july 4, 2010

Anna Blaedel
July 4, 2010
First UMC, Osage
Psalm 30
Isaiah 58

Last Sunday I preached about silence—listening for the still small voice of God in the midst of the noise and clutter of our busy lives—God coming to Elijah not in the rush of wind or roar of earth quaking and crumbling, but in the sound of sheer silence. I lifted up the words of the psalmist, words we pray and embody every Sunday morning together—Be still. Be still. And know God is God.

And, I still believe what I said last week. That we need to make more time for stillness, and silence. That God comes to us, abides with us, when we come to rest. Be still, and know God is God.

But. It isn’t that simple. When it comes to God, to faith, to living faithful lived ordered around our God, it rarely is. Just as we can’t ignore the call to silent stillness, nor can we forget the call to make a joyful noise to our God! To sing out our praises! Recall other words of the psalmist, other words you heard and prayed this morning: My soul praises you and cannot be silent. I’m about to burst with song; I can’t keep quiet about you!

This morning’s text from Isaiah—the entirety of the 58th chapter—begins with these words: Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!

Even as I preached about the silence I treasured at the beach, the stillness that nourished and nurtured me, I was aware of the rhythmic crashing of waves, the sound of wind coming off the ocean, fresh and refreshing, the glorious boom of thunder as a storm rolled in, cooling the hot, humid air. Even, I admit, the joy and quickening of heart I have begun to feel when I hear the buzz of Vuvuzelas, the South African trumpets made famous by their incessant noise during World Cup games! I anticipated the boom of 4th of July fireworks, the sound of marching bands playing in Independence day parades, and the celebratory shouts and cheers that accompany floats, festivals, and gathered community…

This week I came across these words by Barbara Kingsolver, in her book that I’m reading, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She writes: “The afternoon was still: no car passed on the road, no tractor churned a field within earshot. It’s surprising how selectively the human ear attends to human-made sounds: speech, music, engines. An absence of those is what we call silence…But in that particular dot on the map I was struck with how full a silence could be: a Carolina wren sang from the eave of the shed; cedar waxwings carried on whispery bickerings up in the cherry tree; a mockingbird did an odd jerky dance, as if seized by the bird spirit, out on the driveway. The pea bowl rang like an insistent bell as we tossed in our peas…”
It’s not as simple as sound equal bad, silence equals good. It is more about, I believe, learning to be still so that we might know how to act. Learning to be silent, so that we might better hear and listen to God speaking.

Sound and silence isn’t so simple. Neither is this morning’s text from Isaiah. It is a prophetic text. It is a text that illuminates for us, on Independence Day, what God expects of a nation—as it has for centuries of human history that came before, and for countless nations and societies that were formed, that dominated, that reigned, that ruled, that collapsed, long before the USA was a gleam in the English revolutionaries eyes—a dream born out of hope for a new and better life.

The 58th chapter of Isaiah speaks of salvation, and freedom. It is not a simple text, however. It begs difficult questions, messy questions: like one my seminary professor used to ask, over and over again, when talking about salvation, and freedom. This professor, in an effort to get and grab our attention, liked being a bit provocative. He started one lecture, one on salvation and freedom, with these words. Listen carefully, and hear me through…He said: “Being saved, being free, doesn’t mean squat.” And then, he continued, “Being saved, being free, these words don’t mean squat, if we don’t ask the questions: Saved from what? Saved for what? And, free from what? Free for what?

What he meant, of course, was that grand ideas like salvation and freedom, ideas we celebrate today, and throughout our days, aren’t simple enough to stand on their own. We must ask…reflect…discuss…wrestle with…the deeper meaning. Through our faith, through God’s grace, what are we saved from? What are we saved for? Through the courage and work and bravery and sacrifice and witness and protest and endurance of those who have shaped this nation we call home, and through the courage and work and bravery and sacrifice and witness and protest and endurance of us, who continue to be called to shape this nation, we must ask: What are we free from? What are we free for? What are we do to, with this freedom?

They aren’t easy questions. But this mornings reading from Isaiah offers us some hints. Be warned, though, that the answers we might find in the 58th chapter of Isaiah, the guidelines God gives us to shape a nation that is in turn shaped by God’s will for us and God’s expectations of us…these answers aren’t easy, and the kind of life they require of us is not easy. Hear, again, these words from Isaiah, chapter 58. As you hear them, ask yourself: What has God saved us for? What does freedom—from God and from nation—require of us?
Isaiah 58

Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout! Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives, face my human family with their sins! They’re busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me. To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—law-abiding, God-honoring. They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ and love having me on their side. But they also complain, ‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way? Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

Well, here’s why: The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit. You drive your employees much too hard. You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight. You fast, but you swing a mean fist. The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground. Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like?

This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.

What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, if you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—firm muscles, strong bones. You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.

If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, if you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’ making money, running here and there—then you’ll be free to enjoy God! Oh, I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all. I’ll make your feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob. Yes! I, your God, says so!
May it be so. Amen, and amen.

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