July 17, 2016

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps 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 him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Isaiah 58:6-8

This summer I decided to do a sermon series on texts from our scriptural tradition that speak to us, cajole us, invite us, implore us, command us, plead with us, annoy us, and enlighten us about justice.

In an article, entitled “What Is Biblical Justice?” Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City, writes about two words for justice in the Hebrew scriptures: Mishpat and Tsedeqah.

Mishpat, Keller explains, has to do with correct judgments or giving people what they deserve. It is a term we associate with a court of law. Giving people what is due.

This word appears 40 times in the book of Isaiah alone. Here is the first instance of its use in Isaiah:

Learn to do good; Seek justice (mishpat), Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:17

There are times in which the author calls out the government for not doing mishpat, such as Isaiah 3:14:

The LORD enters into judgment (mishpat) with the elders and princes of His people, “It is you who have devoured the vineyard; The plunder of the poor is in your houses.”

In this case, the judges are being judged. Those responsible for doing mishpat or giving people what is due, are not doing so. They have instead plundered the poor.

The prophet speaks of the promise of one who will come to execute justice (Isaiah 16:5):

A throne will even be established in lovingkindness, And a judge will sit on it in faithfulness in the tent of David; Moreover, he will seek justice (mishpat) And be prompt in righteousness.

When early Christians were looking for texts to help explain their experience with the social revolutionary Jesus and the Jesus movement, they found in Isaiah this concept of mishpat and associated it with Jesus (Isaiah 42:1-4)

“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice (mishpat) to the nations. A bruised reed He will not break And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish; He will faithfully bring forth justice (mishpat). “He will not be disheartened or crushed until He has established justice in the earth; And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.”

For the sake of inclusion and gender equity or gender mishpat, I will read that passage again with a different pronoun:

“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Her; She will bring forth justice to the nations. A bruised reed She will not break And a dimly burning wick She will not extinguish; She will faithfully bring forth justice. “She will not be disheartened or crushed until She has established justice in the earth; And the coastlands will wait expectantly for Her law.”

Throughout Isaiah there is this existential grief and longing for mishpat in a world in which mishpat is fleeting and rare. In Isaiah 49:4 the speaker hopes for justice from God when she cannot find it in human relationships:

But I said, “I have toiled in vain, I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity; Yet surely the justice (mishpat) due to Me is with the LORD , And My reward with My God.”

And I like this use of metaphor:

All of us growl like bears, And moan sadly like doves; We hope for justice (mishpat), but there is none, For salvation, but it is far from us. (Isaiah 59:11)

And finally, the author is frustrated with what we call religious ritual that is empty of justice and even counter to justice. The verse is the final use of the word mishpat in Isaiah. Isaiah 61:8:

For I, the LORD , love justice (mishpat), I hate robbery in the burnt offering; And I will faithfully give them their recompense And make an everlasting covenant with them.

Scholars have understood verses like this as signs of what philiopher, Karl Jaspars called the Axial Age. A period in human history from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE that marked a cultural shift all around the world. According to Jaspers:

“the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today.”

Ideas of justice, compassion, human meaning are developed. This is from Karl Jaspers’ Origin and Goal of History:

Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers – Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato, – of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.

Jaspers isn’t without his critics. Nonetheless, we see a shift, it seems, from religion as sacrificing animals to the gods in order to gain favors to including social justice as an aspect of religion.

To put it in very simplistic terms: For Isaiah and the Axial Age prophets, it wasn’t enough to get right with God. We needed to get right with one another. That getting right is mishpat or justice.

The prophet Amos puts it glaringly clear as the author speaks for God: Amos 5:21-24:

“I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. “Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. “Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. “But let justice (mishpat) roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Mishpat or justice refers to correct judgment, giving people what is due. In particular, doing right by the widows, the orphans, the poor, those without any voice or social power.

There is another word for justice, often translated as righteousness. This is tzedeqah.

It is similar to mishpat, a synonym in some ways. Often mishpat and tzedeqah are paired in Hebrew poetry. This is Isaiah 5:7:

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel And the people of Judah God’s delightful plant. Thus God looked for justice (mishpat), but behold, bloodshed; For righteousness (tzedeqah), but behold, a cry of distress.

It has more of the personal quality of being just. As Tim Keller of Redeemer Church in New York who I referenced earlier wrote, tzedeqah is “a life of right relationships.”

It is not so much the action of justice but the character of one’s person or the character of a society as this character is seen through right relationships. This is Isaiah 1:26:

“Then I will restore your judges as at the first, And your counselors as at the beginning; After that you will be called the city of righteousness (tzedeq), A faithful city.”

I have provided a quick introduction to the summer series of sermons by a brief word study of mishpat and tzedeqah, Hebrew words translated as justice and righteousness. You can do this word study yourself. It is all on-line. You can look up these words and find all of their occurrences in the Bible, cross-referenced and defined.

You can check it out on your smart phone right now. Biblestudytools.com or Oremus Bible Browser. Look up justice. Find the occurrences. Read the passages. Compare and contrast. Voila! You are a biblical scholar.

What I am going to do this summer is point out that the Bible talks about justice a lot and in many complex and interesting ways.

For instance, I googled homelessness and Bible and pulled out today’s scripture reading from my magical internet hat:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps 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 him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness (tsedeqah) shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Isaiah 58:6-8

This is my paraphrase of this passage. Isaiah is saying:

This is what real religion is about. If you don’t like religion, this is what it means to be spiritual. If the word spiritual is too woo woo, then this is what it means to be a decent human being:

It is not about yoga or meditating or praying or going to church or finding God on the golf course, or feeling bad about yourself, or believing and reciting theological doctrines.

Here is real religion, real spirituality, the real thing:

1) Stop oppressing people and instead help people find freedom and happiness.
2) Make sure hungry people have food.
3) See that homeless people have homes.
4) Give the vulnerable protection (clothe the naked).
5) Don’t avert your eyes or hide from your own people. (And everyone is your own people—your own flesh).

Then what happens? You will find enlightenment, man. You will find your own healing. You will experience tzedeqah (right relationship within your character) and God will have your back.

That is my paraphrase. I encourage you to make your own.

Here we are a medium-sized congregation in the suburbs of Portland. What might this passage mean for us? This is a congregation that does the real religion thing. This whole righteousness/justice thing. We want to do the thing. While doing the thing is little overwhelming and confusing and maybe even a little uncomfortable, nevertheless, we get it.

Housing justice is one of the things that has been bubbling for some time. As housing prices and rental prices rise and as the numbers of visible homeless and invisible homeless increase, we are increasingly realizing that housing justice is an invitation.

It is a big thing and it is complicated and there is a temptation to think our way through it. What I mean is that we see, for example, the article in the Oregonian about the homeless living in tents on the Springwater corridor in southeast Portland. Portland mayor, Charlie Hales, has announced plans to “clean up” the area in the Portland city limits.

Clean up is an interesting word choice. You clean something that is dirty. You clean up trash and throw it away, wherever “away” is. For those who live in houses in the neighborhood of these camps or whose use the trails for recreation, these camps are dirty. They need cleaning.

But for those who live in the camps, for whom these tents are home, “clean up” means destroy, uproot, cast away, reject. These human beings, “our own flesh,” are literally being treated like trash.

If powers larger than I were to come to my neighborhood and say these houses need to be cleaned up and they aren’t talking about vacuum cleaners but bulldozers and you have three days to get out, clean up would have a different meaning for me.

I am not criticizing the mayor or the neighbors or trying to throw bible verses at a problem. What I want to avoid is the temptation to try think our way out of this. I have no grand solution and I am doubtful that anyone else does either. Even if someone does, so what? It is a lot of thinking and talking.

Meanwhile just outside of my neighborhood, new houses are being built with price tags of $650,000. “Our own flesh” living on Springwater corridor in tents won’t likely be moving into those homes. As the system works, that is considered normal. This is what cities do. Is it, though, as it says in Isaiah 1:26 “a city of tzedeqah or righteousness?”

This is the phrase that haunts me in today’s reading from Isaiah 58:

“Don’t hide yourself from your own flesh.”

The challenge is not to think our way to a grand solution. The challenge is, “Don’t hide.”

A proposal has been brought to us and the session has commissioned a team to explore the feasibility of taking a baby step as a congregation. That is to explore Family Promise. The phrase “bring the homeless poor into your house” – “our house” being the church building is the opportunity.

I am not going to get into the details of Family Promise because we are going to have a church chat about it after today’s service. I hope that we will continue these conversations so we can all have input and ask hard questions about it and our involvement.

In short, Family Promise is a cooperative effort between congregations to temporarily house families for a week at a time as they work toward finding more suitable housing, employment if needed, etc.

Is this the grand solution to the Springwater Corridor camps? Of course not. I don’t know if it is a solution to anything. It is however, a first step toward not hiding from “our own flesh.” It is something we can probably do that helps us connect on the flesh level with this faceless and fleshless term, “houseless” or “homeless.”

Sometimes as we are faced with problems that are far larger than we can solve, we have to start where we are. We can’t repair the world, but we can take steps toward repairing the world. We cannot bring about justice, but we can continue to take steps toward being just.

Amen.