There is something holy about the break of dawn. Like most folk, my life has had ebbs and flows, but one of my most favorite seasons of life allowed me to witness the slow overwhelm that the day has as night fades away. Dawn tends to happen sort of all at once; it’s a slow lightening of the sky from pitch black to deep navy and then the subtlest line of orangey-brown peeks out just before the sun hits the horizon. Once the earth begins its journey of the day, it happens quite quickly. If you pay attention, you can almost notice the gradual lightening of this world in which we inhabit, but if you look away it happens seemingly instantly. The break of dawn is one of those times in which we get the opportunity to experience the thinness between this world and the next; it’s a chance to be mindful of all the ways in which we can acknowledge our lack power in this world. We do nothing to make the night turn to day, and we can only witness the new day as the gift and challenge that it is.
And yet, even though I’m so keenly aware of the truth that the world does not depend upon our work to function or for the sun to rise, it does not take long for me to become overwhelmed with the work to do. Because when I look at the world around us, I don’t have to look far to be overcome with the painful realities of this world. If I am not careful, the overwhelming nature of violence and hatred in this world can become less about those who are oppressed and more about myself. I can get caught up in the ways in which I am engaged with or distance myself from the painful realities of this world. This came to mind this week as I prayed through our passage from Isaiah, we hear the Israelites question God, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
The people have returned from Babylonian exile and have begun to rebuild their lives. They have suffered, there is no doubt about that, but in their rebuilding, they have enslaved others and have let their stability stand upon the necks of those they are oppressing. They practice religious piety in their fasting and acts of humility, but God rebuffs their complaints in the verses following. God lays out the truths that so many of us are waking up to, that our liberations are bound up in each others; that we cannot claim God’s freedom while others are enslaved. And so, God lays out for the people they their fasts are meaningless if they do it while oppressing their workers and ignoring the pain of others. It’s a harsh and powerful rebuke from God to God’s people, but it also offers a way forward, not just for the Hebrew people, but for us as well.
The path the Lord lays out for the people shows what a true and righteous fast would be: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry, to invite the homeless poor into our homes, and to over covering and protection to the vulnerable. This, the Lord says, is the fast God chooses.
Beloveds, I am increasingly convinced that a scarcity mindset is one of our greatest communal and individual sins in the modern-day world, and what this passage from Isaiah shows is that it’s really not a modern-day world problem, it’s a human problem. Being a person is hard, and it’s honestly hard for me to imagine a world in which I am willing to fast and to give and to offer as much as the Lord tells the people that they ought to do. It’s especially tricky when I imagine the gigantic levels of oppression in this world or when I take in the levels of fear and pain happening all around, even as I do it from my safe and warm home. And this is where I get caught up in sentiments like, “But, I did so and so right!” or “There’s no realistic way I can do that!” The uncomfortable truth, though, is that these are false sentiments; it’s not that they don’t hold some truth – I cannot do all of these things, that’s true. But they aren’t true because they do not hold the fullness of how God works in the world.
When I become so overwhelmed with all that there is to do in this world, or all the pain and oppression that fills it, I forget that I do not make the sun rise. It’s a moment when I forget that all good things come from God; it’s a moment when I forget that my life is not supposed to be the solution for it all. When I become so overwhelmed with the challenges of this world, this exchange between God and God’s people reminds me that my only job is to participate in God’s work. My job is to help bring about the kingdom of heaven. I need not release all the bonds of injustice, but I sure ought to be working toward the releasing of the injustices around me. I am not required or even invited by God to save this world, only to lean into the work God is already doing.
And this; this task of leaning into the work God is doing, requires something of us. It requires us to see and hear and interact with folk who are different than us. This task asks us to see the world beyond what we might get right or wrong; it asks us to orient ourselves not only to God, but because they are made in the image of God, also toward others. It requires that we pay attention and that we make no peace with oppression; it requires that we let our dis-ease at the painful weight of this world not become numb and to stay present to it. It is no small task, but this sort of healing is possible.
As we lead up to Lent, I’m sure you, like me, are considering what your Lenten fasts might be, and I ask you to join me in holding this passage from Isaiah in your prayerful discernment. We’ll hear it again on Ash Wednesday, so it’s coming back around anyway. In these next few weeks, as we consider our own fasts, perhaps we ought first to consider the fast that God Godself chose. And perhaps, in this fast there is an invitation to lean in, to pay attention, to gather up the parts of us that fear that there is not enough or that the oppression in this world is far too great. And in this discernment, I also ask that you hold what God said after the litany of tasks in the exchange with the Hebrew people, that “light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly.” When we consider the work to be done and the fasts to make, we must also consider the fullness of God’s work in the world, and how we are just joining in; that the dawn will break, and healing will come. Thanks be to God.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church for Epiphany 5A on February 5, 2023 on the text, Isaiah 58:1-9a.