A Voice for Today


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

May 10, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 1:1-31; Luke 6:20–26

       It was not an easy time. So many had made so many sacrifices. The question that leaders had in 1945 was how do we restructure the world order? Germany was now defeated, millions of people were starving, cities needed to be rebuilt, and it was clear that the old social order had to be changed. 

Like the Kingdom of David, Europe was divided and each side fell under the hegemony of a powerful ruling system. In the West, Truman realized that it was essential to rebuild Germany as well as the rest of Europe and the person he picked as his Secretary of State, a general, came up with a program to do just that.

       The Marshall Plan named after George C. Marshall helped to create the Western Europe we have today. Realizing that the vengeful penalties laid on Germany after World War I served as the petri dish for the rise of Hitler and his program of blame and hate, Marshall got the Congress to invest $15 billion – a huge sum in 1947 – to rebuild Europe including Germany. 

        And it worked. The European countries recovered. But there were certain differences between European and American approaches to societal development. Many European countries already had a history of social welfare so that programs like medical care and labor protections had little opposition from their politicians. 

        In the eighth century BCE there were no social welfare programs, of course, but there were Scriptural injunctions on caring for the poor. Part of the story of Ruth involves one of those injunctions. Leviticus 19 commanded the owners of wheat fields not to glean the margins so that the poor can have wheat as well. 

         Solomon although wise in some sense was unwise in others as he increased taxes in his program to construct a bigger and better Jerusalem. Heavy taxes helped to create the division between the two kingdoms, Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Not only did the two kingdoms make separate alliances with the powerful regional empires, they also fought each other. 

         About two hundred years and a bunch of kings later, some of whom did not live very long because they were murdered by their successors, who in turn were also murdered by their successors, Hezekiah became the thirteenth king of Judah. He reigned for 30 years and it is during his reign that Isaiah appears.

         This is a period of time about which little is known. Records are scarce and it is almost exclusively through the excavations of archaeologists that we have any insight at all into that time. As one writer noted, this was an age that validated Voltaire’s taunt that the Bible is more celebrated than known.

          The period is pieced together through a combination of archaeological finds from the Assyrian Empire of that time, Egyptian records, and Scriptural references. It almost makes you grateful that we have e-mail to secure our own time. 

The problem in our time is deciphering between all the events to try to figure out what facts are important – important enough to try to interpret – for that is what history is – interpretation  of events so that the future will understand us better.

         Whereas we may feel overloaded with events – facts – when we look at the world of Isaiah, we have to try to guess what the events or facts actually were. Sometimes it seems easier to look at hindsight, but that’s not always the case.

In this opening salvo from the prophet, you can pretty much get the picture. The northern kingdom of Israel has been leveled by Sennacherib and he’s heading straight for Jerusalem. Following his capture of the city Lachish, there seems to be nothing that can stop him.

         However, there was. Isaiah will attribute it to the Lord; most likely, as the Greek historian Herodotus suggested, it was the plague. The army was decimated and Jerusalem was saved – from the Assyrians, at least. But Isaiah in his vision in this morning’s reading still before the rescue, calls on the kingdom to repent.

          And what is it that the kingdom needs to repent from? From burnt offerings and festivals, from meaningless press conferences. What is it that Judah needs to do? Learn to do good and seek justice. And how is that measured? Rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.

Orphans and widows were the persons without protectors; they were the persons who needed the social safety net for they had no protector, no one to speak for them. Our modern equivalents are the low-skilled workers who are most deeply affected by the ravages of the sickness sweeping our society today. 

       The sickness is not just Covid-19 but the lack of equality that exists in our society today. Friday’s unemployment report from the Labor Department showed that all sectors of society have been affected by the economic slump resulting from the virus. Congress dithers about just how much to spend, or as some say, to invest in a recovery. 

        Even the business law website services indicate how the virus has affected large law firms: No high-paying summer internships, lawyers taking cuts in their salaries, even highly paid partners in a few large corporate firms – imagine that! 

Some European countries have taken a different approach. For instance, Denmark covered and still continues to cover 75% of employee salaries for persons furloughed due to the virus. England is proposing an 80% coverage. Norway provided extensive loan packages to business and 100% employee compensation for persons earning less than $58,638 USD. Finland, already troubled economically, boosted its unemployment insurance payments. 

         Cooperation has been the mark of most European governments and compliance with distancing guidelines and lockdowns has resulted in some of those countries being able to open up again. Isaiah’s words ring true to us when he cried, “From the sole of the foot, even to the head, there is no soundness to it.”

         Isaiah, of course, was lamenting the effects of a military invasion, and, as we shall see later on, an illness which befell Sennacherib’s troops was the salvation for Judah. But Isaiah was also speaking to something deeper in the society of his day that reflects our own. Being more sophisticated, of course, we do not see Covid-19 as a visitation of God’s judgment; however, its effects say a good deal about how we as a society function which certainly may bring about God’s judgment on us.

         The disparity in the illness and death rates between middle class whites and the poorer minority population is palpable. The differences nationally do not seem to be reflected here in New Jersey, though they are in other places, notably New York, Chicago, and some other cities. About 15 percent of our population is black and about 14 percent of the deaths have been among blacks; about 20 percent of New Jersey counts itself among Hispanic or Latino origin and about 12.5 percent of deaths have been from that population group. 

         However, if you look around, you will notice that the kind of jobs that many minority persons have expose them more directly. The take-out line at Wendy’s went around the block and the woman at the window was clearly brown. Many bus drivers and transportation workers are also minority, not to mention the low-paid staff at many nursing homes.

         Isaiah, of course, minces no words as he decries the lack of justice for the poor: “How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers. Your silver has become dross.” And he goes on: “Everyone loves a bribe.” Though we may not view our health crisis as a punishment from God as Isaiah saw the Assyrian invasion, we should seriously examine how Congress and the President make their political decisions at this critical time. 

         To get out of the economic mess we are now in, we must address some more basic issues in our society, such as equity and justice. The cost of this pandemic is also a healthcare cost and as a Nation we must address these issues seriously and for the long run, not just in this crisis. 

Isaiah was certainly correct in that the political decisions brought about a crisis. The lack of just political decisions today will have much the same effect of reaping the whirlwind. 

         Let us pray: Eternal Creator, you gave us minds to think and hearts to feel. May we use them to emerge from this time a stronger and more just society as you have called us to create. In the name of the One we follow, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.