4-2-17 Sermon “God Has Work For Us To Do: Faithful Disciples”
The Kmart near our home closed this week.
There used to be 10 Kmart stores in the Columbus market - there’s now only one. I managed in 13 stores in the 19 years I was with Kmart. I left 16 years ago, so I’ve been a “recovering retailer” almost as long as I was active. I think I have sufficient distance for some perspective. That said, my own version of post-traumatic-stress-disorder, the one consistent source of my nightmares, is Kmart.
There are things about that part of my life that I value: the people I worked with, the opportunities I was given, even the grace - not a word one might think of in relation to Kmart - that was shown me as a young store manager as I made early mistakes. Likewise, there are aspects that sadden me, and that frankly, I regret.
That said, I don’t see Kmart as a particularly generous company by any measure, which speaks to both their current situation as well as to some of the issues that caused me to leave the company in 2001.
It became increasingly clear to me that what I was being asked to do as a store manager, as well as some of the decisions I was making on my own, were not consistent with my faith or who I felt I was called to be.
Two examples, one kind of funny, the other rather tragic. One day I was paged to come to the service desk. I called there first, and was told that there was a customer who wanted to return an item without a receipt that didn’t come from our store. Seems pretty simple, right? So I went to the service desk, a “de-escalate-the-situation” smile plastered on my face.
I stood and listened as the woman, Ramona Cooper, lied straight to my face about having bought this item the day before, right there in my store, having lost her receipt, and demanding a refund. I explained to her politely that she must be mistaken, that Kmart had never carried that item or even that brand name, and that I couldn’t give a refund for an item that we don’t sell. Well, she didn’t let up, becoming more aggressive and increasingly louder, hoping to either badger or embarrass me into giving a refund. I wasn’t feeling that generous.
Now, if you’ve gone through any kind of conflict mediation training you know that you’re told that if you feel yourself beginning to grow angry, you should excuse yourself and walk away until you can calm your nerves. Well, that’s exactly where I was so I politely excused myself and walked away…and Ramona Cooper followed me.
She trailed right behind me, yelling even more loudly. The more I tried to distance myself, the louder she became. I could feel my blood pressure rising, my face flushing, my heart racing. Finally, in a threatening tone, she proclaimed, “You’ll regret the day you ever heard the name Ramona Cooper!” At which time, I spun around, looked her straight in the eye and responded loudly enough for all to hear, “Lady - I already do!”
Now, I was kind of pleased with myself for my quick wit and cutting response, and that I had saved the company from being the victim of an obvious fraudulent refund attempt. Ramona Cooper…not so much. She just donned a self-satisfied smirk as she moved to the payphone in the lobby. I had been played. A few minutes later I received a phone call; it was my district manager letting me know in no uncertain terms that I was to apologize to Ms. Cooper AND give her a refund.
It was another event years later, though, that precipitated my resignation. It’s common at the holidays to hire a number of seasonal employees to work up to Christmas. Well, in the week leading up to Christmas in 2000, we were told that the after-Christmas staff reduction would extend beyond the seasonal help.
The decision about who would be released was made, not at store level, but corporately. Those persons effected were full time, and could not be transferred into “safe” positions. It would be brutal. My store was to eliminate two people and I was given their names.
Both were middle-aged women. Both single.
Both lived alone and needed their full time health benefits…because both had been recently diagnosed with cancer. I protested.
I presented our corporate human resources people with several different alternative scenarios that would accomplish the same or even greater salary and benefit expense savings without possibly costing these two women their health or even their lives, but they refused. I asked what would happen if I refused, and was told that in that case my district manager would be in my store within the hour to fire me, and then HE would terminate these two women. Suffice it to say, sacrificing myself would do nothing to help their cause and it certainly wasn’t going to help my own. So, I let those women go on the day after Christmas in 2000, and began formulating my own exit plan, which occurred eight months later.
In these two events, neither I nor Kmart had exhibited a particularly consistent generous outlook did we?
And having said that, we can probably observe more broadly as well, that our society is not what we could call consistently generous either. Oh, as a nation and as a people we’re very generous when it comes to giving money to good causes, to fight diseases, to battle hunger. As a congregation you’re very generous as well - funding our Food Pantry, the West Side Free Store, supporting the Shalom Zone Freedom School and Legal Clinic, a Community Meal, the Mustard Seed Street Outreach ministry, the Helping Hands Fund and all of the other ministries we do, giving to UMCOR and Imagine No Malaria, and paying 100% of our apportionments for 43 straight years, even in the midst of some very challenging, shall we say, financial times in the life of the church.
As a congregation you’re a very generous group of disciples, and I don’t just say that because the Bishop is with us - I’ve applauded your generosity many times.
At the same time, a recent national survey I read about said that, according to servers and wait staff in restaurants nationwide, the people who are the least generous tippers are the Sunday-after-church Christian diners. Hmmm.
Generosity is a fickle thing, and more inclusive than just finances. Generosity of spirit is important, as well as a generous attitude toward others; people of other races or ethnicities, other faith traditions, socio-economic status, nationalities, people of different sexual orientations or gender identities or different political affiliations.
We struggle to be as generous as a society, as a nation, when it comes to people or groups who are somehow different than our own particular identity group.
We’re often a people who are rushing around, trying to get ahead of everybody else, pushing and shoving to get to the front of the line for fear that there won’t be enough to go around. It seems like we’re a people grabbing to get what’s ours before “they run out.”
But that scarcity based outlook on life goes against the grain of what it means to be truly human, and what it means to be a beloved child of God. When I read our Scripture lesson for today, one thought that comes to mind is that what the prophet was trying to encourage in the people of his day was to recover a spirit of generosity in order to recover their own humanity and restore their community.
At least that’s what I believe Isaiah is up to in this passage. Isaiah 58:1-12 stands in the middle of a four chapter section that stresses the need for the people of God to engage in spiritual practices that will create in them a generous spirit that will, in turn, lead to just social actions. The passage reflects a time somewhere after the return of the exiles from Babylon in 538 BCE, having been held captive by foreign oppressors. Jerusalem was in ruins, their temple was destroyed, and the people felt overwhelmed, defeated, and abandoned by YHWH. They complain that God has deprived them of justice. God responds by demanding that they stop depriving those around them of justice and righteousness! Even though Israel has been attentive to the ritual requirements in the Law, they’ve completely neglected the ethical demands of it.
The people believe they are the victims, when in fact they are the victimizers.
The section opens with God’s charge to the prophet and the statement of the problem: these people are very “religious,” but it’s all a mere “show,” routine and empty, what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls a kind of “pseudo-holiness.” “Don’t you see, God?
We’re fasting! We’re putting on our sackcloth and ashes, just like it says in the Law, and we’re praying at the right times with the right words.”
But the prophet, speaking for God, points out, “Sure, you’re putting on a good religious show - BRAVO!
But while you say you’re fasting and praying for me you’re also cheating your workers, and getting into arguments and fist fights with one another. You say one thing and do another! Why should I believe you?”
So, in response to their complaints, Isaiah highlights the hypocrisy in their humility, and perhaps ours as well.
In many churches, the work of justice and the preaching that can awaken and drive that work has been pushed aside in favor of a “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” kind of praise music, a rock concert style worship show, and a religious consumerism that asks, “how good is the band,” and, “does this church “meet my needs?” And “do they serve Starbucks coffee?” Music is judged as though church was an episode of “The Voice” or “American Idol.” And the sermon needs to be funny - but not too funny - make us think - but not think too hard - or make us feel anything but good about ourselves because honestly, we can stay home and watch Joel Osteen because he always makes us feel good and we don’t have to DO anything but wait for the truck of money to arrive! And if this church doesn’t “work for us,” we’ll shop for another!”
The scriptures are clear on the point that people who are anxious to raise their holy hands but slow to offer a helping hand to their neighbors in need will not enjoy God’s favor. Many churches have in their worship bulletins the same words we have emblazoned above our main entrance: “Enter to worship – Depart to serve.” Isaiah 58 warns against allowing those two tasks to be separated. We do not enter to worship as entertainment or as an end in itself. Fasting, prayer, or any other spiritual discipline, is not an end in itself. Instead, our worship and our disciplines should transform, equip, empower, and then convince us of the generous service we must offer in pursuit of a just and equitable society. That is the work of being disciples of Jesus Christ.
Isaiah rebukes the people of Israel for saying they love God but who refuse to obey the most basic of God’s commands - caring for their neighbors.
He employs a kind of snarky humor that, if he worked for Kmart probably would have gotten him a call from his district manager, when he describes those people who wonder why God seems to care so little about and pays such little attention to their playing church.
The truth is, God is far more concerned that people of faith develop a gracious, generous spirit that inspires, even compels them to work for justice that benefits others, than about people of faith who try to impress God with their religiousness. He proclaims that God does not want, did not request or require, and will not honor or be pleased with, people who offer religious rituals that are divorced from a deep concern for the neediest within their own community and beyond.
And then Isaiah says, speaking so eloquently on God’s behalf:
Is not this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them…
Caring, feeding, clothing, sharing, setting captives free” sounds a lot like Jesus doesn’t it? Jesus’ mission statement, as shared with us in Luke 4, came in part from his reading this passage. In Matthew 22, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for the same thing - being careful about observing every tiny detail of the religious law, but “ignoring the weightier matters of the law; justice, mercy and faith.”
And that same message is at the heart of Amos 5, Micah 6, and of the sheep and goats passage in Matthew 25 that we talked about last week. It’s a consistent thread throughout all of Scripture, because it’s a consistent problem throughout all of history.
We can’t read the paper or watch the news these days and not be alarmed by the polarization in nearly every segment of society. But nowhere is this more painful than in the church’s implosion over cultural issues and the sad tensions among Christians, Muslims, and Jews on a national and international level. We who believe that we have much to offer the world must find a way to reject the battle to occupy the ground on the right or the left and instead seek to occupy the higher ground.
In light of the larger church’s current battles, fears, and accusations, it should give us pause when we read Isaiah’s message: “Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife and in striking each other with wicked fists.”
A call to a new kind of fasting oriented to “repairing the breach” of our differences could carry a powerful challenge that would make Isaiah’s 2500 year old prophetic voice especially relevant.
Isaiah equates a disregard for justice with selfishness. And as the questions of the people indicate, they were clueless. Rather than the repentance that might cause God to listen, the people were caught up in outward signs…they didn’t recognize their need for a basic change of attitude. And that kind of hollow, self-focused fast, Isaiah warns, will not be heard on high.
And Isaiahs’ message to Israel could just as easily be spoken to our world today. To cease from oppressing others is not enough. To be a people of justice and righteousness means to be actively engaged in social and economic reform. We’re to be agents of liberation, generosity, and compassion for the poor and the oppressed. Isaiah urges, “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” calling for a full conversion of the soul of the community.
Fasting and prayer are not means of earning favor from God; they’re tools of spiritual transformation, means to align one’s priorities to the will of God. He calls for a new fast, not from food, but from affluence, indifference, and privilege so that the community of faith might live in harmony with God, who “dwell[s]…with those who are contrite and humble in spirit.” (Isaiah 57)
Those who have experienced oppression, like Israel, Isaiah suggests, should not allow or participate in the structures of society that oppress others.
His words reflect what we talked about a couple of weeks ago when we considered the commitment we make, the vows we affirm before God and one another, in the baptismal liturgy that we repeated today. Vows to:
renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin.
To resist evil, injustice, and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.
As I said then, to repeat those words of commitment with a wink-wink-nod-nod attitude of mere recitation is to thumb our noses at both God and the community of which we are a part.
We’re called, in those vows and in this passage, to reflect, repent, and re-engage in what should be an inseparable relationship of personal spirituality and intentional works of justice aimed at undoing and overcoming the spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers of this world, wherever we find them - even in ourselves.
It’s clear that the salvation God promises is conditioned upon the people’s response to the fast God demands.
All the promises of Isaiah 58:8-9 are introduced by the word “then”:
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, “Here I am.”
The promise in 58:10 comes as an “If, then” clause:
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.
That’s where this passage leaves us, promising of all things that those who keep the fast God chooses will indeed be set free, that is, will be able to call upon God, to cry for help and hear God say, “Here I Am.”
One thing I find striking in our reading for today is the clear and concrete way in which the prophet defines living out a life of justice in terms of practicing generosity! Isaiah says that practicing God’s justice looks like this: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke”; “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” (Isa. 58:6-7). Practicing generosity in all things is the heart of what it means to live out God’s justice in our world.
It’s about lifting the burden, and lending to the destitute, and helping those who cannot (for whatever reason) help themselves! This is the message throughout Scripture, from the Law, to the Prophets, the Gospels, to the Letters - it is a consistent message of generosity leading to justice.
Unfortunately, we have a tendency to take a different approach toward the destitute, the downtrodden, and the just plain different in our world—especially those who challenge our sense that the world is an ordered and predictable place where if we follow the rules and obey all the laws everything will turn out alright.
When we feel threatened by the destitute, or the immigrant, or whomever we’ve labeled as the “other du jour,” we tend to fall into the pattern of judging them— and assume we know why they “fell through the cracks.”
When we see others as a threat to our well-being — whether it’s the poor who challenge our false assurances about life, or simply the neighbor whom we fear might get there first and “they might run out”— it’s impossible to practice generosity. Rather than opening our hands to share God’s abundance, when we live out of that kind of fear we tend to close our fists tightly in order to protect what’s ours. And we have all kinds of ways of closing our fist, from gated communities to “vagrancy laws,” from border walls to budget cuts, and by simply assuming that we have a right to judge another human being, another beloved child of God.
So how can we find a way to unclench that fist and open our hands generously to the people around us? Well, I think it starts with faith. In order to learn to practice generosity toward others, we have to overcome our fear of scarcity, of loss, and of the other, and trust that the God of abundance has provided enough: enough food, enough water, enough love. And generosity is seeded from a spirit of gratitude. When we overcome the resentment of insisting that we somehow were short-changed, that some “illegal” or “immoral” took what was rightfully ours, and instead learn what it means to approach life from an attitude of gratitude, that we have received far more than we could expect, then we can relate to others with generosity. And I think it also takes a good dose of humility, something that doesn’t come easily or naturally to many of us. When When we recognize how many times we have failed and instead of getting what we deserved God’s grace came to us and let us off the hook, we’ll be more likely to extend that grace as well.
Generosity isn’t easy to learn, especially in a society that urges us to grab all we can and forget everyone else. And it can be even more challenging to practice. It’s hard to know when someone is truly in need or when you’re being played. And it’s hard to know how much you should give a person who is destitute. And it’s risky, because you can’t control what others will do with the help you give them. But I believe practicing generosity is worth the risk. It holds out the hope for us to hang on to the compassion and gratitude and humility that help us preserve our humanity And And it holds out the hope that we can restore our community—perhaps only in small ways, but they are meaningful ways nevertheless.
At the end of the day, we who profess faith in the God of the Exodus and the Exile, who compassionately comforts the afflicted, and perhaps, afflicts the comfortable, are called to practice that same generosity. We who have time and again received the gift of being let off the hook are summoned to extend that grace to those we encounter who fall short. We who have experienced the open hand of God giving us all that we need and more, answering our cries for help with “Here I am,” can do no less than to open our hands and extend them to the people around us—our neighbors, all our neighbors, with that same response, “Here I Am.” God has work for us to do - let’s get to work. Amen.