Isaiah 58: 1-12
The following sermon was preached by Rakel Evenson, LSTC M.Div. Senior, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, February 7, 2008.
Isaiah 58: 1-12
This past Tuesday night, in the Future of Creation class, David Rhoads outlined what we'd be learning about: ecology, theology through an environmental lens, the science involved in the climate crisis; and then he said that when he first learned this material, he underwent a deep depression. And Professor Rhoads continued, If you don't experience some sort of depression or crisis in this class-you're not listening.
The people Isaiah knew weren't listening. And even more so, they weren't noticing a whole lot either. God and Isaiah call out to the returned exiles who have gone back to living their same lives-hellooo! Look! You serve your own interests 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.
Isaiah and God say you haven't listened and you haven't noticed. While you've been fasting and swinging fists, a lot of people have gone hungry, have not had clothes adequate for the weather and moreover, there are people-who belong to your families-who do not have a place to sleep in tonight. It's not that fasting is so bad-but in it you've forgotten the God for whom you fast and turned away from what God would have you notice.
When I was in high school, one year I fasted from chocolate and the next year I fasted from desserts all together. I'm pretty sure I only noticed myself the whole time.
In college I heard about fasting a bit differently from my college pastor. Instead of giving up something that is for all purposes good-like desserts, he introduced the idea of giving up in-action. Fasting from not doing something that I "should" do or would like to do more. So that year I tried fasting from forgetting to bring my offering to church. Still forgot sometimes. Last year I tried fasting from driving to work. Still drove sometimes-especially when I knew I'd have to drive to the hospital or somewhere else later in the day.
Fasting from in-action is nothing new, even though it was earth-shattering to me at the time. Isaiah's been doing it all along, even without the 40 day frame of Lent. Is this not the fast I choose, Isaiah asks. Or God. For the definitive answer, try a retiring professor. To loose the bonds of injustice? To break every yoke? To bring homeless poor into my home? To cover the naked?
Oh, Isaiah has a point. But I'm not so sure that in-action is our problem. I think, for the most part, we know some of the statistics and we respond. We know about the pandemic of AIDS and lack of funding for anti-viral medicines. We might wear red ribbons and participate in the ONE campaign. We know the men and women who stand outside the old Hyde Park Produce and ask us for change. We give them change, say hi, and feel the gnawing of knowing no one should be forced to ask for money. We know-and many of you more than I, the oppression of being a race other than white, or of claiming beautiful sexualities that many denominations have yet to confess good and from God. We respond in learning about each others races and ethnicities with learning partners at the LRWC or Multicultural events or discussing and acting in Thesis 96. No, I don't think in-action is necessarily the hard part for us.
But before I get to that hard part, I want to first talk about this knowing and responding. I want to call these actions of knowing about and responding to the realities of hurt in the world, compassion. And to echo Professor Bangert's words about compassion from yesterday-these feelings of care that originate deep, where a womb is-and even more, compassion swells, like a womb does in order to bring out new life. When we know about and respond to injustice and oppression and hunger and homelessness, we are swelling with compassion and growing with new life.
And not just any compassion, we fill up with divine compassion. The same compassion that filled up Jesus so much so that even Samaritan women could get drinks of living water by wells. The same divine compassion that caused Jesus to notice people with debilitating diseases and declare yes, they, too can get that healing touch any day they need it. The same divine compassion that drenched you at your baptism and forgave your sins for all time and marked you a child of God forever. Our human capacity for caring is limited and it is the compassion that has quenched thirst and drenched sinners by which we know the needs of our human family and feel moved to respond.
So getting compassion and responding is not our problem. I think what is so hard is the compassion too easily slips into complacency. God's compassion can turn us to see a lot of action to do. Isaiah and/or God had some major responses on his lists-feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, not to mention liberating the oppressed and breaking every yoke. Today, a few more added on our lists are throwing paper in the right bin, buying food that hasn't traveled to Chicago from hundreds of miles away, purchasing clothes not made by women who get paid less than a dollar a day, calling the friend who's grieving, being hospitable to difficult family members, the list goes on and on and does not end.
In these moments of clearly seeing the list of all we desire to do, our compassion can get muddled because the care needed becomes too overwhelming. It gets heavy. It becomes a yoke. The compassion welled up sinks back down and questions creep in, Will changing one lightbulb to a compact fluorescent really change anything? And we know our finite, human compassion has taken over when we say-nah, it doesn't really change anything. Compassion has become complacency.
Right after Professor Rhoads said, if you don't experience a depression or crisis you're not listening, he said, you need to find what's going to feed you. I had to find what was going to feed me.
Isaiah desires the healing to spring up for the people he's talking to. He does not want them to hear the list and run away. He wants them to notice because God has noticed them. The list is not because God gets to give orders and we get to obey-it's because God has noticed her people with compassion-and this has changed how they see and act in their world. We are fed and filled with this compassion, these feelings deep in God that move Jesus to be our Savior in 39 days. Those feelings that swell for new life in you and me so that the whole world will know days without hunger, homelessness, or heavy yokes.
In Lent we fast, maybe from inaction, maybe from other things we know about ourselves deep down. And we can fast because God will be faithful in feeding us-because God led the exiles back home and raised Jesus from the dead and fills you and I with compassion, and it drowned our sin. Now we can notice and now we can respond.