Today’s sermon. You can listen to the audio version at the link below, or read the text of the sermon below the audio link.
In my first or maybe second week of volunteering in the Jubilee Center, I was approached by a man who spoke French and very little English. He had in his hand a pretty standard-looking document from the IRS. Now I know a thing or two about speaking French. And thanks to a two-year audit of my self-employment taxes a couple of years ago, I know a thing or two about the IRS. So I guess you can say that I had some qualification to address his issues. But I would be lying if I said that when he handed me the document, printed on IRS letterhead, I didn’t feel a bead of cold sweat. What struck me was what the man said to me when I asked, “Comment puis-je vous aider?” (How can I help you?) He responded by handing me the document and he did not ask me to help him. He said, “Je sais que vous pouvez résoudre ce” (I know that you can fix this.) In that interaction, he is seeing something in me that I am not seeing or feeling in myself necessarily.
What the young man was seeing in me was clearly privilege. My privilege might have been the English language or my native citizenship or in his mind the fact that I am male, or that I am white, or that I am an old man, or that I am a priest; I don’t know what particular privilege or combination of privileges he saw, but his statement to me that he knew on the face of it that I could fix his IRS problem meant that in our relationship I had privilege and he had every hope that I would use that privilege to make things right with the IRS.
I tell the story because I believe that to fully understand the importance of the reading from Isaiah today and its echoes in the sermon on the Mount, we have to start from that place, the place of recognizing our privilege, because when it comes to ritualizing our inaction, in many ways it starts with privilege.
The main character in the Isaiah reading today is God who speaks to the prophet. Isaiah really draws on this long rich tradition of prophetic proclamations against false worship, reminding God’s people that worship without justice has no value in the eyes of God. In verse three, God’s people cry out, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” The answer that God gives to the prophet is a rebuke of their privileged whining. It is a rebuke of their empty ritual and empty fasting, of self-serving their own interests at the expense of workers, and the hungry, and the homeless poor, and the naked.
These people, privileged to call themselves God’s chosen ones, God’s people, these are the ones who have fallen back into the notion that ritual and fasting will be enough to curry God’s favor, but the God of justice has a different agenda, a different law.
Now, in fairness to God’s people in Isaiah today, this is the section of Isaiah known as “third Isaiah”. These people are looking back and they want to figure out what they did wrong, what led to their demise and the destruction of the Temple. After all, they prayed and they fasted and they did everything that they ritually knew how to do. But worship style and practice are not what pleases or offends God according to Isaiah. Worship style and practice are not to blame for the decline of the community. They are not the measuring sticks by which the people of God will be judged. They will not restore or preserve a relationship with God in and of themselves. Only worship and ritual and fasting that results in action that relieves others of their oppression is authentic to God.
The critique that God offers through the mouth of Isaiah is that the more Israel has become self-conscious about its improved worship life, the less it has remained open to God’s vision for the community. This happens when prayer, praise, and fasting are cherished not as gifts that nurture relationships, but rather as techniques for drawing attention to its human participants. That is why Isaiah finds the people spending so much time in worship. They fast so that God will see them, they humble themselves so that God will notice. They fast to make their voices heard by God. None of these things: fasting, worship, or ritual are bad. In fact, there is a necessity to doing all of these things, but only in the service of others. After all, our word “liturgy” is literally translated as the “work of the people”.
And this leads me back to privilege. In order to authentically reach out to the hungry, to the homeless, to the poor, we start from our place of privilege. In a real sense, it is a privilege and a gift to be able to call ourselves God’s people. And most strikingly, fasting merely for the sake of ritual and not for the sake of social change is in many ways the worst use of privilege. When I can make a big deal out of not eating by choice, what does it do for people in the world who are hungry through no choice of their own? Then, fasting is empty, self-centered, and grossly privileged.
In verse seven God says, “Is it not 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?” Not to hide yourself from your own kin? Privilege is real. It is a simple fact that in our society I get to do and even say things that people of color don’t. And as a man, well don’t get me started on sexism, because the issue is just as much about my male privilege. Yes, privilege is real, and sometimes that privilege is endowed upon me by the society in which I live, and it is hard to shrug off. But what truly makes that privilege problematic is when those in need are the others. That is when I forget that I am talking about my kin. Kin is an interesting word in English. It refers to one’s family and relations. It is a word of Germanic origin related to the Dutch word kunne, from a root word meaning to give birth to. To say that those in need are my kin is to say that they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, and they are all members of my family. Any privilege that separates us is a fiction created to insulate me from any discomfort that I might experience by feeling what they endure.
Switching to chapter 5 of Matthew in the continuation of the sermon on the Mount, it begins with Jesus calling us the salt of the earth, such a rich compliment to all of us. I am the salt of the earth. Privilege. But salt goes flat and gets thrown out in time. We are the light of the world, but even the brightest light can be dimmed. When Jesus calls us these things, it may feel like its own form of privilege, and Jesus uses this imagery to call us out of our complacency.
When Jesus refers to the law that he has come to fulfill, he is talking about passages like the one from Isaiah today. The letter of the law that Jesus demands, the Commandments that he upholds, are not rituals such as those performed by the scribes and Pharisees of his day, but rather the letter of the law is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the homeless, and lift up the oppressed. And we can’t get it backwards. When ritual and fasting and self-serving privilege shield us from the needs of others, we are shielded from the law as Jesus understands it and teaches it.
These are challenging times. They are bound to get tougher. I have to say I am feeling a bit numb from all that is coming out of Washington. But to meet the challenge of advocacy and of some sense of mission in a nation and a world that are quickly losing the way is no small task.
We worship and we partake in our rituals, and these things are important to us. But their importance is only as significant as what we do in response to all that God has given us. In a real sense, the ritual only begins here and it continues outside the doors of this church. True fasting, true ritual, true work of the people awaits us in many corners, because the fasting that God demands is a lifting up of people. And these people are our kin. There is no them and us. We are all just us.
And there is hope, always hope. “If you offer your food to the hungry”, Isaiah says, “and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” Like the young man in the Jubilee Center, God knows that we can fix this, because God can fix this. When our ritual becomes service to others, in the words of Isaiah, we shall be called the “repairers of the breach, and the restorers of the streets”. We have been given this work to do, because this is what it means to be God’s people.