Being Good

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 9, 2014

Eleanor Lee Wellford,  Associate Rector


         Thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
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.
Yet 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.
“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.
Look, 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.
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?
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?
Then 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.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say,
Here I am.
                                                                                                                         -Isaiah 58:1-9a


 How many times have we done something to get God’s attention?  How many times do we want God to sit up and take notice of how often we come to church, or pray or give our time and energy to worthy causes?  How many times do we want God to tally up our acts of faith, pat us on the head and proclaim: “Oh, what good people are we!” 

It’s only natural that we want to be noticed for the good things that we do.  We learn that early on as children – what gets smiles and hugs from our parents and what gets us into trouble.        

So, now that we’re adults, what does it mean to be “good”?  Apparently the Israelites thought they knew.  They had spent a generation in exile feeling as if they were being punished for bad behavior.  Now that they had been released to return to their beloved Jerusalem, they were intent on showing God that they could be good again. 

But that was the problem.  It was all for show.  They worked hard using bricks and mortar to rebuild the life they once had there.  They neglected, however, to rebuild themselves.    

Working on what’s outside of ourselves is always easier than working on the inside.  That’s why many of us are so careful about the image we project.  And more often than not, it’s an image we hide our true selves behind.

The Wizard of Oz was an extreme example of this.  He worked really hard at projecting an image that was fearsome to anyone encountering it: oversized head and scowling face, and a loud thunderous voice.  Yet behind all that bluster and trumped up authority was just a small, quite ordinary man, fearful and full of insecurities.     

Even though the Israelites had come back home, they had not taken time to process their experience of being in exile, to learn anything about themselves and their relationship to God.  They were remembering and trying to recreate an image of what it meant to be God’s people– which is why they were still miserable.  They were poor and oppressed and there was plenty of infighting among the different groups of people.  Besides that, their city and their Temple were still in ruins. 

Where was the relief to their suffering that God had promised them through the comforting words of the prophets, especially Isaiah?  Why had they not returned to God’s good graces?  “Why do we fast but you do not see?” they complained to God.  “Why (do we) humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:3). 

God’s response to them, in effect, was: “When and how have you humbled yourselves?”  If the exile experience had humbled the Israelites at all, they somehow lost that feeling by the time they returned to Jerusalem.  In fairness to them, that’s so easy to do.  The best of our intentions can be sidetracked by our own fierce independence and overwhelming need to be in control.  It usually takes running out of options for us to be humbled enough to petition God for help.  And even then it’s usually only a quick fix that we want.

When I was a freshman in college, I became really sick with the flu and had to spend time in the dreaded infirmary.  I was miserable and lonely and did something that I didn’t do very often.  I prayed which did make me feel better but then I made a bargain with God.  I promised God that if I could get well – and preferably in time for the fraternity party that weekend – then I would pray and go to church more often than I was doing. 

As you might imagine, I forgot about keeping my end of the bargain as soon as I had recovered.  All I really wanted was a quick fix which was classic immaturity on my part without even a hint of humility.     

Perhaps the Israelites used the practice of fasting that we heard about this morning in Isaiah as the same quick fix or empty bargain that I had wanted.  Fasting was supposed to be a discipline that was offered to God as penance for sin.   But the problem was that the Israelites seemed to be expecting something specific as a result of that discipline – some payback from God for being “good”; and they weren’t getting it which is why we heard them complaining.  

Apparently all that complaining did get God’s attention.  And it wasn’t positive attention, either.  I think God was tired of their neediness as he tried to point out to them the difference between fasting merely as a show of piety and fasting as a discipline of authentic atonement and renewal of faithfulness to God. 

 From what God could observe, their fast was empty.  It didn’t seem to have anything to do with their desire to take care of the hungry, the homeless, the widow or the orphan and everything to do with the sake of appearances or image.   Perhaps if they could have spent more time acting out of the goodness of their hearts and less time appearing to be good, then, as Isaiah told them: “(their light) shall break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:8).

As you know, Lent is fast approaching – that time in our lives where many of us give up something as an act of penance or as an attempt to be good or better than we have been.  Lent begins with Ash Wednesday when many people have ashes imposed on their foreheads.  It’s not our tradition to do so here at St. Mary’s but it is the tradition at other churches. 

We ascribe to the words that Jesus said in Matthew: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). 

Ashes during the time that Isaiah wrote were a significant part of being penitent as was the practice of fasting; so was wearing sackcloth.  Someone who felt humbled by a change in heart would often wear scratchy, coarse sack cloth; put ashes on top of his head and fast. 

Ashes were supposed to be an outward, visible sign of an inward change.  And as we heard from Isaiah, it’s not the act itself that God appreciates but the humility that precedes that act and leads to service to the marginalized – the down and out.  “Is not this the fast that I choose” asked God of the Israelites.  “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house…?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

This past week St. Mary’s provided food and shelter to 40 homeless men in the C.A.R.I.T.A.S. program.  Every year I am struck by the sincere gratitude that our guests feel for what we do for them.  And I can’t help but believe that what we do for them flows directly from the authentically humble hearts of all the volunteers involved in this Outreach ministry and that they have no expectation whatsoever of any kind of payback for their goodness. 

Whether or not we feed the hungry, wear sackcloth, have ashes on our foreheads or whether or not we fast or do any other public act of piety, it needs to be done for the right reason which is something only God can determine because only God knows what we do for show or for the sake of appearances and what pours forth from the humility in our hearts.

So, what, then, does it mean to be “good”?  It’s not so much doing a certain thing as it is being a certain way.  The prophet Micah, one of Isaiah’s contemporaries, perhaps said it best:  “…(to) act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).  “Then” as Isaiah wrote “you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help and he will say, Here I am” (Isaiah 58:8-9).  And that, I would think, is about as “good” as it gets.