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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rising Light

Our actions reveal who and what we love, and often they are not the ones God truly needs us to love and care for. It’s time to listen to Isaiah and Jesus and not pretend we don’t understand what they really mean for us to know and do. It’s time to trust that God’s light can shine through us and break through this world’s darkness.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 21 C
   Texts: Isaiah 58:6-14 (6-9a added back in); Luke 13:10-17

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

It’s pathetic to love your donkey more than your crippled sister.

That’s Jesus’ point.

A week ago Nicholas Kristof, a writer for the New York Times, shared his sadness on social media at the death of his beloved 12 year old Golden Retriever. That same day he published a column in the Times calling for “greater international efforts to end Syria’s suffering and civil war, which has claimed perhaps 470,000 lives so far.” [1] In a column this past Thursday, he wrote that he received a torrent of compassion and loving comments at his dog’s death. But the outpouring of comments he received the same day about his article on Syria were mostly devoid of compassion, best summed up as “why should we help them?”[2]

It’s pathetic to love someone else’s dog more than your dying brother’s children.

That’s Jesus’ point.

This week a haunting photo of a Syrian boy in an ambulance went worldwide like wildfire over the Internet. Taken from a video, the photo shows him sitting, stunned, dead-eyed, bloody, only a few years old. It’s heartbreaking. It was like the photo of a dead Syrian child in the surf of the Mediterranean that likewise went global a year or so ago. But like that previous photo, I doubt the photo of this boy will do more than make a lot of us feel sad. Maybe if Golden Retrievers were dying by the thousands in Aleppo we’d actually want to do something about it.

This isn’t a question of people not wanting to do God’s will.

Isaiah’s people know what God commanded them to do for worship. They’re doing it the best they can, the fasts, the festival days, the sacrifices. The leader of the synagogue scurrying around the edges of the crowd today knows God’s commands about Sabbath. As he tells people to go away and come back on another day for healing, he’s trying to do God’s will.

But they’ve only picked up on part of God’s law. They’re keeping the parts that are easier to track, worship times and rituals, work on Sabbath. They’re failing to see the heart of God’s law, repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, that God loves the poor, the hungry, the widow, the orphan, the dying, and commands the people of God to likewise care for them.

These people’s problem isn’t that they don’t want to obey God. It’s that what they love and care about isn’t aligned with God’s heart or God’s law.

Isaiah and Jesus aren’t creating new policy, or changing God’s law. They’re simply following God’s heart.

Isaiah doesn’t care about the people’s complaints in previous verses that God seems to be ignoring their worship. All Isaiah can see, all that fills his heart and mind, is that people are homeless and no one is taking them in. People are hungry and no one is feeding them. People are naked and no one’s offering them a cloak. He never says they should stop worshipping God. He doesn’t have time for that debate. He just says God would prefer fasts and rituals that also involved them taking care of people. Powerfully, he says to avoid helping people in pain is like hiding yourself from your relatives. “These people belong to you,” he says. “Do something.”

Jesus isn’t overturning the Third Commandment, either. He simply couldn’t look away from this woman in pain. He didn’t have room in his heart or mind for theological debate with the leader at that moment. He knew where his love, his loyalty, his energy, his help, needed to go.

And like Isaiah, Jesus claims this woman is a significant relationship. She matters, she’s a relative. He calls her “daughter of Abraham.” So she’s sister to this synagogue leader. To all the people there. You don’t hide from relatives in need so you can obey God’s law. That would be pathetic.

The question is not whether we want to do God’s will. The question is, will we hear Isaiah and Jesus when they unequivocally declare what God’s will is? If we’re going to debate about God’s law in these two scenarios, we’ll have to do it by ourselves. Isaiah and Jesus don’t have time for that, not when people are in pain.

Jesus’ comment about donkeys and oxen cuts to the heart of our neglect.

We will take care of the things we think matter. To the faithful of Jesus’ time it’s not a Sabbath-breaking question to care for your animals, lead them to water and food. Even if they didn’t love their donkey or ox, it was vital to their life, their self-interest. They broke the literal sense of Sabbath law because they wouldn’t turn away from their livestock’s need.

The hypocrisy Jesus and Isaiah decry is that we do everything we can for those we care about, we work hard for those things we value, we always take care of business. We will sacrifice what we need to for what matters to us. If we want something, we’ll save until we can get it, or use credit to get it now. We make all sorts of allowances in our lives for things that matter and never think twice.

Yet millions are dying, refugees are turned away everywhere, and we do nothing. People haven’t got enough to eat, even in this rich nation, and we refuse to work for good paying jobs for all. Too complicated. It needs debate, we say.

But if we’re not finding shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, then Jesus and Isaiah only point out it’s clear we care for other things more than these.

And notice this: we can’t even fall back on our old faithful excuse, that the problems are just too big to solve.

Because Isaiah doesn’t tell his people to end homelessness. He says “how about bringing a homeless person into your house?” He doesn’t say that a program to eradicate hunger is commanded. He says “how about sharing the bread you have with your neighbor who is starving?” Jesus isn’t solving all health care issues. He’s just bringing healing to a suffering sister, even if technically it’s against the law.

Do you see? These are close-up solutions to massive, intractable problems. These are actually things we could do. No one’s asking us each to come up with worldwide answers. Isaiah and Jesus just wonder why we love and care for so many other things while people who belong to us, our relatives, are suffering, and we can’t see them. Why we try so hard to make these words of Scripture not really apply to our actual lives and decisions and use of wealth and time.

In the midst of all of this, Isaiah tells us to stop pointing the finger. That might be the most important word today. It’s time for us to stop pointing at all the other people who are making a mess of things, to stop pointing at others as the problem. Once we put our finger down, we’re faced with the only answer that makes sense: we are the problem, too.

But here is our hope: when we stop pointing fingers, Isaiah says, when we take in a homeless person or share our bread, our light begins to shine.

These are dark, frightening times. The problems do seem too huge to take on. So Isaiah and Jesus simplify it. They invite us to put down our pointing fingers, and start seeing the people around us as relatives, kin, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons. And to see their pain and care about it more than we care about the things that usually command our attention and energy. And then, simply, do whatever we can.

Perhaps this will also teach us that we can make a difference on bigger problems too, by working together in our city, by calling on our leaders who can tackle even bigger things, like that Syrian boy and his destroyed world, to do that.

Then, Isaiah promises, our light will start to rise in this dark world. God begins to work in us. And that might not seem like a lot. But imagine if the light starts rising out of each one of us here, and then from each of those we encounter who learn from us. Pretty soon you’ve got enough light to see by. Pretty soon streets begin to be restored, ruins start to be rebuilt, breaches become repaired. Pretty soon you’ve got reason for crowds to rejoice at all these wonderful things happening, just as they did with Jesus.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] Nicholas Kristof, New York Times online, Aug. 18, 2016,
[2] Kristof, op. cit.

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