Sunday, February 5, 2017


A number of years ago, a good friend—a layman—said to me, “When something big happens in our country, or the world, I expect to hear a word about it from my pastor.” I have been goaded by this straightforward request ever since. My friend was not asking for “politics from the pulpit,” but for the wisdom and counsel of his faith, his church, the scriptures—as they come together in the pastor’s call to “preach the gospel.” I say, “goaded,” because sometimes I’d rather avoid making any reference to whatever calamity or social upheaval is creating headlines, especially if I know that 51% of my parishioners would feel one way about it, and 49% would feel the other. (I want everybody to like me.) I’d rather find a passage that will let me preach on Sweet Jesus and leave it at that. Like the preacher who, on the Sunday following 9/11, said nothing about the attack because “it wasn’t in the lectionary.” (Talk about an “Elephant in the Room!”)

The lectionary: For many church bodies, this is an agreed-upon rotation of scripture texts used in worship. It’s not “church law”—there isn’t anything binding about it—it’s simply a practical way for a worshiping community to cover a good portion of the biblical message in a three-year cycle.

In the midst of our current national upheaval?... crisis?... unpleasantness?... I am again goaded by my friend’s expectation. What’s more, the lectionary itself this week gives me little wiggle room. This Sunday, my church bulletin, like the bulletins in thousands of congregations in the United States and around the world, will include, in its regular place in the cycle, these words from the 58th chapter of Isaiah. (This is God speaking):

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day…
 You fast only to quarrel and to fight
  and to strike with a wicked fist…
Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of injustice,
  to undo the thongs 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 them,
  and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

And it goes on (three times this long)—an unusually long lectionary passage. I’m tempted to simply read it and let it stand as the sermon. In any event, when I climb into the pulpit, I will not seek to convince the good folks in my parish concerning one politician or another. I will do my best to shut up and let Isaiah speak. I am not a biblical literalist; or, I should say, I am a pick-and-choose literalist like everyone else. But—literal or figurative—this reading doles out some marching orders for what it means to live out a Christian faith in these times. I find it as improbable to read this passage in worship while ignoring headlines about a fear-based policy of shutting out the immigrant, as it was for that hapless minister to get through a whole hour of worship on Sunday, September 16, 2001, without referring to the attacks of September 11.

Whatever Christians mean by "holy scripture," we certainly mean that Isaiah speaks to us down through the ages. Unless, that is, we want to say--as I once heard a self-proclaimed biblical literalist say to a similar passage--"That applied to them; it doesn't apply to us." It does apply to us. Isaiah speaks. What's more, as Scholars tell us, the very same biblical “prophets of doom” are also “prophets of hope,” and Isaiah is “Exhibit A.”  The lectionary passage for this Sunday concludes:

If you remove the yoke from among you…
 if you offer your food to the hungry
  and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
 then your light shall rise in the darkness
  and your gloom be like the noonday….
  you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
 you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
  the restorer of streets to live in.

Jesus’ itinerant family were among Isaiah’s “homeless poor”—given shelter in a barn. They became refugees fleeing a genocidal tyrant. The book of Exodus reminds us, “Do not mistreat or oppress a refugee, for you were refugees in Egypt.” We all came from someplace else. To America. Our new president, who has, surprisingly, appealed to a sizeable number of Christians, seems to know little and care less about the good news of their Gospel and its concern for the poor. I do not question or judge the core of their faith, but I do question their Bible-reading. They have had to be “pick-and-choose” readers of the Bible, ignoring the overwhelming number of biblical passages about justice for the poor, the outcast, the widow, and the immigrant. Passages represented in this Sunday’s lectionary.

I’m a coward. I don’t want to preach on any of this. But I’d better. Otherwise, the Elephant in the room will be Isaiah.