Date: February 6, 2011
Texts: Isa 58:1-9b, Matt 5:13-20, 1 Cor 2:1-12
Author: Matt Morin
In today’s passage from Isaiah, we hear the prophet announcing a word of God to the people in the southern kingdom of Judah:
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?
The passage goes on to say that the people who live in such a faithful manner, “Shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
Among Christians, this is a well-known and frequently quoted passage of Scripture; one of my classmates even has a blog named “The Fast I Choose”—taken, obviously from these verses.
And it is not just Christians who are familiar with this passage from Isaiah, but also those who do not regard the Bible as Holy Scripture. Take my former roommate and groomsman for example: His name is Nate, and when we lived together in Milwaukee, Nate and I spent many late nights discussing ethics, politics, and faith. One night, after returning from a local homeless shelter, Nate asked where I had been. I told him that the name of the shelter was “Repairers of the Breach” and then read the passage of Scripture from which the shelter derived its name.
Now despite having been raised by Christian parents, Nate insists that he is not a Christian, and has even gone as far as to renounce any Christian confession that he might have made in his childhood. Nonetheless, he gave a ringing endorsement of the passage:
“That’s what religion is about,” he told me. “I honestly doubt whether or not God cares that I fast, or go to Church, or say prayers before bedtime. God only cares whether or not we do all that other stuff—take care of homeless people and stuff like that.” Nate finished his exegesis of Isaiah 58 with the following advice, “The bottom line is this: Just be cool. Don’t make things so complicated, don’t worry so much about religion— just treat people right. Just be cool.”
Now, as far as bumper stickers or even life mottos go, one could do much worse than “Just Be Cool.” But is that really as far as Isaiah 58 goes? Something tells me that the prophet would be remiss to hear his words summarized as such. But before we write my friend off as an uninformed outsider, let me assure you that such interpretations are just as common among the Church community.
Take for instance, the discussion I had with an influential, upstanding, and faithful pastor of a large evangelical church. During the course of our conversation, we touched upon questions of baptism, communion, and marriage, and my friend cautioned my use of the term “sacrament” to refer to these… well… sacraments. He explained to me that the term was altogether too Catholic, and that the true Christian faith is not about religion, but relationship with Jesus.
Every time that I affirmed him, and then attempted to complement his view, he would interrupt me with three words: “Relationship, not religion.” What about the notion that Christ is present in… “Relationship, not religion.” But, Aquinas thought that… “Relationship, not religion.” Right, and in marriage, the relationship is… “RELATIONSHIP, NOT RELIGION.” Over and over, he repeated the phrase “Not Religion, Not Religion, Not Religion” with all of the cadence and conviction of an Orthodox monk.
Again, is this the point of Isaiah 58? Is the prophet urging God’s chosen people to strip away all of the excess rituals, and focus on the important stuff? Do we, as Christians who now inhabit a post-Enlightenment world, hear Isaiah instructing us to jettison all of the silly religion that has accumulated around the core of the Christian faith? Can’t we just get down to social justice?
To put it plainly: No. We can’t. First off, I dismiss the notion that Isaiah is urging his people to abandon the ritual fast. Scripture bears clear witness to the fact that, even after Isaiah, the fast retained its significance in Israel’s common—and was even practiced by Jesus. But secondly, and more importantly, I am also deeply suspicious of the idea that we humans already possess the resources necessary to follow God’s call in Isaiah 58.
Hear the prophet’s words again: “Break every yoke, share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.”
Now I might go spend some time at a homeless shelter, or keep granola and bottled water in my backseat for the panhandlers. I might even offer a ride… back to the shelter. But I certainly have not made a habit of bringing the homeless into my house. Everyone knows that “those people” can be dirty, maybe dangerous, maybe unstable, and certainly needy. I’m not going to let a person like that know where to find me. I’ll meet them at the shelter, thank you very much.
And break every yoke? EVERY YOKE?
-Minimum wage increases? Sure.
-Give my workers equal control over my company, and the means of production? No thanks.
-Cut my tenant in Milwaukee a break when she is late with rent? No problem.
-Grant her an equal share in the equity I’ve accumulated over the years of her rent payments? Not going to happen.
-Cheer on the people of Egypt as they fight an oppressive dictator? Absolutely!
-Insist on freedom of self-governance for all people, even in the face of doomsday predictions about what might happen if one of those scary Muslims were to assume power and use his newfound freedom to attack North American oppressors? Well, maybe we should maintain some surveillance and control over the outcome in Egypt.
…maybe not every yoke.
And this is the point: It is easy to glamorize the prophet’s words, but nearly impossible to obey them. If we ever expect to embody a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, then something will need to be done not primarily by us, but to us. We will need to emptied, just like during a period of fasting, in order that we might be filled as we feast on the body and blood of Jesus. If we might proclaim the Gospel, like Paul in Corinth, with weakness, and in fear, and with much trembling, we will first, like Saul, need to be completely humbled.
And this, our need to be humbled, is one reason among many, that the Church must always remain grateful for the gifts of religious ritual. The odd particularity of the Church’s sacraments reminds us that our faith cannot make sense—that it is and must always be something that is confessed, not deduced. I would expect this to ring especially true among Mennonite Christians who believe that if it comes right down to it, dying is the best way to defeat our enemies.
I would like to read a somewhat lengthy quote from Karl Barth. Barth was a Swiss pastor and theologian who worked in Germany from the rise to the fall of the Nazi regime. He spoke out strongly against the Church’s collusion with the Nazis, and cautioned Americans against taking a similar path. Following a lecture, he was questioned by somebody in the audience, and this was his impromptu response—thankfully preserved for us to hear today.
For ten years I was a pastor. I faced the task of preaching the gospel. I met the problem with which every one of you is well acquainted: secularism. I saw a modern world. And, I saw further, a Church, a Christianity, which, with great sincerity, with fervent zeal, with great inwardness, and with fervid devotion to deeds of charity, was only too closely related to the modern world which surrounded it.
For this modern church—in Switzerland, in Germany, and most likely in all other lands also—did not raise up a sanctuary in the world; for the Church did no longer know what sacrament means; for it did no longer know that, as God and the world come face to face, God must help the world; for the Church– in fact its best representatives, stood for this doctrine: that men and the world must be helped by love, by what Christians possess, by what they are, and by what they have to say and carry into the world of men from out of their gospel treasuries.
And they proceeded to fit their actions to their ideas with evangelization and works of charity, with social activity, and, in our own day, with the remarkable fusion of Christianity and nationalism. All along the line, it was a Church which was no longer Church, and did not care to remain any longer the Church of God. It was, and meant to be, the Church of the pious man, the Church of the good man, the Church of the moral man, but, at any rate, the Church of man. And now I maintain that this modern Church is a near relative of the Godless modern world. It is the reverse side of this world.
They did not say, Let God be even more God, and let Christ be even more the Christ! Let us take our journey from our baptism to the Lord’s Supper in an even more serious way. Instead, they said among themselves: Let us improve matters ourselves! Let us cultivate the Christian life! They turned aside from the living God and began to cultivate in a very sincere, very worthy, and very pious manner what we see before us in full bloom: the pious man. But slowly and logically, reverence of the pious man changed to reverence of what? The moral man! And finally, when it was found that man is of so large an importance, it became less important to speak of God, of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.
I believe that Barth puts his finger right on the reason that we would like to read Isaiah 58 as the abolition of religion– and that is not because we are afraid that our rituals will eclipse our relationship with God, but because they might minimize us. Our sacramental confession that God is the agent—the one acting, and we are the instrument—the one that acts by being acted upon, reveals our utter contingency. And that is something that we simply cannot stand to be reminded of.
I might as well address the elephant in the room: Today is Super Bowl Sunday. I didn’t open the sermon with this, out of fear that once I started talking football, I never would have stopped. Because, not only is tonight the Super Bowl, but the Packers are playing—and both me and my wife were raised on Green Bay Football. Now since I joined CHMF last year, I have been telling Isaac that I am willing to preach—even on a moment’s notice, just say that word, and I will be glad to fill in. He assigned me for tonight—the only time I am on the calendar to preach during this rotation, is tonight.
Well, Isaac apologized for the scheduling conflict and assured me that he had no idea that the Super Bowl was tonight.
But I thanked Isaac for scheduling me tonight—I need to be here. You see, as Kerry and I worship with you all, and discuss the question of our future denominational affiliation, I have to confess that we each feel a bit like phonies in the Mennonite Church. I mean, I actually thought about trying to swap preaching duties with somebody. So, how am I going to be willing to die, if I am not even willing to miss part of a football game?
And that’s exactly the point. On our own, none of us would possibly be willing to die—we need to be worked on. We need to drowned in sacred water, and be raised out of that water in the cloak of new life. We need to live on the body of Jesus, and to live among the body of Christ, until the line between religion and relationship has been so badly blurred that we cannot differentiate between the deed that we have done, and the deed that Christ has done in us. Only then, may we speak, as Jesus did, of “our light” that shines before others. Only then, may we speak of “our good works” and only then will people see those works, and give glory to our Father in heaven.