Civil Servants                    Isaiah 42:1-9                     January 9, 2011
The date was January 9, 1861. Exactly 150 years ago. Shots were fired.
The Union ship Star of the West was attempting to deliver troops and supplies to Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Cadets from The Citadel fired on the ship and forced it to return to New York. This was the first time gunfire erupted between Southern and Northern forces.

Historical purists might argue the date, saying the war actually started in April 1861, when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter. Either way, this tragic part of our country’s history began 150 years ago today.

As we look back on the start of the Civil War, let’s consider what this conflict can teach us as we face the wars going on in our denominations, communities and country today.
One remarkable thing about the Civil War was that both the North and the South assumed God was on their side. Both sides felt the Lord was speaking of them when they heard the words of Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him” (42:1).

The South, in particular, had some powerful and persuasive preachers who used the Bible to defend the institution of slavery. Taking the Bible literally, they preached that humans had no business questioning the Word of God when it said, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5); “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor,” (1 Timothy 6:1) and similar verses.

The preachers of the North had to be more creative in their biblical interpretation, but they, too, found a way to defend their cause. Some emphasized that the Union had to be preserved in its entirety without cessation in order to advance of liberty around the world.

Historian James Howell Moorhead points out that some ministers drew on the book of Revelation to suggest that a Northern victory might prepare the way for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Still others preached that God wouldn’t allow the North to win until it took decisive steps to end slavery.

Theological shots were being fired from both the South and the North. And both sides were convinced they were acting as the Lord’s servant, with God right beside them. George Washington had written 70 years earlier: “Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.” Religious controversies cause more discord than any other cause.

Religious controversies. Acrimony. Irreconcilable hatreds.

It was true then. It’s still true today.

But then another president, Abraham Lincoln, offered a constructive perspective on religious warfare. “My concern is not whether God is on our side,” he said. “My greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

Are we on God’s side?That’s the question we’re left with today, in the middle of our contemporary civil wars: Are we on God’s side?

It is no longer a North-South issue, nor is it Right-Left, Gay-Straight, or Republican-Democratic. When verbal shots are being fired in the cultural-theological-political spectrum, we are to be the Lord’s servant. The key is to not take a particular stand but to play a distinctive role. A servant role. One that is civil and serving. A civil servant, if you will.

We will be on God’s side if we act like the servant of the Lord in Isaiah, the one who “will not cry or lift up his voice” but instead “will faithfully bring forth justice” (vv. 2-3). Those who serve the Lord have a mission to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from captivity” (vv. 6-7). Christians who do these things will always find themselves right where they need to be: on the side of God.

God says to theservant in the book of the prophet Isaiah, “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (v. 1). The servant is filled with God’s spirit in order to bring justice to the nations: to go out into the world create and maintain healthy relationships: to protect the rule of law, uphold human rights, and promote social justice wherever and whenever possible.
The Bible is particularly concerned about people who are often denied justice, or even fair treatment, because of their lack of social or economic power — widows, orphans, resident aliens. Today, that would include the unborn in the abortion battle.

The role of the servant of the Lord is to “bring forth justice” — to bring the justice of God’s kingdom into the middle of the muddle of human life. We do this whenever we treat people fairly and respect their rights, seeing them as precious children of God, made in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). We do this when we pay special attention to people who are vulnerable and protect them from being mistreated by others.

Born to missionary parents in India in 1914, Paul Brand went on to become a world-renowned orthopedic surgeon who devoted his life to the research and treatment of leprosy. Yet this brilliant and distinguished doctor sought not prestige or wealth.

In his book Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey recalls the first time he met Brand in Carville, Louisiana, at the National Hansen’s Disease Hospital and Research Center. Yancey writes:

“I knew of Brand’s stature in the world medical community in advance of my visit: the offers to head up major medical centers in England and the United States, the distinguished lectureships all over the world, the hand-surgery procedures named in his honor, the prestigious Albert Lasker Award, his appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, his selection as the only Westerner to serve on the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation.

“… Most speakers and writers I knew were hitting the circuit, packaging and repackaging the same thoughts in different books and giving the same speeches to different crowds. Meanwhile Paul Brand, who had more intellectual and spiritual depth than anyone I had ever met, gave many of his speeches to a handful of leprosy patients in the hospital’s Protestant chapel. At the Brands’ insistence, I attended the Wednesday evening prayer service during my week at Carville.
If I recall correctly, there were five of us in the choir and eight in the audience. Margaret Brand had drafted me into the choir, pleading, ‘We haven’t had a male voice in ever so long. Paul is giving the sermon, so he’s not available. You simply must sing with us.’ She brushed aside my mild protests. ‘Don’t be silly. Half the people who attend are deaf because of a reaction to a drug we use in treating leprosy. But a guest chorister would be such a treat — they’ll enjoy just watching you.’
To that motley crew, Brand proceeded to deliver an address worthy of Westminster Abbey. Obviously, he had spent hours meditating and praying over that one sermon. It mattered not that we were a tiny cluster of half-deaf nobodies in a sleepy bayou chapel. He spoke as an act of worship, as one who truly believed that God shows up when two or three are gathered together in God’s name.”
That’s one way of bringing forth justice and of being a servant of the Lord.

Another role of the servant is how he or she does their work. Isaiah writes, “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (vv. 2-3). These servants are not loud or obnoxious, destructive or domineering.
They do their work quietly and compassionately, with respect for the people around them, while also standing strong for what they believe in. “He will not grow faint or be crushed,” predicts Isaiah, “Until he has established justice in the earth” (v. 4).

In the public arena: Protesters from the Far Left to the Far Right should study this passage in Isaiah. There’s a better way than waving signs, screaming insults, and firing verbal shots at the opposition.

True servants of the Lord are sent to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” (vv. 6-7). God’s servants bring light into darkness and help people see new ways of living together. They work for the liberation of anyone who’s trapped — in poverty, in addiction, in homelessness, in loneliness, in despair.

During the Civil War, the North and South both claimed God was on their side. In our civil wars today, we’re fighting about many cultural, political issues and theological issues. And, oddly enough, the way out of our struggles is not to fight harder -- but to serve better. Instead of citing Scriptures and slogans to support a cause, Christians ought to take on the role of servant: to live humbly and faithfully, to do justice and show God’s mercy. 

Forget trying to prove God is on your side (as you try to prove your point). – Instead, be on God’s side (by living out the divine command to love God by treating others as you want to be treated).
Nowhere does it say in Scripture that we are to take up a cause, no matter how noble, at the expense of discrediting God’s word and God’s character; and that’s what we see happening too often when well-meaning people use the Bible to grand-stand their cause. Be a civil servant.
Nothing in this world is as black and white as some people would like to have it. The bible is not a magic potion manual or a comprehensive list of rules to follow. It was written to instruct us how to live in peace for the good of humanity and the furtherance of the kingdom of God. (Much unlike what the media presents.
Pastors regularly email back and forth discussing lectionary passages and exchanging stories that illuminate current lectionary passages. Here’s a personal story shared by someone that demonstrates how effective being a civil servant can be.
In the personal arena:  I was holding a notice from my 13-year-old son's school announcing a meeting to preview the new course in sexuality. Parents could examine the curriculum and take part in an actual lesson presented exactly as it would be given to the students.

When I arrived at the school, I was surprised to discover only about a dozen parents there. As we waited for the presentation, I thumbed through page after page of instructions in the prevention of pregnancy or disease. I found abstinence mentioned only in passing. When the teacher arrived with the school nurse, she asked if there were any questions. I asked why abstinence did not play a noticeable part in the material.

What happened next was shocking.

There was a great deal of laughter, and someone suggested that if I thought abstinence had any merit, I should go back to burying my head in the sand. The teacher and the nurse said nothing as I drowned in a sea of embarrassment.

The teacher explained to me that the job of the school was to teach "facts," and the home was responsible for moral training. I sat in silence as the course was explained. The other parents seemed to give their unqualified support to the materials.

"Doughnuts, at the back," announced the teacher during the break. "I'd like you to put on the nametags we have prepared — they're right by the doughnuts — and mingle with the other parents."

As I watched them affixing their nametags and shaking hands, I sat deep in thought. I was ashamed that I had not been able to convince them to include a serious discussion of abstinence in the materials. I uttered a silent prayer for guidance.

My thoughts were interrupted by the teacher's hand on my shoulder. "Won't you join the others, Mrs. Layton?" The nurse smiled sweetly at me. "The doughnuts are good."

"Thank you, no," I replied.

"Well, then, how about a nametag? I'm sure the others would like to meet you."

"Somehow I doubt that," I replied. "I'll just wait here."

When the class was called back to order, the teacher thanked everyone for putting on nametags. She ignored me.

Then she said, "Now we're going to give you the same lesson we'll be giving your children. Everyone please peel off your name tags. Now, then, on the back of one of the tags, I drew a tiny flower. Who has it, please?"

The gentleman across from me held it up. "Here it is!"

"All right," she said. "The flower represents disease. Do you recall with whom you shook hands?" He pointed to a couple of people.

"Very good," she replied. "The handshake in this case represents intimacy. So the two people you had contact with now have the disease."

There was laughter and joking among the parents.

The teacher continued, "And whom did the two of you shake hands with?" The point was well-taken, and she explained how this lesson would show students how quickly disease is spread. "Since we all shook hands, we all have the disease."

Speak now, I thought, but be humble. I noted wryly the latter admonition, and then rose from my chair. I apologized for any upset I might have caused earlier, congratulated the teacher on an excellent lesson that would impress the youth, and concluded by saying I had only one small point I wished to make.

"Not all of us were infected," I said. "One of us ... abstained." (Kimberly VanWagner, email).

The profound impact Kimberly made in this group rests on her remaining civil in this inflammatory situation. This new year, let us take up the cross rather than take up a cause. Amen.

Rev. Rosemary Stelz

  June 2021  
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