Sermon for February 9, 2020
I noticed in the newspaper the word “whistle-blower” is in the news again. This time it had nothing to do with the U.S. government. A whistle-blower in China recently died of the corona virus, the illness that has infected over 30,000 in China and killed hundreds. The whistle-blower was Dr. Li-Wen-liang, an ophthalmologist who warned of the danger of the corona virus back in December. His warning was met with a government crackdown. He was criticized for spreading rumors about government inaction. He was forced to sign a confession that he had made the whole thing up. But now after so many infected with the virus he has been declared by a hero for his courage in speaking up. If the authorities had listened to his warning more could have done to stop the spread of the disease. Sadly Dr. Li succumbed from this disease.
I think we can call the prophets of the Old Testament whistle-blowers. Isaiah was one of them and he could not keep quiet. Just listen again to the beginning of today’s reading: “Shout out! Do not hold it back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” As was case in the U.S. and in China, the whistle blower Isaiah was not appreciated. Just what was the big deal with this blowhard? As far as their religious practices they seemed to be doing very well. Day after day they seek the Lord in prayer. They thought they were a righteous nation or right before God. They delight in God with worship and prayer and ask for righteous judgments. They seemed to be “busting their behinds” for God’s blessing. In a telling verse in the chapter before today’s reading, God, through his whistle-blower Isaiah said: “I will concede your righteousness and works, but they will not help you.”
That did it! So now the people of Isaiah’s day had a question or two for God; God needed to do some “splaining”: “Why do we fast, and you do not see? Why humble ourselves and you do not notice?” Here fasting was not done for medical reasons but for ritual. Ritual fasting can be an appropriate discipline as part of one’s faith. We know that Jesus fasted from time to time, accompanied by prayer. But apparently Jesus did not fast as often or as rigorously as others. The danger of ritual is of course hypocrisy. Remember Jesus’ parable of the self-righteous Pharisee who bragged before God that he fasted twice a week, while viewing a repentant tax-collector with contempt.
You could not fool the prophet Isaiah. What he said was humorous: you humble ourselves in order to be noticed. Yes, we want others to notice how devout we are, and we expect, and even demand that God takes note and hopefully bless. Isaiah stripped away the veneer of their religious practices. The people’s fasting with all the props of sackcloth and ashes was not the fast that God desired. The prophet said you fast to serve your own interests: that is not righteousness, but selfishness. In spite of your rigorous and ritual fasting still you oppress your workers, and you strike with the wicked fist. What is that all about? It sounded like the poor were being mistreated. The image of “Strike with a wicked fist” sounds like violence against the vulnerable. In the chapter preceding our text the prophet Isaiah speaking for God said, “Because of their wicked covetousness I was angry, I struck them, I hid and was angry, but they kept turning back to their own ways.” Some have said this is what plagues American culture: acquisitiveness, selfishness, the desire to have things my way.
Isaiah said God has a different kind fast in mind: a fasting from violence, greed, and the fear that underlies such behaviors. Fear has a way of bending us away from God and love of others. The fast that God chooses is to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke. The fast God chooses is for us to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your home; when you see the naked, cover them; and not to hide yourself from your own kin.” On NPR recently I heard the honest words of someone who was poor: she said, “I am not dumb. I am not lazy. I am not trying to take something that is yours.” I wonder if she has been struck with the wicked fist of accusations like “you are a welfare bum; if you were not lazy you would have a job and not live in poverty.” Maybe some of the wicked fists belong to good, church-going Christians. The whistle-blower may be speaking to us: do not hide yourself from your own kin. The Bible says we are created in the image of God, and that Jesus is our mutual brother who died to save us and is not ashamed to call us his kin.
So how can we change from a religion that hides from our kin to one that practices love for neighbor? The whistle-blower prophet Isaiah says it starts with God. Remember Isaiah said God was angry and struck the people because of their wickedness, but retribution did not do any good, because “they kept turning back to their own ways.” This is God’s decision, as heard from Isaiah, “I have seen their ways, and I will heal them. I will lead them and repay them with comfort. Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord; and I will heal them.” We need the whistle blower’s word: if you feel you are burdened by sin and failure, God says “I will comfort you”. If you feel hell-bound God says no, I will heal you. If you feel you deserve God’s wrath the Lord says no, I l will repay you all right, but with mercy and forgiveness. This is God’s righteousness, God’s active work of healing us from our wicked thoughts and ways. As you know healing is the basic meaning of salvation. This healing is a gift and is a process that takes a lifetime. This is the joy of God’s generosity; God’s healing word and presence throughout life.
Embraced by Grace, held firmly by healing, we can choose the fast that God desires, that is not hide from your own kin, and kin meaning more than blood relations. In a book by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, they quote Dr. Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general of the United States: “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology that I saw was not heart disease or diabetes, but loneliness.” He felt loneliness, social isolation, has the same impact on life expectancy as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. That is why Great Britain in 2018 appointed a minister for loneliness.
Maybe you heard the story on Public Radio about an elderly woman who lamented over her smart phone. She had no clue how to use it; she did not know even how to answer the phone. She went back to the place where she bought it seeking help but they told her even a child can figure it out, but they did not give me a child! But to the rescue came an organization called something like “TEEN-YEARS”, a play on the words ‘teen’ and ‘senior’. A 17 year old tech-savvy teen was paired with this elderly woman, who gave her tutorials on how to make use of the many functions with her phone. Now the elderly lady understands how to answer the phone, and more, so much more. She uses face-time and loves talking to friends and relatives in other countries she can see while she talks. She no longer feels useless and ready for the grave, all because of a kinship, a connection with someone who was willing and able to help. I bet the 17 year old was just as touched, moved, and happy as her senior student.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says people are generous with their help and relationships when they are sure of the generosity of God. Notice in today’s Psalm the righteous are generous because they know God is full of compassion and steadfast love meaning they can be steadfast in their faith, not afraid of any evil rumors because their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord. Trusting our steady God generous with grace inspires us to be generous with others; Isaiah said your light shall shine in the darkness. The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places, for you will be like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Let us be thankful for Isaiah, the whistle-blowing prophet so we do not use religion to cover over our own ways, but open ourselves joyfully to the healing salvation of our God, so we are healed from within, and so joyfully be lights of hope for others. Jesus, the light of the world, called us “to let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works of love and notice something: the glory of God at work in us.