"Make your bones strong"-Sermon for Proper 16, Isaiah 58:9b-14
Even a thousand years before the advent of Jesus our Lord, so I am talking about some 3000 years ago, in our Old Testament lesson, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to his people, the people of Israel, whose problems and preoccupations are not really all that different from our own. Geopolitical problems surround them on all sides. Larger, more prosperous and powerful nations are an existential threat to their sovereignty. There is always tension between the political elites currently in power and those currently out of power. There are constant issues with trade between Israel and her neighbors. Challenges exists with migration that is creating a voiceless servant-class of people made up of refugees and immigrants. They are struggling with income inequality and poverty. There are hungry people on the streets, and widows and orphans left without a safety net or a future. There are fights over limited resources caused by living in a dessert-like environment, limited technology, and growing urban centers. And, there is deep ethnic and religious division within Israel’s own borders between those who have maintained their Jewish ancestry and religious traditions and those who have married into other near-eastern tribes and adopted some of those religious traditions. When you study the ancient history of Israel and the near-east in general, you will discover many of the same story-lines and themes that you find in any good Netflix political drama…shows that are presumably not taken from the bible…but ripped from today’s 2stcentury cable news headlines.
And honestly, I don’t know how I feel about all of this similarity. Perhaps comforted by the fact that we are not alone in our moral fragility and sin that manifests itself collectively in imperfect and, at times, profoundly unjust and even violent communities and states. Perhaps there is comfort knowing that others, maybe most others and most of the time, have struggled to build sustainable communities that work for all of its participants. Thus, we are not alone in our own struggles…it’s not just us. I think there is some comfort found in normalizing human behavior across time and people groups…it really is not just us. But it also feels sort of sad…that the worst of human impulses and the burden of sin continue through the millennia uninterrupted in the story of human history…in our political machinations and global economy…and first and foremost…in the fundamental building block of human community, which is the life of the individual. For who we are together, for good…and there is lots of good…even if those stories are not as favored in our news feeds…and for ill…which is so painfully evident in our news feeds…all of it…the good and terrible, that we live together, indeed, begins…it finds its genesis…in every single, every individual human heart.
And, I believe the prophet known as Isaiah, a person close to the heart and mind of God…one of God’s own vessels and ambassadors…knew this to be true…he knew that the collective trials and challenges of his own day was a matter of the heart…each individual person’s heart. Thus, he diagnosed Israel’s collective struggles and posed their solutions first and foremost as a spiritual matter. And I would argue that the same is true today…that our own collective struggles and their solutions remain, first and foremost, a spiritual matter. I have shared this quote from Theodore Roosevelt before…after almost two terms as President, so with some experience under his belt in wading through the national and international challenges of his own day, he is quoted as saying in a public address, “Remember: The most perfect machinery of government will not keep us as a nation from destruction if there is not within us a soul. No abounding of material prosperity shall avail us if our spiritual senses atrophy. The foes of our own household will surely prevail against us unless there be in our people an inner life which finds its outward expression in a morality like unto that preached by the seers and prophets of God, when the grandeur that was Greece and the glory that was Rome still lay in the future.”
So, returning to one such seer and prophet of whom Roosevelt was surely referring, we see in Isaiah’s prophecy that is set before us today…that his response to the political strife and class-oriented poverty and ethnic and religious division that his community faced…Isaiah’s response does not, at least, begin by him proposing political solutions…by providing policy papers…or placing one’s hope in parties or particular candidates. Instead, speaking on God’s own behalf, this is what Isaiah has to say to his own people and, I believe, to us still today as we struggle together to find our own way, he says, “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.” And that…and that is who I want to be…more than anything else…who I believe we are called to be together, as those created in the very image of love…God’s own image.
Indeed, we should be determined, as our Baptismal Covenant calls us and the way of Jesus points us, in striving for peace and justice among all people and in the creation of a society that in both word and deed…in the values we both name and really practice…work tirelessly to form communities who respect the dignity of every single human being. And, further, we should do this life-giving and human dignity affirming work, in part, through courageous civic engagement and public advocacy for all those who suffer. But what I want to point out from Isaiah’s prophetic words…is that all of this good and Godly work begins…becoming a repairer of the breach and restorer of the streets we live in…begins as a spiritual matter…in the transformation of the human heart…beginning with the one we have the most influence over…our own human heart.
And, further, that work of transformative love that God wants to do in each of us, requires something of each of us. It takes a willingness to profoundly and purposefully commit ourselves…first and foremost as the people of God alive and active in the world today…to commit ourselves to ancient spiritual practices. For, again, the healing of the world begins as a spiritual matter. Practices passed on from our Jewish heritage to the Church…practices embodied and demonstrated in the life that Jesus lived…practices that the great seer and prophet Isaiah names for us today. Practices like…removing the sins to which we have yoked ourselves…sins like pride and greed…the compulsion to place ourselves in a place of superiority over the other driven often by our own emotional woundedness and insecurities…the desire to grasp rather than to share, which is often driven by our fear of scarcity…to throw these off and, instead, yoke ourselves to none other than Jesus, who came among us as life-giver, servant and healer. To quit pointing the finger at others in blame or mockery, and instead use the gift of empathy to try and feel and understand another’s experience and seek ways we can work on and grow ourselves. To no longer speak evil words of hate or derision toward any other…instead speak words of love alone that build others up…not tear them down…especially toward those with whom we disagree or really, really know little about. To feed those who are hungry…hungry for food or just a friend. To satisfy the needs of the afflicted…those who struggle to make ends meets…those who feel like they are unseen and unheard, which often just requires slowing down, making eye contact, and a willingness to just do nothing but listen. Then Isaiah says our light shall rise in the darkness…our bones be made strong…we become a garden whose waters never fail…a repairer of the breach and restorer of the streets we live in together.
And I hope that these spiritual practices sound familiar…for we practice them often together…they are what we do…who we, as the church, are called to be. We use seasons like Lent and Advent to examine our lives and see where change and growth are needed. We feed people through Meals on Wheels and the Backpack Coalition and, for that matter, at this altar each week. We care for the afflicted and suffering through pastoral care and Community of Hope and our Outreach and Soul Care ministries. These ancient spiritual practices handed down over the generations that make up the life we live together are enshrined on our very modern website and called our Core Values and Rule of Life, and they are incarnated through our ministries. And, in this case, I am very happy to say that Isaiah’s prophecy and our own statements and ministries are blessedly similar.
And, now today, as the summer fades away, maybe not the heat, but the season…and our program year, which coincides with the school year, resumes, we have the chance to recommit to being the church together…not so much a place…and certainly not a building…but a way of being…a way of life that remains, in my mind, the world’s last, best hope. Though God’s work of transforming love, intended for the life of the whole world, begins in the individual human heart…with me…with you, the spiritual practices, which are God’s own lasting gifts of love named for us by the seers and prophets of old and made entirely present to us in the life of Jesus, these practices we get to do together. We get to lovingly hold one another accountable to making them a part of the very air we breathe. For they entirely shape our hearts…they provide the wattage required for our lights to shine bright…they make our bones strong…they water our spiritual gardens…they make us into more capable repairers of the breach and restorers of the streets in which we live together…and not for ourselves alone…but for the life of the world. Amen.