Today’s Isaiah passage comes to us from around 740 BCE. David’s once unified kingdom has split in two. Isaiah is a prophet in and for Judah, the southern kingdom, with its capital at Jerusalem. Within fifteen years, the Northern Kingdom – known as Israel or Samaria – will be conquered by the Assyrian Empire, its people killed or exiled.
The word of God that Isaiah is given to speak is a word of warning about military threat from without, and corruption and injustice within. In this passage, Isaiah refers to Judah as Sodom and Gomorrah. That story, of two cities destroyed by God as a judgment on their behavior, was already ancient in Isaiah’s time. It has nothing to do with homosexuality, though some of you may have heard that in the past. Instead it’s a story about a city who had so lost its bearings that it responded to guests with violence rather than hospitality. Isaiah is saying that Judah has similarly lost its bearings – and is risking God’s judgment.
In some other prophetic texts we’ve heard God’s people called back to the right worship of their God. In this passage, it seems like worship is the thing that’s going well. They’re bringing offerings to the Temple, they’re keeping the appointed holy days, they’re saying their prayers.
But, say God and Isaiah, their hands are full of blood. Their piety only exhausts God, when there is so much pain and injustice among them.
The implication is that unless things change – unless God’s people cease to do evil and learn to do good – then God will punish God’s people for their failure to follow God’s ways of mercy and righteousness. That punishment will take the form of military conquest and exile, as it will – very soon – for their northern neighbors.
The idea that the calamities that befall God’s people are God’s punishment is widespread in the prophetic books of the Bible. But theologically, we don’t really need the concept of a punishing God to understand what happens to Judah – or to us. You just need to look squarely at systemic evils and how they work. The way they can rot a whole society, weakening the foundations even as they cause untold suffering among those affected.
You can read Isaiah’s message here as threat – or as simple prediction. If you don’t correct the rot… the structure will grow weaker and weaker. Eventual collapse is inevitable, one way or another.
Last weekend our high school youth got to take a hard look at some of the deep problems of our society. Eleven kids and five adults traveled to Racine for our four-day mission trip. On Thursday and Friday, we learned about, and helped out at, the Racine Hospitality Center, which serves hot meals and offers other services to those in need in downtown Racine. We prepped and served lunch, sorted clothing donations, did outdoor cleanup, and other tasks.
It felt good to do what we did. We could see the impact of our efforts. And at the same time: the kids asked questions with no easy answers.
The people we fed will be hungry again tomorrow. The mountains of donated clothes made us reflect on our habits of overconsumption and the destructiveness of fast fashion. The plazas and parks we tidied probably have this weekend’s beer cans on them right now. And we couldn’t help noticing that while most of us were white, most of the Hospitality Center guests were people of color.
On Saturday we drove up to Milwaukee and worked with staff from Lutheran Social Services to clean and paint an apartment, which will become the home for a refugee family, from Afghanistan or elsewhere. It was hard work, but it felt really good to scrub away the grease and grime from the kitchen, and to wash and paint the walls. And again, we found ourselves having questions with no easy answers.
Looking at the broken bathroom, the tiny kitchen with rotting cabinets, we wanted better for the people who will live here. But the housing crisis means that agencies resettling refugees have to work with any landlord who will work with them. Refugees have no credit history; they may not have jobs. Lots of landlords aren’t interested in them as tenants. The ones who are willing… may not always have the nicest properties to offer. And yet, it’s what’s available.
The Hospitality Center and Lutheran Social Services are doing the best they can under a lot of constraints. They simply don’t have the resources to lift people out of poverty and addiction, shift the entrenched dynamics of racism, or place each refugee family in a comfortable and stable home. They would if they could. We could hear those leaders’ frustration at how little they can do. But real change, deep change, is far beyond their scope – without a whole lot of support and action from the rest of us.
The prophet’s call urges us to face the reality of what’s happening in our cities, our country – hold it up against God’s intentions – and acknowledge how far off we are, together. Then begin the work of repair – somewhere, somehow.
Isaiah is speaking at a societal level. But the same applies to our own lives and souls. Sometimes, in order to get unstuck or move towards greater wholeness, we need to face the bad news about ourselves. What writer Francis Spufford names as the Human Propensity to Eff Things Up. We are all works in progress – we have places we need to grow and change, things we need to turn away from and towards.
That’s truly hard work, and takes active discernment. We get a lot of messages from our culture, from people around us, from advertising, and so on, that wants to tell us what’s wrong with us. Maybe it’s your body. Or how your brain works. Or your gender or affections. We should not assume that any of that speaks with God’s voice.
I believe we each have an inner compass – that we have the capacity to know, deep down, where our lives need mending. But that knowledge can be clouded by circumstances, by other voices, by shame, by fear. If you feel like you need help discerning and naming, there are such resources; let’s talk.
There is something deeply holy about seeking out and receiving the bad news about ourselves – as individuals or as a society. In fact it’s foundational. It’s the first step of metanoia, the ongoing transformation of heart and soul, mind and life that is at the heart of the Christian way.
But if actively seeking out what’s wrong or broken, corrupt or amiss, doesn’t sound like much fun to you – that’s fair. Maybe it’s not the right time for you. Maybe what God wants for you right now is gentleness and rest. Maybe you’re already doing this work – on the inside or the outside.
But even when the time is right, it is tough to look at heavy truths about ourselves and our communities and country.
Which brings me back to the Gospel. Or at least the first part of it.
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father delights to give you the kingdom.
There’s so much kindness embedded in those words! Jesus is speaking to his disciples, who are worried about how much they may have to give up to follow him, and the opposition and violence they will face. Earlier in the same passage, he tells them, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Anyone remember the old gospel hymn – “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me?”
Jesus is telling his friends and followers that they are known, and loved. That no matter what they face, they’ll never be alone. That they don’t have to trust in the things that make us feel secure – money, possessions, social status – because they are held by something stronger and safer than any earthly security.
Fear not. Take courage. Don’t be afraid. That message shows up again and again in the Bible. It’s one of the most consistent messages of God and God’s messengers to humanity.
I wonder what it would be like, not to be afraid.
To be able to face the places in our own lives where our Human Propensity to Eff things Up is doing its thing – the places where we are called to, and yearn for, renewal and amendment of life.
Recently I helped someone close to me with an interaction with someone who owed an apology and didn’t want to give one. We felt frustration but also some compassion – because it seemed that for this person, the idea of acknowledging that they had crossed a line and acted inappropriately felt vulnerable and frightening.
When we feel the call to change – from within or without – we may fear loss, uncertainty, the hard work of change itself. What would it be like to come to all that unafraid?
What would it be like not to be afraid when we face the rotten foundations of our society, our common life? To face our own embeddedness in systems that elevate some and oppress others? The work of unlearning and relearning history, language, assumptions about other people? What would it be like to feel so secure in our belonging and belovedness that we could approach that work gladly, with curiosity and hope? To tackle it as if it were as simple as Isaiah makes it sound: Seek justice! Cease doing evil! Learn to do good!
Jesus tells his followers that fear shouldn’t hold us back from going where God sends us. Literally or figuratively; whether the journey, the work, is out there or in here. We are known and loved and held.
Don’t be afraid, little flock.
May it be so.