Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Promise of Fairness

Isaiah 11:1-10
Advent 2
December 4, 2016
William G. Carter

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

Recently I was in a room of thirty adults, playing a get-to-know you game: raise your hand if you have red hair, raise your hand if you enjoy the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then this question came: Raise your hand if you’re left handed. I put my hand in the air. I was the only one. They all looked at me. Some old feelings returned.

I suddenly recalled Mrs. Carr’s kindergarten class. She was teaching us to write, and she told me I had my pencil in the wrong hand. So I tried to write with the other hand and it was terrible. She stood over my shoulder, scowled, and shook her head. So I switched back. This wasn’t fair.

Then she handed out scissors. I put them in my left hand, tried to cut with them, and they didn’t work. “No, those are normal scissors,” she said. “Use your right hand.” I couldn’t do it. So she rummaged around until she found a pair of ugly green handled scissors and said, “I suppose you will have to use these.” I tried them with my right hand. “No, no,” she said. “They are left handed scissors.” So I switched hands, and they didn’t work with my left hand either. By now the whole class was looking at me. The girls were smirking. It wasn’t fair.

Life isn’t fair. We are born with grievous inequities. Some are left-handed, some are left brained. Some are tall, some are short. Some of us lose weight quickly, others can’t keep their hands off the Christmas cookies. More to the point, some are wealthy, some are not. Some discover within themselves great abilities and advantages, some struggle to simply be average. Some are born to Presbyterian parents, others born to Muslims. Sometimes the differences separate us, and it isn’t fair.

It’s like the Baptist preacher said in 1963: “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”[1] It’s the dream of fairness. It is a worthy dream and it is still dangling out there ahead of us.

So we hear Isaiah declare that the Promised One “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” It is an interesting addition to what we have already have heard. The Messiah will be full of the Spirit of God. This Spirit will fill him with wisdom and understanding, counsel and might. He will be full of knowledge, with deep reverence for God. And he will also be fair.

That’s where the prophet is pointing. He will not be swayed by visual deception. He will not believe the hype or nonsense of what others say. He will see things for what they are. And this quality of clarity will determine how he judges.

Now, that word “judge” is a venerable word. For the Jews, it hearkens back to a time when the land was governed by people called judges. They were local authorities. You took your case to them, and they decided. If there was something wrong, they had the ability to fix it. If a grievance needed to be addressed, they had the power to do so.

Their fairness depended on the quality of their character. If they were good people, they would make good decisions. If they were sleazy, if their opinions could be purchased, then the victims might be in further trouble. All the more reason why justice had to be independent from what the judge saw or what people were saying.

Maybe you remember the statue of Lady Justice, which hearkens back to the empires of Egpyt, Greece, and Rome. She stands with the scales to measure out right from wrong, and she is blindfolded. That’s the ancient way of declaring that true justice is fair.

Justice means that everybody has the same opportunity, that no one can buy their own way, that truth is not determined by hiring an army of high-priced attorneys. Justice means that even the scam artists have to live with themselves late at night. By day, they can surround themselves with the best friends money can buy. But there comes a time of reckoning when all shall be revealed, and all shall be judged fairly.

This what Isaiah hopes for all of us. The Holy One who is coming, the One who is so full of God’s Spirit, shall preside over the poor with righteousness – with clear character. He will decide with fairness for the meek of the earth. From where I stand, the world still needs this. We need that kind of Messiah.

Maybe it would help us to listen to one another. God knows we need that, too. Last year, there was great controversy on the Princeton University campus. Princeton has the Wilson School of International Relations. It’s named after Woodrow Wilson, who was the university president before he was elected president of the nation. He was instrumental in creating the League of Nations, precursor of the United Nations. He was also a notorious racist, who fired African Americans from government posts when he went to Washington.

Students at the university learned this. They invaded the university president’s office and protested with a sit-in. The conversation continued. What do you do? Do you change the name of the Wilson School, or name it after Flip Wilson? Do you recognize the great achievements of an outstanding president who had moral flaws? What would be the fair thing to do?

The controversy is still simmering. Last we heard, the school decided to keep its name and put up a plaque that said something like, “President Wilson was a good guy who had some issues.”[2] Can you understand that people who have had to deal with discrimination all their lives don’t believe that Princeton is really addressing the deep hurt that lingers?

Whether you are left-handed or dark-skinned or whatever else, you hunger and thirst for fairness. Sometimes we begin to learn the lesson at our family tables.

The father puts a fresh apple pie on the dinner table. Three kids lean forward and lick their lips. Mmm, apple pie!  Dad says, “Wait a minute. It needs to be cut.” He hands a knife to the oldest child and says, “You cut the slices, and the other two get to choose their pieces before you.”  She leans over that pie and, with surgical skill, slices the pie. All the pieces are absolutely identical. You can’t have the little brother complain, “Her piece is bigger than mine.”

Now, that’s a smart parent. It’s a replay of the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

So we watch and hope for fairness, for the One who is not bribed nor swayed by public opinion, but regards each person as a child of God, worthy of love, worthy of justice. And while we watch and hope for that One to come, we can pledge ourselves to live as if he is already among us.

The best wisdom from a young girl named Scout, and her father Atticus. Remember them from the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird? Scout says, “I thinks there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Atticus adds, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."[3] Good advice, especially when it comes to living out fairness for you and I and all our neighbors.

Do you know what would really make things fair? If only the Messiah could climb inside our skin and walk around in it!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963
[3] Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1988), page 39

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