August 21, 2016

Pentecost - Proper 16

Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17


Exile is the expulsion from one’s homeland. Few in our church community may have had the experience of true political exile, and yet some may have. Even without having been dislocated from our nation of origin, most have had experiences of dislocation from our families, from our work, or even from an essential part of our self. Walter Brueggemann, Christian scholar of the Old Testament, reminds us that Jewish experience as reflected in Biblical literature is a repeated cycle of exile and return; disorientation and reorientation.

How can we recover from dislocation or fracture? How could a person - or a people - in exile put themselves back together after time apart?  Isaiah’s poetry offers a two-part roadmap from disconnection to reconnection; from exile to belonging. The sacred poetry tells us that the way to wholeness is through ritual. Two specifically are named. Feed the poor and keep the Sabbath.

The first instruction is clear and concrete. Offer food to the hungry, and you will find your own strength. Satisfy the needs of the afflicted, and you shall be like a spring of water that never fails. The remedy for disconnection and isolation is giving and caring. 

The Isaiah reading for today was addressed to Israel after it had returned from the Babylonian exile.  In that season there is said to have been disappointment as well as internal. While it might not seem obvious that feeding the poor could somehow rebuild severed ties between community members, this is Isaiah’s instruction.  Also, he says we must take our rest.

Sabbath, in Hebrew Shabbat, means rest or cessation. The habit of sacred rest is established in the book of Genesis when after birthing all of creation in six days God is said to have rested on the seventh. This divine habit is later bequeathed to YHWY’s followers in a time of exile.  Chapter 20 of the book of Exodus reads, “…the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.” Rest as presented in Isaiah is the way to return from our expulsion. 

The closest that non-Jews in the West might come to understanding aspects of Sabbath would might be what we know as “time off” or “down time.” I remember a week of down time during my seminary studies. It was a week between spring and summer terms. I was in my home at my computer by an open window.  Just as I was appreciating the smells of spring, I heard a strange sound from the backyard.  Upon investigation I discovered my elderly neighbor had fallen from her wheelchair and could not get up. Thankfully, she was not physically injured, and I was able to return her to her chair.  I remembered wondering how long she would have been out there had I not happened to be taking my rest that day at home.

The rituals of giving to the poor and taking our rest may not be obvious solutions to social division or political exile. Yet, this is our spiritual instruction. It is through ritual that we reconnect as community or recollect ourselves when fractured or wounded.

“Rituals are the lenses through which we see our emotional connections to each other, to a culture, and to a higher power. They are symbolic expressions of our most sacred values.” These are the words of Becky Bailey who has authored a book of rituals to help parents build bonds of love with their young children. Parents and children need these rituals, because our lives move at lightning speed, and because in the natural course of development we sometimes struggle with or against each other. Bailey has offered adults and little people a way to come back together when they have gotten too far apart.

While the rituals recommended in today’s readings are specifically Jewish/Judeo-Christian, the wisdom of the instruction is universal. You can find the following in the Tao Te Ching:

Fill your bowl to the brim
And it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
And it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
And your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
And you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

May each of you find your personal path to serenity, and may we collectively identify our co