Isaiah 58: 1-12 (from The Message)
1-3 “Shout! A full-throated shout!
Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
face my family Jacob with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’
3-5 “Well, here’s why:
“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
a fast day that I, God, would like?
6-9 “This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’
9-12 “If you get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.
Or as verse 12 you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
As summer burns itself out in the glories of a San Francisco October, shorter days and lengthening shadows herald the coming season of dark. Ever since ancient times, the annual approach of the dark season has called forth fear. Fear is a natural response to things that are strange and threatening, or beyond our understanding. For me this year, the air not only hangs heavy with the increasing seasonal darkness, my mood is weighed down by the politics of partisanship in our divided nation. I live in fear that the institutions we have relied on to lead our nation into justice are crumbling. Anger, even despair, seem everywhere….at least, for progressives.
Unlike ancient peoples in our times we know, at least intellectually, that the light will return again in spring. But do we any longer have hope for the return of light to our nation? When the world seems darker and more fearful than ever, what does it mean to live into God’s promises?
With the approach of advent, I annually begin to seek for scripture to accompany me into the dark season. This year, I turned earlier than ever to scripture for perspective. But instead of the infancy narrative in Luke or the journey of the wise ones following the star that many turn to around this time of year, I turn to the Book of Isaiah and the story of Israel captive as exiles in Babylon—the story of Israel as strangers in a strange land and their return to an unexpectedly strange homeland.
Exilic theology is a theology for people who have allowed empire to define their values and their identity. Empire and Exile go hand in hand with power and privilege…and that fits well with my sense of where I am biblically in this land we call the United States of America. Americans have become cynical about our political process, our economy, our quality of life. Though democracy is premised on the ability of each individual to effect policy, our lives seem controlled by some anonymous Other with whom we disagree.
In “Estranged in America: Both Sides Feel Lost and Left Out,” Emily Badger says that Americans on both sides of the political aisle no longer recognize what our nation is becoming. For exile does not have to be geographical. When you feel exiled from the dominant culture, you live with a constant sense of disconnect. Americans live as strangers in a strange land, exiled from the country we grew up knowing. On the left, people lament the erosion of the social justice values of inclusion and diversity. On the right, they mourn the loss of traditions of religious and family values that have centered American life for several centuries.
The image of feeling like strangers in our homeland powerfully captures the American mood today on both sides of the aisle. Each side buys into the stories they tell themselves, stories in which they are the heros and the other side is the enemy, or the ‘evil ones.’ Why are we so polarized? Both sides of these issues are essential to balanced lives and yet we seem unable to envision a common future. There are no winners here, only losers.
Like the rest of our nation, our congregations have brought into this tribal us/them movement. When you live in the belly of the empire beast, the power and privilege of empire politics define your identity. Empire’s ideology permeates the very air you breathe and is just as invisible. Inevitably politicized, we huddle together with those of like mind who share our biases.
When a congregation allows politics to define its identity, it is shaped by a controlling, though covert system,of power that goes unacknowledged. Then, when a congregation believes itself bias-free, it is most likely to be blind to its bias. As Annie Lamott reminds us: “you can tell you’ve created God in your own image when He hates all the same people you do.”
As progressive or conservative congregations, mainstream or evangelical, are we allowing the politics of power and privilege to define us rather than being defined by our Christian faith? Is there such a thing as a Xian identity or is each congregation so identified with a particular political position that it has lost its identity?
Israel’s experience living in exile in the belly of the Empire Beast can speak to us of what it means to maintain our identity as a faith community in the midst of empire. When Israel was thrust into exile, Babylon was probably the largest city in the world, a glittering world class metropolis with public libraries and recreation centers, a towering ziggurat and magnificent hanging gardens. Babylon means “Gateway to the gods” and spectacular religious processions paraded the strength of her gods.
On the surface, the Babylonian policy of exile was relatively enlightened. The merchandise of the world passed through this city and Israelites were allowed to take advantage of its considerable economic opportunity. Some readily adapted, prospering to become landholders and even slaveowners, so that, when Babylon was eventually defeated by Persia, not every Israelite chose to return to Israel and start over again.
Let us not fool ourselves, however, in empire then, as in empire now, minority religious and ethnic identities threaten the power pf empire to maintain status quo. Enlightened or not, the intent of exile was to oppress ethnic and religious identity and to acculturate a foreign people to Babylonian values and the very fabric of Hebrew religious identity was under assault. When a people’s identity as a faith community differs from the dominant culture, compromise is daily temptation and assimilation a constant threat.
To Empire, things unseen like faith and hope are dangerous because they offer a life of the spirit beyond its control. Empire prefers to portray life as status quo, fixed and changeless, with no possibility that anything can break through to bring justice and renewal. Indeed the killing of hope is essential rendering a people powerless and easy to govern.
Though the Hebrews took great pride in Jerusalem, by contrast to Babylon, their glorious city must have seemed dull and out-of-date and Yahweh seemed too weak to save Israel from captivity. When Israel’s institutions supported her religious and ethnic identity, as they did in Jerusalem, there was little need to intentionally claim her identity as a community of faith. Now how would she maintain her identity as a faith community in a culture determined to subvert her values? Would the next generation be completely seduced by the glittering materialism of the Babylonian super-power, its pluralism of cultures and religions, and the empire-building power of their gods?
And so captivity weighed heavy on Israel, emotionally and spiritually. They wept as they sang that poignant song “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” Israel would need to radically re-think what it meant to be God’s chosen people.
As Israel cries out: “How shall we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?” a nameless prophet, known only as Second or Deutero Isaiah, enters her spiritual turmoil. His writings are found in chapters 40 to 55. By the time of Second Isaiah’s prophecies, Israel had been some forty or fifty years in captivity. The generation that had lived in Jerusalem was dying or, at best, held dim childhood memories of life in their homeland. It is Second Isaiah’s task to challenge the exiles to reclaim their distinct identity as a faith community and “sing to the LORD a new song.”
In order to do that, Israel would need to engage in a critical self-examination of her own sinful history of power, privilege, and empire-building. For, while in the time of Abraham and the Exodus, the Hebrews went forth into the wilderness in faith, dependent on God alone for sustenance, once she was settled on the land, Israel craved a strong national identity and a king like the nations around her. She sought the security of institutionalized armies and taxes, increased consumer goods, a great central city and a glorious temple. By the time of Solomon, a royal theology had developed which identified Yahweh with kingly power and the covenant was no longer seen as with the people but with the king. Access to God could only be had through the temple priesthood who monopolized religion to legitimate their power and privilege.
Isaiah challenges Israel to let go of her dreams of power and privilege and reclaim her dependence on God alone and her heritage of servanthood seeking justice. Even more surprising, 2nd Isaiah tells Israel that the instrument of her deliverance from exile is to be a pagan, the foreigner Cyrus of Persia. Isaiah then goes on to declare that Israel is to become “a light to the nations” and a witness to God’s love for people everywhere enslaved by empire. Countering her previous nationalism with a daring universalism, Isaiah proclaims that the good news of God’s faithfulness and liberating power will no longer belong exclusively to Israel.
By the time of Third Isaiah and today’s scripture, the prophecy of 2nd Isaiah has come to pass. Cyrus has defeated the Babylonians and sent the children of the exiles back to their homeland, back to Jerusalem. Though this 2nd generation grew up hearing stories of Jerusalem’s glory, they return to the stark reality of a ruined homeland. The solid, protecting walls of Jerusalem have crumbled. The glorious temple of Solomon no longer stands. The Holy City of David that once housed the Ark of the Covenant, and thus the very Presence of God, seems a fairy tale.
Yet, even as they stand amid the rubble of their former homeland, God tells Israel that she will “build up the ancient ruins and repair the ruined cities.” Are you kidding, God?!!
As today’s passage about fasting shows, Israel is not off to a great start with her re-building project. Once again she is confusing public displays of piety with a life of justice. Israel has fallen into her old patterns of power and privilege and she is oppressing –even physically assaulting—workers who are the very foundation of God’s new society.
If the Hebrews found it hard to trust God’s promises maybe it is because they never really understood what God was promising. Indeed out of the rubble, the ruins of their hopes, Jerusalem was repaired and rebuilt, but not in way they expected. Jerusalem was restored—not by kings or priests or armies—but by the brokenhearted, the mourners, the prisoners.
Like the Hebrews, perhaps our Christian congregations have been relying too heavily on power and privilege to fulfill God’s promises. Let’s face it, much as we progressives rejoice at the thought of the Democrats coming back into power, they are just as likely as the Republicans to be one-sided and use their power to enforce their only own perspectives. While we wail about the process of judicial selection, let’s not forget that it was when the Democrats were in power that they changed the process to a majority vote thinking it would make them more powerful. And, while progressives claim to be all for inclusion and diversity, that diversity rarely includes those who think differently or have different priorities than we do. Power and privilege let us down every time.
That is why, as Christians, we must be willing to critique and discern the influence of power, privilege and empire on our faith communities. Instead of self-righteous certainty about our own political positions, a bit more humility and discernment are needed if we are to challenge how the values of empire influence our faith. For Christian identity is not identical with a particular political party or with national interests. Christian values are counter-cultural and subversive of power and privilege…at least, or they should be.
Where empire thrives on a market-driven ideology of scarcity, Christianity is grounded in a theology of abundance where God’s love and creation’s bounty are freely given to all. Where empire believes only in that which can be understood with the rational mind, Christianity affirms a life of the spirit and things unseen. Where empire declares the individual human being to be the focus of society, Christianity focuses on caring relationships greater than the individual—relationships with God and with community. Where empire declares its core values of success and progress, Christianity witnesses to justice and servanthood as core values.
Too easily, we forget that the strength of Jerusalem’s walls or the strength of political parties is not what the strength of God is about. Nor is the glory of the Lord to be found in Solomon’s temple or in military might. God’s glory was born an infant in a lowly cattle shed. God’s strength died on a cross. God came as a servant, not a king. Our Messiah came as an illegitimate infant born into homeless poverty, as a refugee child raised in exile in a strange culture and speaking an unfamiliar tongue, as a day laborer and political dissident crucified a criminal for confronting the powers of privilege. Are we really ready for what God has promised us?
Are we ready to be called “repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in?”