Transcribed from the sermon preached November 15, 2015
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 6:1-9, Mark 4:3-20
Isaiah goes before God in the temple, is met by seraphim with six wings who sing out Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. The foundations shake and Isaiah cries out, Woe is me! For I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among the people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts. Does he swear a lot? Does he have a sore? Is he eating the wrong food? Does Isaiah have mustard on his mouth? Should the next English translation of Isaiah read: “Woe is me for I am a man who has mustard on his lips?”
What does Isaiah mean that he is a man of unclean lips who lives among the people of unclean lips? Isaiah is a temple priest, one of the few upper middle class professionals, serving the ruling elite. He is not a prophet that rises up from among the working class like Amos. He is not like the black lives matter protesters with their first hand prophetic anger. Isaiah is a member of the institution, someone with respect and privilege.
This is significant because the institutions of the ruling elite at the time had some issues. Isaiah has his vision the year King Uzziah died, roughly 740 BCE. Uzziah had pushed the economy into the luxury export of wine, oil and wheat. You might call it the trans Mediterranean partnership. Bob Coote in Power, Politics and the Making of the Bible notes that
“The system of commercial agriculture imposed during the long reigns of Jeroboam and Uzziah had a dire effect on Palestinian villagers, especially in the highlands. Specialization of production destroyed the diversification of agriculture upon which villages in the higher lands depended on for livelihood. Forced by heavy taxation on grain into cultivations of perennial cash crops, grapes and olives, farmers could no longer practice field rotation, fallowing, planting legumes to restore nutrients in the soil, or raising livestock. Meanwhile villagers were forced to encumber their land as collateral for loans at exorbitant rates. As arable land (for crops) was apparently more alienable than land in perennials, this was the first to fall into the hands of creditors. To feed themselves and their families, villagers then had to bring inferior marginal land into grain production, on which they got less food for more work and higher cost. Struggling with inexorable debt and taxes, small landholders lost what little land they had, and an increasing number became wage laborers and debt slaves.
“The large landlords dominated local courts, where villagers might have sought relief from foreclosure. As the ever fewer landholders became wealthier, the gap between rich and poor widened…The cults of Judah and Samaria at this time reflected the boom in agribusiness. Baal, the god of commerce, was widely revered. Under Baal’s patronage as well as Yahweh’s, nobles and warriors formed drinking societies…to commune with departed (heroes) in orgies expending vats of wine and oil. Meanwhile the poor began to starve in increasing numbers.”
Isaiah has been a part of blessed and benefitted from these indulgent practices. He sees that the words spoken by priests of the temple and the words spoken by the courts are benefitting and enabling wealthy landlords to dispossess the poor of their land, causing them to starve.
I jump ahead a bit, but I want to show indications for this line of thought in the text:
3 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.
 Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,
and the writers who keep writing oppression,
 to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
and that they may make the fatherless their prey!
So he is there in the temple and when he meets up with the holiness of God, his world is rocked, and he sees that his lips have spoken words and used theology, which has promoted this injustice. So he says, I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among the people of unclean lips. Then one of the seraphs comes and touches his lips with a coal, symbolically burning away the uncleanliness and granting forgiveness.
So Isaiah has this conversion experience in which he sees the injustice of the whole system and where it is leading the nation. He recognizes that he is a participant in this mess, and feels ashamed, guilty.
But God needs prophets. God needs some who will stand up and speak the truth, God needs those with skills and talent to use them on behalf of the poor and oppressed. You might think that given his complicity in the injustice, Isaiah is disqualified from the job. But after Isaiah sees the truth, is convicted and cleansed by God, he is ready to be of service in any way possible. God asks, “whom shall I send?” And Isaiah says, “Send me.”
Now, if we stop there, we can remain excited and pumped up. Isaiah has been convicted, cleansed and forgiven, and now he is amped up and enthusiastic to go change the world.
The bummer is that he will go out to speak the truth about the unjust courts and self-serving theology, yet nobody will want to hear it. They will hear and not understand, see but not perceive.
Jesus too, in this morning parable, is teaching his disciples that in only a minority will the seeds of faith find deep soil and flourish.
Last Tuesday at our presbytery meeting, a bimonthly gathering of ministers and elders from Presbyterian churches in the Bay Area, two more churches left the denomination. Their claim is that we do not honor the scripture as the Word of God and that we don’t hold that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. They say we have accommodated to culture and yet have over focused on social and political causes. On the other side of the fence, I often hear it said that if only we could let people know how progressive we are, if they knew we were so open minded and did all this great social justice stuff, people would return to church. I hate to break it you: likely if the success and popularity of Jesus in their lifetimes is any indication both these opinions are likely wrong.
In a the best study of its kind, David Hollinger, a History Professor here at Cal, in After Cloven tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American encounter with Diversity, he notes that in response to the Holocaust and WWII and colonialism, mainline denominations began to question the danger of wedding faith with state and race. We began to see that too often, Church accompanied economic conquest and sanctioned discrimination based on race. Hollinger points out that it was actually when we were the most uncritical and supportive and integrated into the power centers of American culture that we were at our largest and most popular. Yet the racial-ethnocentrism and nationalism wedded to Nazism shook the temple, and the ecumenical and mainline church was actually at the forefront of deconstructing the myth of American Christian exceptionalism. Later, as we listened to voices of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and Latin American liberation theologies which criticized exploitative US foreign policy which helped lead to land consolidation, poverty, war and immigration, more and more of the white middle class members began to switch churches or leave the church altogether. We see this here in St. John’s history, much of which is mentioned by Bob McKenzie in his Memoir. When Berkeley integrated schools, many whites moved east to Walnut Creek. Then when the church spoke out against the war in Viet Nam, more members were upset. Then again, when we started the sanctuary movement and voted 25 years ago to be inclusive of the GLBTQ members of our community, we lost more. The hyper conservative Presbyterian Layman was founded by heads of Shell and Union oil after the denomination decided to ordain women in 1958.
In this move toward humility, inclusivity and social justice, Hollinger points out, the church was out in front of culture, not following. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed about our own personal conviction, forgiveness and salvation, but that that conversion should lead us, like Isaiah, to question our own complicity in systems of injustice, and seek to change them. But if Isaiah is any indication, the people may hear but not understand, see but not perceive.
So it may in fact be the case, contrary to the opinion of those churches leaving us, that as we become more faithful to the Bible, and more faithful on our walk along the Way of Jesus Christ, as we call out against the duplicitous laws of our land, which call children fleeing poverty and violence illegal law breakers, against system of injustice that discriminates against African Americans, and recognize that even we have unclean lips, that racism permeates culture…still…, as we proclaim that our disregard for Creation in favor of short term profit is idolatry, as we point out that dependence on oil, massive military spending and constant war has not made us safer, we are less likely to gain members.
Prophetic faith will ask the marginalized to risk standing up to be counted and ask the privileged to listen, move over, make room, and to work together to build community across racial, ethnic and class and gender boundaries. Risk and give up, these are not necessarily popular messages. Pick up your cross and follow me says, Jesus. As the Reverend Kamal Hassan of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church likes to say, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a minority report. Isaiah calls it a “remnant” of truth seekers.
So we are not in this to win a popularity contest, but to come into the presence of the Holy God, to be convicted, cleansed and forgiven, and then step up and answer God’s call. Part of that call is to go against the general trend of individualistic capitalistic culture which divides people into enclaves of interest groups, and to build a community of all sorts of people who love and care and equip one another. There is joy in this remnant, power in humility before God. God needs a messenger. And asks, whom shall I send? Cleansed and forgiven, what is our response?
I leave you with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.