The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.
~The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
3“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
When we began planning the service for today, Legacy Sunday, we had no idea that we would be conducting a baptism. We could not have planned it better. Legacy is about what we can do to assure that Calvary will be here to nurture and raise Flynn Cormac Dwyer, and future generations to come. And it was by chance of rotation that it was my turn to preach on this special Sunday. And by chance, the lectionary text that grabbed me and would not let go of me, is the Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah. I am reminded of the Karl Barth quote which has been my guiding North Star in how to read the Bible and how I must preach, which is to hold the Bible in one hand and the Daily Newspaper in the other. Today’s text demands my addressing the controversy that not only troubles Calvary, but congregations across the country—politics and the pulpit. I have heard some of you complain that the preaching from this pulpit has been too political. This past Advent and Christmas, Claremont United Methodist Church put up a striking Nativity Scene, a scene that made a huge splash across the social media. In the scene, mannequins of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are separated in individual cages topped with barbed wire. A baby Jesus is wrapped in what resembles a mylar blanket, similar to the sheets migrants have been given in holding cells. On a podium, a message reads: “What if this family sought refuge in our country today?” The church’s associate pastor said that the intention was not to be controversial or political; instead, she said, the church is trying to be faithful to its calling to do God’s work. A critic captured the sentiment of the other side saying, “So wrong in every sense to politicize the birth of Christ!” I know that among us, sitting in these pews, are folks who come down on both sides of this controversy. In the very first verse from Isaiah, the prophet had this to say to me, the preacher: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins…” This is the challenge to every preacher who steps up into this pulpit.
It is time to examine our text more closely. Isaiah 58 was written during a time of deep uncertainty for Israel. Historically-speaking, this particular portion of Isaiah is addressed to the first generation of exiles returning to their holy city, Jerusalem. Throughout their 50 year exile, the Israelites have remained steadfast and faithful in their ancient spiritual practices. And now that they have returned to their holy city, it might well be that by residing in Jerusalem and by continuing to perform their pious spiritual practices, like fasting and prayer, all would be well with Israel. Isaiah’s challenge, however, shakes them from these comfortable religious assumptions. Furthermore, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Israel has returned to Jerusalem, but the stabilizing institutions of the temple and the monarchy have been wiped out. The future remains uncertain. Should we rebuild the temple and reestablish David’s throne? Perhaps one and not the other? How do we worship God in our own land without a temple? How do we at Calvary worship God? In the midst of another deficit, in the midst of not having a permanent Head of Staff, in the midst of declining attendance, in the midst of a building that has suffered from deferred maintenance, how do we worship God? What priorities should our annual budget reflect? Worship and Music? Faith in Action? Israel truly and sincerely believed that she was doing all the right things and were frustrated that they were not getting results from their efforts. Indeed, they have been formed in their ancient practices. How could God not be pleased? And so she complains to God: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” The people complain that God ignores them when they fast.
And here is how God responds: God notes that the people’s fast does not lead them to better behavior. It does not lead them to treat their neighbors or workers well. The act of fasting is not integrated into the other areas of their lives. The ritual does them no good. God calls the people to examine their behaviors, to recognize that their faith commitment must extend to the social and economic spheres of their lives. God is not against religious practices like worship and fasting and praying; God is concerned that their piety is so inwardly-turned, that it only focuses on the self without turning its gaze outward towards the neighbor. If our worship does not propel us into the world to be the hands and feet of Christ, it is empty and self-serving. Calvary’s mission is to nurture and inspire our faith community to transform lives for Christ! In the words of Isaiah: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” The fasting acceptable to God calls for vigilance for justice and generosity day in and day out. Keeping the Sabbath and acting justly toward the neighbor are intricately connected.
Numerous English translations do not capture the Hebrew word nephesh which occurs twice in this morning’s text. The text, in Hebrew, does not say “to share your bread with the hungry”, but to give one’s whole being, nephesh. Calvary’s Faith-in-Action partnerships and programs to break the cycle of poverty is not just about giving away money, it is about building relationships, personal engagement; it is about giving our whole being, our nephesh. Put yourselves in the shoes of those who bear the burden of hunger, homelessness, nakedness, and you will hear this Isaiah reading in a very different way. Go ahead and fast, but when you start to get hungry, think about the fact that some people, people created in the image of God just like you and me, feel this way every day. For them, it’s not ritual; it’s life. Late one night when serving as pastor of the Presbyterian Church on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, there was a knock on the door of the church manse. I met Frances Teller that night, a Navajo who had traveled from his home in Arizona to Oregon in search of work. Frances told us that his mother instructed him whenever he was in a strange town, to look for shelter either at the jail or a church. He decided to try the church first. Being a total stranger standing at our door late at night, we put him up for the night in the basement of the church next door. Frances ended up living with us for a year. He found work as a logger and became a member of our family. Frances taught my family how to view the world through his eyes; and we were transformed. We met Christ in Frances. Practicing what you preach is never a one-way street; it is not top-down. When our worship is combined with engaging the oppressed, we will meet Christ and be transformed.
In a conversation about politics and the pulpit, Joanne Whitt, said: “There is a difference between political and partisan.” All of us suffer from the sin of filtering what we hear and what we see. In fact, whether Republican or Democrat, we can read the same Bible and find verses to validate our argument. In his 2nd Inaugural Address to a divided country, President Lincoln said: “Both (sides) read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and invoke God’s aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
To bridge the partisan divide, we need to learn to listen to each other. When was the last time you listened to someone? Really listened, without thinking about what you wanted to say next or jumping in to offer your opinion? And when was the last time someone really listened to you? Was so attentive to what you were saying and whose response was so spot on that you felt really truly understood? We are, each of us, the sum of what we attend to in life. And to listen poorly, selectively, or not at all limits our understanding of the world and prevents us, ultimately, from hearing God.
In all the prophetic literature of the Bible, the church is clearly called to a prophetic ministry. That role belongs to the church as a whole, to the congregation. It involves your pastors insofar as we are called to lead the congregation in finding its prophetic voice. For me, I take my call to preach most seriously and most humbly. I preach to myself every time I preach to you. My prophetic role is not to be against you; but to be with you as together we address injustice and unrighteousness. And we must never forget that injustice and unrighteousness are not merely “out there” in the world, but also in and among the people of God, your pastors included. In fear and trembling I stand before you in the pulpit, striving to be faithful to the Word and to you.
“Today’s footprint is tomorrow’s legacy.” The better we today connect worship with the practice of justice, the richer will be the legacy we leave for future generations. My hope and dream is that when we preach about Christ’s crucifixion, that in our congregational life we would also bear the cross of those who suffer—the lonely, the dying, the oppressed. That when we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, that we also reach out with mercy and forgiveness to those alienated from us, angry with us, hurt by us. That as we preach inclusiveness, we honor and empower all God’s children—of other cultures, class, race, sexual orientation and gender identification, and yes, political party. And that all we do is done for the sake of Christ, whose life was a life for others. So that the day will come when indeed our life in Christ is demonstrated fully in our worship, our prayer, our study, our music. And on that day, we will all rejoice in the hopeful words of the prophet Isaiah: “THEN, your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. THEN, you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, HERE I AM!”