A Wine Before Breakfast Meditation on Isaiah 58
by Joanna Manning
A couple of weeks ago, I came across an article in the Toronto Star called ‘We have to pay the rent in Attawapiskat’ The author, Catherine Murton Stoehr who teaches history at Nipissing University, had this to say about the situation that is unfolding at the native reserve:
Stephen Harper is encouraging Canadians to continue believing that we are the generous benefactors of the First Nations People, but this is not true. They have been OUR benefactors since the days of the fur trade, and as a result, we have become one of the wealthiest societies in human history. The bad news is that we have been left holding the bag, and the profits from a 200 year old land heist.
‘Holding the bag’ for past generations is a way of describing what the author of Isaiah 58 is talking about. The faithful remnant of Israel returns from exile in Babylon to the ruined city of Jerusalem. So much for the joyful longing of restoration that we had met in Isaiah 40 to 55. The city that was once the site of so much glory lacks all the government machinery of a kingdom, the religious organization of a temple, the safety of city walls and the security of a workable economy.
But isn’t this very similar to the situation we post-Christendom Christians find ourselves in today? Many churches are empty, some are being sold off, we can’t pay the heating bills for others, and overall membership is in decline.
But does God value huge churches, crowds of worshippers on Sundays and masses of money in the collection plate? This text from Isaiah is summoning the people to begin reconstruction, but it also warns them that in order to reconstruct a city or a church in a way that will find favour with God, they also have to pay the rent for the failures of previous generations, they have to stop using worship as a mere outward gesture that pays lip service to the observance of the law, and to embark on a new beginning where religious observance and the practice of justice are integral to each other.
“They seek me daily,” God says of the returning exiles, “ they long to know my ways, like a nation that wants to act with integrity and not ignore the Law of its God.” “I am here for you” says God, and I WILL answer, “PROVIDED” you remove from your midst all oppression, finger pointing and malicious talk.
This post-Christendom text from Isaiah reminds me of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the difference between cheap grace and costly grace.
Writing and preaching at the time of the rise of Nazism in Germany, Bonhoeffer saw that the collapse of the Christian church’s resistance to the Nazi onslaught was due to the fact that church leaders sold out to Hitler for a mess of pottage. In seeking to keep the churches open for religious observance on Sundays, religious leaders were enticed into accepting what Bonhoeffer called the cheap grace conferred by the practice of outward religiosity on Sundays, in return for turning a blind eye and keeping silence about the atrocities being perpetrated on the Jews and others during the rest of the week. And so Isaiah asks, “Is this the sort of fast that pleases me? Behold on the day of your fast, and on the holy day, you pursue your own interest and oppress all your workers.”
The fruit of that decision to take the easy way out, to separate religious observance from the practice of justice under Nazism can be seen in the widespread dismissal of religion in Europe today as irrelevant, and the abandonment of the church practice in so many countries after the Second World War.
But what of the church today? Are we willing to open up the bag handed on to us from the past? “The faithful church envisioned by Isaiah,” says Walter Brueggemann, “is not called to replicate dangerous things of another generation, but is being led to the danger peculiar to our time.” It’s not a matter anymore of building new churches or getting people to come in on Sunday and fill the pews.
Brueggemann names two of the great questions of our time as the lack of will amongst the powerful to address concrete poverty and injustice, and the drive to an ever more comfortable life while ignoring its environmental impact on “God’s watered garden” in Isaiah’s words.
In other words, in the words of Isaiah, we cannot run away or hide from the needs of our own kin. Rich and poor, we are all connected, we are all part of one human family. Even though the politics of class warfare and division are being stirred up in our city, the church must proclaim a different message: that we and all our decisions have an impact not just on one another but also to the earth. The poor are our family, the earth is mother to us all. And I think that the folks at St. James Cathedral got it right when they supported the Occupy Toronto encampment last fall in the grounds of the cathedral .
But where is our current drive towards a mission church, towards new church plantings and towards a new evangelism leading us?
Are we prepared to acknowledge and repent for the mistakes of the Christendom, for the church that valued power, wealth and social status in previous generations, or are we simply going to dress up the old wolves of control, economic and social power in the sheep’s clothing and label it as emerging church? Where is the hard work, the costly grace of true repentance happening?
Endless discussions about the right kind of worship, or about the full admittance of certain groups such as homosexuals to marriage or the priesthood or episcopacy is not the kind of church polity that pleases Yahweh.
“This is the observance that pleases me: Remove the chains of injustice, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.” In Isaiah 56, God has also singled out foreigners and eunuchs as those who are to be included as full members of the community in the new post-exilic community.
So it is the ethic and practice of inclusiveness and justice that needs to inform communal worship, and not vice versa. We must start, in other words, from the street, from the margins and only then go into the sanctuary. We may in fact find that street level, outside the walls of the church, is where God has pitched a tent, and where the new sanctuary, the holy place, should be.
I find myself thinking a lot about this at this juncture in my life. For most of my life, I have been on the outside of the church’s structure in a place of marginalization and exile. But now, since ordination, I’m part of the inner structure. I get letters from the diocese addressed to “the Rev Joanna Manning”! All of a sudden, I’ve become an insider. But I’m also realizing that, by bringing the perspective of the outsider, the exile, into the inside circle, my destiny may very well be to turn things inside out.
All of us who call ourselves Christian have the opportunity to offer a new face of the church to the world outside. Not the face of privilege, legitimacy and entitlement, but to do the hard work of repentance from our past triumphalism and seek instead to be a humble partner in dialogue with the rest of society. To practice radical hospitality. To listen to those who have been on the outside and to bring them in. To challenge those on the inside to get out and see life from a different perspective, that coming to church on Sunday is not a haven where we can go through the door but leave the other injustices of our real lives on the steps.
The parish of All Saints Sherbourne in Toronto, where I work part time, is a church that is reinventing itself from the outside in. A hundred years ago and earlier, this was the centre of an affluent and influential congregation. The church fell on hard times when Dundas and Sherbourne became a neighborhood populated by pretty desperate and marginalized people, and the good Christian people took fright and fled, and the diocese was left holding the bag of a large building in a state of decay.
But this church is now rising again as an imaginative and creative centre of community restoration and radical hospitality. A bakery is planned that will offer employment, and we are talking about a safe house for women who have been trafficked into the sex trade or trapped in abuse. It’s not through what happens at Sunday worship that is the centre of this, but the growth is happening from the outside in, as the doors are opening to the neighborhood. The street is coming in to the sanctuary and we’re learning how to be church from the outside in.
And so I find myself increasingly drawn, especially during this Black History month, towards the vision of church put forward by Dr. Martin Luther King when he spoke and wrote about the church as ‘The Beloved Community.’ “The holy outcasts of society” he wrote, “and the blessed community must go together.” “Without this vision of the restored Beloved Community, the holiness ascribed to the poor would fall short of politics and result in a mere perpetuation of charity and service activities.”
What a wonderful commentary on today’s reading from Isaiah. It is when we as church, are willing to wash the feet of the holy outcasts, to give ourselves to the needs of the hungry and shelter the homeless poor and to risk advocating for them amongst our own kin, it’s then that we will rebuild the ancient ruins, reconstruct the age-old foundations and restore the streets of our city for all to dwell in.