Texts for Preaching
Isaiah 58:1-12 – link: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=17
“Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches” (an excerpt) by Mary Oliver – link: http://www.occupypoetry.net/have_you_ever_tried_to_enter_the_long_black_branches
This is a salty dog sermon.
You know that song?
“Standin’ on the corner with the low down blues,
is a great big hole in the bottom of my shoes.
Honey, let me be your Salty Dog.”
That’s Flatt And Scruggs,
if you want to add some truly classical music
to your repertoire.
Anyway, saltiness and more
abound in these readings today.
I hardly know where to begin,
but Isaiah seems like the place to start.
There has been much said of “Confirmation Bias” lately,
especially about news outlets like Fox and MSNBC
catering to a singular point of view
to make money from a niche market,
instead of attempting to offer news unfiltered
by obvious ideological prejudice.
The so-called “Fake News” narrative
is further evidence of this trend toward
We see it on our Facebook pages
when they are filled with other people
who think like us,
and post articles created to attract
readers like us,
with the same point of view,
by hyping stories
that reinforce our point of view.
according to an article in Psychology Today,
happens when we have already formed a point of view,
and then seek out information
that confirms what we think;
while at the same time, ignoring or dismissing
information that might contradict what we think.
“We pick out those bits of data,” the article says,
“that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices.
Thus, we may become prisoners of our (own) assumptions.”
(Shahram Heshmat, April 23, 2015).
Christians have to turn summersaults
and stand on our heads and tie knots with biblical verses,
in order to come up with a theology
about heaven and hell
and how believing that Jesus is God
unlocks to door to eternal Salvation.
It is a case of theological confirmation bias.
Such a belief system is the assumption
that many Christians START from,
AND THEN go dumpster-diving into the Bible to confirm,
with the misappropriation of scattered verses,
what they started out believing.
we would walk up to the Bible
without those beliefs and assumptions,
and listen to what it has to say to us,
we would hear something quite different –
and it would have little to do with confirming our
theological biases about Jesus,
forgiveness of woebegone sins,
or heaven and hell.
Just walk with me,
disarmed of any theological assumption,
and listen as if for the first time,
to that Isaiah poetry.
58:1 Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion…”
(That’s God speaking)
58:2 …Day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
AS IF they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God…”
(God seems to say this sarcastically,
and then complains that the people misuse fasting.
God mentions fasting as just one example
of how we corrupt religious rituals).
In an apoplectic voice, God says:
58:5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call THIS a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
58:6 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?
58:7 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?
58:8 THEN your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and (THEN) your healing shall spring up quickly;
(AND THEN) your vindicator shall go before you…
58:9a THEN you shall call,
and (THEN) the LORD will answer;
(THEN) you shall cry for help,
and he will say,
“Here I am.”
58:9b IF you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger,
the speaking of evil,
58:10 IF you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
THEN your light shall rise in the darkness
and (THEN) your gloom (will) be like the noonday.
You see what I am getting at?
Christians START with Christian theology
and go back to the Bible with confirmation bias
to cherry pick verses
for whatever reinforces what we think anyway.
Meanwhile, the primary narrative
running throughout the Bible –
starting in the Book of Exodus
and running through all four of the Gospels –
in the teachings and life of Jesus –
is what we hear from Isaiah this morning.
You want to be the salt of the earth?
You feel like you lost your saltness?
Your light is dim?
Your churches are dying?
Congregations dropping like flies?
Secular culture eating away at your credibility,
and your moral authority
is draining away like water through fingers?
Well then, feed the hungry;
clothe the naked;
house the homeless;
fight the forces that want to spend money
on bombs and aircraft carriers and drones
instead of on hunger, homelessness,
segregation, disparity of wealth,
and rotten education.
“Shout out to my people their rebellion”
when they do anything other than THOSE things.
“Shout out” – meaning:
say it loud,
say it proud,
be obnoxious about it
like I am right now.
This isn’t partisan politics from the pulpit,
or the inappropriate mixing of politics and religion.
This is what we have been given to talk about,
to “shout out.”
If we come to the Bible without centuries of
patriarchal-imperial-and-colonialist theological prejudice,
and without looking to confirm our bias,
we will be met with Isaiah “shouting out”
what we heard today –
and Jesus steadily reminding us about our saltness
and how to be the light we were meant to be.
If we will come to the Bible
without our Republican or Democrat ideologies,
and without our American nationalism,
and without our capitalist assumptions
about how the world is supposed to work in our favor,
THEN we will read stuff that is deeply subversive
to the very things we would like to confirm.
Don’t take my word for it,
and don’t dismiss it because you don’t like my words.
Just try reading the dang Bible
without the powerful assumptions we usually bring to it.
And that brings me to that lovely
and powerful Mary Oliver poem.
most potent antidote against confirmation bias is:
“to enter the black branches of other lives…”
…to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey,
hanging from the branches of the young locust trees,
in early morning, feel like?
Do you think this world
was only an entertainment for you?
Never to enter the sea and notice
how the water divides
with perfect courtesy, to let YOU in!
Never to lie down on the grass,
as though YOU were the grass!”
It is an astounding piece of practical advice
Mary Oliver is giving us.
To enter the world through an American Muslim’s eyes
instead of Christian ones;
to think like a refugee
instead of someone with a permanent home
that feels safe and warm.
We can also do it in other, more lyrical ways as well.
I practice seeing the world through my dog’s eyes –
her nose really.
Mary and Joe know my dog, Rabia,
a sweet Lab and Golden mix
who acts like a six month old puppy
even though she is almost three years old.
Every time it snows
she is like a little kid
who only wants to jump and prance
through the white stuff,
a glob of wet flakes on the end of her nose.
Her antics take me back to four years old
and suddenly I see the miserable snow
I am going to have to shovel
with the bright enthusiasm of her charm.
Seeing what she sees,
loving what she loves,
living fully in the moment as she does,
“renews a right spirit within me,” as the psalmist says.
Grumpy in the dark winter morning,
Katy off on the slushy highway to her job
never to be seen again until the dark of the night,
me trudging along,
plastic bag in hand,
just waiting for the moment Rabia remembers
why we are walking in the first place,
that dog’s infectious goofiness
begins to infiltrate my mind.
Her ears perk up,
her head cocks at an angle as she listens
with absolute stillness
at some mysterious sound I can’t hear,
and then suddenly pounces on a leaf blown by the wind.
When I enter her world,
snout-first and furry-headed,
my own saltness returns.
That is how it works.
That is perhaps why we have an imagination
in the first place.
When we have lost our saltness
we get it back
by remembering the world
is not only an entertainment for us,
but also a place of strange mystery
and abundant joy
encountered through millions and zillions
of fingers, eyes, toes, tentacles, and
undulating body parts
whose names we don’t even know.
Empathy is not only called for
when there is suffering and pain all about,
but also feel with-and-through the many
joys and wonders of creation.
So when our voice is mournful,
and we sense there is something missing –
some saltness we once had
but have lost;
some light that once emanated from our lives
but has grown dim,
we need only open the door of our imagination
and crawl into another life,
and try the world on
through its flesh and bones
or chlorophyll and water even.
“Who can open the door
who does not reach for the latch?
Who can travel the miles
who does not put one foot in front of the other,
all attentive to what presents itself continually?
Who will behold the inner chamber
who has not observed with admiration,
even with rapture, the outer stone?”
Were we to enter
the Black Lives That Matter;
were we to wear
the hunger that hinders;
were we to feel
the scorn of hatred that burns;
were we to know
the anxious fear of those threatened,
those singled out and shunned;
you and I would be different than we are now
and the society we have created
would be more like the one
God told Isaiah to “Shout Out!”
and not “hold back.”
But not only in suffering and pain,
but also through wonder and joy.
Were we to open
the doors and travel the miles
attentive to what presents itself continually –
and behold the inner chamber
through the outer stone –
life would be different for us, and for those around us.
Better, I think, all the way around.
If you feel like you’ve lost a little saltness along the way;
if you sense that perhaps your light is dimming;
enter into the life of those people and other creatures
that fill the world all around,
and see what they see,
and feel what they feel,
and know what they know.
I guarantee, if we do,
we will be different –
and act differently too.