In a season of troubles and heightened international conflict that clamours for our attention, during days of political division over any number of cultural issues and “isms”, and through this opaque time of the ongoing pandemic, we all need a moment to gather as a community, sing and pray together, and ingest words of inspiration and challenge.
This week we continue preparing ourselves for Holy Week with a reflection on Isaiah 58: 6-12 from Tyndale University's Provost, Dr. Beth Green. The title of her reflection is "Fasting for Justice".
Thank you very much, Dan and Allison, for that beautiful music and helping us to worship. My scripture text is taken from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 58, verses 6 to 12. I'm going to read it from the New International Version. If you have a Bible, please do follow along. Or if you have a Bible app on your phone, have a look for Isaiah chapter 58.
"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen? To lose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke? To set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood. Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear, then your righteousness will go before you and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer. You will cry for help, and he will say "Here am I". If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger, and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always. He will satisfy your needs in a sun scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins, and will raise up the age-old foundations. You will be called repairer of broken walls, restorer of streets with dwellings."
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I'm just gonna take a moment to pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, oh Lord, my rock and my Redeemer. Amen.
God created woman and man in God's own image. In the image of God, they were created. Male and female, God created them. God saw all that God had made., and it was very good. We believe that the backdrop to the passage from Isaiah that I just read to you is likely to be the period of fasting following the fall of Jerusalem and the exile. That's around 587 BC. And the prophet Zechariah recorded that the people of Israel fasted on the fifth and the seventh months, for 70 years, asking God, what do we do? We've lost our home and our king. 70 years, that is a lifetime, a generation of praying. And God has not answered. What do they do? But the cry that I read in verse six, isn't the cry of the people of Israel. It's the cry of God. Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen to lose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke. To set the oppressed free and break every yoke. Let's go back to the Garden of Eden. The first cry of pain, and separation, and loneliness in the Genesis story is God's. "Where are you?" God calls to Adam and Eve. This beautiful creation God has made. These perfect people, imaging who God is, and they have left God for a lie.
The poet Denise Levertov imagines this moment in her poem on a theme by Thomas Merton. Before I read it to you, I want you to take a moment to imagine yourself, or perhaps a child that you know, at the fun fair. Distracted, dizzy, and inattentive, suddenly aware that the steady grip of your parents' hand is gone.
"Adam, where are you?" God's hands palpate darkness, the void that is Adam's inattention, his confused attention to everything, impassioned by multiplicity, his despair.
Multiplicity, his despair; God's hands enacting blindness.
Like a child at a barbaric fairgrounds -- noise, lights, the violent odors -- Adam fragments himself.
The whirling rides!
Fragmented Adam stares. God's hands unseen, the whirling rides dazzle, the lights blind him.
Fragmented, he is not present to himself. God suffers the void that is his absence.
The global slavery index estimates, that in Canada, the latest year for which they have statistics is 2016. That in, on any given day in Canada, in 2016, there were 17,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery. Every one of them is known to God. There are 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children, displaced within Syria today. That's currently the biggest internally displaced population in the world. Every one of them is known to God. 2.8 million people have fled Ukraine. Every one of them is known to God. You and all that you might be struggling with. You are known to God. The cries of a suffering people to God, "Where are you?", are real and bitter, they wrench from the gut. And in the darkness of sorrow and suffering, we ask God for justice. War, desolation, exile, plague, homelessness, hunger, death, every fibre in our being says, "This isn't how it's supposed to be. This is unjust." Now, if we're only a random collection of atoms, if this world starts and ends with you and me, what's the point of that question? And can you bring that question to the God who isn't there? At a dark point in my own life, I wondered this. And the one thing I clung to, was that if I did decide God wasn't there, I'd be left trying to answer the questions on my own. So I kept on, dragging my butt to church, and plunking it in the pew. No apologies for that phrase. Because at the time, that is what it felt like. It's only recently begun to dawn on me that perhaps part of the purpose of lent is to remind us that God cries for us, before we cry for God. When God looks at the world that God made, that world that was good, what does God see? Have you ever asked yourself? How does God stand it? God suffers the void. That is, their absence.
Last week, we heard from Bishop Jenny Andeson, that Lent is a time for the spring cleaning of our souls. To realign with God's priorities, she said, is to remember what God remembers. While fasting is one of the ways that we can do this, and many people choose to fast food things during the season of Lent. The prophet Isaiah takes us back to the purpose of fasting, to align with the priorities of God. This is not a God we have to appease, by showing up once a week, or perhaps donating regularly to CanadaHelps, although those are good things to do. This is God who cries first, and seeks the renewal of God's justice and righteousness in all that God has made. Dr. Patrick Franklin wrote, to remind me recently, that the Greek word for justice also means righteousness. Dr. Franklin said to me, justice is an attribute of God, before it's anything else. While we learn a lot about the priorities of God from this passage in Isaiah, take another look at the list in verses six and seven. In verse six, we've got standing against injustice, and freeing the oppressed. And in verse seven, we have feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing, the naked, loving your sisters and brothers. Dr. Bo Lim, who is the Associate Professor of Old Testament at Seattle Pacific University, writes, "Isaiah is now calling for a fast, not from food, but from affluence, indifference and privilege, so that the community of faith might live in harmony with God, who dwells in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contracts and humble in spirit." We know that these were the priorities of Jesus, because we see them in his miracles, lived out in his friendships, and underpinning his teachings. The Gospel of Luke records that Jesus read from the same scroll, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, probably the first sermon we've got on record from Jesus if you like, and this is what Jesus declares: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." Now this might sound like a really good list of things for us to get get on and do, get stuck into. But don't miss how audacious and bold is Jesus's next statement. He says, "Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." The Jews in the synagogue in Nazareth, knew what Jesus is claiming. "I am God. I am here to renew creation, to bring righteousness and justice. I am." I don't know what it's like to cry out for bread, or to cry out for justice. But some of us in this room do, or our families do. If I imagine myself into this encounter, in Isaiah, chapter 58, I know who I am. I'm the one moaning about inconvenience, when the most of the rest of my life is lived without material want. It doesn't mean my trouble and suffering isn't real. We all face those things. But it might mean that my priorities are not that well aligned with those of Jesus, which is why I need lent. It's why I need, the church needs, this regular practice of waiting, wrestling, reflecting, and realignment, before we kneel at the cross of Jesus on Good Friday. Because the cross is where Jesus was looking on that day, in Nazareth. The cross, and the resurrection, is where God answers our cries. Then you will call and the Lord will answer. You will cry for help, and God will say, "Here, am I".
To finish, I want to take a few of those priorities from Isaiah, and tell you about two ways that followers of Jesus are seeking to respond and align with those priorities today. I know that there are lots of individual examples that you could probably give me, but I've chosen examples that are aligned with the work of Christian mission organizations, so that in your own time, if you wanted to, you could follow up and find out more, if that would be helpful to you. The first example is from the International Justice Mission. They're one of the largest anti-slavery associations in the world, partnering with local authorities in 24 program offices, in 14 countries, to combat slavery, violence against women and children, and other forms of abuse, against people who are poor. And I want to tell you Ganesan's story. Before arriving at the farm, 48 year old Ganesan had supported his family for years as a daily wage labourer. That means he picks up manual labour jobs around his community for various businesses and farms. As the COVID 19 pandemic raged, however, he and millions of others lost these types of jobs, so he struggled to make ends meet. Early in 2021, a local farmer owner offered Ganesan a job, and a generous payment advance of 30,000 rupees. That's about 400 Canadian dollars. He would work as a farmhand tending the crops, and he'd receive a monthly salary, along with food and accommodation. So Ganesan agreed. You would, wouldn't you? He was happy, he could finally support his daughter's education. He left his wife and his daughters in the nearby village, and he moved to the farm to work. But almost as soon as Ganesan arrived at the farm, reality hit. He never received a salary, or the meals he was promised. Instead, he had to keep borrowing money from the farm owner to buy food and then he had to work off those debts, together with repaying his original advance. Even worse, he was beaten. He was kept at the farm at all times. The farm owner would get drunk, berate Ganesan, threaten to burn down his house in the village, and kill the family if Ganesan tried to escape. So terrified, Ganesan borrowed money from a neighbour to repay the farm owner and leave, but the owner refused. After seven months in bondage, there was nothing Ganesan could do. But just as they were losing hope, Garrison's wife met International Justice Mission's, IJN's local partner, and shared about their plight, and they helped her to report the case to the local government. And they helped Ganesan to testify. One of the staff members says "The victim testified so boldly that the officials could not refuse serving justice to him". In a place where it's difficult to receive release certificates, the victim's voice was heard clearly, and justice became undeniable. Followers of Christ at IJM worked with Ganesan so that his voice would be heard. They're also going to help Ganesan open a bank account so he can receive funds for his rehabilitation, that he's entitled to under India's law. And they will also support his recovery, as he and his family have to learn how to feel safe again. You might be interested to know that IJM has a team right now at the border between Ukraine and Romania because the displacement of people makes them even more vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation.
Final example, number two, is A Rocha. A Rocha is an international Christian organization, which inspired by God's love, engages in scientific research, environmental education, community-based conservation projects, and sustainable agriculture. A Rocha has helped me to understand, that the work of transforming people and places would be incomplete without highlighting the truth that the environment is also an issue of justice. Often the poor are the first to suffer when the land is damaged through deforestation, pollution, desertification, and climate change. In some cases, whole cultures of people, and that's pertinent to the indigenous peoples experience here in Canada, will suffer when the environment that is rightfully theirs, is stolen. Guided by their Christian faith, and commitment to justice for both people and places, A Rocha writes that land acknowledgement practices are a great step, but only one part of supporting the indigenous community in Canada. They're committed to standing in solidarity with indigenous peoples, and growing programming that engages diverse communities. As a start, A Rocha is working alongside Semiahmoo First Nation, and other members of the shared water alliance, to monitor water quality in several locations along the Tatalu, and its tributaries, and share in mutual conservation priorities.
Just two examples of how followers of Jesus are seeking to align their priorities with God's priorities for justice. "If you do away with the old yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger in malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the new day. The Lord will guide you always. He will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land, and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age old foundations. You will be called repairer of broken walls, restorer of streets with dwellings."
I wish you peace.
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