Isaiah 58:1-12 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 and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “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. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 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? 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 God 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.
Matthew 5:13-20 “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. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For 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. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the reign of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the reign of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the reign of heaven.
Isaiah the Prophet, calls God’s people to action: Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! The people are in turmoil, their nation is falling apart before their eyes and Isaiah points straight to the reasons of their national demise. They have not lived out God’s call, as a people. They have interpreted the law to serve their own interests. And God calls them on it: Isnot this the fast that I choose (this is what i want you to do): 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?
God outlines the way to a better world; that should the people do these things, their light shall break forth like the dawn and they will be healed. They can call on God, and God will say “I’m right here!” And God will continually satisfy their needs… and they will become strong, and fruitful, and be called, “repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in.”
So simple- but if you’ve ever tried to live that way, then you also know how difficult it is to follow God’s outline. The problems today, well, they are multi-layered; complex and systemic. God’s plan is counter-cultural. And wouldn’t we have to go against our very nature to live out that kind of life?
That’s a big question, and it’s age old. Is it human nature to put ourselves first, to have our own needs met at the expense of others? Is it normal to work continually to make sure we and the people in our circles, get ours- regardless of who loses out? Our culture teaches us that it is, and as we look at the headlines it would appear to be. It’s the foundation of capitalism, isn’t it? We work hard and that work is rewarded. Sure, our getting a little more means that someone else gets a little less, but come on, they can work as hard as we do and get the same thing, right?
Of course not! In fact what is going on even this week in our nation has caused an outcry of voices lifted up like trumpets! We, who are fighting to break the bonds of injustice and undo the yoke of oppression are ‘shouting out’- and- ‘not holding back!’ We want our land healed!
We are being ‘salt’ and ‘light’ as Jesus asks us to be- no tasteless salt to be thrown underfoot- no lamp to be left hidden under a bushel! That’s what last week’s sermon was all about. Answering the call- going out and doing something- getting involved- making peace! There’s just one thing that bothers me…
At the end of this great speech about being ‘salt and light,’ and letting our good works show so people will see and give glory to God in heaven, Jesus goes on. “I’ve come to fulfill the law,” he says…. *okay* and, “whoever breaks the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the Reign of heaven.”.. *gulp* and, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never ENTER the Reign of heaven”… wait, what?. I thought the ‘Scribes and Pharisees are the ones we were supposed to rebel against? I thought they were the enemy? I made a big sign last weekend saying so- and now Jesus is calling THEM righteous? Too far, Jesus! Too far!
It does make you wonder, doesn’t it? How could Jesus on the one hand be calling us to change things, but then stop short of destroying those who are in power- in fact those who are the source of the problem? I want the wicked to perish- forever- like the Psalmist says over and over… to blow away like chaff, to be sent where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth… If I was Jesus, I would… (I’d better censor that thought- I don’t think it’s Christian… now breathe…)
Redirect: “Love your enemies.” “ Pray for those who persecute you.” “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”… “don’t judge”…
*Thank you God, for being a God who continually forgives- a God who offers new mercies every morning- a God who offers grace to all- and loves unconditionally. *
So then, how can we be salt and light in a world of corruption without demonetization? How can we enhance the flavor of the living and preserve human dignity without judging those who are clearly evil in our eyes? How can we shine our light on oppression and hate without putting someone in the spotlight? Because in our minds, someone is to blame! Somebody has to be the “bad guy!” Isn’t that the way it works? But you see, the moment we say, “its him!” we make ourselves into the good guys and them into the bad guys. We win, they lose. But truly I tell you, unless we all win, we all lose.
Jesus calls us not to destroy, or throw out, or demonize- but to transform. It’s why there are so many stories of Jesus healing through compassion- he went to the places in the world that you and I would have written off. And I know usually when we think about “those places” we think of homeless shelters, or hospitals, or poverty, or even dangerous neighborhoods. But what it “those places” are also palaces, and political parties, and power bases.
I am not trying to excuse anyone’s behavior, or let anyone off the hook for immoral and in some cases inhuman actions. I am not asking anyone to back down from trumpeting the truth. But notice, one of the sins that the people in the passage from Isaiah we guilty of, was “finger pointing.” We need to be very careful that as we go about fighting for justice, that we aren’t just switching places with the ones we want to stop. Because at the end of the day, there is no “them.” There is just “us.” It’s why our goal always needs to be transformation and not destruction. There are reasons Jesus used analogies of salt and light for us, pertaining to how we work for peace on earth.
Let’s break it down:
Salt is not just a flavor enhancer. It’s not only a preservative. It’s not only a healing compound. Salt is essential for human life. Without it, we die. But it’s tricky- too much salt and the meal is ruined. Too little and it’s of no use. Salt is best when it doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t. You know when it’s there, and miss it when it isn’t. Likewise we are to be present- we are essential for the sustaining of human life- so we must make our selves known- keeping in mind that adding flavor isn’t about overpowering the meal- its about transforming and enhancement of life. Light isn’t meant just to expose flaws- which by the way we are totally called to do- shine light on injustice, bring things into the light, expose those acts that are ungodly and oppressive- things we write on signs- but light also brings joy- hope- and warmth. And as a not to small aside- Jesus doesn’t tell us to shine our light- he tells us we are the light. And so we keep shining, we keep transforming, we keep working with compassion and not hate- hate indeed is the yoke that binds us- in the words of Martin Luther King: “Hate can't cast out hate- only love can do that,” or in the words of Isaiah: 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… you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
(1) I owe this and idea to the work of Paul J. Nuechterlein and his wonderful work in Girardian Theology http://girardianlectionary.net