“A Light to the Nations”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 15, 2017
University Baptist Church
Old Isaiah is calling on the ends of the earth to listen to him. “Listen to me O coastlands, pay attention, you people from far away.” There is a word from God that we need to pay attention to. “Wake up, people. Smell the coffee. Come in where it’s warm. Pay attention to me,” says the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah the suffering prophet spoke to the people after they had been defeated. The great temple in Jerusalem had been thrown down. The king was sent in to exile. The people had their land robbed from them. The arrogant leaders of a foreign country had their way with the spoils of the once great empire. Isaiah’s words were to these people who saw all that was holy, destroyed. They could no longer believe in a God that would let this happen. They were utterly lost and despondent. Isaiah spoke to them in their deepest despair and told them, “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you people from far away.” It’s an ancient version of either, “Oh beautiful for spacious skies for amber waves of grain.” Or “From the redwood forests to the gulfstream waters…”
“Listen,” says Isaiah. “Listen, even though you are in exile. Listen even though you think your country is going to hell in a hand basket. Listen, even though you want to shut your eyes and hold your nose. Listen, even though the white noise is drowning out the truth like a twitterstorm. Listen,” says Isaiah.
And what is the word that God has through Isaiah? It’s a word to a nation. It’s written to Israel, but it could very well be written to the United States. “I knew you and loved you even before you were born. Your very name, Israel, means “God wrestles.””
Isaiah tells the people that God has not left them comfortless. God will redeem the people. Even though they are in exile, they will return. But in order to do so, they must cleanse themselves and make themselves ready. They need to pay attention to what brought them to exile in the first place. In Israel’s case, it was making shady deals with foreign armies. It was ceding land. It was compromising their faith. The prophets call it idolatry. Hear these words from the 58th chapter of Isaiah (9b-12):
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
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.
YHWH will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
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.
Think about all of the things that we put our faith in that are not God: the stock market, a football team, a congress, the GOP, the DNC, the DFL, Fox news, the Christian right, even a president. All promise a sort of salvation and all fall short, because they are at best poor imitations of the real deal.
Frank L. Baum wrote one hundred years ago, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” For even a dog can see what is really going on. The dog revealed the sham of the so-called Wizard a hundred years ago. Toto exposed the façade to light, all those smoke and mirrors. And these misfits who never spent any time in the Emerald City were the saviors. They had more heart, courage and brains than the ruling gentry and were far more noble than the showman wizard.
Israel, says God, “I will give you as a light to the nations—you exiled, belittled despondent people.” The point of our lives is to make ourselves worthy of such a dwelling for God. We all love the idea of a city on a hill. A light to the nations. But the light needs something behind it. A power source. The power of a nation’s light is mercy and justice.
We celebrate today, the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Junior. A great reformer named after another great reformer. King was the master of protests. They always pointed to that great city on a hill. They pointed to a better way to live in this world. They pointed to a moral center, a center that we are sorely needing to reclaim once again.
We need our prophetic voices now more than ever. When the billionaires and the oligarchs are in charge of the government, when fossil fuel business interests run the EPA, when people who are against public schools are nominated for the Education secretary, when politicians pass laws under the cover of darkness, when the press is belittled and dismissed—making it impossible to criticize those in power or call them to account, when the President-elect refuses to disclose his taxes so that we can’t verify whether or not he will financially benefit from policies he implements, then who is going to stand in the gap? Who is going to lift that moral voice? Do we need to wait another 50 years for a Martin Luther King to come along? Or are there prophetic voices who are up to the task.
Martin Luther King was an exceptional man with a keen intellect, a gift for a turn of phrase, a deep religious commitment, and an astute ability to transform the anger of an oppressed people into a force for good. Active nonviolence is not just a strategy, it’s a spiritual discipline born out of conviction that all people are good, and we need to tap the goodness of even the worst racist. We need to transform them. You do that by tapping their moral center.
We can agree these days, that income inequality is immoral. The question is, how do we make things fairer. The Sanders campaign was so popular because it asked these very questions and engaged people who saw the man behind the curtain. We can agree these days that health care ought to be a basic human right. What we can’t agree on is who should pay for it. We have tried one way for a long time, and that is to boost the insurance companies. It worked great for some and left too many out. Then the Obama administration decided to require people to buy insurance. This did a lot of things right. It helped poorer people get insurance and those with pre-existing conditions to keep insurance. It helped previously uncovered things get covered. Things like birth control and other medicines. But we remain at the whim of the insurance industry, a so-called not-for-profit entity. They can raise the rates and price us out of the market. I agree that such a thing ought to be repealed, but only if it can be replaced by a single-payer health plan that will take the competition and the profit motive out of the equation. Otherwise, we’ll make America sicker. I joined a dozen or so clergy at the Medica headquarters on Thursday morning, calling for just such a thing.
We need to take back our moral center. We need to reclaim the just mercy that is God’s priority in this world.
This week, students return to campus. They will be well-rested and fresh from month-long discussions with their families about the state of the world. I know what happens around those tables when a college student comes back, fresh with all of those ideas and an audacious sense of right and wrong that comes with such knowledge.
And they return on the heels of Martin Luther King day and just before the Inauguration. On Thursday, I am going to gather with other leaders of the Interfaith Campus Coalition in front of Coffman Union. We’ll have signs that say, “Hate is not a Christian value. Discrimination is not a Jewish value, bigotry is not a Muslim value. We will also proclaim that inclusion, welcome, peace, justice, mercy are the religious values we hold dear.
On Saturday, at least two people from this church will be at the Women’s March in Washington DC. They are going to proclaim that inclusion and women’s rights are American values. They are going to be working toward that great city on a hill.
In the Harry Potter books, the Daily Prophet, the wizarding newspaper parroted what those in power said, regardless of whether it was true or not. The defenders of the truth had to go underground and work with a remnant of people who were not drunk by the wine of the beast. Have we come to that?
The Internet gives us access to vast amounts of information, some of it is even true. But it is up to us to discern fact from fiction, knowledge from propaganda. And the way we do this is to tap a better, more powerful narrative—one based upon a moral center of mercy and justice and peace and truth. And for that we need the church. Here we can hold in tension Biblical ethics and our present predicament. We need for good people of faith, who embrace just mercy to find and nurture their voices.
Sisters and brothers, we need to remember King’s words and our commitments to a just, merciful and moral world. Isaiah 49:1-7 describes his call from God to be a light to the nations. Isaiah is humbled by the trust God places in him. Isaiah confronts his own sense of defeatism. Like many people thrust into the limelight, Isaiah wonders if there might be someone better to lead the people. But God all but said, “You are the one we have been waiting for.” What if we are the ones God is waiting for? What project ought we to enact? What attitude might we adopt? What courageous stance might we make in response to God’s call for just mercy?
On January 28th from 1-4pm, 1500 people of faith will gather at Shiloh Temple for what the ecumenical community organizing group ISAIAH is calling a prophetic Witness. Governor Dayton and Senator Franken will be there to hear our demands for a more just and moral state of Minnesota. I encourage you to join me.
Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light has asked UBC to be a part of a network of 150 faith communities that are committed to climate justice. Deidre Druk has agreed to be our initial community coordinator with Interfaith Power and Light.
So what do we do? We refuse to be silent. We refuse to normalize this craziness. Maybe what we normalize is resistance. We normalize a better narrative. We normalize compassion and mercy in our churches, in our families, in our relationships, at our schools, in our lives.
Our opponents are counting on our despair. They are betting on our acquiescence to the way things are. But we have an ace in our corner. We’ve seen behind the curtain. We know how this story ends. And we know whose side we are to be on.
We are called with Isaiah to be a light to the nations. But we can never do it alone. We need each other. We need God that is revealed in each other. We need to trust that God is going to take our hand and lead us on and let us stand. For together we can and must be stronger.
So with all the conviction we can muster, let us stand and sing this song of longing and hope.
(The congregation then sings “Precious Lord, Take my Hand”)