of numerous mass shootings, including the Columbine High School in 1999, the attacks in Paris in 2015, the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2017 and the shooting in Las Vegas in that same year.

Indeed, Wikipedia tells me that President Donald Trump has been a regular user of the phrase. In 2016, he used it following the wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains. In 2017 he used it following the Southern California wildfires, then in 2018 following the school shootings in Marshall County and the attacks on YouTube, and the shooting at the Capital Gazette. We heard the phrase again following the two shootings that occurred a day apart just last week. And so the list goes on.

And more than this; Scott Morrison has been known to utter the same phrase: after the attack on the St Marks Church in Egypt in 2016, on the death of President George H. Bush in 2018, in relation to the disappearance of Perth student Alek Sigley in North Korea last month, and after the most recent mass shooting in El Paso, USA.

Now, thoughts are good, and prayers are important. Expressing condolences and making prayerful offerings in moments of need, are important things to do. But is that all there is?

It seems to me that actions should follow from such thoughts and prayers. The most obvious instance of this would be, after a mass shooting, such as we see with regularity in the US, that a process of ensuring that the availability of guns was limited, would be an appropriate response. The laws clearly need to be changed. Sadly, it seems that the thoughts and prayers expressed by American leaders never actually translate into a change of law, a restriction of availability of guns. We have seen that gun laws never change, even after more gun massacres. There are no actions which match the words expressed, in thoughts and prayers.

These reflections came to my mind as I pondered the verses from the prophet Isaiah which we have heard today.

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;

I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?

The thoughts and prayers of the time of Isaiah were sacrifices and offerings, the handing over of first fruits, the slaughter of animals, the shedding of blood. These were the thoughts and prayers being offered by the people of Israel some eight hundred years before the time of Jesus.

Yet the prophet is clear, that the Lord God has told him: such thoughts and prayers, such offerings and sacrifices, are, by themselves, inadequate and ineffective.

Trample my courts no more;

bringing offerings is futile;

incense is an abomination to me.

New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation–

I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;

they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

And so, in one fell swoop, says Isaiah, it would,seem that the Lord God of Israel effects radical change, dismisses centuries of tradition, casts aside beloved and well-rehearsed practices. I am weary of them, says God of all those offerings and sacrifices, all those feasts and festivals, all those thoughts and prayers.

This oracle of the prophet was obviously an important word from the Lord. It is placed as the first oracle, the first prophetic declaration, right at the start of the book of the prophet Isaiah. The books of the major prophets are arranged thematically, not chronologically. And this oracle is filled with references to the fundamental requirements of the Temple cult. The offerings and sacrifices that he describes were exactly what the priests were charged with administering and overseeing.

We need to read the prophecy of Isaiah alongside the prescriptions for the Temple, set out in detail in Leviticus. Sacrifices and offerings, dedicating the first fruits and sacrificing the best animals as offerings to God—these are what God has commanded and what God requires, according to the book of Leviticus. And these practices did, In fact, continue, for centuries after the time of Isaiah.

Yet Isaiah disputes with the people, and the priests, of Israel, concerning these ritual practices. Thoughts and prayers, offerings and sacrifices, cause God distress. They do not fill the deity with delight. I am weary of them, says God, according to Isaiah. Your incense is an abomination!

And it strikes me a powerfully vivid, that, in the midst of this prophetic word, we encounter a term of deepest criticism, which is also drawn from the priestly language of Leviticus: the word abomination.

The word translated as abomination in our Old Testament is the Hebrew word tōʻēḇā. Its a word that appears many times in Hebrew scripture; and the most widely-known usage would be in the two verses in Leviticus which forbid the shaming of one man by another by engaging in forced sexual relationships between the two men (Lev 18:22, 20:13).

These are verses which are regularly quoted today to justify a negative attitude towards homosexual relationships, even though the specific cultural customs and practices of the day were quite different from customs in our own times. The ancient texts seek to prohibit the shaming of one male by another; this is quite different from what we recognise today when we consider long term, faithful, committed relationships between two consenting adults of the same gender.

But these are not the only occurrences of this term abomination. The word features in Proverbs 6:16-19, which lists seven things which are considered by God to be abominations: “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are swift in running to mischief, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers.”

Tōʻēḇā, abomination, is also used in Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) to refer to idolatry, as well as assorted sexual acts such as prostitution in society, prostitution in the pagan temples of the day, and adultery. It is applied to child sacrifice, and to a range of unjust business practices, such as dishonesty in financial transactions, charging excessive interest rates on loans, using rigged weights in the marketplace, oppressing the poor and the needy, as well as stealing, robbery, and violating the dietary prescriptions of ancient Israel. All of these matters are regarded by God as abominations.

So this is not light accusation that Isaiah levels against the people of his day. This is a heavy charge: bringing offerings is futile, and incense is an abomination to me is a full-blooded criticism of the temple cult as it was being carried out in the heyday of ancient Israelite society. Incense was integral to the Temple cult. (You can read the full prescriptions for the daily offering of incense in Exodus 30; and there are about 100 further references to incense throughout the Old Testament.)

So the prophet speaks out against what is taking place in the temple, the holy site on the top of Mount Zion, where the Lord God of Israel was believed to reside, the place to which all offerings and sacrifices were to be brought, to whom incense was offered each day.

Isaiah’s words provide a serious undermining of the status quo, of “the way things are done around here” in his day. He speaks a scathing critique of the patterns of expectation and implementation of worship in the society of his day. Thoughts and prayers, offerings and sacrifices, just by themselves, are no longer acceptable. The incense he refers to symbolises what is wrong with Israel’s worship, which he ranks alongside a long list of sinful behaviours, all of which are abominations in the sight of the Lord God.

What, exactly, is the abomination, we might ponder: the actions of worship? Or the attitude of worshippers? Is it what they are doing? Or that they are doing these things as a sign of their dedication to God, and yet are blithely ignorant of all the ways that their lives do not reflect the kind of lives that this God requires of them?

I don’t think it is the burning of incense, per se, which is what is so offensive to the Lord God. Rather, it is the hypocrisy of adhering to all the cultic requirements of the Law in regard to worship, whilst the lifestyle of the people of Israel is consistently contrary to the ethical requirements of the Law. Not only incense, or offerings, or sabbath ceremonies, or sacrifices of animals, are what offends God; it is the injustice, the lack of compassion, the structural oppression which is what is evil in the sight of the Lord.

The prophet contrasts the outward piety of the people, with the way their lives are lived; and he finds that their actions fail to match the faith that they proclaim. Belief must be linked with deeds, he declares; indeed, an expression of faith is not really true faith unless it is linked with actions which are consistent with the faith that is held.

I am reminded of the words that Jesus utters in the Gospel: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be. And surrounding these words are exhortations to undertake actions that clearly express the faith we have, in tangible deeds: sell your possessions, and give alms … make purses for yourselves that do not wear out … be dressed for action and have your lamps lit … strive for God’s kingdom in all you do … it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Jesus promises the Kingdom to his followers, but they have to commit to remaining always awake and aware to God’s coming – which, if we read the verses surrounding the passage we have heard today, is strongly linked with how we view and treat others. The promise of the kingdom requires lives of justice and compassion.

This is consistent with the way that the prophet challenges the people of Israel, asking them to ensure that their faith is evident in the actions they undertake:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;

remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;

cease to do evil, learn to do good;

seek justice, rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Live lives that are consistent with what you say you believe. Make sure that your actions are consistent with what you say you believe. Make sure that you are acting in ways that are true to your innermost self. This is what the prophet wants the people to know. Be faithful to the essence of what you believe. Live lives that show what you believe. Express the Good News in all the ways that you are Good Neighbours to those around us.

Last week, a number of us gathered for the second Congregational Workshop, to focus on equipping ourselves for living faithfully in the midst of the challenges of our life together as a community. That has been an important step in the process, as we move on from the first Workshop where we clarified our core values and articulated our key commitments.

The path ahead for us now, as a community of faith, is to crystallise where our energy and passion and commitment will be invested, as we look to engage in and develop the mission of God in our local community. The next Workshop to do just this will be held after worship, in four weeks’ time, on Sunday 8 September.

In that Workshop, we will be focussing on how we might be Good Neighbours to others, how we might bear witness to the good news of our faith, and how we might grow together in discipleship. I encourage you to block out the time on that day, 8 September, for this next step in the process, so that together we can work and plan for the future mission of this Congregation.

I close with a prayer by the South African Methodist writer, John van der Laar, which helps us to remember that God’s love is an active love.

Let us pray.

Your love, O God, is an active love:

engaged, involved, immersed.

Your love, O God,

is seen in what you do, not just in what you say:

in the blessing of children, in the meals with outcasts,

in the touching of the untouchable,

in your presence and your self-giving,

in your opening of the way to life to all who will come;

And your love, O God,

is expressed through people like us:

as we share our wealth in simplicity and generosity;

as we share wholeness in care and healing of the sick and broken;

as we share hospitality by being truly present

to the lonely, the imprisoned and the marginalised;

as we share peace in kindness, listening and acceptance

with those who challenge us, confront us and threaten us.

As you have loved us in incarnate action, O God,

may we learn to be little incarnations

through whom your love is expressed

and experienced in action. Amen.