There’s a song that starts out with the words: “Old man down, way down, down, down by the docks of the city. Blind and dirty, asked me for a dime, a dime for a cup of coffee. I got no dime, but I got some time to hear his story.” (“Wharf Rat” words by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia). The song then goes on to tell the story of August West, one that may never be known if the song writer had simply tossed a dime his way.
And from a pious perspective, simply tossing a dime may have satisfied some religious requirement and Hunter’s storyteller could have moved on about his day comfortable with having done some good. But in stopping, and acknowledging that he has some time to hear August’s story, we as listeners get more; Hunter’s storyteller gets more; August gets more.
What really happens is that a space for hospitality is opened and August’s humanity, broken, blind and dirty as it is, has room to exist. August’s humanity has room to exist, perhaps, more than it would have if there had simply been that dime for a cup of coffee.
There is a common thread in our two texts today—the obvious mentions of light by both Isaiah (58:10) and by Jesus (5:14ff)—but more than just the mentions of light is the overarching theme of exceeding minimal expectations of a religious life.
Isaiah says, “If you offer your food to the hunger and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like noonday.” Isaiah says if you give YOUR food to the hungry, not just feed the hungry but share your food with them. Break bread together. Share a table. Be hospitable to the stranger. Acknowledge their humanity. His previous admonition in verse 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?”
“According to Torah, ‘hiding oneself from one’s own kin’ means pretending that some people do not exist or that care will be given by someone else.” (Carol J. Dempsey, “Theological Perspective on Isaiah 58:1-12. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.)
And maybe it’s easy to take this text and convert it into a call to rally around the homeless, the immigrants, the migrant workers; but in every text, while certainly pointing us to move into places that challenge the status quo, there is also the call to ponder how this text affects us at a local level, at the community of faith level.
Author and speaker Shane Claiborne tells of his time in Calcutta with St. Teresa of Calcutta, back when she was still Mother Teresa:
I had gone to Calcutta on a search for Christianity, hoping to find an old nun who believed that Jesus meant what he said. And I had found Christianity, but it didn’t belong just to Mother Teresa. Eventually, we did meet Mother Teresa. In Calcutta, she was not “Mother Teresa the Saint,” she was just “Mother,” running around on the streets, hanging out with kids, caring for the sick, going to Mass each morning. Mother.
Mother Teresa always said, Calcuttas are everywhere if only we have eyes to see. Find your Calcutta.”
(Claiborne, Shane (2008-09-09). The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Kindle Locations 743-747, 753). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)
Yes, we need the Saint Teresas and the Shane Claibornes who hear G-d’s call to the distant places but what of a community of faith so focused on distant needs of restoring humanity and hospitality that they cannot see the need for hospitality right in their midst. The single parent in need of a moments rest after struggling to get two or three kids out of the house; the need of families new to the area in a community so accustomed to folks moving in and out that they pay no attention to the desire for a warm welcome a hospitable word that says, “You belong here.”
The afflicted are in Calcutta to be sure; as they are in Syria and in Mexico and all the places that our kin flee seeking refuge here. But as the saying goes, “Think globally—Act Locally.” The afflicted are right here in our midst, too: The Lonely, the Outcast, the Stressed.
If you offer YOUR food to the hungry and satisfy their needs, says Isaiah, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. If we make room in our lives for the stressed, for the lonely, for the outcast, the light shines brightly in the darkness of everyone’s life. Because we don’t just toss an offering their way; we give them our time, we make room in our own life for the life of the other.
In an echo of Isaiah that bounces off the walls of time, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” He then goes on to reinforce the authority of Torah for his own disciples and challenges them, challenges us, to let our righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, to go beyond just ticking off our having kept this law and that command but to internalize and synthesize the Law of G-d into every moment, every aspect of our lives. (Matthew then goes on to give Jesus’ teaching, the Sermon on the Mount a full three chapters of his gospel. Each one an unpacking, and expounding upon Torah.)
“That [Matthew’s] Jesus rejected the agenda of the Pharisees does not mean he rejected the Torah; it means he read and practiced it from a different perspective. The Pharisees read Torah in the context of a world governed by sin…Jesus read Torah no longer in the context of sin, but in the context of [G-d’s] Kingdom…[and] the abundance of G-d’s righteousness.” (Edwin Chr. Van Driel, “Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 5:13-20” Feasting on the Word.)
As Isaiah called the post-exile community in Jerusalem to live more than just an externally pious life, so Jesus carries that torch in the Sermon on the Mount. “Be salt”, he says. “Be light,” he calls, inviting the church to be a gathering of disciples who “refract G-d’s light” in such a way that all peoples and nations can know holy justice and holy mercy. (Marca Riggs, “Theological Perspective.” Feasting on the Word.)
It frightens me a bit when I read that Jesus says, “Not a one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever breaks (or annuls) one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven;” it frightens me because, both progressive and conservative churches have their own understandings or interpretations of what commandments may or may not need to be followed—which ones are fundamental and which ones can be viewed as not that important. But either way, Jesus says, Torah is Torah; Scripture is Scripture. Keep it, internalize it, synthesize it; make it your every breath.
And jumping back to Isaiah for a moment, I don’t get the impression that the people were having difficulty with the challenging parts of the law; it seems like it was the basics that were tripping them up. Basics like hospitality. Basics like rest.
Our passage today stops before the last two verses of chapter 58, verses that say, “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob…”
Not from a legalistic perspective, but from the perspective of “delight,” when is the last time you engaged in Sabbath? When is the last time you just stopped feeling the need to PRODUCE and rested in the knowledge that G-d is G-d and you are not, and whatever you haven’t accomplished is okay. It will still be there after you have delighted in Sabbath.
It’s not about the rules, or being made perfect by the following of rules; it is about living set apart, living differently from the rest of the world consumed by using time in a way that makes our lives a commodity to be burned on some unholy altar. Sabbath, one of the most basic commands in Scripture, the first holy to occur in scripture; deemed holy before people were holy; deemed holy before Law was holy; Sabbath, the most basic command, reminds us that we don’t need to produce to have worth. And neither does anyone else.
In its own way, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, reminds us of these things that Jesus says. Because in the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus says, Remember me. Remember my love. Remember that I chose you, and called you worthy, and redeemed you from slavery. So remember and be salt and be light and remind others that they have been chosen and called worthy and redeemed from slavery.
Eucharist is G-d’s sharing of G-d’s food with us, it is G-d satisfying our needs and shining light into the gloom our lives, seeing us in our loneliness, in our stress, and in the pain of being outcast, and saying, “Come see the feast I have prepared, find delight, find rest, find me.”