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Sermon - 11/21/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Let me just take note of where we are liturgically in the year. This is the last Sunday in the year, because next Sunday begins Advent, which liturgically speaking is the beginning of the church's year. And so the last Sunday in the church's year, before we turn our attention to Advent, the lectionary readings for this Sunday invite us to reflect on the nature of the reign of Christ, of whom we will sing soon enough "Joy to the World, the Lord has come, let Earth receive its King". "Hark the Herald Angels Sing, glory to the newborn King". "Come and worship, worship Christ, the newborn King", and so on and so forth.

Lots of images in that wonderful music about Christ as the King. So what exactly does that mean in this day and age?

And since we in this country are the only Christians in the world who associate this Sunday at the end of the church's year with Thanksgiving, because that is unique on our calendar (though other nations may celebrate it at different times of the year) it gives us an opportunity to reflect on how that Kingship relates to this bounty that we celebrate this time of year.

So, the text for this morning is from the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 23 verses 1 through 6:

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.

5 The 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.’


As the entire world under the age of 30 knows, and any parent with children between the ages of six and 30 or so knows, probably most school teachers know, grandparents know, this weekend marked the opening of that long-awaited-for conclusion to the epic journey of Harry Potter.

Of course, they'll have to wait another seven months until the final chapter of that journey (the last book being divided up into two movies), but it's not as if no one knows the ending of the story, because it follows the book very closely. My son, when he goes, he always complains 'they changed this, or they changed that, it's not the same'. I've heard it said: don't even bother going to the movie if you haven't read the books or watch the other six movies because you won't have a clue what's going on.

But, be that as it may, most folks are aware, if you know the story, that Harry Potter's mortal enemy throughout the entire series of the seven books and eight movies is: SHHHHH! You don't dare say his name. He who shall not be named. You don't dare speak the name of . . . . .

And so author J.K. Rowling has so popularized the way of naming someone without naming them, with this hyphenated phrase, that it's become a common way in popular literature to talk about people. For instance, Kathleen Parker, I noticed (columnist from a newspaper in Florida that is occasionally published in the Register Guard), after the election, reflecting on the impact of the election, spoke of "She to whom respect must now be paid", of course referring to Sara Palin because of the success of the Tea Party. Our own columnist for the Register Guard, Bob Welch, often refers to his wife in that way -- "She who this" or "She who that", depending on the story. So for instance, in one of his columns he says "In my darker moments I imagine boxes of unsold books I've written, stored in our attic, crashing through the ceiling above our dining room and burying me during an otherwise festive dinner so she who can make lemonade out of lemons might say 'Anyone for dessert?'

Eugene Peterson, who is the author of "The Message", a paraphrase of Scripture that is quite popular, uses that technique in his translation of the last verse here, he names God: "God-puts-everything-right". One hyphenated phrase. And you see, that's a good, dynamic translation of the text, and conveys much better the more literal translation you find in the New Revised Standard version that I just read "The Lord is our righteousness".

So the question is, how does God put everything right? And what is the wrong that God puts right?

So I want to start with the latter before I come back to the former. Jeremiah provides us with a basic job description for a divinely-led King as one who "executes justice and righteousness".

Those two Hebrew terms -- "mishpat", or justice, and "tzedakah", or righteousness -- are two of the most common terms used by the prophets to describe God's will for the nation and the nation's leaders. They appear together over 40 times in the Hebrew scriptures. They are so closely related that when you look up 'justice' in the definitive interpreter dictionary of the Bible that every pastor as a copy of (5-book set), and it refers you to 'righteousness' -- it's two sides of the same coin.

Now, justice has two different types. There is retributive justice, and there's distributive justice. Retributive justice is usually what we mean when we talk about justice in our society, particularly our justice system. You're familiar with the new jail Springfield has built -- what's the name of the jail? It's the "Springfield Justice Center". Like that's where you would go if you want to get justice, right?

You see, justice in the law is primarily retribution for a crime that has been committed. And whenever someone suffers the consequences of their actions, we say they got their 'just due'.

Distributive justice, on the other hand, is not what one earns by their actions (reward or punishment), but rather what one receives by God's grace. Distributive justice is not about what you earn, it's about how you are valued. And because God values every human being, distributive justice is about each person receiving enough that they may enjoy their full humanity as a child of God.

Now, scripture often speaks about God's justice in both of these ways. And the text this morning is a classic example. The leaders of the nation are to suffer the consequences for leading the people astray. This is that time before the exile, and this is the reason given for the exile, because the nation has strayed from the ways of God, and the Kings and Princes and the like are made responsible for that. That's retributive justice.

But note the reason for that retribution by God -- it's the lack of distributive justice. For instance, in the preceding chapter of Jeremiah, chapter 22 and following, Jeremiah says "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, who says 'I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms' and who cuts out windows for paneling it with Cedar. Are you a King because you compete in Cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness?" (Probably a reference to the ideal David as King). "Thus it was well with him, he judged the cause of the poor and needy, then it was well. Is not this to know me?", says the Lord.

In other words, God's justice as retribution only occurs when God's justice as distribution is ignored or denied.
Retributive justice is the result of distributive injustice.

And Isaiah sums it up succinctly in Chapter 1, verse 17, he says: "Seek justice, undo oppression, defend the fatherless, plea for the widow".

God's justice is about making sure every person is cared for and has a fair share of the harvest of God's bounty.

Now, 'righteousness' is probably the term that's even more misunderstood than justice. Righteousness is not about how religious or how pious one is, as I think people commonly think of that term. Righteousness simply means "to do right by someone else", typically in reference to God. In matters of faith, a righteous person is someone who has done right in the eyes of God, and that begins by being just, as God is just.

And most telling is the teaching of the Torah, the first 5 books of the Hebrew scripture, in which we find a particular reference about taking a person's coat as collateral for a loan. Now, this is particularly appropriate for the weather today. Many of you know, we might have snow tomorrow, it's going to drop down below 23 degrees tonight. That means the Egan Warming Center will be activated, our basement will be full of people tomorrow night, and for the next three or four nights, quite likely on through Thanksgiving, as part of that system to get people off the street because it's literally life-threatening weather. So here's what the Torah says about if you take someone's coat as collateral: "When the sun goes down, you shall give the pledge (that is the cloak) back so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you and it shall be righteous to you before the Lord your God".

That's what it means to be righteous -- do to right by that other person, and thereby to do right by God. So it's not about how often you go to church or say your prayers, but how you do right in the eyes of God by caring for those for whom God cares.

So righteousness cannot exist without justice. Making the world a more just place is what the righteous do. And so the central affirmation of this text is that God, whose very name is righteousness, will make right what is wrong with the world.

Last Sunday, I laid out my case for what I consider to be one of the most fundamental wrongs of our society today, and that is the growing inequality of wealth. Only to learn in-between services that an editorial had been written and published that Sunday morning that made that same point, probably better than I did, so I eagerly went home and read it.

In that editorial, two authors (two professors), one at the Harvard Business School, the other a professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, writing for the LA Times, reporting on a study they did on the perceptions of wealth in this country, and particularly wealth inequality, by surveying a random sample of 5,000 people. They asked two questions: what they thought the distribution of wealth actually was, and what they thought it should be.

And they discovered two things: across the board, young, old, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, men, women, that pretty much everyone thought that there was inequality of wealth, which they defined as the top 20% possessing 60% of the wealth, and the bottom 20% possessing 10% or something. And the reality is that it's much greater than that -- the top 20% possess close to 85% of the wealth, and the bottom next to nothing.

But more surprising was when they asked them what they thought that spread should be -- and they discovered, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, pretty much all said the ideal distribution would be for the top 20% to own 30% of the wealth, and the bottom 20% somewhere around 15% of the wealth. So in other words, that there would be a difference between the rich and poor, just not anywhere as great as what it is currently.

Now here's the kicker: to achieve that ideal that this random sampling of the country said we should have, to achieve that balance, we would have to redistribute 50% of the wealth in this country, of that top 20%. Now, how that could ever been done (short of a revolution) I've no clue nor I would even suggest, but I will insist on this: the biblical vision calls for a radical change in the direction of this country or we will be in serious trouble with God, if not already.

Now, I admit I sometimes say radical things about such things, but I want to share with you a commentary on the book of Jeremiah, a little commentary that I possess in my office (pulls out huge book :). It may be one of the biggest books I own -- and this is just one of 12 books in the commentary series. This book alone cost $129, thank you very much for the business expense you provide me :). But we also have a complete set in our library, and Kyoko and Sue Rhee and Alison have been doing a wonderful job working in our library getting it into shape. That's available for you to use -- don't check it out, like all good reference books, keep them in the library, right?

And all that's just to say this is a heavy text, a weighty text.

And this is what they say on this passage: "these texts are an indictment of any leader or ruler or of any ruling system that allows the rich and powerful to exploit the labor and energy of the poor and weak in order to enhance their own lifestyles in a conspicuously luxurious way. Any society that allows the manipulation of political power to enhance the wealth of the powerful and the rulers and leaders at the expense of the poor and the weak stands under the indictment carried through these verses". That's not the radical part, that's just the warming-up part.

In the 1990s, American society and American politics were a classic example of such manipulation of political power, as the members of the court (the President and administration together with the political rulers in Congress) cut the taxes of the rich, raised them for the poor, and sought to balance the national budget on the backs of children, dependent mothers, immigrants, the contemporary equivalents of the widow, the poor, the orphan and the stranger. In the nineties! That was under the Democratic administration, so it's not about Republican versus Democrat, and before the tax cuts of the Bush administration which we are debating today whether to extend temporarily or permanently.

That we are even debating the topic of whether to extend those tax cuts for the richest of the citizens of this country is exhibit number one that we are increasingly led by shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of God's people.

Now, I do not mean to be alarmist. I only mean to be honest in reading of the Scripture.

Last Sunday, I cited a column of Nicholas Kristof in which he compared the United States to 'Banana Republics', in terms of our economic inequalities. And yesterday, in the column if you read it in the paper, in response to numerous protests, he admitted he was being unfair -- and so he apologized to the Banana Republics for unfairly comparing them to the United States :)

And he cited the example of Argentina, that has done the exact opposite of the United States, and has greatly reduced its wealth inequality in that country in the last 50 years. And he asked: do we really want to be the kind of plutocracy where the richest 1% possess more than the bottom 90%? Because that's where we are. And in the figures he cites, indeed, that top 1% possess 20% more than the bottom 90%. I think that's too much. And only when we change the policies of our country can we hope to change that.

My primary point last Sunday, in talking about our share ethic versus our work ethic, was not that we need to do a better job of sharing our own wealth (and maybe we do, we all could probably do more), but that wasn't the point. I'm proud of the work of his congregation, the kinds of things we are doing to share our wealth -- like the warming center, like the breakfast in the morning, and so on and so forth -- are exemplary. I know a few congregations do likewise, but few doing as much as we.

Rather, my point is that charity is not enough. It will never be enough. So long as we depend on voluntary redistribution of wealth through the goodwill of those on top. Charity is a band-aid, not a solution.

And so Kristof concludes huge concentrations of wealth corrupt the soul of any nation. And that is the message of Jeremiah. It's the message and the prophets. It's the message of Jesus. I'm talking about the soul of this nation that is in danger.

I invite you to recall the Thanksgiving story that is such a big part of our understanding of who we are as a people. And I ask you: is it a story primarily about the charity of the native people of this country toward the Pilgrims, the immigrants (let's always remember that we were immigrants)? Is that what the story is about?

Or is it more the story of the just distribution of God's bounty, that all may receive a fair share?

So here's the point: and I think this is the fundamental message of Scripture, and I believe it is at the essence of who we are as a nation that believes in justice and liberty for all. It is not about works of charity, as important as they may be. It is about works of justice, engaging in God's distributive justice for the world.

How do we do that? Jeremiah tells us God will make everything right through a righteous branch, a descendent of David, a new and better government that will follow God's way of justice and righteousness. The Christian proclamation is that Jesus is that branch. The one who will make it right. And we are the community that seeks to follow his example, to live out that justice, to offer not just a glimpse of what it means to be the kingdom of God in this time and place, but rather to bring it to fruition through acts of distributive justice -- that all may share in the plenty of God's earth.

In other words, if God is going to make everything right through Jesus, then it depends on the followers of Jesus to advocate publicly, forcefully, for God's way of justice and righteousness in our world.

People of God, that is who we are. That is what we are called to do, and be.


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