Excerpted from Power Made Perfect in Weakness, a Lenten Guide for Lectionary Year A from the North Carolina Council of Churches.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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?
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? 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?
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.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Certainly, these words from Isaiah are not the first time we’ve been called to account for going through the motions and not taking to heart the faith we proclaim.
“ . . . as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God . . .” (v. 2).
The issue, of course, is righteousness. Is Isaiah talking about personal righteousness or systems of righteousness? My personal righteousness involves my daily contest to “do good.” I do this by picking up the trash on my way from the parking lot to the office; smiling at the strangers I pass on the sidewalk; remembering the birthdays of my staff; giving away 10% of my income, etc.
Systemic righteousness involves the structures in place that dictate the things around us—the economy, the courts, the schools, etc. This sermon from Isaiah deals with the economy and the results of Runaway Inequality (I recommend Les Leopold’s book by this name). Comparatively, our current economic system:
- Supports a wage structure where workers work, but many never make enough money to make ends meet.
- Underwrites an agribusiness behemoth that contributes to 673,000 tons of wasted food every year in N.C., while one in five children in N.C. go to bed each night without knowing where their food will come from tomorrow.
- Boasts the best health care in the world, but our average life span is going down while the money we spend for this excellence goes mainly to insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies.
Yes, there is a direct correlation between low wages and the ability to access food for our families. Yes, there is a direct correlation between poverty and wellness. In these days of runaway inequality, with the wealth gap in the U.S. greater than it’s ever been in the history of recorded civilization, much of what Isaiah says hits home for us. It is our system and it should be personal.
It takes little imagination to connect glaring statistics to the truth that we do not practice what we preach, at least in so far as God’s ordinances are preached through scripture. Most of us who are paying attention already know systemic racism has denied people the chance to buy homes and build wealth that could be passed on to their children; we understand that investment capitalism has engineered a rapid flow of wealth from the workers to the 1%; and we see that the longest continuous war in our nation’s history has drained our coffers while the tax structure does nothing to replenish it.
Because we know all this, our energy is better spent imagining how to get to a better place. Isaiah offers a check list of activity that can move us in the right direction, but he’s short on detail. Of course we should “loose the bonds of injustice . . . let the oppressed go free . . . share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our homes . . .” (vv. 6-7), but how do we do that in a system that seems to be rigged against the very people Isaiah is telling us God wants us to privilege? Let’s agree in the spirit of the scriptures that oppression, hunger, and homelessness are a community problem and not an individual burden. Next, let’s consider the hurdles faced by those struggling to survive in our current economic system and imagine how we might dismantle those systems to allow upward mobility. And finally, let’s elect lawmakers who see the big picture and not just their next big donor.
Here’s the place where the system gets personal. We generally vote for candidates who promise us something that will benefit us personally, whether it’s a local zoning ordinance or a national tax break. What if we entered the voting booth focused on what is best for our neighbors, using the definition of neighbor Jesus drew out of the lawyer with the story of the Good Samaritan—“Which of these, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36).
Lent is upon us. Ash Wednesday is here. The N.C. primary is six days later. Six days to consider which candidate will make the best choices for my neighbor—the one in the ditch. During Lent there are six weeks to consider the economic changes needed so that “light shall break forth like the dawn, and healing shall spring up quickly . . .” (v. 8).
My Lenten discipline this year will be to consider one economic issue each week. I am choosing: mortgages, minimum wage, public school funding, cash bail, health care, income taxes. I want to understand how I benefit from each system and how each system impacts my neighbor. I want to know how this system can be structured to ensure my neighbor’s well-being because, if we can believe Isaiah, my neighbor’s well-being will contribute to my own righteousness.
“. . . you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (v. 12).
That is how I plan to vote next November.