In Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, one can find some of the best life advice there is, but within the framework of a non-fiction exploration of writing. Dillard is a master at blending poetry and prose as she dances between fiction and nonfiction; she crafts narratives that seem to be about nothing, but always have something to say about the divine and the sacredness of the world in which we live. This week, I wrestled with our passage from Isaiah, and again and again one line from The Writing Life kept coming to me: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” For Dillard, and for those who have fallen in love with this simple reminder, our lives are shaped as much by normal Sundays as they are by once-in-a-lifetime Sabbaticals. It is how we spend the normal days, the inconsequential days that matter.
This Dillard quote kept coming to me as I turned the poetic lines from the last half of chapter 58 of the Book of Isaiah over in my mind, in part, because here we find words that weave between poetry and prose, describing what might become of the people of Israel. Written in 8th Century B.C., the Book of Isaiah spans a huge amount of history. So much so that many scholars divide Isaiah into three different, but united, works. Third Isaiah, from which our passage is pulled, focuses on freedom and liberation; the people of Israel have been exiled, scattered in the diaspora; their streets were destroyed, their lands dry, and ancient ruins lie all around them. It is the prophet’s job, it is Isaiah’s job to not just foretell what will come if God’s will is obeyed, but also to name the uncomfortable truths about where their society is in the moment—prophets name the ways in which the brokenness of the world around us must be witnessed if the breach is going to be repaired. This uncomfortable truth is one of the most notable reasons why prophets are rarely beloved characters in our sacred texts.
Prophets like Isaiah spent their whole lives orienting and reorienting themselves to God and try to relay to God’s people the ways in which they might miss the mark. In our passage today, he shares with the people in a poetic way that when they exalt the lowly, when they feed the hungry, when they care for the needs of the afflicted, that God will grant them respite from the brokenness of the world around them. The path forward, Isaiah tells them, is not to get to work and to pull resources together to quickly fix the brokenness in which they live out their lives, but rather, Isaiah tells them that God is inviting them to stay in the broken places, to care for those in need, and to perhaps most importantly to keep the Sabbath holy. Do not, Isaiah says, trample the sabbath.
Specifically, Isaiah exhorts the people to withhold from pursing their own interests, to not tend to any business, to not work to secure any of the world’s comforts. As I prayed with Isaiah’s words this week, I couldn’t stop ruminating on how Sabbath is a communal practice, and when the Sabbath is trampled upon, it is very often done so at the expense of those individuals less fortunate. I couldn’t stop thinking about how Sabbath rest can only live into its holiness when we all get to experience it; that in God’s kingdom, rest is not a privilege for the few, but a God-instilled need and gift. And I couldn’t stop wondering about the ways in which so often my own comfort and rest require me to ignore the plight of those for whom rest is rarely available.
The summer between finishing my Master of Divinity and my Anglican year, my last year of seminary, I worked with the Diocese of Philadelphia’s City Camp, which held week-long summer camps based at churches around the city. I served as chaplain to the counselors, and we all lived in an old covenant house in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia which also happens to be one of the most ghettoized neighborhoods as well. It was the summer of 2016, and I was not an especially naïve adult, but it rocked my world. The rector and I would frequently walk the grounds to do a ‘needle search’ looking for heroin needles; we always found some along with other drug-related items, but we also found a large, heavy chain hidden behind the crucifix covered with dark stains of blood, clearly used in a fight. I only lived there for about 10 weeks, and I heard gunshots every night; the most gut-wrenching was when a few stray bullets from a drive by shoot out at the corner store hit and killed a father and his four-year-old child. I cannot fully describe the intensity of that time, but of all of it, the thing that was the hardest to stay attuned to was how we would have to beg the kids to eat their lunches provided by the camp. Not because they weren’t hungry or because they didn’t like it, but because they were desperate to share the oranges or crackers or peanut butter with their family.
This week, I couldn’t stop thinking about what a trampled Sabbath looks like; to me it’s that neighborhood in Philly where years of systemic racism have yielded a truly unconscionable reality where people starve and live under a constant threat of violence. And what I want to make sure I convey here, is that we don’t have to go to a major city to see the effects of a trampled Sabbath; it exists at every level of our society, and our own community is not excluded. A trampled Sabbath is having to always carry your birth certificate and social security card on you because you have no house in which to keep them. A trampled Sabbath is the reality that it’s easier to treat our problems with drugs or alcohol than it is to get mental or physical healthcare, no matter your economic bracket. A trampled Sabbath is when we ignore the ways in which the world around us thrives on oppression, and we choose our own comfort over working toward repairing the breach.
When I see this oppression all around us, all I can think is how anytime we uphold the oppression of anyone, we are working to suppress God’s abundance. Sabbath is not just about rest and time off work; it is about remembering and trusting in God’s abundance. We trample the Sabbath when we hold a scarcity mindset while claiming to be people of hope. I have wrestled all week with this passage. These words from Isaiah have haunted me as I’ve thought through all the ways in which it feels impossible not to trample the Sabbath in today’s world.
The truth is it just feels impossible. And I think I’ve wrestled with Isaiah’s words so much this week, because when it comes to God’s justice and liberation, we must believe in the impossible. And I know that when I am faced with the need for this impossible level of justice and liberation, it seems that there are two options: I shut it out or I become so consumed with guilt that I become frozen. In Isaiah’s words today, I hear a call to notice the brokenness of the world around us and to choose to remain in the messy middle. I hear a call to have our eyes opened to the pain of the world and to work toward God’s justice and liberation. I hear a call for us to believe in the impossible nature of God’s abundance, even as the world continues to trample on the Sabbath. The prophet Isaiah says that when we refrain from this way of the world that our gloom will be like the noonday, so even when light feels so impossible in the darkness and staying aware of the pain of the world makes us want shut it out, we must remember that the most sacred thing we can do is to stay present to the impossible hope of God’s justice and liberation. Good Lord, hear our prayer.
A sermon preached on August 21, 2022 to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Proper 16C on Isaiah 58:9b-14.