Sunday March 8 2020
Pray this week’s Pastoral Prayer.
Use this week’s GPS (GrowPrayStudy) Guide to reflect on the sermon.
Isaiah 58: 1 – 9a
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 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?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
Many of you may recall a time when churches across this nation wielded a powerful tool of faith formation, which they used o shape the hearts and minds of their youngest members….Behold! The felt board (or flannel board, or flannelgram).
It was a felt board located in my childhood Sunday School classroom, where the stories of Jesus’ healing acts first took to root in my imagination. There, on that fuzzy canvas, I witnessed before my very eyes no less than the miraculous healings of many sick and demon-possessed people, as one-by-one they were gingerly removed from the felt and replaced by depictions that replaced their tears and scorn with bright expressions. Flannelgraph Jesus had done it again, against all sort of aliments, and despite the fact that he had been mushed up on that board in so many times that he often fell off the easel mid-miracle.
From those formative years, the stories of Jesus’ healing ministry travelled with me as assurance that Jesus has the power to heal—a truth which has been confirmed by the subsequent decades of life lived. But perhaps because of these stories’ familiarity, for a great deal of my life there were many aspects of these healing stories that went unquestioned and unexamined. Until along came a seminary professor, who, with one simple question, pulled the flannel board out from underneath my understanding of God’s healing action in our world. The question he asked was this: What is going on that there so many sick people everywhere that Jesus goes? Why are there so many sick people in the gospels?
After posing the question, the professor, Warren Carter, who now by the way teaches New Testament here in town at Phillips Theological Seminary, went on to describe for us the backdrop of Roman Empire and the damage that it inflicted upon people. I would like to read you some of his commentary on this, and I quote:
“The Gospel reflects its imperial world…Roman imperial structures and practices were bad for people’s health. Some 70-90 percent of folks in Rome’s empire experienced varying degrees of poverty—from the very poorest to those who temporarily fell below subsistence levels. Understandings of hygiene were limited; social stresses were high; water quality poor, food insecurity was rife with low quality and limited quantities. Such factors resulted in widespread diseases associated with poor nutrition and a lack of immunity. These [things] were death-bringing in a world that required physical labor for survival.”1
By equipping me with a knowledge of the real-world context in which the gospels played out, it enabled me to move Jesus’ healing ministry off the backdrop of a felt board and into the world we live in—enriching my understanding of God’s healing work in the this world of ours. In a world where imperial structures make people ill and then ostracize them for it, it is harder to simply see Jesus as a street doctor spinning miraculous cures. There is something more that is taking shape in all these healing stories.
As the treatment of diseases, cures are wonderful. But cures are always transitory. Even if you and I were to be cured of some of those things which ail us, eventually these beautiful but feeble bodies of ours will fail. But Jesus is not just in the business of cures. He is in the business of healing. And this healing goes far beyond the treatment of disease. It also addresses the social and spiritual dimensions of living.
In the context of the gospels, Jesus’ healing binds the wounds that have been inflicted by imperial structures that leave poor people limping along. His healing brings restoration to social systems that—to this day—are divided by sickness.2 You may notice that following the healings of Jesus, the once-ill are free to be incorporated back into social relationships and worshiping communities, no longer confined to the outskirts of town. Coupled with Jesus teachings, all this healing points to the wholeness of things when it is God’s kingdom—God’s empire—reigns supreme.
But there is something else I would invite you to consider about the type of healing that takes place in the gospels. And that is this: the sick and demon-possessed are not just healed from something, they are healed for something. Jesus doesn’t just free people from things, He frees them for things…freed for following him on his path, freed for giving more of themselves, freed for transformed thinking and living—for pouring their own lives out in gratitude and service to God.
And it should be noted that people who are freed from things but have no spiritual calling for anything wider than their own ambition, tend to collapse inward underneath the weight of their own self-interest. And this is what we see taking shape at the beginning of this morning’s scripture passage from the Book of Isaiah.
Here, we’ve picked up the story of the people of Israel shortly after they have been freed from ravages of Babylonian captivity. But what was at first a celebration of this freedom had fallen into bickering among the people over who should rule, the fighting of factions grappling for power, and the abuse and overworking of laborers in the daunting task of rebuilding their city. And we read that while the people are being attentive to the ritual ordinances of the law by fasting, it is clear that they have completely neglected the ethical demands of it.
Instead of a fast that puts the priorities of God first, their fast is a self-interested one. And the prophet Isaiah calls them out, sharply. He says “Look here! All this bowing down like a bulrush, all this this spreading of sackcloth and ashes…this kind of fasting ain’t gonna’ get your prayers off the ground. Do you think the way to create an audience with the Lord is the mere outwardly display humility—to put on a pious long-face and parade around solemnly in black?”
“No” the Lord says. “This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, to get rid of exploitation in the workplace, to free the oppressed; to share your food with the hungry, invite the homeless poor into your homes, put clothes on those who are out in the cold, to be available to your own kin. Try this kind of fast and you find that your light will shine, and healing will spring up quickly.”3
Something that always captures my eye about this scripture is just how dreadfully specific it is about what actions will bring forth healing. You would be hard-pressed to simply spiritualize it and say to the hungry, and poor, and naked “We’ll be praying for your souls.” And yet it is a temptation to which the church has been drawn time and again.
Author Brain McLaren speaks to what he perceives as a failure of today’s church. He says that “the Church has specialized in dealing with the ‘spiritual needs’ of its members to the exclusion of the physical and social needs of its neighbors. It excels in addressing the destination of a person in the afterlife while failing somehow to address the significant social injustices of this life.”4 When it comes to a fast that is pleasing to the Lord, there is to be tangible attention to those in need.
Sadly, I know far too many folks that have lost their faith in the church to take on this kind of fasting. And it isn’t necessarily because they don’t believe in God—many of them still believe that God is calling us into the world. But they have more suspicion than ever that the church is mostly concerned with its own success and survival, rather than the kind of fasting that brings God’s healing liberation to those at the fringes of broken social systems.
And to this I say that prophet Isaiah’s call to repentance is one that we—the church—must heed. We must own the fact that the church has not always acknowledged and touched the broken places of our world, where modern day empires have left people sick and ailing. We must reckon with the hard truth that the church has not always recognized how comfortable it has been sitting on the dock of the bay, working only to pay its bills and keep the lights on. And, particularly for the modern-day church with all of its buildings, I believe that we must name that our calling is not to the safe harbor of our sanctuaries or facilities, but out in the highways and byways of a wounded world.
As the pastor that has been charged by this community of faith to focus on community engagement and outreach, the question I most frequently ask is, “What does it look like for this congregation—in this community—to participate in the healing that comes from a fast that is pleasing and acceptable to the Lord?” There’s such great need within our city for people that are ready to create spaces where healing and wholeness can happen.
I give thanks for the ways that many of you are already engaged in responding to the needs of those who have been cast aside because of broken human structures:
as you serve food at the Day Center for the Homeless;
provide support for the community of Chacraseca, Nicaragua;
as you offer up hospitality to families in situations of homeless by hosting them in the building through Family Promise;
as you supporting the feeding ministry of Iron Gate; and address food insecurity through the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma;
by tending to the ways that our environment has suffered the consequences of broken systems through our Green Team;
by building houses with Habitat for Humanity of Tulsa;
providing a community garden space for an international congregation here in town;
supporting our neighboring schools and students,
and the list goes on. I’m thankful for the ways you are taking seriously the call to serve our in our community.
And during this season of Lent, I would invite you to deepen in your fasting even more. I’m not going to sugar-coat it, the fast we are called to is not easy. It IS a fast and so it is not without its costs to us. It may not require us to forgo food. But it will require us to forgo our own wants and desires for love of neighbor. It may not require the discomfort of feeling hungry, but it will surely require the discomfort of getting one’s hands dirty in the sickness of the world. You be required give, and give, and give some more—to pour yourself out on God’s people. But thanks to the healing of Christ Jesus, we have been freed for this ministry. And I’ve been told that if we stick to God’s prescript fast of self-denial (as Christ showed us)…when we pour out our lives for the poor, the dispossessed, the sick, the oppressed, God’s healing work will be made known. And I recall, very distinctly, from the days of the old felt board, the story when Jesus surprised his students by saying “Just as you did it to the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.”5
1 Warren Carter, Working Preacher, “Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23” https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3138
2 Davis, Scott M. “Healing and Exorcism.” The New Interpreter’s Handbook of Preaching, by Paul Scott Wilson, Abingdon Press., 2008, pp. 79–80.
3 Isaiah 58:5-9
4 Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: When the Worlds Biggest Problems and Jesus Good News Collide. Tomas Nelson, 2009.
5 Matthew 25:40