Sermon for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany Year A, Isaiah 58.1-12
The Rev. Scott Walters

On Thursday I posted a link on Facebook that went downright viral. By the end of the day it had seven likes and three comments. You should understand that the link was to a 16 minute video. And asking someone on Facebook to spend 16 minutes on anything is like asking somebody in three dimensional life to read the book of Leviticus in one sitting.

The video was made by a couple of Swedish documentary filmmakers. Its premise was simple. They found a few dozen people who had never stood on a ten meter diving platform (that’s 33 feet to you and me), and they gave them each about 30 bucks to climb the tower, walk to the edge, and try to jump. With cameras rolling, of course.

I thought I’d watch a few minutes, be amused, and then return to weightier matters. But I found the little film unexpectedly moving.

One after another, people step onto the platform, creep to the edge, catch their breath, and step back. A heavyset woman in a bikini fans her face with both hands after looking down. She mutters what the caption says is Swedish for, “Uh, oh,” and fans some more.

A 70 year old woman with curly blonde hair steps up cautiously. She’s wearing a modest blue swimsuit with long sleeves. She goes to the edge and shrinks back. She puts her hands on her knees and keeps her head down until her breath returns. Which I realize is when mine does too.

A thin young man in striped orange trunks does a lot of waving, toe touching, torso twists, flapping of his arms in an elaborate preparation rite. In other words, he does a lot of not jumping off.

Then, the screen splits. On one side, a handsome man with a dark, close cropped beard and a trim athletic build appears standing very still at the end of the board. On the other side is a girl. A girl who’s maybe 12 years old. She’s several paces back from the edge, but she’s gathering something within herself. The man just keeps standing. But the girl strikes her best starting line stance. She says quietly to herself, “All-righty.” She says, “Let’s do this.” Takes one more breath, grabs her nose, and runs off the end of the board.

I’m fighting off the urge to narrate the entire sixteen minutes to you. I want you to meet Linus and Frida. I want you to hear their tender encouragements and cheer them when they finally go in. I want you to encounter the two young men, one black, one white, who throw a round of rock, paper, scissors, the loser pacing back and forth until he finally smiles, touches his heart, says, “Love you.” And steps off.

I want you to meet these people I’ve never met. These people I know almost nothing about except this. I’ve seen them when they were afraid. I’ve seen them when they were trying to be a little bit brave. And, whether they jumped or whether they cursed and climbed back down, I wanted nothing but the best for each one of them. Neither would you. I guarantee it. Whoever you are, neither would you.

And I don’t quite know how to say this. But, on a Thursday morning in Little Rock, in the safety of my favorite chair, worrying for each of these strangers, rooting for them, breathing and not breathing along with them, this unexpected little blast of empathy felt luxurious. It was as if something in me was starved for empathy. Not starved to receive it. Starved to feel it, to extend it, even to someone I’d never met.

It was like my body had forgotten again what we keep on forgetting. That caring about another human being, even a stranger, doesn’t cost us. It brings us to life. Even when it’s painful. Because to care is to have something crack open within us. Something that has to crack open to other people, we’re told in scripture, if it’s ever going to be open to God.

That may not sound like a lesson one might take from Isaiah 58. But I think it is. Our lives can’t be open to God if they are not open to the fears, the pain, the needs of other people. They just can’t.

The passage is devastating, especially to religious folk like us. God tells Isaiah to call the nation of Israel a fraud. “Day after day they seek me,” says God, “as if…as if they were a people of righteousness! As if!”

What’s happening is that the people are observing the required fasts—in our tradition, they’re going to church, probably even paying their pledges—they’re doing all kinds of good religious works. But, come Monday, they’re back to oppressing their workers. They’re quarreling and fighting. They don’t, in other words, get what this religious life is all about.

What is it all about? Well, Isaiah is again uncomfortably blunt. What God wants is for us “… to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… 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?”

“These,” God seems to say, “these are your kin. The hungry, the homeless, the poor, the naked. These strangers are your family. If you saw the world as I do,” God says, “you would know these are your kin. And if you fast, if you pray, if you practice your religion and live your supposedly upstanding life, without being reoriented toward them, well, your religion—your whole life as a nation, in fact—is a fraud.” Ouch. But that’s what Isaiah says, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, this is just one of the countless times in scripture when we are warned that if we think our prayers to God and our life with other people are separate matters, we’re fools.

Jesus said we’re forgiven insofar as we forgive. He said, “Whatever you’ve done to the poor, the naked, the hungry, the imprisoned…you’ve done to me. And if you ignore them, you ignore me.” He told us the whole Law was summed up in love of God and love of neighbor. And then he broadened the definition of neighbor until it included not only strangers but our enemies.

We could go on, couldn’t we? This is one of those teachings you can just about let your Bible fall open to a page and find. If mercy for others is not alive in us, we won’t experience the mercy of God. It seems that if mercy, if empathy, if love atrophies in us, there is an organ or a receptor for God’s mercy that shrivels up as well. We do have only one heart, after all.

Isaiah 58 comes from what scholars call “Third Isaiah.” It was probably written by later members of Isaiah’s prophetic tradition. Which means it was written after Israel had returned from exile in Babylon and were getting back to their lives. But after only a few generations, they’d forgotten. They’d forgotten that they had been slaves. They had been refugees in a foreign country. They had been poor, prisoners, workers who had no rights. And so Isaiah says, “Come on! We, of all people, should know. We were slaves in Egypt. We were itinerant people without a country in the wilderness. We were immigrants trapped in Babylon. And, yet, as soon as we get
back in control we live like we deserve every last thing we’ve got. Grant us a little stability and suddenly anybody who’s struggling deserves what they’re getting.”

Isaiah says, “Come on, people. It’s not just that you’re closing your hearts off from these struggling people. You’re closing your hearts off to God, too. A closed heart is a closed heart. They just aren’t made to be selectively open.”

And that’s why I told you about those frightened Swedes on the diving board.

You see, I was reading the news when I clicked that story. My heart was angry and frustrated and ready to do battle, as it seems to be so often when I read the news these days. And then I clicked and saw ordinary people who were transparently frightened, trying to be a little bit brave. It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak their language. We were kin. It didn’t matter that some of them were single, some couples, some loved women, some loved men. It didn’t even matter that some overcame their fear and that others didn’t. We were kin. I knew we were because I cared. I couldn’t not care.

You’ve had moments like this. A moment in which you accidentally loved somebody you had no reason to love, except that you saw that we all really are in this life together…all of us.

What made my little spiritual YouTube awakening all the more poignant was that the next day was our son Alden’s 21st birthday. Ardelle did what any responsible mom is apparently supposed to do. She went fishing for embarrassing baby pictures to post online. And one of them was of Alden getting his first haircut.

He’s sitting in the chair at the City Barber Shop in Siloam Springs. Bill the barber has a fistful of hair pulled straight up, his shears working away. Alden is looking stern and straight at the camera. You don’t fully appreciate how hard this terrified boy is trying to be brave until you see that his little right hand is gripping the sleeve of my shirt for dear life. If you’ve seen Alden lately, by the way, you know he hasn’t gotten over this fear of haircuts.

It’s obvious that my heart should go out to my own child when he’s frightened and trying to be brave. What God wants is for that love to keep extending out from there.

Do you remember the photograph in the news last summer of a little boy from Aleppo, strapped into the orange seat of an ambulance, looking sternly straight ahead? He looks like a boy in a barber chair awaiting his first haircut, trying to be brave. Except that this child’s face was bloodied and bruised. And there was no grown up’s sleeve close enough to hold onto.

Do you remember when we saw him and the politics died down in our heads long enough for empathy to open up in our hearts? When we let ourselves imagine what it’s like to live in a place where the air raids happen over the building our children live in? Where life is so terrifying you’d put your whole family on a flimsy little boat pointed vaguely toward Europe and pray that they make it safely there? Pray that they’re welcomed when they arrived? Do you remember when we weren’t talking policies for a moment…just people?

Well, these openings in our hearts to the suffering of the world, pain comes in through them. So much pain. But life does too. Because we are alive insofar as we care. Life comes in through the very same cracks. And so does God.

Friends, I worry we’re living in a crisis of empathy. Something in our collective soul seems to be dying. We are cutting ourselves off to people who seem strange to us, to immigrants, to refugees, to the poor, but also to our political enemies and our religious opponents, to city people or to rural folk, to Republicans or to Democrats. We are hiding ourselves, in so many ways, from our own kin. And we are all kin before God. All of us.

And according to Isaiah, we suffer the punishment of such living right now. Being trapped in our anger, our resentment, our blame is its own form of damnation. We wall ourselves off not just from one another but from the life of God when we live like that. And what the prophet shows us, is not how to avoid divine wrath for our ways in the future. Isaiah wants us to come fully back to life right now.

That’s why his prophecy ends, not with a threat, but with a promise. Not with a warning, but with a stunning image of what our lives can be.

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…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 [frail and frightened human being] the Lord will make your bones strong;
you’ll be a watered garden…
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you’ll raise up the foundations of many generations;
you’ll be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah says all it takes for this blessed and abundant life to fill us, is to let our hearts break open to the world, to let them break open to each other. Because that is how they break open to the mercy of God as well.


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