Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Repairers of the Breach (2.6.11)

Isaiah 58:1-12
1   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.
2   Yet 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.
4   Look, 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.
5 Is 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?

6   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?
7   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?
8   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.
9   Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
 you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

    If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10  if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
11  The LORD will guide you continually, 
and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong;
     and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water,  whose waters never fail.
12  Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Matthew 5:13-20
13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

            It sounds to me like Isaiah’s audience was frustrated. They were frustrated because they put a lot of energy into their religious life as a nation. They fasted when they were supposed to; they observed all the religious festivals with exuberance; they adorned the temple with expensive gifts.

They were frustrated because they did all this and yet still felt far away from God. They fasted, but it seemed like God didn’t see them; they humbled themselves, but felt like God wasn’t paying attention. They spent more than they could afford on worship and on the temple for God, but they couldn’t hear God’s voice anymore.

God says through Isaiah that there’s a simple reason the people feel far from God: they aren’t really listening. The people are trying to hear God’s voice in the present, but they aren’t doing what God had already told them to do. They had pretty clear instruction in the Law and prophets about how God wants to be sought. God wants people to treat their neighbors with justice and to look out for each other. God wants Israel to be a demonstration of love and peace.

From the beginning of Israel’s existence as a nation God’s call to justice had been clear. Now in Isaiah’s time, the people are ignoring God’s message. They are letting the hungry go hungry and the naked to stay naked. Then, while they ignore God’s commands, they seek new messages from God and can’t figure out why they don’t hear anything.

Like most prophetic messages in scripture, Isaiah’s words here are both challenging and hopeful. I feel them aimed at me and at us today. Could it be that we sometimes feel far away from God because we ignore the things we already know about God’s will for our lives?

We hear in these words that God isn’t that interested in our fasting. This isn’t the only time in scripture we hear this message either. The prophets are consistent when they say that fasting and worship and sacrifice aren’t the most important part of faithfulness. Faithfulness means living God’s calling, living God’s love, living God’s justice.

Today’s passage from Isaiah is an interesting follow up the Micah passage Carl preached on last week. Like Isaiah, Micah reminds his hearers that they already know what God wants. God is most interested in how we express faith in action: God wants us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Isaiah has plenty to say about justice and kindness, but his words on humility are surprising: “Is 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?”

            Isaiah tells us that humility isn’t about beating ourselves up or feeling bad about ourselves. Getting closer to God isn’t about guilt; it’s about grace. The fast God chooses isn’t starving ourselves of food or beauty; it isn’t much about fasting at all. Instead the fast God wants from us is sharing with others:

“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 reality is that if we truly share what we have with those in need we will have less for ourselves. That’s why doing justice radically is a fast. Fasting and worship sometimes take us deeper into ourselves and risk making us more isolated and self-absorbed. Sharing and doing justice takes us deeper into relationships with others and into relationship with God.

            We do have important ministries of sharing, and they are valuable. Still, much of our sharing and caring for those in need happens at arm’s length. We write a check or deliver a basket. Even when we serve people directly we’re on the inside of the kitchen and our guests are on the outside. We’re more comfortable serving those in need when there’s something separating us from them. The wide, black counter opening into our kitchen makes it easier to serve partly because it creates some distance between the server and the ones we serve.

            Picture the intimacy of sharing your bread with the hungry. Imagine sitting next to someone in need, splitting your lunch in half and eating with them. It sounds uncomfortable and beautiful. Uncomfortable because when we eat with someone we open our lives to them and their story gets into our heart. We are faced with the fact of their ongoing need, faced with the reality that our comfort exists alongside desperate need.

            When we actually eat with people in poverty, poverty stops being something abstract; it stops being a social problem or a political puzzle. It becomes a person with a name and a story like ours. That connection is threatening because it encourages us to share more than we planned, to share not just our extra, not just our left-overs, but some of what we need. Shane Claiborne writes that when members of the ancient Christian community were hungry, the entire church would fast until there was enough for everyone. That’s a very different approach to hunger ministries than writing a check.

            But sharing like that is beautiful because eating together fills more than our stomachs. We share stories of home and family, stories of work and looking for work, stories of joy and sorrow. We become richer because we see a new face of God in the world.

            Humbling ourselves isn’t the point, but it is one of the fruits of deep sharing. In my life hunger is always temporary, and I sometimes take my meals for granted. When I open myself up to a brother or sister living in poverty I see what an amazing, unearned blessing food is. I see people for whom hunger is a persistent shadow stalking each day.

When I had breakfast yesterday with a man at our café, he talked about being out of work for three years. I remember how hard it was for me to be out of work for three months. It makes me think how much harder that would have been if I hadn’t been sure I would eventually find work at a good wage. It reminds me that the fact that I have good work to do is a blessing and that so much of that blessing has nothing to do with me. Spending time with people who struggle for the basic necessities of life humbles us, even if that isn’t the point.

            Isaiah’s words are challenging. He holds a mirror up to where we fall short in our commitment to others. It’s easy to get stuck on our shortcomings surrender to guilt. Feel the challenge, but don’t get stuck in the guilt. Instead, hear God’s promise: “The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

            We look around and sometimes feel like the church is an ancient ruin of what it once was. We hear stories about the “good old days” and lament our loss of influence and membership and financial stability. God promises that when we share with others radically and seek the justice God desires God will build up these ancient ruins into a foundation for many generations to come. The future of the church, like its foundation, is in radical service to our neighbors.

            Last week in prayer Gary lifted up the widening division between rich and poor in this country. We see our neighbors falling through gaping holes in the safety net. We read about ruined families, kids dropping out of school, hopeless young people turning to violence and elders facing the winter without heat. Maybe that’s the breach God is calling us to repair. Our streets are often empty due to isolation. We drive from place to place, walking from our cars to our houses and offices. Our doors are locked tight out of fear and we often don’t know our neighbors. How can we build up the community in our neighborhood to restore these streets for abundant life?

            Isaiah calls us to share with the hungry and clothe the naked. He calls us to be restorers of streets and repairers of the breach. Jesus calls us to be light for the world and salt for the earth. Let help each other light up the dark corners of our world. Let’s support each other as we open ourselves up in love to our neighbors. God is not finished with us. We have a mission in the world to share God’s love with others in practical, caring ways.

We’re taking steps in the right direction already. Today we collect food and money to fight hunger through the Souper Bowl of Caring. We are reaching out in a new way through our neighborhood café. As we step out to serve boldly, we’ll hear God’s voice more clearly each day. So let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.

Thanks be to God.

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