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The Moral Choice

Sermon – 11/21/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Jeremiah 23: 1-6

The text this morning concludes a long section in Jeremiah, beginning in the 21st chapter, concerning the responsibility of kings in ancient times.  Jeremiah’s perspective is summed up in the 22nd chapter, verse 3:  “Thus says the Lord, act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed and do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place”.  That sums up the responsibility of the leaders of the nation.  He then goes on to rate various kings by this standard, and none of them come out too well.  We read of one:  “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbors work for nothing and does not give them their wages.  But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain for shedding innocent blood and for practicing oppression and violence”.  And then we come to the conclusion in the 23rd chapter, which is our text for this morning:

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. 2Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. 3Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD. 5The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness.".  


Now just a couple of preliminary notes to make on this passage.  In general, I do not pick texts in order to use them to make some comment on contemporary affairs.  Such is the case here, because I picked this text back in January with no idea what situation we might be facing today.  So don’t think I’m trying to make some comment on elected officials by the selection of this particular text this morning.  Would I do that?!J  Rather than start with what’s going on with the world and then looking at scripture to see what it would say about that, my preference instead is to start with scripture and ask ‘what is God saying in this?’ and then to ask how does that apply in the world today.  It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

Secondly, this is one of the texts from the lectionary for this Sunday, the last Sunday in the liturgical year which is Christ the King Sunday.  And that explains the passage Maureen read earlier from the crucifixion that proclaims the crucified Jesus as King of Israel, of the nation.  The liturgical year is what we call our worship calendar, the seasons of the church year.  It begins with Advent, moves through Christmas, and Epiphany, and Lent, and Easter, and Pentecost.  It’s a way of saying that we march to a different drummer, we do not follow the calendar year, in other words – we have our own sense of time, that God is the Lord of time, not the world, not us. 

This particular text, on this particular Sunday (referring to Jeremiah) calls attention to that Christian proclamation of Christ as the promised King who is the fulfillment of justice and righteousness and not just in the land but in the world.  When you compare that to the crucifixion passage there’s a paradox there, isn’t there?  How is he King?  How does that reflect on justice and righteousness and how is that manifested through Christ and our faith?

Now before we draw any conclusion about what we see going on around us in the world, we need to examine further what Jeremiah and the prophets mean by ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’.  We tend to think of justice in terms of criminal justice.  Those crucified next to Jesus who said ‘we got what we deserved’.  Whereas justice, Biblically speaking, is about the common good and social well-being of the weak and the powerless.  Isaiah summarizes the meaning of justice in the first chapter where he says ‘Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’.  Amos describes the injustice of the financial abuse of the poor by the powerful.  In the 8th chapter of Amos we read:  ‘Hear this you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land saying “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain on the Sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale, we will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals”. 

Finally, Jeremiah, following the example of Isaiah and Amos some 150 years later, pronounced his judgment, the Lord’s judgment, as the reason for the fall of Jerusalem to Babylonia when he says:  ‘For scoundrels are found among my people.  They take over the goods of others.  Like fowlers they set a trap, they catch human beings like a cage full of birds.  Their houses are full of treachery.  Therefore they have become great and rich.  They have grown fat and sleek.  They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.  Shall I not punish them for these things?’

The reverend Dr. James Forbes from the Riverside Church in New York summed it up well for us I think when he was here in June as part of the Let Justice Roll campaign sponsored by National Council of Churches.  Dr. Forbes said “Listen, we may differ on many things, but on this issue, about the need to feed the hungry, the need to provide adequate shelter, the need to provide healthcare for everybody, all of us – no matter if we are right or left – we are united on that.  And so we are going to make the case that if America is to be the land that we sing about as being so beautiful, it will manifest itself in making real the promise of a good life for all of us.  And I believe that if we can come together on this point, we may actually begin to reunify our nation so that we can restore the principles of justice and equality and compassion for all”. 

And I believe that is equally true now, after the election, as it was before.  And the issue is how do we do that?  How do we achieve that?  How do we work together to bring that about?  This is what the Bible means when it talks about justice. 

Now righteousness has fallen on rather hard times.  We think of ‘righteous’ as being a negative term, rather than a positive term, typically.  Someone who is ‘righteous’ is someone who is, in our minds, ‘holier’ than others.  I may be ‘righteous’ about the Ducks, sometimes J.  We Duck fans were duly humbled yesterday [loss to Oregon State], now I’ve got my orange on, did you notice that, a little orange and black in my stole.  Trying to show appropriate humbleness. 

Righteousness is simply being faithful in a relationship.  To be ‘in right’ with someone is not the opposite of wrong, it is rather the opposite of being estranged, or of unfaithfulness.  A ‘righteous’ marriage is not necessarily a religious one, a righteous one is a faithful one.  A righteous king is one who is faithful to his relationships with his subjects and with God.  Thus the prophet Hosea is famous for using the example of his marriage to Gomer, a harlot, as an illustration of the lack of righteousness of the people.  Just as she is unfaithful to her relationship with Hosea, so the people of Israel, he says, are unfaithful in their relationship to God, as is evident in their actions.  And thus Hosea proclaims ‘For the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land, there is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land.  Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing, and adultery break out.  Bloodshed follows on bloodshed”.

And Micah, writing in about the same time, Micah in the south, Hosea in the north, makes a similar proclamation when he says:  “The faithful have disappeared from the land.  There is no one left who is upright.  They all lie in wait for blood, they hunt each other with nets, their hands are skilled to do evil, the official and the judge ask for a bribe and the powerful dictate what they desire thus they pervert justice”.  And note especially when he goes on to describe relationships and the breakdown thereof.  He says “Put no trust in a friend.  Have no confidence in a loved one.  Guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace, for the son treats the father with contempt.  The daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  Your enemies are members of your own household”.  

See, that’s the definition of ‘unrighteousness’ – the breakdown, complete breakdown in relationships.  In contrast to such brokenness, the 85th Psalm describes a time and a place when righteousness and peace will meet.  We read: 

Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. 9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. 10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. 11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. 12 The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. 13 Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

In other words, to be in right relationship with God and with our world is to live in God’s abundant love, peace, and prosperity that is sufficient for all.  Thus, this is the vision of God for our world – a vision of justice and righteousness for all.  And this is the measuring stick for which we are called to hold our leaders accountable.  Now, how then do we apply this today?

A lot has been made of morality, as being one of the pivotal issues in this year’s election.  I did a little canvassing as part of my patriotic duty, to be involved in the process, but not for any political party, because I don’t find any one party as representing my view.  So I chose a 527, one of those independent political groups that we’ve been hearing so much about, and probably do need to be fixed in some way, and undoubtedly Congress will address that.  Be that as it may (and plus a member of the church recruited me to do it!), I did a little canvassing for this group.  Knocking on doors, just to interview people to survey where they were, and who they were supporting, and why.

Very fascinating, great conversations.  At one home, of college students, there was a young woman, registered to vote, fortunately, and I asked her who she was intending to vote for and she said the President. I said fine, can you tell me why?  She kind of hemmed and hawed, and I said, well, let me read off the list of issues here, so I can just check them off my form and be on my way.  Is it the environment?  She said, no, she really didn’t agree with the President on the environment.  Was it the economy?  No, she didn’t like the way the President was handling the economy.  Was it the war in Iraq?  No, she really disagreed with the President on the war in Iraq.  And I was beginning to get confused – ‘could you explain to me, why are you supporting the President’?

And she said:  “Because of moral issues.  You know, abortion, same-sex marriage, stem cell research.”  Ah – wasn’t on my list.  That’s how out of it we were, I guess.  And exit polling has tended to show that was one of the major issues – people identified morality as those kind of issues.  Now regardless of your own view on any of those issues, undoubtedly we’re not of one mind on most or any of them, so my point is not to argue for or against that perspective, except this:  explain to me when and why morality became so narrowly defined as matters solely of reproductive choice and sexuality?

Is not our treatment of God’s earth a moral issue?  Is not the lack of healthcare for 34 million Americans a moral issue?  Is not the growing gap between rich and poor a moral issue?  Is not the conduct of war the ultimate moral issue?  Are those not things that we can agree upon, and then we can discuss ‘OK, what is the morality in each of those issues?’.

Friday I was at City Club, and the superintendent of the Bethel school district was sharing with us on the state of education in our state, and he said he came from Nevada.  Working in the school district there, with 60,000 students, says Nevada is a state of legal prostitution and gambling.  And in that state, in his school district, the ratio of teachers to students in first grade was 1 teacher to 15 students.  He comes to Oregon, where prostitution is still illegal, gambling is. . . well, you know, making more inroads all the time, but at least it’s still confined to certain places and the like, and what do we find?  The ratio of students to teachers is closer in those primary grades of 1 to 30.  Now which is the more moral society, if you will?

Surely these are issues we agree that we have to find ways to address, to fix them.  Again, I emphasize, regardless of where any of us stand on any of these, can we not agree:  these are the fundamental issues of morality in our time.  The issues of justice and righteousness we must face.  Note this interesting thing – can anyone cite to me a verse in scripture that cites morality, or morals?  There’s only one!  Look it up in your concordance, there’s only one.  The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:33, you can look it up in your Bible there, quotes a well-known Greek philosopher (we even know the name of the Greek philosopher, though I don’t recall it at the moment), and he quotes this proverb:  “Bad company ruins good morals”.  Yeah, I know, that’s why I don’t hang out with (OSU) Beavers generally J.  Be that as it may. .. . I’ve been duly humbled, right?

Stop and think about this – the only time morality is mentioned by name in the Bible we have to go to a non-Biblical source in Greek philosophy.  Why is that?  Is it because God does not care about morals?  Or is it because if we practice justice and righteousness, morality – that is choosing right over wrong – will take care of itself?

Claude Offenbacher at KLCC called me up after the election for his Sunday show. He was calling a variety of clergy from different perspectives wanting to understand this issue after the election.  He asked, ‘What do you think of in scripture when you think of morality, for your faith?’  Without hesitation I said ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.  For me that sums up Christian morality.  We continued to talk for awhile, and he brought up the topic of capital punishment, noting that the Bible says ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.  Isn’t that interesting he would say that, because Jesus says “You have heard it said ‘An eye an for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you ‘Turn the other cheek’”. 

In other words, I take that to mean Christian morality never is about returning evil for evil.  But only returning evil with good.  To engage in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is not to claim victory over evil, it is to succumb to that evil.  Which is why I have been opposed to the war in Iraq, and I’ve been very public about that and open, so no surprise there.  Because I think it is the embodiment of evil.  I find many that disagree with me on my position on the war actually agree on that point –- ‘yeah, it is evil, we agree, but it’s a necessary evil’.  OK, we can talk about that – what’s a necessary evil?  And what would Jesus say about necessary evil?  Is that a concept he would agree with?  I happen to think, you know, Jesus and I would disagree with you on that particular point, but we can talk about that J.

By the way, this may surprise you, that I think the case this week of this Marine who shot the wounded combatant in the mosque in Fallujah, and folks are all upset that it’s a violation of the Geneva Convention – I think he is just as much a victim of that evil as the man he shot.  If he is brought on trial for war crimes (I suspect he will be because of our need to show how we do justice in our country), I think that will be the injustice.  We cannot sit in judgment, those of us that have never been in that situation -- military people, share with me your perspectives on that – but I don’t think we can sit in judgment of someone put in that kind of stressful situation.  It’s not because he’s innocent, but because he is the least guilty of anyone involved.

Well, where do we end up?  Only when we can honestly say that we have met evil with goodness can we say we have made the moral choice.  Only when we correct injustice with justice can we say we have made the moral choice.  Only when we can say that we have been as faithful in our personal relationships with our spouse, our family, our friends, and neighbors, our children, as we have in our social relationships with the people of our community, our nation, and our world can we say we’ve made the moral choice.  Only when our welfare is equal to that of the welfare of the poor among us can we say we have made the moral choice.  Only when we care for the earth as God would care for the earth have we made the moral choice.  Only when we treasure every life as our own, and every life, every child, as God’s own, can we say we have made the moral choice.

That is not a choice we make once every four years.  That is a choice we make each and every day.  May we make that choice.


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