Is this the fast that I choose?

Is this the fast that I choose?

Isaiah 58:1-12

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 want God on their side.
“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.
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 straps 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,
10 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.
11 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.
12 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.

Let us pray. Oh Lord, uphold me, that I might uplift thee. Amen.

It used to be jarring to me to come home after the Ash Wednesday service and tuck in a child with a bunch of black ash still under my nails. I couldn’t imagine ash and all the fragility and death it signified coming anywhere near my child. So, I would scrub and scrub and no matter what, that pesky line of black would hang out under my nails, as I patted their hair that night. The next day as I shook someone’s hand at a meeting or typed an email or texted my dad, some of it would still be there. As much as I wanted to leave that message of fragility at the church on Ash Wednesday, it stayed on me. And I thought to myself, it’s like this, being a pastor. Maybe some professions can compartmentalize, and maybe some seasons of the church year are easier to leave at the church when they are done but Ash Wednesday, mortality awareness day, has a stickiness about it. Maybe the trouble comes when we expect it to be otherwise.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Anne Lamott, who said, “Expectations are resentments under construction.”

Based on how Isaiah 58 reads, it sounds like the Israelites had certain expectations about what their rituals might deliver from God. It sounds like they had been saying, here we are fasting, God, and you do not seem to notice. Here we are, bowed down to you like a bullrush, yet nothing feels spiritually amazing. Here we are, wearing sackcloth and ashes, doing all the special religious things, some of us more than 12 hours without chocolate, and yet you, O God, have not miraculously fixed the breach in our family nor swooped down to rebuild our institutions nor spontaneously quenched that thirst we feel deep in our all too human bones. It’s as if they heaved a sigh toward God and said, if this is a fast, it is far too slow for us.

I am not sure how much you know about the book of Isaiah, but scholars consider Isaiah to be three books.  The first two chunks were written before and during a time called the Babylonian Captivity. It was devastating time for the Israelites. It forever marked them with a before and an after. During that time, they lost more than just their land and people they loved. I suspect they lost the view of themselves as unbreakable. They lost the view of God as milk and honey and the sense of having arrived.

And tonight’s verses are considered to be part of Third Isaiah, written after the exile, when things are opening up again. I had always labeled them the happy chapters of Isaiah, where we hear “He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor! To bind up the broken-hearted and let the oppressed go free!” “Come all you who are thirsty! Come to the waters!”

But in today’s text I hear something more complex than “all’s well that ends well.” I hear seeking, yearning, some unmet hopes. The commentors said, ““They expected a glorious restoration, but instead they found themselves frustrated by innumerable hardships. As despair quickened, the returnees begged God for a miraculous resolution to their unhappy situation.”

While I had previously assumed post-exilic just meant happy, I have begun to hear post-exilic in the same way I hear post-pandemic. Like they were experiencing an ever after but not just the happily kind. They were forced to change their expectations. To integrate what they had experienced that could not easily be washed away. And, Isaiah tells them, listen, the goal is not to go back to the before-times, back to rituals focused on internal peace without attention to communal peace, back to fasting in order to provoke divine favor without attention to hungry people all around them, back to speaking religious words in one setting and saying horribly accusatory things about each other in another, back to fingernails that are clean and a savior who never dies. The kind of fast that God always chooses is not about self-care and pious fanfare. The kind of fast God chooses is embodied prayer and the work of repair and a world that is fair.

One of the best-selling books in recent years is a thick tome called The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kulk, a trauma researcher. One of his main points is that after experiencing trauma, people often look for self-care, personal safety, and important grieving rituals. But his research says those alone are not enough for people to heal from trauma. In order to heal from trauma, people need to act. To move their bodies. To participate in the healing of their communities. Boating through flood waters to rescue a neighbor saves a life of a neighbor and also staves off PTSD. The people who were able to clean up rubble after 9-11 faced considerably less PTSD than Katrina victims who were stuck in the Superdome unable to help their neighbors. Hands raking through ruins fare a lot better over the long term than hands clean of all the dust. Nurses hands with blue gloves. Grandparent hands with age spots and a beat up wedding ring. Preschool teacher hands covered in glitter and glue. Those who plant trees and build buildings and hold protest signs and smudge poems. 

Maybe it is the Presbyterian in me that is uncomfortable with Lenten disciplines that seem to be about self-improvement. Maybe after losing my mom in 2020 and holding a box of her ashes I am no longer so eager to wash them off so quickly. Maybe post-pandemic, there is such a closer connection for me between self-care and healthcare and daycare and all the systems that connect us in this life one to another. But I think more than all of that, it is Jesus who makes it impossible for me to see any separation between my personal prayers and someone else’s, Jesus hands that healed and bore wounds at the same exact time.

Jesus, who walks with us now, every step of the way. Thanks be to God.