Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sermon for Feb 9, 2014; Isaiah 58:1-12

Rev. George Miller
Isaiah 58:1-12
“Fast & Faithful”
Feb 9, 2014

(Delivered in character as a Virginia farmer during the Reconstruction Period)*

Our country is not what is was, nor will it ever be again. It’s been 10 years since the Civil War has ended, yet the wounds have not begun to heal, and we as a nation are still just as divided.

The war took the lives of both my sons Jacob and John and has broken my wife’s heart. Every night Martha still cries for the loss of our boys. Every day I still look around at the wreckage that was done.

Houses, banks and factories destroyed and looted, two-thirds of our railroad tracts pulled up, the Shenandoah Valley scarred and wasted: forests cuts down, plantations burned and unplanted, animal bones littering the land, homeless left wandering the street.

How Martha and I survived is a miracle, a miracle I can only attribute to God.

To be honest with you, I wonder where God is now; I wonder is he’s been asleep or just plain deserted us, or if he is punishing us.

What they call a Radical Reconstruction has been going on, but it’s been a slow, painful process. Carpetbaggers from the north have come down, some to help, others to take advantage of the situation. Scalawags are shunned for being Confederate traitors.

4 million freed slaves are trying to define a new life for themselves. The Civil Rights Act has been passed.

A group of men called the Ku Klux Klan operate on fear and prejudice, seeking their revenge for perceived wrongs.

Though my land is recovering, our hearts have not as nothing can ever bring back our two boys.

Still, we go to church, or the makeshift building we call a church. Sunday morning has become a time of escape; a reprieve from all the week’s woes.

We gather with others offering our praise to God. Sometimes I sense it’s all a show: people dressing up, spouting platitudes, sharing pleasantries yet seeming to be engaged in a contest to see who can praise God the loudest, give the most eloquent prayer or perform the most humbling of acts.

It’s like folks are going through the motions hoping that if they dress the best, sing the loudest, pray the prettiest or fast the most furious then God will finally hear them and do something, anything to speed up the condition of things.

After worship is over, I’ve noticed that most folk’s lives go back to the way they’ve been. The quarrelling, the infighting, the pointing of fingers, the exalting of one’s self and the violent acts perpetrated on innocents.

Nothing seems to be getting done. Our ruins are not yet rebuilt; the streets are still in disrepair. We have no foundation for the future generation. The homeless still wander the street, the hungry still beg for bread, and kin folk have neglected to care for one another.

It all reminds me of Isaiah 58. The prophet was writing to people not unlike us who had endured a difficult situation. Their city had been attacked by the Babylonians, their finest citizens were kidnapped and everything was burned to the ground.

For 50 years they lived in a foreign land until they were granted their freedom and returned to Jerusalem, only to find their streets were in shambles.

They thought things would be easier, but discovered it would be just as hard. And they prayed and they fasted and they sung out to God, assuming God would make things right. But nothing changed.

Then one day the prophet came to the people and said God was not interested in false acts of show, that the offering God sought was one that was done to neighbor: justice, food, freedom, clothes, and a place to call home.

Then the glory of God would be revealed and light would break into the darkness; that parched places would be satisfied, ruins would be rebuilt and the future would become possible.

I remember the day the pastor preached on Isaiah 58. I thought to myself that it made common sense, but a lot good it would do me with my boys dead, my land still scarred and my wife still weeping.

Where is God? Does God listen? Does the Good Lord still even care?

I thought about these things all week. As I worked the land, as I brought the produce into town, as I left the country store with a bolt of fabric thinking it may cheer Martha up to make herself a pretty ‘lil dress.

On the way back a young man came up to me. It was hard to tell just how old he was. He was dark as coal and looked young but had an air about him that said he had already become too aware of the ways of the world.

“Excuse me mister,” he said, coming right up to the buggy. “I have nowhere to go and nothing to eat; can you take me away from here?”

My first response was “No.” I don’t take to strangers in my vehicle. I rode away.

But there was something about him: an earnestness, a gentleness in his eyes. I can’t explain it, but despite the color of his skin he looked as if he could have been one of my own sons, like he could have been Jacob or John.

For that moment I felt a kinship with him. Didn’t know his story, who he was, what he really wanted. But then I remembered the pastor’s preaching on Isaiah and decided it didn’t matter. I pulled the wagon to the side of the road and called him over.

I had some money I keep with me for emergencies. Knowing it would not make a difference in my livelihood, I handed it over to him.

Immediately the young man fell to the ground in thanksgiving. “Praise Jesus!” he stated. He jumped up and said “Thank you. My name is Jeremiah.”

I smiled; a prophet’s name. “And I’m Joshua.”

Jeremiah then did something I considered bold: he held up his hand, exposing his palm, and by instinct I held mine up my hand too, and we interlaced our fingers… then he was on his way.

I continued home, a few dollars lighter, but the darndest thing happened: it seemed as if the road was less bumpy, the sun seemed to shine a bit brighter, the fields a bit fuller, and wouldn’t you know it, for the first time in a long time, a humming song started to come from my soul.

Is this what Isaiah 58 was about? Is this the kind of fast God was referring to? A simple act done for another for no other reason but that it was the right thing to do; that though we were different we still shared a kinship?

When I arrived home, Martha noticed the difference in me. When I told her the story, she broke out in a smile; when I told her how Jeremiah reminded me of Jacob and John, she spilled a little tear.

When I gave her the bolt of fabric she took it into her arms and said “I know just what I’m going to make with this.”

For the next few days Martha worked on that bolt of fabric, humming as she did. When done, she presented it to me. Instead of a dress, she had made a shirt.

“For Jeremiah,” she said, “If you ever see him in town again.”

In her act, in her words, I feel like I have seen God once more and I’m reassured that the Lord is not asleep, nor is the Lord absent.

The Lord is there when we find ways to do unto others.

The country is not what is was, nor will it ever be again. Too much has taken place for us to return to ways of the past.

But I have discovered that as Christians, as folk of faith, we must realize that change and progress does not rest solely on the carpetbaggers, the governments nor the kings of the world.

It rests on us: ordinary folk called by God, joined in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do our own acts of justice and righteousness.

I learned that while worship is enjoyable and pleasing to God, it also puts us in touch with what God wants.

According to Isaiah 58 if we each play our own part, we each find our own way to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share what we have and to not hide our gifts from one another.

The country is not what it was, but in Christ it can be even better. In Christ our parched places will be satisfied, our ruins rebuilt, and our streets made straight for the journey.

In Christ we each have a chance to raise up foundations for the generations yet to come and to make God’s kingdom on earth just as it is in heaven.

Amen and amen.

*Sermon inspired by the Broadway musicals Shenandoah and Assassins and the books The Aftermath of the Civil War by Dale Anderson (2004) and Reconstruction: Rebuilding After the Civil War by Judith Peacock (2003) and the commentary on Isaiah 58 written by J. Clinton McCann.

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