“From Provocative Feast to Proactive Fast
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Isaiah was a prophet during the first Babylonian exile which occurred between 738-701BCE. Speaking to the dispossessed Hebrews, Isaiah let them know—in rather ruthless terms—that their unfaithfulness had much to do with their plight. Israel fell apart by ignoring justice for the poor, and by not simply tolerating but encouraging selfishness and greed in their leaders. “How the faithful city has become a whore!” cries Isaiah. “She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her— but now murderers…Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves…They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” (Isaiah 1:21-23)
What the people allowed in their “princes” reflected what they wanted for themselves. “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord…The whole head is sick and the whole heart faint.” (Isaiah, 1:4, 5b)
According to Isaiah, the problem is the corporate sin of the nation, the forgetfulness of the community, the conscious pursuit by religious and political leaders for control and comfort rather than for loving God and neighbor by doing justice, practicing righteousness, and living grateful and generous lives. According to Isaiah, these problems begin with worship that placates rather than provokes, rituals that anesthetize rather than energize. The prophet, then, calls the leaders of the faith community to the daring work of proclaiming and demonstrating God’s disruptive but rebuilding, repairing, and restoring love:
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2Yet 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.
3“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5Is 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?
6Is 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?
7Is 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?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help,
and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in. (NRSV)
When the people fasted, prayed, and humbled themselves with sackcloth and ashes, they were trying to convince God to do beneficial things specifically for them. Like the Pharisees on the street corners in Jesus’ day, Isaiah’s audience was seeking to prove themselves worthy of God’s special favor by making their religiosity as overt, pretentious, and self-referential as possible. “Look,” says Isaiah, “you serve your own interest on your fast day.”
“During Isaiah’s time,” says homiletics professor Brett Younger, Jewish worship “was standing room only. No one missed a service…They sang psalms…said prayers and gave offerings. What they did not do,” says Younger, “was let worship trouble their consciences…They did not want to make connections between their worship and their neighbors.”1So God told Isaiah to “Shout out, do not hold back!” Call the people on their hypocrisy. They’re acting “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness,” but they “fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”
Isaiah taught that the purpose of worship and all the feasts and rituals involved is to prepare worshipers for the fast of prophetic living. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, [and] to let the oppressed go free…? Is it not to…” feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and be lovingly present to everyone? Regardless of where we stand on an issue, loving presence is something all of us need to practice more intentionally these days!
When you live faithfully, says God, you’re light on a hill; you’re a healing spring. When you live faithfully, “your ancient ruins will be rebuilt [and] you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
According to Isaiah, true worship compels people to enter into the God-fast: a life of proactive engagement in and on behalf of the community, especially the poor and the forgotten. Theology professor Carol Dempsey says, “Fasting was a means of freeing one’s self to receive the gifts of God, which were always intended for the common good.”2 Progressing from feast to fast is synonymous with going from worship to service.
In her book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans told the story of Sara Miles, a journalist who had been raised in an atheistic household, and who, one day, without forethought, “wandered into [a church in San Francisco] and ate a piece of bread, and took a sip of wine.”3 Sara had never been baptized, never read the Bible, never prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and, being gay, never felt welcomed in any faith tradition, especially merit-based Christianity. But that day she walked through an open door, found an open communion table, and received the invitation: Take and eat.
“‘And then something outrageous and terrifying happened,’ [said Sara]. ‘Jesus happened to me.’ [I] felt dizzy, overwhelmed, charged with life [and] filled…‘I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told…But neither could I go away: For some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I wanted it all the next day after my first communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table.”4
What I find provocative about Sara’s story is not simply that she found Jesus at the table, but what Jesus then demanded of her.
“‘Holy communion knocked me upside down and forced me to deal with the impossible reality of God…Then, as conversion continued, relentlessly challenging my assumptions about religion and politics and meaning, God forced me to deal with all kinds of other people…I wound up not in what church people like to call “a community of believers”—which tends to be code for “a like-minded club,”—but in something huger and wilder than I had ever expected: the suffering, fractious, and unboundaried body of Christ.’”5
Experiencing welcome at Christ’s table of grace, Sara Miles discovered what filled her, because she discovered, at last, her true hunger for justice and her true thirst for righteousness. She then connected those cravings to the emptiness all around her. She founded and now directs “The Food Pantry” at the Episcopal church that welcomed her.
Rather than comfortable and passive satisfaction, the point of worship and ritual is to be provoked and sent out into the proactive fast of daily discipleship. Worship led Sara Miles to her God-chosen fast: Feeding the hungry, challenging the systems that allow and create disparity, and sharing her new faith as a writer and speaker.
Salvation is a word we associated with the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. And that’s entirely appropriate, especially when we understand that salvation means more than some individualistic, post-mortem reward for having said the sinner’s prayer. Because God intends our worship to benefit the common good, salvation means, above all else, being delivered from the sins of fear and selfishness so that we may love and serve God by loving neighbor and caring for all Creation.
As you come to the table today, this first Sunday of Lent, I challenge you to offer the bread and the cup to each other saying, out loud, not holding back: The bread of life. The cup of salvation. As you give and receive these gifts, participate actively in declaring the provocative good news that shackles are being broken, yokes are being removed, fear is being transformed into love.
May this ritual release all of us and send us into a broken and often perilous world as ones through whom the light of God shines and springs of faithful water flow. For in and through Christ, our Host, that is who we are.
1Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 315-319.
2Carol J. Dempsey, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pp. 315-319.
3Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nelson Books, 2015. Pp. 146-149. (RHE is quoting from Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread.)