Note: I’m a little late getting this posted, but I wanted to pass along my sermon for Ash Wednesday at Oakhurst Baptist Church here in Decatur, GA.
On Ash Wednesday, we pause here on the front end of Lent to reflect and repent and recognize where we have gone wrong and where we can still go right. And I think that moment of reflection necessitates a discussion of sin. Because, as progressive as I am, and as many central doctrines of the Christian faith as I’ve attempted to throw to the wayside, I’ve held onto sin, and I’ve done so for a reason. What I would like to do, and what I think most progressives seek to do is to broaden the conception of what sin is. In your bulletins, you saw a quote from James Cone, the renowned theologian, in which he describes sin as a state of falling short of what we ought to be as Christians. In his words, sin is “a condition of human existence in which we deny the essence of God’s liberating activity as revealed in Jesus Christ.”[i] It’s living according to one’s own interests instead of the interest of the greater community.
I think we can agree that sin, in that sense, certainly exists and runs rampant in our world. In a lot of ways we may feel that it’s running rampant like never before. The Trump presidency and the rise of hateful rhetoric and actions accompanying it have led many to despair and lament the state of our country. Our country is so polarized, we can’t even talk to one another anymore. Families are torn apart. People are legitimately afraid. We feel that we’re losing sight of what America can be. But, how could this happen? Our country was on the right track. We’ve seen eight years of Barack Obama, the first black president in American history. We had hope. We were moving forward. Then the train came off the tracks. What went wrong?
As much as it feels out of the ordinary, this isn’t as unique a moment in history as we might think. It seems that the people of Israel whose plight we encounter in this text from Isaiah are feeling a similar sort of distraught confusion, only more intense. Nothing is going according to plan, and they can’t quite comprehend why. In earlier chapters in Isaiah, the Judeans in exile were told that their home would be restored. In chs. 40-48, we find a wealth of optimistic prophecies predicting that Israel would be redeemed and that they would safely return from exile. Just listen to these words from the beginning of ch. 40: “’Console my people, give them comfort,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem’s heart, and tell it that its time of service is ended, that its iniquity is atoned for, that it has received from God’s hand double punishment for all its sins’” (Isa 40.1-2). [ii]Then we come to those familiar verses: “A voice cries out, ‘Clear a path through the wilderness for the LORD! Make a straight road through the desert for our God! Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low; let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges become a valley! Then the glory of Adonai will be revealed, and all humankind will see it.” (Isa 40.3-5). Isn’t that just beautiful imagery? Every valley filled in, every mountain and hill made low. All obstacles removed and smoothed over, the world order inverted. The suffering of God’s children finally at an end, they can return home. And you have to remember, these people had been through a lot. I feel like we tend to gloss over the exile period when we think of the Bible, but a huge chunk of the literature in the Hebrew Bible stems from this period in history. This was not just a prophecy that would have come across as cute or uplifting. It wasn’t written to wind up on a bookmark in your local Christian bookstore. This spoke to a specific situation and a specific need for hope. I mean, think about Psalm 137. Blessed is the one who takes your babies and bashes them against a rock. It’s uncomfortable for us to hear it and it’s easy to take that text out of its context and talk about how dangerous the Bible can be, but think for a second about the conditions that would lead you to write something like that. These people have been stripped of their homeland, stripped of their dignity, stripped of their identity. At a certain point, all they have left is hope. And in this prophecy, they find that hope. Your sufferings are over, you’re going home. If only that hope and optimism could last.
Because, after all that, here we are in ch. 58, the people have returned home, but home hasn’t returned to its former glory yet. We have a stark shift in tone from the verses I read to you in ch. 40 to the beginning of ch. 58. Ch. 40 begins with “Console my people, give them comfort . . . speak tenderly” (Isa 40.1). This prophecy uses such kind words, gentle words, words pointing toward some welcome news. Ch. 58…doesn’t. “Shout for all you are worth, raise your voice like a trumpet! Proclaim to the people their faults!” (58.1). Doesn’t really sound like good news is going to follow that, does it? There was a plan, they were moving forward, there was hope, but something’s gone wrong. The restoration isn’t happening as quickly as they would have liked. They thought their struggles were over, but they just keep coming. And, as is usually the case with humans, when things aren’t going right, you pass the buck up the chain of command. If things aren’t going right, who else can you complain to but management? So, the people bring their complaints to God: “Why should we fast if you never see it? Why do penance if you never notice?” We were told that you were going to make all the roads straight and smooth everything out and it was all going to be fine. We’re over here fasting, but nothing’s really changing, what gives? Why do we have to keep on doing this?
God’s response is the equivalent of, “Go look in a mirror.” Yeah, y’all are fasting, that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t mean anything when you do it, nothing really changes. You pursue/find your own will (euriskete ta thelēmata umōn, LXX), you seek out your own pleasures (matsa’ chephets, BHS), in the Inclusive Bible’s translation, “it’s business as usual” (Isa 58.3). Your body performs the act, but your heart’s not in it. You carry on like any other day, you “oppress all your workers” (Isa 58.3), you “strike the poor with your fist” (Isa 58.4). This is not the fast God is looking for (Isa 58.5). Something has gone wrong in Israel, and their response is just not getting the job done, but what are they supposed to do? Turning back to the present-day, what’s gone wrong for us? What are we supposed to do?
When you look at our country, there is the undeniable presence of sin for which we can never fully repent. It’s been called our nation’s original sin. The sins of slavery and racism continue to permeate and harm American society, and they have never really been addressed in a way which has brought about legitimate change. Turning back to James Cone, he sees this as white Christianity’s inability to see sin beyond personal immorality. In his words:
“[Black America is] still waiting for an interpretation of sin in relation to the world at large. Invariably, white theologians analyze sin as if blacks and whites represent one community. On the one hand, Billy Graham and his cohorts are saying that the trouble with the world is that humankind needs God; we need to turn from our wicked ways. . . On the other hand, other whites are saying that the problem stems from a broken relation with God – a far more serious analysis than Graham’s simplistic one. But [black Americans] are still waiting for the meaning of this . . . [they] wait in vain because oppressors do not wish to know what is wrong with the world. Only the oppressed know what is wrong, because they are both the victims of evil and the recipients of God’s liberating activity.[iii]
White Americans must recognize their privilege and their complicity in the racist structures which have undergirded our society from the beginning. But, it is more than this, these are not merely political institutions which must be voted away. The privilege granted us by the color of our skin is not just the result of politics, it has come directly from sin. A systemic sin which cannot be removed through the ballot box, a sin which must be confessed and for which we ought to seek repentance. Whether we voted for Trump or not, whether we marched the day after his inauguration or not, the fact remains that 81% of white evangelicals voted him into office and were not deterred by the racist rhetoric he made normative.[iv] I am proud of this congregation and the positive work that is done here, but there is always more that can be done.
As Cone says, we try to dance around what sin really looks like on a broader scale in this country, in a way because we are afraid of what we’ll find if we actually look at what’s going on, and in a way because only the oppressed can truly see the oppression for what it is. What Cone’s talking about is the epistemological privilege of the oppressed, a fancy way of saying that you can’t really know oppression until you’ve walked a mile in the shoes of the oppressed. If we’re going to truly repent for the sins of racism in America, we have to be willing to engage in dialogue. Not as the white savior descending to help those below us, we must approach as repentant sinners, begging forgiveness from God and those who have been oppressed We must be willing to listen to those who know. And then we must be willing to put in the work.
That work looks like fighting oppression and seeking justice. Returning to our text from Isaiah 58, in verses 6-7, we see what God wants from us. “This is the sort of fast that pleases me: Remove the chains of injustice! Undo the ropes of the yoke! Let those who are oppressed go free, and break every yoke you encounter! Share your bread with those who are hungry, and shelter homeless poor people!” God is not looking for you to just dot your I’s and cross your T’s. Serving God faithfully is not just about doing what you’re told. It’s about living a certain way. It’s about removing the yoke from the oppressed, it’s about caring for those in need. It’s about seeking out those who you overlook, and especially seeking to reconcile with those who you actively put down.
Throughout this passage I hear echoes of Micah 6.6-8. It’s a similar story, right down to the performance of some sort of ritual act and wondering what must be done to please God. God seems as exasperated in Micah as in Isaiah: “What does God require of you? I have made this abundantly clear y’all. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God.” Is that so hard? Apparently it is, because God keeps having to tell Israel throughout the biblical narrative, and we keep needing to hear these words even today.
In the midst of all this, the recognition of the need to repent for our sin and knowledge of the steep road ahead to make things right, we retain a hope. I said earlier that when you read the beginning of Isaiah 58, you don’t expect to hear good news; and yet, there is still good news in this passage, even as Israel is called to account for their shortcomings. God tells the people exactly what they ought to do, exactly the kind of fast that God seeks. Further, they are told the benefits that can come from this. “Do this, and your light will shine like the dawn – and your healing will break forth like lightning! Your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rearguard” (Isa 58.8). I think the use of righteousness here is important. The Hebrew word is tsedeqah. Throughout the prophetic literature, we see this word often presented in tandem with mishpat, which refers to judgment or justice. The reason I think the use of tsedeqah is so important here in v. 8 is because it carries with it a connotation of actively being righteous or actively bringing justice.[v] As Abraham Heschel argues, tsedeqah goes beyond mishpat because righteousness is a way of being that entails more than mere legal justice: “Righteousness is associated with a burning compassion for the oppressed.”[vi] The people of Israel are given the guarantee that, as long as they do these things, as long as they care for those in need and embody this burning compassion for the oppressed, they can count on God forever being near to answer their calls for help. When you make the effort to remove oppression from your midst, God moves in to stay (Isa 58.9). For a tired people, hearing that there was a way to ensure that “God will give strength to your bones and you will be like a watered garden,” that must have been welcome news indeed (Isa 58.11). And to put the icing on the cake, to adopt this way of living and to seek justice means that you will become “the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to dwell in” (Isa 58.12). For the inhabitants of a broken world and a destroyed city, that’s gospel.
We, too, live in a broken world. We, too, can come away from this with hope, because we know that we are followers of a God whose love has no end. A God who can pull anyone back from the brink. A God who can even find something redeeming in Donald Trump. We are followers of this God. We call ourselves Christians, but what does this mean? When we think of Lent, we’re so quick to think of giving something up, abstaining from something for the 40 days. You give up your Cokes or meat or, in some cases, you take on some added spiritual practice for the season. At least in my childhood experience, Lent almost became a contest of piety to see who could give up the most tempting thing and actually make it the 40 days. But, this doesn’t grasp the entirety of what this season can be in our lives. Lent is a time to approach anew our identity as Christians. Frederick Buechner had this to say about Lent:
After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves. . . . Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember? Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for? . . . To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.[vii]
These are tough questions, because they should be tough questions, because it should carry some weight to say “I’m a Christian.” Like Buechner said, this an opportunity to turn inward, to truly see ourselves, faults and all. This is the season of renewal in our walk with Christ. This is our opportunity to revisit who we are and what we can be. What does God want for you?
Does God want you to give up those Cokes? Maybe. I don’t want it to seem as though I’m mocking such approaches to Lent. Giving up something for Lent is meaningful and valuable. It’s not that the act is pointless or wrong, not by any stretch, it’s the disposition behind all of this that matters. It’s not action or having your heart in the right place. It’s both/and. In Isaiah 58, God doesn’t say, “Stop fasting.” God just wants a different fast. What is the fast our God desires? Our God wants us to recognize the sin of ourselves and our society, our God wants us to confront that sin, our God wants us to “remove the chains of injustice” and “let those who are oppressed go free!” We take these ashes, and we begin our 40 days in the wilderness. We fast as Jesus fasted, but with the recognition that the fasting is just the surface.
We stand in the midst of a broken society that fails to listen to one another or love one another.
Will you be the repairers of the breech?
May God let it be so.
[i] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Fifth Printing, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016), 112.
[ii] All scriptural references drawn from the Inclusive Bible translation unless otherwise indicated.
[iii] Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 113-4.
[iv] Public Religion Research Institute, “White Christians Side With Trump,” November 9, 2016, http://www.prri.org/spotlight/religion-vote-presidential-election-2004-2016/.
[v] CHALOT, s.v. זדק.
[vi] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, First Perennial Classics Edition, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing, 2001) 256.
[vii] Frederick Buechner, “Lent,” in Listening to Your Life, ed. George Connor, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), 56-7.