“Sharing Resources, Repairing the Breach”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
24 January, 2021
Sermon #3 of 6 in The Holy Habit of Sharing Resources Series
Isaiah 58:1-14

Introduction to the Theme:
Today, as we go still a little deeper into our Holy Habit theme of Sharing Resources, I’m going to share a video with you that might be a little bit challenging.  We’re going to be exploring how Sharing Resources helps us to become “repairers of the breach”, in Isaiah’s words.  The main speaker in the video is Sarah Miles, the founder and director of The Food Pantry in San Fransisco. She also serves as Director of ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, and has written several books including “Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead” and “Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion.”

As you watch the video and hear the story that is told, and then as you hear the words of Isaiah chapter 58, try to listen for God’s word of encouragement, as well as God’s challenge (which comes with the assurance that divine assistance is available to meet the challenge) to you personally, and to all of us as people of faith.
(https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/unconditional-healing)

[Reading of Isaiah 58:1-14]

 

SERMON:

The video we watched in the Introduction to the Theme today was challenging, wasn’t it?  I admit that I was moved and convicted by it.  I mean, it’s hard to love some people—especially folks who we think just aren’t trying hard enough to “get better” as the interviewer and Sarah Miles put it.

It’s easier, in a lot of ways, to keep our distance from what we see as the rougher or troubled elements of life, to keep ourselves clean and away from the fray, to come to church and “do the right things”: say our prayers, make our offerings – all as indications of our faithfulness to God.  Don’t get me wrong: these things are important, especially as week after week, they help us to rehearse—to say out loud again, and to make gestures confirming—what we take as our core values.  But in some ways, the rituals of religious ceremonies are the easy part of being a person of faith (by which I mean, one who understands that we’re created in God’s image for divine purposes; and as such, we commit ourselves to living after God’s intended design for human life).

The harder part of a faithful life is loving unconditionally.  Associating with the stranger, even the offensive ones.  Setting aside self-righteousness, and looking at the other through—as Sarah Miles called it—“Jesus goggles”; lenses that see every other human being as worthy of our own compassion and concern.  Worthy of sharing life with.

That sort of unconditional love and acceptance is so much harder than saying the right prayers or going through other motions of worship that ground us in our core values.  But, as God makes clear through Isaiah, it’s by doing those harder things that we actually give meaning and purpose to our rituals.  It’s the harder activities that season and deepen our prayers and connection with God—especially when we meet God in the other—when we share from our hearts.

Of course, the harder work always involves some vulnerability and the risk of getting hurt, or being misunderstood, or disappointed.  Or changing.  Change always makes us feel vulnerable.  Associating with the stranger, or anyone we’ve understood as an adversary, means we open ourselves to changing, or being changed by the other one’s truth—and that can be scary, when we feel pretty secure in the truth we currently hold.

Isaiah was speaking to a people, a scattered nation, who were lamenting their exile and alienation from the life they remembered and preferred.  Life that felt easier prior to their defeat by the Babylonians.  Life back when they were in control and everything felt good and right about their world.  They’d been trying to get that life back, going through the motions of all the things they did before their defeat—fasting, praying, bowing low and saying the right things in the synagogue and temple.  They just couldn’t understand why God wasn’t giving them what they wanted.

But, through Isaiah, God’s word came to the people saying (I’m using the Contemporary English Version): “Day after day, you worship God and seem eager to learn God’s teaching. … You ask God about justice, and you say you enjoy worshiping the LORD.  You wonder why the LORD pays no attention when you go without eating and act humble.  But on those same days that you fast, when you give up eating, you think only of yourselves and you abuse your workers.  You even get angry and ready to fight.  No wonder God won’t listen to your prayers!”

Now, Isaiah was speaking God’s word to an audience several thousand years ago.  But most of us today can identify with the experience of feeling like God is not listening to us, despite how hard we’re trying.  We still find ourselves wondering why things are the way they are, especially when we’re suffering.

And just as the human condition hasn’t changed much over three or four millennia, neither has the divine truth of God’s response: “I’ll tell you what it really means to worship the LORD,” God advises, using Isaiah’s voice or pen.  “Remove the chains of prisoners who are chained unjustly.  Free those who are abused!”  And then, cutting even closer to home (because most of us occasionally bump into people who are actually hungry, or homeless), the prophet says: “Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and homeless.  Give clothes to those in need; don’t turn away your relatives.  [And by relatives, he means human kindred—humankind.]  Then your light will shine like the dawning sun, and you will quickly be healed.”

Those are challenging exhortations!  And our temptation is to just turn it around quickly by praying for our powerful God to liberate the prisoners and have mercy on the abused, forgetting that God has created us to be the practical vessels through which that liberating work gets done.

I know of a few people who have followed these instructions quite literally, and shared their home with the poor and homeless.  Lots of us have given clothes to those in need, and have shared food periodically with the hungry—this is one of the things we’re planning to do lots more of with our refreshed kitchen space in the church.  But most of us, myself included, bump up against the limits of our generosity, and creativity, and unconditional love long before we get to the sort of vision God was casting through the prophet, and that Jesus himself embodied, showing that it is humanly possible.

Still, we’re called to continue trying; to trust that God can work in us as our spirits grow through a willingness to do better, to keep stretching ourselves, so that we might experience the fullness of joy our souls long for.  We just need to pay attention for the opportunities that present themselves to us.

It’s often easier to practice the sort of sharing Isaiah was referencing, as part of a community.  Sarah Miles alluded to the unconditional love the workers at the San Francisco Food Pantry showed to “Big Paul”—which isn’t to say they didn’t have boundaries; they didn’t allow him to engage in behaviors that were harmful to others, and when he crossed the line, they let him know.  But they did learn something about the nature of divine love, its depth and texture and resilience, as they allowed a wounded man to claim the healing he needed on his terms and didn’t presume to define what healing was for him.

I want to share another brief story with you about another community that shared unconditional love and acceptance with unpopular neighbors, and it’s transformed their church’s mission and ministry.  This is the story of Heartsong United Methodist Church, near Memphis, TN. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYembGqZF94]

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. … 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.” (Isaiah 58:9-10, 12)

This is how God’s love behaves.  Not by pointing the finger in a way that finds fault with the other in order to avoid personal responsibility, but by directing us to those who are hurting.  To the outsiders.  To those who need an advocate and an ally so that we might do what we’ve been created in God’s own image to do: to nurture all of creation with divine grace and love.  So that we might know a deeper sense of our connection and mutuality with all of life.  We’re called to build bridges of understanding to repair the breaches, the rifts of perception and experience, between us.  But this can only happen when we’re willing to humbly accept as well as graciously give from the variety of resources, experiences, life stories God has given to each one of us.  Bridges allow for movement in both directions.

Heartsong Church’s courage and choice to live into God’s call to demonstrate love to people who were (and are) still feared and misrepresented by many, to offer a home to the homeless, resulted not only in healing for the Muslim community, but also (as one testified) for certain members of the Heartsong Church.  Many people discovered how, had they continued to live with their ignorance and fear, it would have resulted in lost opportunities to experience stronger, deeper love and joy themselves.  As it happened—as they reached out with mutual curiosity and love, as they dared to share their stories and needs, their fears and their hopes with each other—both communities grew, and they partnered up in even greater ministries of healing and hope for the broader community and world beyond their walls.

Isaiah 58, like so many other passages in Scripture, is a call to share what we have, and not just materially.  At the end of the day, what’s most important to God is that we’re sharing life and all its richness in ways that matter.  Sharing resources—graciously giving of our own, and humbly receiving the gifts that others offer—so that all of us might be strengthened, as we recognize the image of God in one another.  To see, as the breach is repaired, as new bridges are built, how God’s spirit lives and moves in and through all of us.  Even those whom we might feel aren’t getting it right or somehow aren’t trying hard enough.  We might just need to put our “Jesus goggles” on, see others as God sees them with the same infinite love God has for us … and then find ourselves expanding our own capacity for unconditional grace and love, and experiencing an all new depth of joy.  Amen.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC