Isaiah 58:6-12 Common English Bible (CEB)
Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them,
and not hiding from your own family?
Then your light will break out like the dawn,
and you will be healed quickly.
Your own righteousness will walk before you,
and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and God will say, “I’m here.”
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the finger-pointing, the wicked speech;
if you open your heart to the hungry,
and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted,
your light will shine in the darkness,
and your gloom will be like the noon.
The Lord will guide you continually
and provide for you, even in parched places.
He will rescue your bones.
You will be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water that won’t run dry.
They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account;
the foundations of generations past you will restore.
You will be called Mender of Broken (BRIDGES)Walls,
Restorer of Livable Streets.
The people of Israel in our scripture today have returned home, to find that it is hard to build community. They were conquered and exiled to Babylon, and then finally allowed to return after generations. However, their best and brightest did not all come with them. They have lost what they see as their core values. Their temple, their central place for the holy, is gone. Nothing seems to be going right for them. They have experienced an unbelievable drought for both their crops and perhaps their conscious, and as usual an intense battle for survival is bringing out the worst qualities in them.
The prophet writes to remind people that through the worst of times, God is with them. Through the chaos and the misgivings of neighborly feuds, that God is inviting them to mend bridges, and make the streets livable again. God is reminding them that they can be the light of the world by working together.
There is a young woman who is 30 years’ old and has won prestigious awards in genomics. She uses molecular biology to map genes and studies how human genetics make us susceptible to infections. The awards she has won have provided her enough money to pay her salary for her upcoming post-doctoral work at Harvard affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She was ready to come to the United States to do this important work, until she was stopped last week while boarding her flight to Boston.
This young woman sold her belongings, let her apartment go, and then was told she will be unable to begin her work, work that could help millions of people. She was stopped because of the recent immigration order signed into effect and stopped because her name sounds a certain way, Samira Asgari, and because she was born in Iran.
The order that stopped Samira has been blocked by a federal judge in Seattle, but I wonder if we have already begun to tear down bridges and build walls. Last week Samira share these words,
“I feel like I was believing in an image, all these stories of people who are second- and third-generation immigrants. They all help you build this image of a hospitable country. That image got unsettled.
All the Americans I’ve met, they’ve been extremely nice, very collaborative, very helpful. I believe most Americans are like that. I have no reason to believe otherwise…I had this image of America as a country that is free and that has a history of fighting discrimination and fighting biases. Now it’s like going a step back.”
The people in the time of the prophet Isaiah were convinced that all of their problems were happening because they had failed to reconstruct their temple. It was believed because they had not rebuilt their temple to its former glory, they were somehow not worthy of God’s favor. This anxiety led the people to not trust each other, and to bicker and fight. I would risk saying that the people of ancient Israel also blamed people who had moved onto their ancestral home land for their predicament too.
We as humans tend to scapegoat groups of people when it seems our world is not giving us what we need. There are numerous accounts of this in the Old Testament, and you can find it throughout American history. We have seen one group of immigrants or minorities persecuted after another: African Americans, Irish Catholics, Jews, Mexican Americans, Latinos, LGBTQI, and more. Our political environment as of late seems to be whipping our country into a fervor to victimize yet another group. This week I have sat with people whose fear of becoming the next persecuted group is very real.
Last Tuesday I was not stopped while boarding my flight to Phoenix, and last Sunday I had the opportunity to worship in a church whose description sounds like the daydream of someone who fell asleep during a boring sermon. I attended a progressive Evangelical church, with a pastor educated at United Methodist Seminary, and they met in a trampoline park. Before you get jealous of their trampolines, they don’t use them during worship. I drove up to this storefront church in Chandler, Arizona got, out of my car and not 10 seconds later they were showing me around their church. What an amazing group of people excited to share message of how Jesus loves everyone exactly as they are.
Preaching at that church was one of my favorite Christian authors, Brian McClaren, who shared this story:
It was after September 11th and Brian got what he calls a “nudge from God” that said, “Your neighbors are in danger, reach out.” Brian listened to that idea, wrote a letter, made copies and delivered them to the local Mosques in his community. The letters said, “We are a Christian Church in your community and we support you. If you need any support, of any kind, please let us know.”
Brian wanted to deliver the messages by hand, so he took a day to drive to stop by all the Mosques. Most of the mosques were locked up tight and Brian had to slip the letters in mailboxes or under heavy metal doors. As he approached one mosque he saw a TV truck, one with a big satellite dish drive out of the sliding metal gate that surrounded the building. Brian slammed on the accelerator, which was less than dramatic in his Prius, and went flying in the gate before it closed. An Imam came running toward his car screaming and waving his arms, and Brian slammed on the brakes and got out of his car.
The Imam was still waving his arms as Brian walked up to the man apologizing profusely. Brian explained he was a pastor of a local church and wanted to share a letter with the Imam, and handed the Imam the letter. The Imam took the letter, and read it. Then looked up at Brian, and down at the letter. Then wrapped his arms around Brian and hugged him.
The Imam explained that the TV truck that had just left, was there to interview him because a woman who was a part of his mosque had just been assaulted and harassed. The Imam was wondering if anyone in his neighborhood actually cared about him or his people. The Imam and Brian became close friends after this. And Brian shared that while his church wasn’t sure what to do with an Imam coming to visit Brian on a regular basis, they sure did learn to love the Pakistani food their friends from the mosque would bring to them.
Brian wrapped up his sermon with a scripture written by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:
Common English Bible (CEB)
12 So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.
As I was driving away from the service, I flipped on the St. Paul’s livestream and heard Marianne say, “Never read Paul without having a Peanut’s Cartoon right after it.” All, I could think of was the image of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, and the phrase, “Do not be conformed by this world.”
Do not be conformed by the fear of this world,
Do not be conformed by those who build walls instead of bridges.
God is saying, “I got your back,”
God is with us,
and we have got to have each other’s and most of all our neighbors backs.
Be there for your neighbor this week, reach out and do what you can to support your distant neighbor this week, and remember God’s love will never leave your side.
Link to audio: