Sunday, August 25, 2013


The scripture referred to is Isaiah 58.

If I look at your earlobe, I can predict if you will develop heart disease with fairly good accuracy. Why? Well, if you have a crease that runs from the bottom of your ear's opening to the lowest tip of your earlobe, you have a 68% or higher risk of cardiovascular disease. This has been confirmed by studies done in Sweden, Ireland, Canada and Turkey. And yet nobody knows why. Other signs of heart disease that you would never guess: a ring finger considerably shorter than the index finger, male pattern baldness, not having acne as a teen, and grey, brittle, dry earwax. Again they are not sure why these things should be predictive of heart disease. They just are.

Other weird symptoms I've encountered as a nurse: when you have gallbladder disease you often feel the pain in the area of your right shoulder blade. If it's pancreatitis, the pain is often felt in the left shoulder blade. Spoon shaped nails--concave enough to hold a little fluid--can indicate either iron deficiency anemia or hemochromatosis, which is retaining too much iron. If you suddenly start speaking with a foreign accent, it could be a sign of a stroke or head trauma. Furthermore, the specific country's accent you involuntarily adopt can indicate the region of the brain that is affected.

Connections are not always obvious. And it's true with spiritual things as well  We see over and over in prophets, like Isaiah, a linking of the defective worship of God and mistreating of the poor and defenseless. But why? How does the way you worship God affect the way you treat people?

Isaiah underlines this in his contrast of the two ways of fasting. The first is done according to all the rules. It is to all appearances a proper fast. And that's the problem. It is all about appearances. It is completely external. The inner person, the thing that is supposed to be affected by the fast, is left untouched. For instance, ever get cranky when you miss a meal? Well, apparently the fasts God is criticizing resulted in quarreling, strife and even fist fights. This doesn't sound like these fasts were done to set aside earthly things for a while and to self-sacrificially spend one's time and attention on God. These fasts were done pro forma. And apparently with an eye towards the clock and anticipating the end of the fast. God points out that they are only humbling themselves for a day. 

But what God wants is not so much for people to give up something for a limited time but to give up injustice forever. He doesn't so much want them to not eat food themselves but to share that food with the hungry. He doesn't so much want them to dress in sackcloth but to clothe the naked. He doesn't so much want them to make a show of being humble but to welcome into their houses the humble poor who have been cast out from their homes.

In other words, like Jesus in Luke 13:10-17, he wants them not to let the externals of religious observance get in the way of real human needs. Because to do so reveals a marred understanding of the relationship between God and humanity.

In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, we are told that God made human beings in his image. So to mistreat a human being is to symbolically mistreat God. That's the reason murder is wrong, which God tells Noah in Genesis 9:6. In fact, God says previously, in Genesis 6:13, the whole reason for the flood is our violence towards one another. And Jesus tells us in Matthew 25:31-46 that the way we treat others is the way we are treating him. God takes what we do to our fellow human beings personally.

The way you see God affects the way you treat other people. If you see God as primarily concerned with rules above all, then you will not let human misery get in the way of obeying those all important rules. If you see God as the equivalent of the guy who redeems the tickets at Chucky Cheese, rewarding those who tally up  a lot of points with good stuff and giving crappy prizes to those who aren't big winners, then you have little to say to the poor except “Try harder.” If on the other hand you think God is a big softie who can't bring himself to really punish you, especially if you make a show of saying how sorry you are, you will be inclined to see how much you can get away with.

This is why the prophets spend so much time talking about what God is like and what he isn't like. He is just but merciful; he is forgiving but not excusing; he is loving but not lax. In fact, his justice flows from his love. If you love only one person or a few, then you easily can say to the the world, “I'm putting those I love first; I don't care what impact that has on the rest of you.” You see that in parents who shield their child when he does harm to others. 19 year old Alex Kelly fled the US after being charged with raping 2 teenage girls. Though they denied it, his parents supported him as he traveled throughout Europe for 7 years to escape extradition. The police couldn't prove that until they found a recent picture of him and his parents in Europe, showing they knew exactly where he was. He only returned when his parents faced obstruction of justice charges. No doubt his parents kept him from facing his crimes because they loved their son. They just didn't care about the victims. Or about justice.

If God loves everyone then he cannot let some of them take advantage of others or harm others with impunity. If you talk to someone whose parents never disciplined them, they will not, in my experience, tell you it was great that they could do whatever they wanted and not get in trouble. In fact, they will tell you that they felt neglected. They felt that they didn't matter enough, or that what happened to them didn't matter enough, for their parents to keep them in line. On the other hand, friends who grew up in very disciplined family, not an abusive one though, often say that, even if they did not like all the rules and structures and defined punishments when they were kids, they were glad later. They realized that their parents' discipline had eventually become their self-discipline and they found themselves to be doing a lot better than their peers.

So God's justice proceeds from his love, another unexpected connection. And from his love also comes his mercy. As I heard it once said, justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting all that you deserve. Make note of that: mercy is not a part of justice. It's not something you can just expect as a matter of course. It is God not applying strict justice to you. And the only reason he is merciful is because he is Love.

God expects us, creatures made in his image, to be both just and merciful, like him. That's why he says we must remove the yoke of oppression from among us, the pointing of the finger in false accusations, the malicious talk and gossip. Those things are unjust. That's why he wants us to, literally, pour ourselves out to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. That's mercy. And we must never forget that these are people created in God's image, people for whom Christ died.

If we do these things our light will shine and we will be a light to the world, reflecting the glory of God. And as Isaiah says, “The Lord will guide you always...” Why? Because you will be doing his work with your hands. You will be restoring justice and mercy to his damaged creation. As it says in verse 12, “...You will be called the repairer of broken walls, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”

But there's more. Many people who work with the poor and hungry, the oppressed and neglected get burnt out. They pour themselves out and they don't get replenished. They lose their faith in people and often their faith in God. They need a break. They need a regular day to get refreshed and refilled. They need a sabbath.

Jesus said the Sabbath was made for humans and not humans for the Sabbath. But oddly enough that means, as Isaiah says, to refrain “from pursuing your own interests on my holy day...” and “not going your own ways, serving your own interests or talking about yourself.” A lot of people today are taking a sabbath from their electronic devices, from the phones and screens that hold their eyes captive the rest of the week. What we need is a vacation from our own affairs and from ourselves really. We need to be taken out of ourselves, released from our cramped egos, roiling with desires and fears. We need to be directed away from ourselves and our workaday lives. We need to be directed to the source of all life and pleasure.

...then you will take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the world.” The image is that of a person on horseback cresting a mountain and taking in the scene laid before him. When we really honor the Sabbath, really walk away from the worries of the world and worship God, we will get a glimpse of the long view, the big picture, which we usually can't see as we wend our way through the ruts of our rat race.

And he promises that we will “feast on the inheritance of Jacob.” That inheritance in preserved in the scripture, which covers the covenants both old and new. When we hear God's written word and let ourselves be fed by his living Word with his Body and Blood, we will be renewed.

If you only see people as animals, as having nothing divine about them, it's easy to dismiss or ignore them, or even to get them out of the way if they are inconvenient. But if you see them as creatures bearing the image of God, you treat them differently. But if you don't connect with God frequently, the contents of that image will fade. So it has to be renewed weekly. For the way you see God will affect the way you see and treat other people.

Fortunately we have been given the exact image of God in human form in Jesus Christ. In him we see what God is like and what we, when restored by his Spirit, can be. We see how his justice and mercy come together in one person. And we see his grace, his gift which is not only getting more than we deserve, but getting goodness we can never possibly deserve. And when we experience that, we find the reserves to be gracious to others.

It's all connected. Everything in God's creation is connected. And they are connected through him. The connections may not be obvious. They may not even appear to be there. But they are. And it is our job to look for them, to draw attention to them and to clean them up and make them shine. For they not only hold everything together; they are conduits of his love and his grace. And so are we. 

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