Discipleship That Works (Isaiah 58:1-9a; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Matthew 5:13-20)
It was good to see the sun for a couple of days last week (and again today). Although winter came late, since it did, we’ve had a long patch of cold, snowy, icy, weather. I like the four seasons, including winter, but somewhere in the month of February each year, I begin to get ready to transition into something gentler and calmer. I could say the same thing about the headlines of late. I know that we are divided in how we might feel about what’s going on, but I, for one, don’t see that we have much better relations one with another, that we are kinder, gentler, more open. As I see how many of the traditional friends of the U.S. are at least puzzled if not downright irked with what’s happening, I get the same feeling as I do about the season: I’m ready for something gentler and calmer. I think of one of my favourite poems (and Christmas songs) by Christina Rossetti:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan;
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Each year I get here, in the bleak midwinter, and need some warmth. I think the religious-marketers know that this is common, for each year the mailbox at the church gets stuffed (and so does my junk email) with all kinds of plans to “pray through it,” “read scripture till my heart is strangely warmed” (must have been a Methodist), and on and on. And through the years, I’ve tried some of that, but my own conclusion is that it doesn’t work, at least for me. I’ve concluded through the years that this is because, as much as they claim differently, these plans are all about me and how I feel. All this “inner-ness” doesn’t work. Again, at least for me.
And, then I read our Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 58, and I was jolted by how contemporary it was. It sounded like just what’s going on. It was also neither gentle nor calm. It has a prescription that I’ve called “discipleship that works.” It actually works! And we’ll get to it, but, first, I want to look at the first part of the Gospel Lesson and what Jesus taught.
It comes from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ teachings on discipleship. One mid-20th century interpreter (A.M. Hunter) called it A Pattern for New Life. It had been a long time since I had the dog-eared paperback copy of Hunter off my shelf (in face I’ve got two, both in terrible shape, from reading earlier in life). I was impressed how out-of-date much of what he wrote was (even the second edition was 1965), but he was clear that discipleship had to do with action and with getting outside of oneself, with discipleship that works.
Matthew began his manual for discipleship, Jesus’ pattern for new life, with a thumb-nail sketch of the character of a disciple. These are the beatitudes, familiar enough ground. They basically say, act as God in Jesus acts in the world and your discipleship will work. In the first part of today’s Gospel Jesus uses two further metaphors to explain discipleship: salt and light. Many words have been written about what he meant. Let me just say that light has the purpose of helping people to see; salt has the purpose of penetrating, flavouring and preserving. Both light and salt are not just there for decoration, but to be useful tools. More specifically, salt was, in the world of Jesus’ day, used in salt plates, pressed together in order to be placed in what was called “the earth,” which was a shorthand way of referring to an outdoor oven made of packed earth that was commonly found in the courtyards of homes. The “earth” used dung for fuel. The salt plates were put into the oven to be the catalyst to make the dung burn better. (Note that “The earth” is the word that is used by Jesus in Matthew 5:13 [“you are the salt of the earth”]). You are the salt that makes the oven warm. You are the catalyst. So, salt is useful. Disciples of Jesus, like salt and light, are not just to hang around to teach Bible verses and praise choruses a the beautiful building, but to be useful in helping people to see and to preserving and flavouring the world around. Discipleship that is only inner isn’t discipleship that works, either in the sense of doing what it’s supposed to or of labouring. But along what path, with what principles does this discipleship “work”?
Here’s where we get to that passage from Isaiah 58 that I say gave me such a jolt when I re-read it. It’s a dialogue between either the prophet who speaks for God or God directly and a community of faith that complained that they did all the right stuff, held all the right beliefs, did the liturgy just right, gave their offerings, fulfilled their offices, and yet their lives were not what they wanted them to be.
The prophet (in God’s name) calls the people out for their rebellions and their sins – two Hebrew words that cover the gamut of destructive behaviour, the first being intentional and in spite of knowledge that it is wrong, the second being simply unintentional mistakes. And this is in spite of the fact that, or so the text says, “Day after day” they seek God, they “delight” to “know God’s ways.” These are good Bible-verse words that talk about doing the right stuff. In fact, the Psalms are full of them. If they have rebelled and sinned that doesn’t include (if you’ll allow updating) staying home from church and Bible study, refusing to give to the offering, and all the rest.
The response is that they did all this religious stuff “just as if they were a nation that practiced (which means “did,” not just “affirmed”) righteousness (which means God’s values and standards) and did not forsake the ordinance (literally “the justice,” their concern for equity and neighbourliness) of God. They ask God for all kinds of things that they considered to be in accordance with God’s values and standards (righteous), they “drew near” to God (which means “come to offer worship [in that day by sacrifice]) But it seemed they don’t get what they wanted: “Why do we fast, but you (God) do not see, why humble ourselves when you do not notice us?” Their discipleship isn’t working out for them. What my friend Walter Brueggemann said about this was that this kind of stuff “never works with God.” So what does? Good question, but before we get an answer, we get two diagnoses of the problem of the community, each introduced by the work “look!”
First, “Look, you observe your fast day only to serve your own interest.” It’s all about you. It’s jumping through hoops, while at the same time you defy God by “oppressing all your workers.” Remember the primary faith-story about God in the Old Testament was as one who freed oppressed workers in Egypt. That role and commitment hasn’t changed. When you set yourselves against that and try to put a spin on that by including all within the realm of your pious God-words and Holy-talk, it’s both rebellion and a mistake. And it’s no wonder your discipleship won’t work.
Second, you use your “fasting” to perpetrate dissension and violence and impose power on others, or as the poet said: “Look, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a violent fist.” And, “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” God says, such discipleship won’t work.
Let me just say that where this text says “fasting,” unless we actually want to limit the usefulness of this text to get ourselves off the hook, maybe, to those who practice fasting today, we need to see that the principle here is using any spiritual practice to enforce our will on any other group of people by the force of saying “God wants you to knuckle under to this.” “It’s God’s will that you be the way you are,” etc.
The problem here, in summary, is that these folk are using their religion as a force that makes sure they keep the power for themselves in the name of God. Worship and discipleship is all about us and how it makes us feel about things. I will say what I have said many times, that reads into the Bible a kind of modern pop-psychology that has nothing to do with the world of the Bible. The folks that gave us the Bible didn’t really care very much how people felt about things, but love in actions. As I said, I was jolted by how contemporary this passage is to our world, not our church, our world.
Then, finally, the prophet, again speaking for God, speaks of the discipleship that works, even in a world like this – and that takes work, especially in a world like this. Here’s what it says.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
As much as I’d like to, I haven’t time to go through these words, but they are plenty clear. Here’s the plan for discipleship that works, in both senses of that word. It is action for the good of others. Again, I am jolted by how contemporary these words are. This is what God’s people ought to spend our time doing.
Although these words from Isaiah are not words of Jesus, our Lord, in his very first sermon preached in his own hometown of Nazareth, did pick up on a similar passage of scripture from chapter 61 that talks about good news to the oppressed, binding up the broken hearted, liberty to captives, release to prisoners, and the Jubilee year of God (when all debts were released and all property went back to their owners). And his own folk almost tossed him off a cliff for his audacity in not thinking enough about purity and safety. Isaiah 58, again, says, at the very end, if you want safety and healing, then you need to take care of folks round about rather than worrying about building barriers of protection. It’s when we care for one another and worry about the last and the least that we find light and healing for ourselves. As I say, it’s a jolt because it speaks with such clarity to our moment.
Lest we get offended, Jesus our founder, our saviour, and Lord, was accused of doing things to jolt the status quo all through his ministry, and, in the end there was a cost to that. Yet, in the second half of our Gospel Lesson from Matthew 5, he claimed that he wasn’t annulling or ignoring or reversing scripture in teaching what he did, but rather filling it full of contemporary meaning (fulfilling it). Scripture will not pass away, but it is not a dead letter, but requires continual creativity and work to fill it full. In next week’s Gospel, Jesus will give six examples of the way in which he will interpret the scripture to do just that.
Let me say one more thing, that may seem to go a very different direction. I think discipleship that works demands that we do get together and do things together, in worship, care and concern, learning and teaching in here to build us up. Discipleship that works moves from being fed together in the inner person to penetration of the culture, like salt and light, to preserve and to be catalysts in the world for those who need guidance and hope for justice and equity for our world.
Probably the earliest way in which Christians gathered to begin the cycle “in here” and be inwardly fed is in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We eat the bread, we drink the wine, not just to have a neat little experience of Jesus, but in order to proclaim the Lord’s death (out there in the world), until he comes. Let us celebrate, and let us be disciples…that work.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.