St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Stephanie Hamilton
Isaiah 58:6-12 (NRSV)
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;
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.
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.
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.
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.”
Imagine if you will, a young teenage woman, raised in the arms of the evangelical church. Taking her faith seriously translated into daily Bible Study, prayer, and near perfect church attendance. She worked hard to follow all the rules of the church: no dancing, no swearing, no sinning, no makeup, no jewelry, and certainly no wearing pants to church. When the pastor asked for a personal testimony from the teenagers during Sunday evening worship, all heads in the youth group would swivel her way and she would stand up and share with the church body her latest thoughts and feelings about God. But truth be told, she wasn’t sure she knew how to have a relationship with God. Her concern with dotting all the i(s) and crossing all the t(s) of what she thought constituted successful Christian living,didn’t help her establish a relationship with a loving God, nor did it make her a follower of Christ. And yet , eventually, her focus on personal piety gave way to a faith developed by the twists and turns life takes; a newfound faith formulated through navigating the rough patches of doubt and nurtured with the hope in God’s promises of new life in Christ. And with this faith she began to understand that her worship was an outflow of the love and compassion she received from God and tied to the love and compassion she showed to others. Today’s passage makes it very clear that a God-filled life is one that is lived in community and as an expression of God’s love made known to others.
Judah, from the beginning, was a community whose story began as a story of relationship and redemption. It is a story of a faithful and loving creator who heard the Hebrew children crying out under the yoke of slavery and brought deliverance and salvation. And yet, they are a people who had lost their way. When Isaiah was called to serve, the tribe of Judah had been released from their time of exile under Assyrian and Babylonian rule. They were instructed to return home, to rebuild the Temple, and to share God’s love to the ends of the earth. Judah, however, forgot that they were God’s royal priesthood. With the Temple rebuild on hold, their civil and religious leaders became more concerned about their personal gain thus creating a corrupt court system. But the expectation of God’s blessing and restoration in the promised land was very prevalent. God would do no such thing and in turn the people felt abandoned. They couldn’t understand why their prayers were not being answered. The prophet Isaiah points out that they had lost their way. One day of fasting while being cruel and divisive six days a week was not who they were called to be or how they were called to live. Worshipping God is an every day act consisting of sharing God’s love in what we do, how we live, and with whom we interact. Worshipping God is more than mere lip service and personal piety. It is a worship that demonstrates God’s love in all facets of life.
As we take a look at the structure of Isaiah 58:6-12. Verses 6 & 7 are the roadmap, if you will. The prophet is very explicit about what fasting is and what will bring honor to God. The fast that God desires comes from seeing the broken places in the world and responding. This past spring, I was reminded of a broken place deep within the history of our nation. It is a story, from the 60s, of how young children became brave enough to cause change and create a more hopeful future for their own children. It is the story of how a group of children decided they would politely and respectfully integrate the lunch counter at the local food and drug store. One of the young girls named Ayanna Najuma, who participated, was only seven years old. She knew that even though she was little, her voice was just as important as everyone else’s voice. And so Ayanna told her parents that she would like to create change. The parents of all the children who wanted to participate were very wise in that they insisted the children take classes to be prepared for the big challenge they were taking on.
These families and children were definitely influenced by MLK Jr.’s nonviolent approach to protesting. At the classes, the children were given lessons on MLK’s philosophy of nonviolent protest. Then they were given their tasks, and last they practiced. The parents knew that if the children’s lunch counter protest was going to be effective, the children could not cry, show frustration, or lash out at the people who would try to prevent them from being treated like any white person who may enter the establishment. So the parents reinforced good behavior and polite manners. Then they role played the things they knew their children would experience as they quietly waited to be served. The parents got in the children’s faces and yelled at them–horrible things, things that make me, an adult, want to cry. They poured ketchup and sodas on their children and threw food at them. When and only when they were satisfied that the children wouldn’t break character, then they sent them to the lunch counter for their protest. It only took three days of polite and patient children waiting to be served for that lunch counter to become integrated.
What are the broken places you notice? What broken places have been restored in your own life? Knowing we are a people restored can only fuel the drive to become a restorative people. I believe Ayanna’s certainty that her voice mattered as much as anyone else’s voice came from the love and goodness of Ayanna’s parents, who knew their story and knew that they had been redeemed. They also knew that if the children succeeded, their actions would create a better society for their future children.
For the Hebrew children, if they could return to their calling of sharing God’s love to the ends of the earth, then and only then, when they called out to God, the answer would be, “Here I am!” Where else in scripture do we see these words?–always in the call stories. Usually, it is the humans like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, the prophet Isaiah responding to God’s call. In this reversal, Isaiah tells the Judah that God will not restore creation without them. As imperfect as they were, God chose them and what a difference that makes! They were a part of God’s plan to restore all of creation. And from this, I believe that call still stands. Our loving Creator calls us to be a part of restoring God’s creation. God won’t do it without us.
The path to restoration will be arduous. Some days and seasons will be more difficult than others. Like Ayanna, we can be certain of God’s faithfulness and that as we answer God’s call, the Spirit will be at work in us. In verses 10-12, Isaiah describes a hopeful and powerful future when the people of Judah begin to live out their lives in compassionate justice. Their light will shine in the darkness, their bones will be made strong, they will be satisfied in the parched places, and become like a watered garden whose waters never fail. Beautiful imagery all of it and very inspiring. Who doesn’t want to be a light, or satiated, or rich like a watered garden? The take-aways from this passage are twofold: The first observation is that a life of compassionate justice won’t be easy; it will take us through dark places where we will need to shine, we will be parched, out of reserves, at our wits ends, and we will have to do some heavy lifting, continually. Serving God is about serving others. Daily. Which brings me to my second observation: to move forward in God’s order of compassionate justice, knowing that the journey will be arduous, is how to walk by faith. It is leaning into the promise that God is with us, going before and supporting all around, having the confidence that God will provide what we need along the way, this is a faith journey bringing honor and worship to God.
Jesus reminded his disciples that a tree would be known by the fruit it bears. Isaiah tells Judah that if they will live in such a way as to bring God’s love and justice to their neighbors, that they would be restored in the promised land, that they would be called the repairer of the breach. I’ll leave you with one final story of how one community began a citywide initiative called the Neighboring Project.
A little over a decade ago, in the city of Arvada, CO (a suburb with a population of 106,000 northwest of Denver) the mayor and a dozen clergy met to discuss their city and how to affect change for the better. The pastors posed a questions to the mayor: If there was one problem that the mayor wanted to eradicate in the community, what would it be? The mayor’s answer, while simple in nature, resonated with the pastors through conviction and calling. The mayor asked the clergy to teach their congregants to be good neighbors; to embrace and enact Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor. What followed was a simple strategy of inviting people to use a tic-tac-toe grid as a tool for investing in their neighborhood. In the grid, folks placed their house in the center square, the challenge was then to know the people in the eight homes surrounding their square. As people in the congregations began to accept the challenge and reach out to their neighbors, they realized that as they began to know their neighbors, those connections enabled them to serve their neighbors.
Take the Tillapaugh family for example. When Todd and Karla Tillapaugh saw Chris Crowe moving into their Arvada neighborhood, “we thought the Clampetts were moving in,” Karla said, referring to the family in The Beverly Hillbillies. Looking at Chris’s yard, Karla remarked, “lots of stuff is left over and it trickles around the neighborhood—in the summertime, there’s stuff everywhere!”
But because of their participation, Todd and Karla found out that Chris Crowe wasn’t just another messy neighbor—she was a longtime foster parent, who had adopted seven children through foster care. The bikes and toys outside were a function of “managed chaos,” as Chris put it, the reality of being a loving mom to a large and diverse family. “In the midst of all that mess, Chris was investing in the lives of kids that nobody else wanted,” Karla remarked. The discovery prompted her and Todd to ask themselves: “Can we join her in that—in investing in those kids?” Now the two families work together to provide a supportive network to all those children, with the Tillapaugh’s oldest child tutoring three of the Chris’ children. There is an open door policy between the two homes. Many other stories have surfaced through implementing this initiative. How taking the time to learn other people’s stories has strengthened their neighborhoods and made their city more safe. There are stories about folks who have become less guarded around others who are different and have different beliefs and ideologies and in doing so, strong bonds have been formed, While simple in strategy, the result of stepping out in faith has caused great change in their city. I can’t imagine that this isn’t an offering of worship to God.
What is the story of our community? How is St. Mark’s worshipping God? I have my ideas and observations of the ways in which we are light and salt. What are your thoughts? As we go out today, may we continue to look for ways to become a repairer of the breach.