How are we to live our faith?
In her sermon based on Isaiah 58:1-12, and influenced by the famous Salt and Light verses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13-20) Pastor Leanne examines what it is that we are called to, and how it is that we are called to be as we live out our faith in this world.
February 9, 2014
Rev. Leanne Masters
Southern Heights Presbyterian Church
Jerusalem had fallen. The people of Israel had gone into exile, subject to powers and kings that were not their own. They had been forcibly moved from their homes, their land, everything that they had ever known.
They longed for God to hear and answer their prayers crying out, again and again, in prayers and in songs and in writings: “Return us to Jerusalem, and return Jerusalem to us!”
As a part of calling out to God, the people took on a practice of ritual fasting. According to the book of Zechariah: twice a year, in the fifth and the seventh month, the whole of the people of Israel fasted (1). We don’t really have a description of what these fasts, in particular, looked like. But we can imagine that they were like many other religious fasts of the time and area: a period of time that was marked by an abstention from food, whether it was for a day or two or a longer period of up to the whole month. Fasts for various purposes were also often marked with particular acts. For example, fasts of mourning or lament would be marked by the wearing of sackcloth and and ashes to indicate the solemnity of the occasion.
These twice yearly fasts had begun as a sign of mourning and lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people and as a sign of repentance for the faithlessness that they believed had led in part to what had come to pass.
Generations passed. Again according to the witness of Zechariah, for at least seventy years the fasting continued...as did the exile.
And so, as time went on, the people added a lament to their cries to God: We are still here...Don't you see? Don't you see our fasting? Don't you see what we are sacrificing for you? What is it that we are fasting for, anyway?
And, finally, God responded. Indeed, What is it that you are fasting for?
What is it that you are fasting for?
It was an important question. For, over time, the meaning of the fasts had become lost along the way. It had moved from a sign of mourning and lament, of repentance and a desire to restore their lives to what God would have them be, to a ritual of faithfulness and righteousness. If you were just and righteous, faithful and true, you would go through the ritual of fasting as evidence of that. It was a way of proving yourself, to your God and to your neighbors.
The problem was that it was often just that, a way of proving yourself. Your righteousness was determined by the rituals that you did, your faithfulness was determined by your dedication to those rituals. It seemed to be that, for many, it didn't really matter what you did the rest of the time...how you lived your life, how you treated others, any of it...as long as you did the right things that were prescribed as the signs and symbols of holiness.
And so there were many who purported to be faithful members of the people of Israel, believers in the One God, who would go through the ritual of fasting, abstaining from food and drink while wearing the appropriate amounts of sackcloth and ashes, and turn around and participate in and perpetuate and even profit from the very systems that the fasts were lamenting.
They would participate in the worship of the local gods, engage in acts that contributed to the oppression and degradation of their fellow Israelite and others in the land of Babylon, and in other ways act in ways that belied their supposed righteousness in the eyes of God.
And so, time and again, in this passage in Isaiah as well as other places in the biblical canon, God asks them, What is it that you are fasting for, anyway?
God calls upon the people to reexamine what it was that they were doing...why and for what purpose they were doing it...and calls them to see it all in a different way.
In doing so, God declares to the people that he didn't want them to prove their faithfulness, to God or to anyone else, he wanted them to live their faith...
If you're going to sacrifice and fast, God says, then this is the fast that I choose....not to for you to abstain from eating for a day or a week or a month, but to share the food that you have with someone who has not enough to eat. Not to lay in lay in sackcloth and ashes, but to give of your clothing to shield the naked. Bring the homeless into your home, give kindness and mercy where it is lacking.
Don't just lament what is wrong in the world, do what is necessary to make it right.
And, in doing so, God is calling the people, not just in the time of the exile, but to us today as well, to make a greater sacrifice...not to prove our faith and our righteousness, but to live i into the world.
It's more of a sacrifice, because it requires permanent change of heart and mind and attitude. You don't just temporarily give something up, and then go on your merry way, happy and feeling good that you've proven how good of a person you are, free to live and to be the way that you want to...instead, in living into faith in such a way, you are called to a constant sacrifice...for when you share the food that you have with another, you may go with less, but they have what they need to survive.
It's a greater sacrifice, too, because this living into faith calls us to this in more ways than just food, but calls us to give up in all areas of our lives in order for others to have what they need...not to build ourselves up or to make ourselves look good or to prove anything about our faithfulness or righteousness to anyone...but simply in order to do what is necessary to create righteousness for all of God's children in the world.
Here's the amazing thing about making these sacrificial choices and living into our faith through them...in doing so, over time, they become less of a sacrifice and more of a joy, as we discover and experience the kingdom of God unfolding around us. Our choices become a way of living, a way of being, that is a manifestation of that kingdom, strengthening our own experience and understanding of what it is that God is doing in us and in the world. In doing so, we create a better world for not only those others out there, but also for ourselves...when we live as the light of the world, we shine in such a way that we provide light not only for others but for ourselves so that we may all see...
And so, I ask us here this morning: in what ways can we make those sacrificial choices in our own lives that allow us to live our faith and faithfulness in and into the world, that allow us to be that light in the world that shines God's love and God's truth into the darkness of the world, that allows for the inbreaking of God's kingdom in this world, where justice and righteousness prevail?
How are we called to fast and to sacrifice in God's name for God's purpose in the world? For God's glory and God's grace? For kindness and mercy? For love and truth?
Are we called to reduce our family's grocery budget in order to purchase a few more items for the Food Pantry or give to the Matt Talbot Kitchen? Are we called to pay a bit more for a cup of coffee or an item of clothing to ensure that the people who produce what we consume are paid fairly for their work and sweat? Are we called to give up a Saturday at the lake with our family and friends to pick up a hammer to hang drywall to help provide affordable and safe housing for another family?
How are we, how are you, called in our faith and in our faithfulness to make those sacrificial choices?
Let us pray:
(1) The connection to Zechariah 7:3-5 was made for me by Bo Lim in his commentary on this passage over at Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1946