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. 2Yet 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.
3“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. 4Look, 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. 5Is 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? 6Is 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? 7Is 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?
8Then 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. 9Then 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, 10if 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. 11The 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. 12Your 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.
Andre is a short man with high cheekbones that seem to get even higher when he smiles. He is missing his two front teeth. And he doesn’t walk, he struts, as he gives us a personal tour of Philadelphia. But this isn’t just a tour of the “Rocky Steps” and the famous “LOVE” sculpture. This is a tour of his neighborhood – the park benches he used to sleep on, the grates where he’d sneak some free air conditioning in the summer, and the tree where he’d stash his trash bag full of all of his worldly possessions when he’d go out for the day in search of work, a hot meal, a cup of coffee. For three months, Andre was homeless. For three months, he slept on the ground next to an abandoned building and a full dumpster, both teeming with rats. Andre is not mentally ill. Andre is not a drug addict or an alcoholic. Andre is not lazy or stupid. Andre just came under some hard times and found himself without support, without a home, a wanderer through the streets of Philadelphia.
The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 3.5 million people are homeless in a given year. That is the entire population of the state of Oregon. That’s enough to fill Heinz Field 54 times. But you all don’t need to know that. All of you are tremendously generous when it comes to donations to organizations that fight the global, macro issues of poverty. But what I want to talk about today is about how it can, and does, touch us personally, on a micro level.
It is a fact that most of us are all just two steps away from homelessness. We lose our job. We get a serious illness. A relationship falls apart. Our child needs special care. The stock market tanks and the monthly checks from our retirement get smaller and smaller. A natural disaster destroys our home and we forgot to mail that month’s insurance check. Just two steps, and we could be taming the rats by an abandoned building like Andre. Or living under our porch steps like our recent visitors, who spent last summer roaming from place to place in Pittsburgh, and then camping on our front porch at night. These are people with names and faces and stories.
Just two steps.
The Israelites in our reading today were homeless, too. They were in exile, told where they could live, what they could eat, where they could work, and how they should worship. But for these later readings in Isaiah, what is often called “Third Isaiah” by scholars, the Israelites had made it out the other side. They had come back home. They’d survived their homelessness. And things were starting to get back to normal. They were worshipping God just like their ancestors had been taught before them. They were fasting and honoring holy days, and they were starting trade again, building small businesses, planting crops, settling down. They had made it out the other side of their troubles and were on the upswing.
But there were still some problems. They were following the letter of the law, crossing every T and dotting every I in their worship, but strangely, God felt further away from them than ever. They were sacrificing and fasting, calling out to God and worshipping in all the “right” ways, and yet, God seemed to not be listening. It says that they “delight to draw near to God.” God says that “they seek me and delight to know my ways.” In a sense, in our terms, you could say that they were coming to church every Sunday, wearing their ties and their sport coats and forcing their feet into their fanciest dress shoes. They were writing checks to all of the right organizations. They were following the lectionary, and singing the traditional hymns, accompanied by a talented choir and a beautiful organ, and never ever letting the service extend past an hour and fifteen minutes. In a sense, they were just like us, and like us, they were asking “Where is God?” They were saying, “Look, God, we’re doing all the right things here, we’re doing what we’re told, and yet, You’re not fulfilling your end of the bargain.” What’s the deal? They are calling out to God. They are good people who want a true relationship with God; they want to do the right thing; they long for the love of God. These are good people. But God seems so far away. What’s the deal?
And God responds to them through the Prophet. God says, “Look, you’ve got this all backwards. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” You’re forgetting the whole point of these rituals. These rituals are meant to remind you of where you came from. Rituals are a way to retell and reconnect to your story. Your rituals of fasting are supposed to remind you that you, too, were once homeless, you too, were once in bondage, and you, too, were poor and needy. We worship to reconnect to our story, and to reconnect to the God who brought us through the desert, brought us out of Egypt, out of exile, out of our homelessness, out of an abusive relationship or a bad job or an addiction - and out of our own personal and communal poverty. If you don’t remember your own story, then your rituals are meaningless. And when we remember our own stories, when we remember our own neediness, we will act in justice by serving the poor, feeding the hungry, loosing the yoke from the necks of those who pick our tomatoes, sew our clothes, dig out our coal. God tells the Israelites: “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?” Remember what Jesus tells us in Matthew 25, in the parable of the sheep and the goats. Remember that he tells us that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and visit the sick and the imprisoned, we do it to Christ himself. He says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” Worship and Justice go hand in hand. They both lead us to the presence of God.
God doesn’t want us to just “throw money” at a problem, although money is sometimes necessary to solve problems. God wants us to remember where we’ve come from. God wants us to remember our story. Every person in this church has struggled in some way. We’ve all experienced loss. Maybe we’ve lost a job, or we’ve been disappointed by a friend. Maybe we’ve been unable to pay a bill on time, or we’ve had to ask a relative for help. God wants us to remember that like the Israelites, we are not that far from our own homelessness, either literal or figurative. Just two steps. And we must bring these memories into our worship. We must worship with the stories of God’s Grace in the Bible in one hand and the stories of God’s Grace in our own lives in the other.
Andre finally got out of homelessness, and he tells this story of when things started to turn around for him:
He was down to his last fifty cents. He says that he was so hungry that it felt like his stomach was gnawing at his spine. So he went to a corner drug store and bought some chips, and he sat down in Love Park to eat them. As he opened the bag, the pigeons and finches swarmed him. And he said to himself, “Heck no, I’m not giving you anything.” But one bird was insistent. Even after all the others had scattered, it looked up at him, pleading for a scrap. And finally, Andre relented. He gave the bird his last potato chip. And he watched as the bird took it into its mouth, and hopped over to a nest, where three tiny chicks were stretching their necks toward their mother. And just then, a hand came upon his shoulder, and he met the kind eyes of a woman who said, “I don’t mean to bother you, but I know where you can get a hot meal, if you’re hungry.” And she took him to a shelter where he ate, got cleaned up, and was given services that would eventually help him find a job and afford a permanent place to live. Now, he works to help others in transition out of homelessness. And when he is overwhelmed with the task, when he fears that he won’t be able to help one more person, when he is tired and worried about his own situation, he remembers his story. He remembers what his grandmother used to always say, “Feed the birds, and you will eat.”
God tells us this today, through the Prophet Isaiah. It’s just a simple gesture of a potato chip to a sparrow, or a hand on a shoulder. God tells us that true worship is remembering our story and then being present to others, offering them a chance to share their story. True worship is responding to God’s grace through greeting the homeless on our porch steps and in our neighborhoods, remembering their names, asking them if there is anything we can do for them, giving them a cup of coffee and sitting with them while they talk, or while they stay silent. When we worship, we should remember that the hungry have faces, have stories. We worship God when we listen to Andre’s story about feeding the birds. It is worship when we share our own stories of trouble and heartache and immense grace. God tells us that when we participate in the lives of the poor, the hungry, the naked and the homeless, God will be there, in our midst. When we serve the needy, “Then we shall call, and the LORD will answer; we shall cry for help, and God will say Here I Am.” God wants relationship, not posturing. And when we share in each other’s stories, we invite each other into the family of God, one where we are connected to each other in intimate ways, a family that will do anything it takes to help each other. May this New Year be filled with names and faces, worship and stories. Thanks be to God.