“The Inescapable Network”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 9, 2020
As I read through the lectionary texts appointed for today as I planned worship earlier this week, the passage we’ve just heard from the prophet Isaiah really grabbed my attention. These words were given through Isaiah at a time of great change and turmoil in Israel. They speak of religious ritual, social justice, God’s call and sometimes God’s silence. Most interestingly, they speak of an inescapable network of humanity in which we are all a part. At a time in our own lives when we are familiar with turmoil, personally and nationally and religiously, this passage has tremendously good news for us to hear and digest. It also offers us a few challenges to the ways that we understand God, to the ways that we practice our faith, and to what God calls the church to be and do in the world today.
First, a little historical context. We talk every so often in worship and in our Bible studies about the Babylonian captivity of Israel. This was a catastrophic event where the Israelites were swept out of their homeland and taken as slaves to a foreign land. In that foreign land, the people of Israel had no leadership, no temple to anchor their community and worship, and they were not permitted to practice their faith. Eventually, though, Israel’s enslavement came to an end through the conquering hero Cyrus. Cyrus was a living, breathing savior for the people of Israel, throwing off the shackles of captivity so that the people of Israel could return home. It is during this homecoming that Isaiah gives the oracle we’ve heard today. We might imagine that this homecoming was a happy and celebratory time in Israel’s national life, but it was anything but that.
You see, the people of Israel had been in captivity just long enough to forget some of the most important components of their faith. They were in captivity for just long enough that even some of their captor’s practices had rubbed off on them. This amnesia concerning their faith and the practices they had picked up from the Babylonians put them at severe odds with God. Isaiah’s oracle expresses God’s anger: “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.” God is angry because his people have forgotten who they are and they are going about daily life as if nothing is wrong. God says, “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.” The people are clueless and God is on the brink of disowning them entirely.
In response to God’s indictment, the people say, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” God’s people are mad at God because God seems to be ignoring them. This is where we see the influences of Babylon. Fasting is commanded in Jewish law as a way of apologizing to God for past sins and for amending one’s life. But in the religious rituals of Babylon, fasting was thought to have a direct impact on how a deity acts. The Israelites had watched their captors fast, doing so in order to change the mind of the gods or to change the course of events. They had fallen into the trap of thinking that God could be manipulated by the same actions. Now, back in Israel, the Israelites had fasted and fasted and fasted—and nothing happened. Nothing happened—and this is why God is so angry with the Israelites—because God will not be manipulated by human action. The hunger and deprivation that comes with fasting isn’t interesting to God and certainly will not make God move.
“Is such the fast that I chose, to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and lie in sackcloth and ashes?” God asks. “No,” God says, “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 hid yourself from you own kin?” In other words, God is not interested in self-abasement or false humility; God is also not interested in fasting or rituals of mourning. If you really want to fast as I desire, God says, if you want me to hear you and to answer, do justice, break prisoners free, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and never turn your back on your neighbors.
And living in this way, this fasting that is actually working for social justice, brings nothing but glory. Light. Healing. God listening and answering. Needs met and afflictions eased. Satisfaction for every want and desire of our hearts. Abundant waters in every desert. Rebuilt cities and communities. Solid foundations for generations to come. Bridges rebuilt and breaches repaired. All of this glory comes within the reach of God’s people, because in the economy of God’s kingdom, all people receive the riches of heaven as the needs of the most vulnerable, the oppressed, and the outcast are met. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once wrote from a jail in Birmingham, “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” King goes on to write, “Whatever effects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” God is telling the Israelites through Isaiah that they cannot be what they ought to be until the least among them have been lifted up and made secure. This means that the people of Israel must constantly be reforming how they practice their faith if they truly desire to live in the glorious kingdom God builds. No more starving and trying to manipulate God. If they want to experience the abundance of life that God offers, their neighbors must be cared for.
The good news for us today from Isaiah’s oracle is that the practice of our faith in God is also always subject to reform. That’s good news because it gives us room to explore, to discern, to dream about what its means to be God’s people and followers of Jesus. The one and only true, lasting, and eternal part of our faith is God and how God came to life for us in Jesus Christ. Everything else is up for negotiation. If our faith is practiced in such a way that the least among us are abandoned or forgotten, that faith is dead and will receive no answer from God. Even if our practices are true to the ritual and religiosity of our tradition, but there are hungry, naked, or oppressed people among us who are not being cared for, God’s ears will be shut and we will never experience the riches of God’s abundant life. But when our rituals and religion are based on the inescapable network of humanity in which we are all caught up, when the practice of our faith moves us to care for one another as God commands, the riches and glory of heaven will fall on us until our cups are running over.
Let me give you an example of what’s happening in Isaiah right from within our community of faith. Did you know that the confessions of our tradition and the constitution of our denomination prohibit anyone who has not been baptized from receiving communion? This is based on theology that can be found in the letters of the Apostle Paul. Paul was of the understanding that without baptism, a person cannot sit at Christ’s table in a worthy manner. In fact, Paul teaches in his letters that if a person sits at Christ’s table without being baptized, they are actually committing a sin worthy of damnation. Yet, here in this congregation, when we gather at Christ’s table, it is made explicitly and abundantly clear that everyone—member or not, baptized or not, Presbyterian or not—is welcome at Christ’s table. This is Christ’s table and Christ never once put any restrictions on his life-giving meal, and we should not either. For acting in this way, for opening communion in the way we do, our tradition actually lays out a process through which I could be disciplined or even temporarily removed from ministry for presiding at communion in this way.
Is that because our denomination is bent on rules and regulations? I don’t think so. I think its because for so long, that’s how the rituals of the church were observed. But over time we’ve come to new and transformed understandings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Barring someone from Christ’s table is not only unloving, it can be downright traumatic. Our church’s answer is to welcome everyone to the table, and to use it as a moment of invitation for anyone who dines here and has not been baptized. We use it as a moment of welcome and a moment of grace because we believe that is what Christ wants us to do. Excluding some from the table of the Lord is like the fasting that ancient Israel learned in Babylon—it had no effect on God and even called down God’s anger. Opening this table, though, brings justice into our community for everyone so that we can all experience the unimaginable riches of God’s glory.
So here is the challenge from Isaiah, my friends: Babylon was a historic and physical experience for the people of Israel, but we experience Babylon, too. For us, Babylon is anything and everything that tries to distract us from practicing our faith in the way God wants us to practice our faith. Babylon is partisanship infecting the way we interact with each other in worship, education, and fellowship. Babylon is thinking that the church is just another business with a product to sell. Babylon is thinking that Christ only came for those that look, think, and believe like we do. Babylon is all over the place and it easily comes through the doors of the church. If we’re not careful, we might end up practicing our faith in way that instead of bringing glory to God actually causes God to be angry with us. So each day we must diligently work to keep Babylon at bay and to remember and practice the essentials of our faith in God. To free the oppressed in whatever is keeping them down. To share our bread with the hungry. To welcome in the homeless. To clothe the naked. And to never lose sight of the fact that we are interconnected and that whatever effects one affects everyone else. If what we are doing is not directly related to these things or supporting them, we must reform and reorder and refocus our practices on God.
Hear the call of our faith one again, my brothers and sisters in Christ, and answer boldly. Say “Yes” to the fast that God choses, for glory awaits us beyond anything we can hope for or imagine. Amen.