Let us pray.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Preaching “into the ether” is a strange experience. Preaching in general is a strange experience – if you haven’t done it, talk to your pastor and get them to let you give it a whirl if you don’t believe me. It isn’t quite a speech – though it shares a lot in common with public speaking. It isn’t quite a lecture, though any preacher worth their salt has a point they are trying to get across, even if it might be wrong. And it isn’t quite a “sermon” as popularly conceived – or as seen on television! It is a weird hybrid in which, we hope, the preacher, the “people in the pews” and the Holy Spirit are somehow having a conversation even if only one person’s voice is being raised out loud.
But preaching “into the ether” – on “paper” to folks flung far and wide on the internet is even weirder. A good preacher knows their audience. While I know some of you, many of you I don’t. And, if you find my words interested, who knows into whose hands the words written here might land. How can I know my “congregation” under those circumstances and “preach for relevance”.
I usually wouldn’t start a sermon talking about sermons or the process of writing them, but I think a couple of minutes about this at the start of this experiment might be worth it. A couple of points:
First, when I preach, I hope for it to be “dialogical”. And not just metaphorically. Every sermon includes the
preachers voice, the thoughts of those hearing that voice, and the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. But in my sermons, I want to take the idea that sermons are collaborative in the metaphorical sense and make it real. In the sanctuary, I would ask questions and over time my congregation started answering. Sometimes it would be a good 2 or 3 minutes before I could get a word in edgewise. I wrote my sermons specifically with this in mind. I can’t do that in this format, but I hope to capture a bit of that in the comments section. So please, if you hear something in your head in response to something I’m saying – agreement, disagreement, or just a hearty “Amen”, please put it in the comments section. And if you have a similar response to something you read in the comments section, do the same.
Second, there are rules to this open forum style of preaching. First, I’m the preacher. I will have a point that I am making and if the comments start to stray too far, I will step in and bring it back. Second, if this virtual sanctuary is going to work then the comments section needs to be “worshipful” in the sense that ad hominem attacks, crazy talk, or outright opposition to the “tradition” from which I am preaching are out of place. When you go to a baptist church, you expect a baptist church. When you come to this church, you should expect what you find here. If you have any questions about where this “church” may be coming from, read back over my posts before the reboot.
Lastly (ok, three points), I am committed to posting a sermon every Sunday morning at 10am central time. For a couple hours after that, I will be around the house and monitoring the comments and jumping in to add a thought here or there – of clarification, to answer biblical or theological or historical or pastoral questions, etc. After that, I will look occasionally, but as on typical Sundays for me as a pastor – after I cleaned up from fellowship and locked the doors I was on to thinking about next Sunday.
So. That’s the game plan. Let’s get started.
The season of Epiphany is winding down and now we’re getting to the heart of the matter, really. A season of dawning realization – about the nature of Jesus, the nature of God, our nature and the relationship between all these things – has brought us, today, to Isaiah’s powerful words. (I have posted the week’s focus text, and will each week, under a separate post for your reference prior to posting the sermon.) And those words should be deeply troubling for us folk living in the US today.
First some historical background. The time line, for me, always gets a little muddy – especially since scholars can’t agree on it and I’ve read at least a half-dozen different versions of it! – but given the words and the politics, I think it likely that the 58th chapter of Isaiah was written by someone writing in Isaiah’s name from exile in Babylon. Or shortly after returning to Jerusalem after generations of exile there.
In either case, this informs how we must read this section of Isaiah. Not as some “fortune teller” predicting our future, but as a prophet in the truest sense of the word looking around him/herself and “spinning” what they see in light of the Torah. How do you explain the exile if we are the Chosen? And how will it end (or why has it ended)?
Without talking about Tiglath-Pileser II or Senacherib or Ahaz or Mannaseh or remembering Xerxes or any of the rest of the eye-glazing details, the Exile, after the Exodus and before the Diaspora and the Holocaust, is the biggest event in the formation of Israel and Jewish identity. The “Land” had been promised and won. Jerusalem was God’s city given to the Chosen to safeguard. To be a “light on a hill” to the nations surrounding it, living in darkness. How can a pagan king take it away from us?
And this wasn’t mere geographic relocation. You’ve heard of Aramaic, no doubt. Well another name for Babylon was “Aram” – don’t quote me on that…the names of the “pagan” kingdoms around Israel are a bit squishy. But Aramaic is a bastardized form of Hebrew that evolved during the exile. They lost their language. They lost the Torah. They lost their culture. They almost…almost….got absorbed into Babylon entirely!
In the midst of that crisis of identity – either while it was happening or immediately after returning home – Isaiah attempts to explain it all. And what does he say? Go back to the last post and re-read it.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
What does he say?
Let me paraphrase it the way I read it:
It starts with God sending Isaiah forth to announce to “Jacob” (Israel) their sin. They act, God says, as if they are a righteous nation that didn’t forsake the covenant I made with them. They love to get close to me and ask me for righteous judgments and yet. Yet, they say, you don’t notice how we fast and how righteous we are?
And God says the reason is that all your fasts are in your own self interests and while you dress up all pretty when you come to the Temple, in the meantime you oppress your own workers. You fast on the Sabbath only to turn around an fight with each other and strike with a “wicked fist”.
Fasting like that will never get you heard in heaven. (In other prophets, God is explicit – when you fast like that I will rain down fire on your head! You would be better off not fasting at all.)
Do you really think this is what I had in mind? God asks. To wear sackcloth and ashes on the sabbath and then turn around and be a dick to your employees and the poor and make war with each other?
Instead, this is the fast that I choose for you…the only one I care about….
” to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke…”
Then and only then will your light dawn. Then and only then will your cries reach my ears. Then and only then will you be restored.
Offer your food to the hungry. Satisfy the needs of the afflicted.
Then and only then will I satisfy YOUR needs and make YOUR bones strong. If you do this, you will raise up many generations and you will be those who restored the streets to a place where life flourishes.
Then and only then.
To paraphrase. 🙂
If you live in the United States this ought to scare the crap out of you. It does me. Or at least it gives me a context to understand our current state and its correlation to things like resistance to universal healthcare (meeting the needs of the afflicted), cutting food stamps and refusing to extend unemployment benefits (refusing to feed the hungry or care for the poor), cutting veterans benefits (sending people off to fight those quarrels for which we abuse our fast and then throwing them to the streets). All the while, those taking these actions and those who support them drape themselves in the flag and call themselves followers of a Torah teaching orthodox Jewish Rabbi who would have understood and taught Isaiah just like you read it above. Jesus.
Here’s the hard truth as I believe Isaiah puts it: look, don’t bother going to church if you come home to bitch about how lazy people on unemployment are. Or, in the more benign version of that, don’t claim you are against these kinds of social safety nets because its “for their own good”. “Unemployment and food stamps encourage dependence on the government.” “Work is dignity.”
Yeah. And War = Peace. Hate = Love. That’s doubleplusgood!
Nowhere in Isaiah (or elsewhere in either the Greek or Hebrew texts) does God address the responsibilities of the poor. Always. Always, it is those with privilege that are tasked with caring for them. Without reserve or question. God will take care of the more complicated issue of their souls and their greater well being. That is none of our concern.
If they are hungry, you feed them. You don’t question whether they are hungry because they blew it all on whiskey the night before. All we are to be concerned with is that there is a hungry person standing in front of us.
That applies to the homeless vet standing on the corner in front of McDonalds as well as the more macro attempts to solve these problems like food stamps, unemployment and healthcare. And job retraining programs. And cheap or free education. And housing.
If you take care of these, then and only then will your light shine. Then and only then will you find yourself thriving. Then and only then will you be known as “restorers of streets to live in”.
And if you don’t? Don’t bother going to church because under those circumstances your prayers smell like a sewer. Your churches are nothing more than sewage treatment plants.
And if we really are a “Christian” nation (we aren’t, but for the sake of argument…), and we look at our current circumstances…ongoing recession (depression in some places), an economy converting well-playing careers into burger flipping at McDonald’s, a political establishment that insists on its own righteousness while neglecting the poor here and dropping bombs on the heads of the poor across the world….then perhaps, from Isaiah’s perspective, we can understand what’s happening to our country.
We have been exiled from our own best selves. The same people who gave so generously to rebuild Europe after World War II now can’t be bothered to help its own poor. A nation founded on the idea that the government shouldn’t be able to intrude without a reason is now a nation that digs through our digital garbage looking for something without cause. A commentator in a nation of immigrants objects when a Supreme Court Justice refuses to call undocumented workers “illegal” as if people can be illegal.
We have been exiled from our own best selves. The Church that grew from the movement led by that wandering Galilean is more concerned with its own self-preservation than with generations of its members that have suffered abuse at its hands. Sex abuse. Spiritual abuse. Theological abuse. Financial abuse. Paternalism. Snobishness. Refusal to welcome the stranger in any meaningful way. A rejection of reformation even when its clear that is what God is calling for.
Not to mention in its quest for self-preservation, the Church…with notable exceptions….has lost the ability to have any meaningful impact on the world around it.
All because…as Isaiah puts it….we dress up all pretty on Sunday and mouth pretty words and then get to our desks on Monday morning and continue business as usual. Is it any wonder God isn’t paying attention? Isaiah tells us in plain Hebrew why that is. It should be obvious.
But. But. If we change. If we focus more on taking care of the poor, the afflicted, the wronged…if we as a nation take seriously these words:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me…:
Then it might be different.
Until that is real. Until we heed Isaiah’s warnings, we will not enjoy Isaiah’s promises. In fact, those warnings are God’s and those promises are God’s and you can trust that both will be true. Which of them we experience is our choice. God will honor God’s commitments.
So which will it be? Continue down this path or heed the warnings? For myself, I choose to work really hard to heed these warnings and try to structure my life taking them seriously and I will work so that the rest of the world does, too.
How about you?