Isaiah’s Fasting Plan
In 1968, trumpeter Louis Armstrong released the timeless anthem, “What a Wonderful World.” This song’s message of hope and optimism makes me smile and think to myself, as Armstrong’s refrain goes, “What a wonderful world.”
Hope and optimism. They form the vaccination that blocks fear and despair, and the requirement for persons to believe that if somehow forced to lie down, one day they will sit up; if they can sit up, one day they will stand up; if they can stand up, one day they will walk; and if they can walk, one day they will run! Hope and optimism: the higher society’s walls, the higher we’ll climb!
The hard truth is that for many, the world really isn’t wonderful. Hope and optimism seem reserved for the well-connected and guarded by policies that allow the privileged to cut line. The swollen river of hopelessness is flooding the lives of scores of us, whether we’re in rural or urban settings; whether we’re quarantined or out of the house; whether we’re red or blue. There is no escaping the fact that hopelessness is all around us and sometimes, in us. The stream of hopelessness and despair can even be found to have seeped through the levees and firewalls of the church, causing many Christians to retreat from social and global responsibility and adopt practices that late Civil Rights leader Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery once said reflected insidious insensitivity and invidious individuality.
How unfortunate it is when faith communities lack faith! How perplexing it is when people labeled as salt of the earth and light of the world lose both taste and visibility. Perhaps for many in the church, faith is a private matter, “between my God and me,” as a congregant remarked after hearing my stewardship sermon. One troubling result of privatized faith is the under dependence on God whose faithfulness gives us new mercies every morning, and an over dependence on ill-gotten privilege and political ideologies that offer great quantities of nothingness with respect to sustainable hope, renewable optimism, and urgent call for love’s visible expression: justice.
Privatized faith was a problem for Isaiah’s people. In the traumatic year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah was called to ministry, to be God’s spokesperson who would summon the people of Israel to break their allegiance to superficial, self-serving worship and fasting, and instead be faithful to God and live up to their true identity as God’s people. Rev. Isaiah tweeted that a true fast, one that glorifies God and draws people closer to God, is one that involves loving service to humanity that breaks the chains of social and political wickedness, unties the thongs of mass incarceration and executions, and liberates the oppressed. Oh, but there was more.
Standing behind his prophetic pre-Zoom pulpit, Isaiah preached that true fasting involves people sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into their houses instead of shelters, and placing their too tight, gently-used, and pre-dry rotting clothes that have not been on their bodies in years onto poor bodies. Isaiah unmuted himself and told the people that when they fasted like this, God’s healing presence would be with them with righteousness leading them and the glory of the Lord following them.
When we consider Isaiah’s fasting plan, we must immediately rethink contemporary Lenten fasting plans often created as bodily weight reduction systems. To what extent does our fasting draw us closer to God and help reduce society’s bloated weight of systemic racism, institutional oppression, and economic exploitation?
I suppose that in times of crisis and scarcity of resources – real or imagined – it is easy to become inwardly focused. Many accept the myth of rugged individualism or the scandal of autonomy as identified by the late Disciples ecumenist Dr. Paul A. Crow, Jr. Both masquerade as valid life choices for Christians, even as in Christ we are one, and are called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Isaiah’s call for true fasting and true faithfulness indicates to us that the recovery of hope and optimism which leads to social healing, righteousness, and the glory of God, does not come through embracing private or nationalistic faith. Instead, this recovery comes when we engage in loving service, in the ministry of social justice, in making peace with our neighbors locally and globally, and in challenging the prevailing attitudes that say, “things can never change.” Each time someone says this, we must rise up and say emphatically and unapologetically, “O yes they can, because we have faith and the faith has us!
Rev. Dr. Jack Sullivan, Jr.
Executive Director, the Ohio Council of Churches;
Elder, Woodland Christian Church, Columbus