Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Isaiah 58:1-12

This sermon focuses on the text from Isaiah, part of the Revised Common Lectionary texts for the week found here. An audio version of the sermon can be found here.

Proper procedures—our lives are full of them. Get good grades. Do your homework. Show up for work. Pay the bills. Make sure you and your family have food, shelter, and clothing. Vote. Pay your taxes. Mow your lawn. Keep a tidy house. Show up for ball games and concerts to support the kids. We do have a certain social code we live by—expectations we follow and boundaries that we respect in order to live reasonably peacefully with each other. This makes sense—we don’t want to have anarchy, so there needs to be some sort of moral guide we follow.

We’re not unique in this. Cultures throughout the centuries have had similar social structures and codes. Ancient Israel had one. In today’s reading, we’re given a glimpse of one of the codes they needed to follow—religious fasting. The Ancient Israelites are fasting, going without food, as is proper procedure for their society. They’re doing what was considered right—humbling themselves before God according to their rituals.

Something’s wrong, though. God isn’t noticing their humility. That sounds a little ridiculous at first, doesn’t it? A bit contradictory? Noticing humility—I’m not sure how you get someone to notice you’re being humble. Something like “Look at me! Look at me! I’m being humble.”

The real issue is that nothing’s happening in response to what they’re doing, and we can maybe understand that attitude at least a little bit. I mean, if I mow my lawn and I pay my bills and I show up for work and I vote and I pay my taxes and I clean my apartment, shouldn’t there be some sort of recognition for me? Maybe I should get a break from my job, or I should be able to afford nicer clothing, or I should at least have someone compliment my work. Or I should stop saying “I.”

That’s the catch, isn’t it? While there may be nothing wrong with working for a promotion, etc. we sometimes run the risk of becoming too self-centered in our work. When we get overly focused on what’s going on in our own individual little life, we lose sight of what’s important for the world and for our community. It’s like seeing just a piece of a whole picture--like looking at a tree in the corner of the Mona Lisa. God tells the Israelites this has been their problem all along. They’ve gotten so caught up in the mechanics of their individualized rituals and codes that they’ve missed out on one of the most elemental gifts God has given them—each other.

Right after the Israelites ask why God hasn’t noticed their fasting and humility, God speaks through Isaiah, saying “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” This sort of behavior doesn’t work—you’re thinking only of yourself. This isn’t how you make the world you live in whole again. A relationship with God is only possible when there is a relationship with one another, and vice versa. There is a reason we call ourselves a community of believers. Each week, we confess and acknowledge our belief that we are all God’s children and live in God’s world.

In Isaiah, God tells the Israelites to mend their relationships. Now, it is tempting to say that we here in Lincoln, Nebraska, are not connected to some people—people in New Hampshire…or Mongolia…or England…or Egypt. That’s simply not true. We have a connection to more people than we could possibly realize…I’m willing to bet that probably 90% or more of you have clothing items on right now that you did not make and have no idea who did. Yet here you are, clothed because of someone in China or Mongolia or the United States who made what you are wearing. What about food? Farmers we’ve never met grow the wheat or sugarcane to make food items that end up in HyVee. We are inherently tied to a large amount of the world simply through the way we live our daily lives, yet we don’t consider too much more of it than our own little piece of the picture most of the time.

So God says through Isaiah, fix this. Open your eyes and see that you are truly connected to more than just your little circle of friends. You have been entrusted with the care of the world and each other, yet the balance and distribution of resources is greatly out of proportion. You are stewards, caretakers, managers of God’s world and everything in it. So start acting like that’s who you really are.

Feed the hungry with that food you’re not eating, bring the homeless to homes, cover the naked, work with your families to make everyone’s lives better. I’m not just talking about material things, either, though that’s a place to start. The text says feed the hungry. Now, that’s necessary, and a good place to start, but it’s also easy. The youth group has provided us a way to do that this week—and there’s a grocery cart always out there for every other week—which is fantastic. It’s great to be reminded of those who are hungry as we indulge in our Super Bowl parties today. The text calls us to do more, however. We have to stop pointing the finger at one another, stop speaking evil, and loosen the yoke of everyone—yokes, those long, wooden beams that weigh people down with their burdens.

We need to work with our families, and not hide from them. We need to be a steward of all we have—a caretaker of everything we’ve been given. We have to spend time getting to know the people around us and developing and caring for those relationships with our time. We have to set ourselves out where we may brighten the world rather than hiding our insights and talents away where no one will bother us about them.

These themes are repeated throughout the Bible—in most of the prophets as well as the rest of our readings from today. The Psalmist says that it is well with those who deal generously and justly with what they have, and Jesus refers to the light of the world being no good if it is hidden underneath a bushel basket. For light to be any good, it must be used to brighten the world around it—it’s the same with salt. Salt isn’t any good for itself—you don’t salt salt. That doesn’t make any sense It’s only good when used in the world around it and gets connected with something else.

The same is true for us. Something interesting happens when we acknowledge that we are in fact connected to the lives and needs of others. We begin to care—we care about the burden that we find they are carrying. We might even do something about it…work to break those yokes, those burden-carriers, that are holding them down. In breaking their yokes, as it says in verse 6, we will end up getting rid of our own as well. We break every yoke because as it turns out, all of our yokes are connected, as are our burdens. Isaiah is a prophet of God. I’d say that he’s also a great proclaimer of sheer common sense. Think about it. If we worked to correct the imbalance in the world, all of our burdens become a little lighter. We would repair the breaches—the broken places—that have harmed our society, the gaping holes that get filled with guilt or crime or pain. By eliminating the cause of the problem, we eliminate the gaps of need that are desperately filled any way they can be, and we restore the world to a place that may now be lived in.

We have to be a little bit brave sometimes. It takes a lot of courage to say “I don’t know where you’re coming from, but I want to know.” That conversation has the potential to open us to a whole new set of people who aren’t like us—except perhaps that they also are made in God’s image and live in God’s world. When we humble ourselves in truth rather than just in appearance, when we move from proper procedure to faithful living and decide to care for whoever may be hurting however we can—the hungry, the sick, the captives, the wounded, the grieving—that is when we live into who we are as salt of the earth and light of the world, when our light does shine like the noonday, and the world we live in is made a little more whole. Amen.