December 11, 2016
Advent 3

When I have asked Christian audiences about their associations when they heard the word righteous, some terms they used were holier-than-thou, judgmental, condemnatory, hypocritical, priggish, legalistic, moralistic, full of themselves, pompous, and arrogant…..

But in the Bible, righteousness and righteous are positive words. They are associated with “doing what is right.”….

When the Bible speaks of God’s passion for righteousness and justice, it does not mean that God’s primary passion is the punishment of wrongdoers. True, some passages do threaten wrongdoers with judgment and condemnation. But often justice and righteousness refer to the way “the world,” the social order that humans create, should be. It can be–and most often is—unjust, shaped by the wealthy and powerful in their own self-interest. God’s dream, God’s passion, is for a different kind of world. This kind of justice is not punitive justice, but distributive justice—the fair distribution of the material necessities of life.
–Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian

Isaiah 35:1-2; 5-7a
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.

Poetry as Insurgent Art Louis Ferlinghetti
If you would be a great poet, be the conscience of the race.

Resist much, obey less.

Challenge capitalism masquerading as democracy.

Challenge all political creeds, including radical populism and hooligan socialism.

Consider Sufism, especially its tantric ecstasy in which poetry on the tongue leads to the heart and so to the soul.

Glory in the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.

Don’t blow bubbles of despair….

Come out of your closet. It’s dark in there.

Dare to be a non-violent poetic guerilla, an anti-hero. Temper your most intemperate voice with compassion.

Make new wine out of the grapes of wrath.

Remember that men & women are infinitely ecstatic, infinitely suffering beings….

Don’t destroy the world unless you have something better to replace it.

Matthew 11:2-11 (John Henson, ed., Good As New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures)
When Jesus had finished briefing his trusted helpers, he went on tour of the largest towns in Galilee, introducing his message and teaching. John the Dipper was in prison. When he heard what God’s Chosen was doing, he sent some of his followers to him with this message, “Are you the one we’ve been expecting, or do we have to wait for someone else?” Jesus said, “Go back to John and give him a full account of everything you’ve heard and seen. Tell him that blind people are getting their sight back, disabled people are able to get about again, outcasts are being restored to the community, deaf people can hear, many are getting a whole new life, and those who don’t count for much in our society have had Good News for the first time in their lives. Some object to what I’m doing, but you should be thrilled to bits!

When the messengers had gone, Jesus spoke about John the Dipper to the crowd around him. “When you went out into the desert, what were you expecting to see?” Herod? – a bent reed, like the symbol on his coins? No? What, then? Were you hoping to see someone dressed in the latest court fashion? You won’t catch the upper classes on parade in the desert. The palace is the place for that! Why did you choose such a drab place for your day out? Did you go to hear one of God’s speakers, the kind not seen since the old days? Yes, that’s why you made that hard trek. But John was more than one of the old time religion, wasn’t he? You’ll find him mentioned in the old books.

“Watch out! My envoy’s on the way
To set the stage for that great day!!”

I believe John is the most important person who ever lived. But you will all be important in the Bright New World, even more important than John. Since the time John made his stand, many have tried to bring about that world by force. They should have listened to John and the rest of God’s speakers before him. It should be obvious that John is the Elijah of our day. If you’ve got ears, use them!

********

I want to share with you some poetry. It is a few verses. It will take a minute or two. Settle in. Pay attention to words like truth, justice, righteousness, honesty…

Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save,
nor his ear too dull to hear.
2
But your iniquities have separated
you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear.
3
For your hands are stained with blood,
your fingers with guilt.
Your lips have spoken falsely,
and your tongue mutters wicked things.
4
No one calls for justice;
no one pleads a case with integrity.
They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies;
they conceive trouble and give birth to evil.
5
They hatch the eggs of vipers
and spin a spider’s web.
Whoever eats their eggs will die,
and when one is broken, an adder is hatched.
6
Their cobwebs are useless for clothing;
they cannot cover themselves with what they make.
Their deeds are evil deeds,
and acts of violence are in their hands.
7
Their feet rush into sin;
they are swift to shed innocent blood.
They pursue evil schemes;
acts of violence mark their ways.
8
The way of peace they do not know;
there is no justice in their paths.
They have turned them into crooked roads;
no one who walks along them will know peace.
9
So justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
10
Like the blind we grope along the wall,
feeling our way like people without eyes.
At midday we stumble as if it were twilight;
among the strong, we are like the dead.
11
We all growl like bears;
we moan mournfully like doves.
We look for justice, but find none;
for deliverance, but it is far away.
12
For our offenses are many in your sight,
and our sins testify against us.
Our offenses are ever with us,
and we acknowledge our iniquities:
13
rebellion and treachery against the Lord,
turning our backs on our God,
inciting revolt and oppression,
uttering lies our hearts have conceived.
14
So justice is driven back,
and righteousness stands at a distance;
truth has stumbled in the streets,
honesty cannot enter.
15
Truth is nowhere to be found,
and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.

Isaiah 59:1-15

That’s darn good poetry. It is from the Bible. Isaiah 59:1-15.

I am feeling that poetry today.

That poetry shone brightly and spoke to me and said, “Talk about this.”

We are continuing our trek through Marcus Borg’s book, Speaking Christian: How Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and How they Can Be Restored.

Today’s word is righteous. This word has a connotation of self-righteous, haughty, holier-than-thou, moralistic. It is a word we don’t use in normal speech outside of church. It is a churchy word. It is a Bible-sounding word.

In Hebrew the word translated often as righteous is tsaddiq or righteousness tsedeq. Another word translated often as just or justice is shaphat or mishpat.

In Greek, dikaios just or dikaiosune justice. You find these words many times in both the Old and New Testaments. How they are rendered in English depends a lot on the translators. All the words mean pretty much the same thing. Ruling justly, making right judgments, doing the right thing, being a person who does the right thing. Speaking the truth, being fair, showing impartiality, being accurate, and so on.

Hundreds of times various forms of these words are used in the Bible.

Early in the Bible: Genesis 6:9. Ish tsaddiq Noah. Noah was a righteous man. Blameless, innocent, just. The real deal.

In Leviticus 19:15, we find this:You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour.

Proverbs 10:32
The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable,
but the mouth of the wicked what is perverse.

In other words: Good people tell the truth. Bad people lie. Don’t be bad. Be good.

Zechariah 8:16
These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgements that are true and make for peace,

Isaiah 59:14
Justice is turned back,
and righteousness stands at a distance;
for truth stumbles in the public square,
and uprightness cannot enter.

And the famous parallelism from Amos.

Amos 5:24
But let justice (mishpat) roll down like waters,
and righteousness (tsedeq) like an ever-flowing stream.

If we see the word righteous or righteousness and think that is a weird churchy word that moralizing preachers like to use, translate it in another way that suits the context of the passage. Translate it as doing the right thing. Doing what is fair. Being respectful. Seeking justice.

And the word justice does not refer to a court of law only. It has to do with living in a just, fair, equitable society. It also refers to being a just, fair, equitable person. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote often and spoke often about the Beloved Community.

This is a vision of a just society. Of a righteous society. This is from the King Center:

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

Justice. Righteousness. Do we believe in that anymore?

Truth. Is there such a thing?

I read an article today, an opinion piece, that said we have entered a “post-truth” era. The author of the article is Ahmed Al Sheikh, the former chief editor of Al Jazeera Arabic. He has worked in the media for nearly 40 years.

This is how he begins the article:

In the social media era, everybody publishes whatever they want. Fake news websites are widely common, publishing lies and fabricated news. Far-right politicians in the post-truth era appeal to emotions and impose personal views; they hide the truth and convince people of what is untrue.

That sounds like Isaiah:

14
So justice is driven back,
and righteousness stands at a distance;
truth has stumbled in the streets,
honesty cannot enter.
15
Truth is nowhere to be found,
and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.

The author goes on…

The British Oxford Dictionary made “post-truth” word of the year. It defines it as: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

What do you make of this tweet by President-Elect Donald Trump on November 27th:

In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally

Let’s analyze that tweet. Did Trump win the electoral college in a landslide?

The electoral vote was 306-232. Trump’s former campaign manager and now senior advisor to president-elect Trump, tweeted on November 28th:

306. Blowout. Historic.

When you check the facts, you find that Trump won the electoral college by 56.9%. 306-232. Hardly a landslide, a blowout, or historic. Of the 58 presidential elections since George Washington, Trump’s margin of victory ranked 46th. 46 of 58. In fact, Trump’s victory in the electoral college was below the national average, which is 70.9%.

Any definition of the term, “landslide,” does not apply to Trump’s electoral college victory. Landslide only means what Trump calls landslide in a post-truth era.

Is it that important? Let’s exegete the second half of his tweet:

“I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

As a whole, his tweet sounds like a fact. It is in the genre of a fact. He isn’t winking. He isn’t saying this is a joke tweet. “I am exaggerating. I am kidding.” He is tweeting as if he is speaking factual truth.

In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally

Did millions of people vote illegally? Is there evidence for that? None that has been produced. Not one shred of evidence. A claim like that should be enough incentive for a recount. Do we really have millions of people voting illegally? That should be investigated.

Does the president-elect mean what he says? Is he just kidding? Or is he lying?

I think what he is doing is appealing to emotion and belief. He makes outrageous claims that are, in fact, lies. People believe him. They repeat his lie as if it were true.

Trump told falsehood after falsehood during the three presidential debates. It didn’t matter, because his believers believed him. In the post-truth era, you simply lie and lie often. It doesn’t matter if you are called out on it, because you are appealing to emotion and belief and the believers believe you anyway. If you get caught in a lie, just lie some more. Then call those who called you out liars.

One might say, “Well all politicians do that.” No they do not. Most politicians do not lie. To say that politicians always lie or lie a lot actually feeds into acceptance of the actual lying that this individual, Donald Trump, has done and continues to do.

His preferred way of spreading falsehood is by tweeting, by social media. To quote again, Ahmed Al Sheikh,

Another negative effect of the overuse of social media platforms to convey information and opinions is the bubble phenomenon, where users with matching political views exchange one-sided information and opinions that suit their own convictions, reinforcing them even further, even if those were based on false information.

Our president-elect is a master of using social media to energize his supporters over against what he seems to regard as his enemies. He conjures up one line of B.S. after another in order to inflame the masses.

Social media is not a bad thing. It is simply a thing. It is technology that is not going away soon. It can and it needs to be used to convey accuracy. All of us need to use it that way. We cannot let the post-truthers control it.

That is the challenge before all of us. Whatever media form we use from talking to our neighbor to facebook to tweeting to writing letters to the editor, we must rise above the temptation to be post-truth—that is, to appeal to emotions and personal belief rather than objective facts.

We must tell the truth. Check the facts. Speak accurately. Speak righteously to use the churchy word.

That is the only thing that can save us now.

This isn’t just about Trump. This is about telling the truth and doing justice if there are such things anymore.

Telling the truth in the post-truth era may be one of the biggest challenges we will face. All the president-elect has to do is to tweet that global warming is a hoax and what does that do? It gives people permission to ignore the hard questions and the hard facts and to follow blindly a leader who has mastered the art of the lie to gain favor and prestige. This is dangerous territory.

The cure is to be scrupulous in truth-telling.

That doesn’t mean that we give up fiction, irony, legend, myth, and story. It is Christmas. Christmas is all about legend, story, and fiction. Part of truth-telling in regards to religion has to do with knowing the difference and communicating the difference between legend and history. Poetry, myth, and legend can be a way to express truth.

We need to know the difference between night language and day language. Virgin births and singing angels are part of night language, language of dream and metaphor and poetry. It is enriching and personal and it touches the heart.

In an era of post-truth, there is a mixing of night language and day language that simply comes out wrong. It is regarding night language as if it were day language.

Understanding genre and using it correctly is important for both politics and religion.

All we have left as we enter the post-truth era is truth.

This is what Isaiah was talking about in the poetry I read at the beginning of this sermon. Injustice and falsehood go together.

Whether your medium is talk, music, essay, poetry, or science, be righteous, be just, be truthful, be brave.

In the words of Louis Ferlinghetti,

“Dare to be a non-violent poetic guerilla.”

There are things we cannot do in the post-truth era. There are things we cannot fix. There are things we do not have the power to change. But there are things we can do. We must do. We must not simply despair and roll over.

We must now stand up and be righteous.

Righteous in speech.
Righteous in action.

Good Luck.