Prayer for Illumination
God of all creation and all peoples, help us recognize your presence with us. Settle the restlessness of our hearts and minds and help us to hear and listen to your word for us. Amen.
Isaiah 58:1-12, selected verses
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. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness; they ask of me righteous judgments. “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. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
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?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; 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, 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. 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.
After I graduated from college, I spent my first two years after college working at the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. It was a great experience, and I had these big dreams of one day taking over as the Secretary General of the United Nations. It’s pretty clear I’m not there. Yet. But for most of the two years I was there, I had a scraggly copy of this passage from Isaiah 58, printed on plain white copy paper, thumb-tacked to my office bulletin board. Though the passage was pre-assigned for this week, if I had to choose a single passage from Christian scriptures to define what on earth I’m doing here, this would be it, because it resonates with my understanding of what a faithful life looks like. A faithful life isn’t only about showing up to church on Sunday (and chapel every Monday at noon). That’s part of it, for sure. But it’s also about working for compassion, peace, and justice in a world that desperately needs some good news.
The prophet Isaiah confronted God’s people in a time of great political and social turmoil, not unlike our own time. God’s people faced inhospitable borders, conflict, war, famine, homelessness, divisions across economic and racial lines, even just mixed feelings about the whole situation. And they still tried to be faithful in the midst of all that. They followed the religious laws and practices, like fasting and mourning rites, and setting aside a day of worship for religious observance. They did the equivalent of building a church and showing up to chapel each week, knowing their Bible word for word, praying before meals, proclaiming their faith.
But something isn’t quite right at the point when this passage emerges. Rather than a warm pat on the back, God invites them to the divine equivalent of a ‘Let’s get real’ moment. There’s this epic side comment from God. I can almost hear the chuckle from above: Day after day they seek me, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness. Look, God says, you fast and show up to worship, and I appreciate it, and definitely keep it up, but right now you just show up and throw punches at each other between hymns and oppress your workers on your way out the door.
In a challenging interruption, God reveals what acceptable religious practice looks like: “Is not this the fast that I, God, 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?”
God’s people are worshiping their darndest in hopes that their society will be rebuilt, but God says: “Only if you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, only 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. Then your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; Then you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” God says, essentially, you don’t get to be called the repairer of the breach until you repair the breach. You don’t get to be called the restorer of streets until you fix the potholes. You don’t get to take credit for your worship until you practice what you preach.
Shortly before classes began this semester, I braved the ice-covered streets and made my way to my office at the Weeks House. It had rained overnight, one of those wintry-mix days that just freezes over, making everything pretty treacherous. I had my sturdy ice cleats for my sturdy winter boots, and I took off across campus to check my mailbox in Wallace Hall. As I crossed the street from my office, I came across one of the college buildings and grounds staff chipping away at the ice covered sidewalks with a metal scraper, the metal kind that’s only like a foot wide, but it’s the only way you can get the job done, even with all the salt in the world. I stopped to talk to him, to commiserate with him about how rotten a job it was and how cold it was, and how I didn’t envy the work he had ahead of him. In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of sidewalks around here.
He sort of smiled at me and said: “Sure, it’s cold. But the job isn’t so bad. Students are starting to come back, and I want to be sure the sidewalks are safe to walk on.” He might as well have said: “Sure, it’s more work, but I’m a restorer of streets to live in.” When I think about what worship and religious practice looks like, I don’t just think about who shows up to chapel. I also think about the many ways and the many people that can rightly be called the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in, regardless of what they believe.
Here’s another example of what I think this passage means for us today. A few weeks after I got here in November, Monmouth College students, faculty, and staff marched on the sidewalks in front of Wallace Hall to support the naming of our campus as a sanctuary for immigrant communities. The use of the word ‘sanctuary’ is especially important to me, because sanctuaries are places of worship. The sanctuary movements in the 1980s that supported Central American refugees began with churches that used their worship spaces as safe havens. Pastors were arrested and put on trial because they interpreted their faith and worship as inseparable from their participation in God’s work to break every yoke, to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free. Presbyterians were at the heart of those efforts, so it is fitting that similar calls to action have emerged on our Presbyterian campus. And people of faith from all traditions, this week, have gone to worship, read their scripture, and responded to the recent orders on immigration and refugees, to preach words of justice and compassion, and to practice what they preach. I can’t speak for other faith traditions or other people, but in my own Christian life and practice, I see worship as inseparable from acts of justice and compassion.
Mr. Rogers, a children’s TV favorite, and ordained Presbyterian minister once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” It’s good advice. When I find myself asking where God is, or what will become of us, or how we will ever get along with one another, I look for those who are helping, who choose to have difficult conversations, who serve the oppressed, the hungry, the stranger. I look for chains being broken, for light shining in darkness, for communities who find the strength to love one another in the presence of great differences. This week, I look especially for God in those walking alongside the refugee, the immigrant, those detained and deported, and those facing uncertainty. This is the fast, the worship I choose…to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to be called repairer of the breach and restorer of streets to live in, right here, now, and in the days ahead.
Friends, my prayer and challenge for us this week is that we would live into hope. My prayer and challenge is that you would live into the hope, not of worldly optimism, but of the hope God has for us. My prayer and challenge is that our worship would not end here in Dahl Chapel. As people of hope, our worship begins as we leave this place and go into the world. Go in peace, live with compassion, and seek justice. Amen.