Tag Archives: Old Testament

Ranting while writing a ranting sermon

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Lot of mixed feeling this morning.

Here I am writing a sermon from Isaiah 58 which if you take scripture seriously you will note gives little room for responding with “but”.  The prophet has no time for people who want to be pious but turn a deaf ear to their oppressed, hungry, homeless , naked neighbour. Fast all you want boys but if the fast finishes with a slap up brunch at the Ritz rather than justice and care of neighbour, stick with brunch and forget the fast.

You can tell Jesus read his Old Testament because he speaks in the same way.  Jesus tells his disciples, just like Isaiah tells Israel, that holiness doesn’t come from performing rites of goodness or by keeping rules  but by having a life directed towards being salt and light. Holiness is shown by living holiness and the prophet is happy to give you a checklist. If you love God, you love what God loves.  God just happens to love your neighbour to bits.

We have a funny relationship to this prophetic stuff.  The prophets are not shy in telling the people of God to get out there and be the image of God. I find it ironic that we teach our children songs in Sunday school like “Be Bold, Be Strong” which echoes God’s words to a worried Joshua before he led Israel across the Jordan into the promised land and yet talk about loving our neighbour as something which is scary and hard and should be done with great deliberation and with lots of conditions.

The Old Testament is strong about not being afraid. The Lord is with us. Treat the foreigner like one of your own because once you were foreigners and slaves in Egypt AND I SAVED YOU.  The widows, the orphans, the slaves, the refugees, the poor, the disabled, those from the wrong families…they are not subsets of the children of God.  The mighty and the powerful and the rich are those things so that they might be providers and the protectors of all who are not.  You make sure your workers can live on what you pay them, that they may have a Sabbath too and be full citizens. Or you will taste the wrath of the LORD.

The Lord is with us. The Lord is for us. Love what he loves.

Two of my sons braved the Manchester cold last night to protest the choices of the American President in how he rules and shapes the world around himself.  They aren’t naive idealists who believe the world is benign. But they believe that everyone has the right to escape oppression and to have their story heard honestly and compassionately and to be given relief if it is in our power to do so. They believe in loving your neighbour and creating a society which works together for the common good.  They know too that though the president is thousands of miles away, what he does has a possibility of  infecting our politics and common life. They believe people of other faiths and cultures and sexualities are not to be feared but to be engaged with and learned from.   They know that holding a placard in Albert Square isn’t going to change the president’s mind but it will help them to know their own.

Their protest is a declaration of what is in their hearts and an acknowledgement that what is in their hearts needs to come out into the world so the world might be a good place to live for all. They know they are privileged and recognise they need to share that privilege with others for it to have any worth. In Christian terms they know that their words and shouts have to be backed up by salt and light. I’m really proud of them (and their older brother who is doing the same where he is).  I’m really proud of them not being satisfied with fear and hate and demonization. I’m proud of them wanting to say “This is not good enough” and wanting to use their futures to be people who shape the world as a great place to live for all.

The Kingdom of God does not begin with secure borders and suspicion of the stranger. It begins with God inviting us to be refugees from the kingdom of darkness so that we might be citizens of his kingdom of marvellous light.

Occupation of the Heart

For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed. Amos  2:6-7
 

Amos was the forefather of the Occupy (insert name of your town) movement. He was a shepherd in Israel in 760 bce.  For various reasons this was a time of prosperity for Israel. The rich, as they did for millennia before and millennia afterwards, took the lion’s share of the wealth. As we can see from the sort of practices he rails against, they also seemed to have quite a knack for sucking  back up whatever wealth managed to trickle down to the poor. 

Amos confronted his society and said, “If God was here he would definitely be in smiting mode”. He rails against everyone. They all wait for the “ but if you” that will bring relief; it never arrives.  If Amos had access to emoticons it would be frowny faces from start to finish. 

If you read the Old Testament you’ll notice there is relatively little text about sex (it’s not as obsessed about it as we are) or rules that we take to be controlling stories in our lives. It talks a lot about justice.  When God tells his people they are in the wrong he points to their economics as an expression about how they deviated radically from His path. This is the tradition Jesus follows. 

Scripture talks about wealth starting with the poor and powerless and revealing the tendency of the rich and powerful to trample them.  God chooses a slave nation to be his chosen people. When he says the rich and powerful have an obligation, he names who they are obliged to: the widows, the orphans and aliens. These are the people who have no one to stand up for them. The king was meant to stand up for those who would be preyed upon by the powerful and woe betidesthe king who failed to do so. 

Amos knew this and expected that everyone who signed up for God’s chosen people project should have known this too.  

So our ancient friend Amos would have a lot to say to our society starting with those who made dodgy loans that were rigged against the people who received them. He would have lots to say to governments who stayed asleep when that was happening and then recapitalised the predators rather than the prey. He would chastise the merchants who encouraged us to spend and spend with cheap credit. 

He would also add our names to the list for accepting the idolatry of “we deserve to be living better than this” at all levels of society. The financial crisis was generated by people loaning money they didn’t have to people who couldn’t pay it back to buy things they couldn’t afford.  We believed that money would buy us the happiness we wanted.  

However, as my wise friend Eric (in one of his Amos moments) pointed out, “Happiness has been replaced with the pursuit of happiness”.  

So we might imagine Amos occupying some town square and letting rip against all the bad guys. But we should be careful. He might tell us that we, people who are not widows and orphans and aliens, need to scrutinise ourselves too. He might say to us: 

“Self worth is not based on our new car or big house or how many times we eat out or get new clothes or go on holiday or change our phone. If it is, the problem isn’t financial.  If we can’t say no to what is clearly a bad deal and something that will blow up in our faces later, the problem isn’t financial. If we can’t organise a decent economy and society without maxing the out credit card, the problem isn’t financial.”  

The right blames the poor and the vulnerable and the left blame the rich. All the finger pointing and scapegoat hunting distracts us from looking into our own idolatrous hearts to see how we have played our part.  

No matter who spread the rumour that the good life could be bought regardless of your ability to pay for it, we all allowed it to become our mantra. Amos was an uncompromising guy. He tells us that God isn’t interested in us and them. He is interested in us demanding and living in a new society that is just, first for the poor and then for us all. We know how to form it, we just lack the will.