"Here Am I"

Last week Larry James from City Square in Dallas, TX preached at our church to encourage us in our new vision to eliminate homelessness in our city of Abilene.

Larry's sermon focused on Isaiah 58, Yahweh's description of what true fasting should look like. The opening verses set the scene:
Isaiah 58.1-3a
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
The people "seem eager for God," eager to "know [God's] ways" and be a "nation that does what is right."

However, when the people fast and humble themselves God doesn't seem to notice or care. Why? Why does God seem indifferent to their fasting and religious piety?
Isaiah 58.3b-5
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
God is unresponsive because the worship of the people has become disconnected with the affairs of the economy: "[O]n the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers." More, the worship of the people has become disconnected with the practices of peace-making and reconciliation: "Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists." God's call is clear. Worship isn't to be an isolated and insular practice. Worship isn't just about bowing your head during Sunday morning worship services or singing praise songs. Worship--true fasting--must be connected to economic justice and the practices of peace. Here is what true fasting--true worship--should look like:
Isaiah 58.6-7
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose 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? 
True worship: loose the chains of injustice, set the oppressed free, break every yoke, share food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter, clothe the naked, and do not turn away from your own flesh and blood.

And if we do this, Larry pointed out, God makes an absolutely astonishing promise:
Isaiah 58.8-9
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.
Here am I.

You know where that phrase comes from, right? It comes from the beginning of the book where Isaiah has a theophany and receives his commission from God:
Isaiah 6.1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: 

“Holy, holy , holy is the Lord Almighty;
 the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for. ”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Here am I.

It's a crazy reversal. In Chapter 6 Isaiah makes himself radically available to God. "Here am I," he says to God. But in Chapter 58 this flips. There it is God becoming radically available to us. "Here am I," God says.

And when does this happen? It happens when God's people engage in true worship, when our fasting becomes connected with loosing the chains of injustice, sharing food with the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless and clothing the naked.

When we do these things God says to us,

"Here am I."

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9 thoughts on “"Here Am I"”

  1. I think Isaiah 58 is one of those passages in the Bible that is of central importance to the plot.  The story keeps coming back to the theme of justice *as* mercy, in God's economy.

    No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
        and this is what he requires of you:
    to do what is right, to love mercy,
        and to walk humbly with your God.  --Micah 6:8 (NLT)Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13...  Like the chorus of a never-ending Story, opera-style, that we are invited to join in singing.  :-)The notion of reversal in God's availability toward us intrigues me.  Based on the assumption that God is always present *with* us, maybe it is, in reality, that our eyes are opened to God's presence and active engagement in consecrating our "love offerings" to bless others?  We become the living sacrifices when we pour out to others the love and mercy that has been extended to us by God and experienced as His grace.Isaiah 58 played a part in my break-up with the conservative evangelical church.  When the meaning of Is. 58 dawned on me, and I understood that it was not the commonly held interpretation of my faith community, to say that I was conflicted would be an understatement.  I was dismissed well before I decided to leave for the heresy of advocating "social justice."  Anyway...talking about Isaiah 58 doesn't upset me so much anymore, which is hopeful.  Healing has occurred.  ~Peace~

  2. My only struggle with this recap of Larry's sermon is that it seems to say that God is only available to me if I participate in the social needs of people. I am certainly believe in caring for people in need, but then Jesus talks about always having the poor and how we can't live by bread alone, etc. etc. I am struggling right now with an idea that seems to surround me: social justice = the gospel. Do you think that's true? I'm just not sure yet. In other words, I have seen institutions that focus resources on meeting the physical needs of people and don't even claim a Christian identity.

  3. Happy medium, Kevin. I think you're running too far to the left and the right without considering all the broad, open space in between. I think the point of Richard's post was to serve as a reminder that social justice is an aspect of the Kingdom of Heaven and heart of the Father that cannot be cut out of the gospel. In an age and society in which churches tend to be mostly about programs focused on themselves, a message such as this reminds us of that happy medium in which we can both promote discipleship and hospitality amongst ourselves while at the same time remembering the heart of the Father towards all humanity. No, you and I don't have the resources to wipe out poverty, so yes, there will always be poor people int the land, but we still do what we can when we can and pray for more. As for social justice being the gospel, well, what if it is? Not in a way that guts our faith as Fox News would have us believe, but in a way  that strengthens it. In my experience God cares much more about me loving and living well with my neighbors and pouring myself out on behalf of human beings that he loves than he does about making me handsome, rich, and wise. And again, with the blog post as well as my response, chew the meat and spit out the bones, and together with the Spirit of the Holy God find a happy medium in which your faith is challenged without being beaten down and expanding so that your walk looks more like peace, joy, love, patience, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness, kindness, and self-control tomorrow than it does today. And if that looks more like social justice, so be it. And if not, so be it. Remember, you'll be judged by Christ and him alone, not by anyone else.

  4. Consider Jesus' inaugural sermon in Luke, wherein he equates his gospel with the coming of justice.  Consider also Matthew 25, wherein his faithful servants don't seem to realize what they were doing.

  5. Thank you Richard for your thoughts on this heartache of mine. Thanks to your congregation for embarking on this very tall order. But so utterly worth the effort. The people of God ought to be on the front in this war. This is surely something Missional  Ecumenists could get behind. Millard Fuller, founder of HFH, but his money and faith in action. Look where it is today. Yes, some affiliates may have strayed, but people of all faiths and beliefs got behind the biblical truths that HFH promoted and lived out.
    I would be curious to hear about the especially hard work of ministering to homeless folks with mental health challenges. This is a complex and heartbreaking problem. Surely you folks will/have encountered this already. It's dirty, sweaty, bloody work. Seemingly endless, and energy draining. Craig Rennebohm of the Mental Health Chaplaincy in Seattle has worked with the chronically homeless, mentally ill for decades and might be a great resource for you folks. They have some great resources for folks and churches engaging  these souls.

  6. I work in Seattle as a case manager and peer specialist. ( A peer specialist is someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness, bipolar in my case, has learned how to live in balance and recovery, and provides insight to both clients and fellow mental health professionals).

    I work specifically with the homeless population, and all of my clients are living with a behavioral health issue, and many are living with both a mental health and chemical dependency diagnosis.

    To provide a little more context, I was a preaching minister in Phoenix, AZ for about a year prior to my current job, and one of my life passions is to figure out how to build a better bridge between communities of faith and secular organizations that are serving the homeless, and in a broader sense, those living with mental illness.

    I will echo the sentiment that it is dirty, sweaty, and bloody work, sometimes all in the same day, and I will also add that I've learned a few things that may add to this conversation.

    1. Never have I seen Richard's idea of 'moral luck' more on display than in the lives of my clients. Many of them have been born with a brain disease, raised in destructive households, and are traumatized on a daily basis in their quest to survive. Whatever 'choices' they've had are not choices in the way I understand a choice. And the beautiful thing is that, in the face of a living hell, my clients respond to human empathy and affirmation like a tulip to the sunlight. Humanity craves to be acknowledged as humanity.

    2. There are many faith communities (and I hope to learn from them) who are serving the homeless, but there are many who are not. And even more troubling, is that the faith communities that are not serving the homeless and those living with behavioral health issues, seem to be opposed to the idea, for a host of reasons.

    3. Craig Rennebohm  is a highly respected person in Seattle, in both secular and faith communities. I second Gregory's recommendation to utilize his resources.

  7. Dr. Beck -- Gregory's (and Alan T's) comment reminded me of a book that I read a while back.  It was one of the most eloquent and poignant accounts of an individual loving and serving "the least of these" that I have ever heard/read.  The title is 'Radical Compassion: Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor' by Gary Smith, SJ.

    http://ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-voices/21st-century-ignatian-voices/gary-smith-sj/

    This man's witness convinces me of the love of Christ!  I thought you might be inspired as well by his story...

    Blessings, Susan

  8. Dr. Beck,

    Just wanted you to know that I'm using a lot of your thoughts on Isaiah for a sermon this morning. Thanks for sharing encouraging and challenging posts with us. They make my life better.

  9. Thanks Drew. I was just sharing Larry's sermon. We're all just paying it forward.

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