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In the Desert, a Healing Spring -- Isaiah 58:1-12 (First Sunday in Lent)

In January, not long after Advent, the Worship Team gathered to start thinking about Lent. One of our main goals was to envision together a theme that might shape our experience of the Lenten season this year. We began with prayer and scripture, and then we talked a little bit about what Lent means to each of us – our journey with Jesus toward Holy Week and the cross.

Then, we opened up conversation to talk about where we are this year – to talk some about the life of the church – what we are experiencing together. Folks of course mentioned the pastoral transition – the loss of a beloved pastor, as Joanne Whitt retired – the uncertainty of moving into an unfamiliar future. We were in the midst, then, of remembering and celebrating the lives of Lila Rittenhouse and Diane Baumsteiger, so we talked about grieving the loss of those we love. We talked about the hardship that folks face living in a very expensive Marin County – as rents rise, and the housing supply is short. We talked about the full range of life’s transitions – particularly for senior adults – as folks downsize, and contemplate moves. And we talked about this congregation’s engagement in climate emergency, and how overwhelming it was feeling. We talked about our work in the world, and how the congregation was preparing to move more deeply into our study of racism, and to think hard about work we can do to help repair the harm that racism has caused.

We got all those things up on the board, and then we sat for a minute – in holy silence – because those are holy and tender and serious things. Our conversation then brought us to this theme – In the Desert, a Healing Spring– as we realized that in the joy and love of our life together – we are also experiencing plenty of parched places– desert places – in our lives and in the world. Desert places, thirsting for a healing spring.

As we come to Isaiah 58, the folks there are experiencing their own desert places. Scholars think that this was likely written as the people were returning from exile.[1] Seventy years earlier they had ben conquered; Jerusalem and the Temple had been razed to the ground; and they had been taken into captivity in Babylon. But then, seven decades later, the Babylonian Empire is conquered by the Persian Empire – and the Persian king lets them go home. And so here they are, returning to the rubble of their lives, crawling over the rubble, trying to rebuild the lives that they – or their parents and grandparents – once knew. They are a hurting people.

And when I remind myself of that when I read this Scripture, I always wonder – Why is the prophet yelling at them?

So here’s the thing. They’ve come back to the rubble – and they start to rebuild. But they start to rebuild the structures that they’ve known in captivity. They rebuild the systems of oppression that they knew in Babylon – that they knew even before Babylon – the systems of oppression that got them into trouble in the first place – systems where some are held down low, so that others might be raised up. To be sure, they are people who are hurting – but some people are hurting more. The poor are hurting more. People are starving; people are living in the streets, in the rubble, without shelter; people are cut off, even from their own families.

Rather than using their freedom to rebuild a new and better world, they return to old ways. What they do is they put all their attention into getting religious practices right – as if that were the way to get God’s attention –without thinking much about the life that they are living together. They fast, while they forget to feed the hungry. They rend their garments, while folks go without clothing. They are living lives that are beside the point.

They are a people who are both hurting and causing harm. And what they need, for all that, is healing. The prophet is yelling at them to get their attention. God wants to bring healing for all that – for all the ways that they hurt, and for all the ways that they are harming each other. God’s healing and saving power is that big. And God is ready! Shout it out! Pay attention!

As we start our Lenten conversation about healing, I want to underscore that. As we live in and move through this complex world, we know what it is to hurt – we know our individual desert places. And as we move through the world, we also participate in all the ways that we harm each other. Both of those things are true. And we are going to talk about all that. God’s healing power is about all that – all the ways that God wants to make us whole – and to empower us to live whole and healing lives.

But maybe we should start by talking about healing – and maybe come up with a working definition that we can build on as we go. Healing is all about wholeness. That’s actually where the word comes from. Healing comes from the Old English word for whole – the Old English word for “not hurting.” In its linguistic roots, healing is the opposite of hurting. Think of the Hebrew word shalom, which usually gets translated as peace – but carries with it this sense of “wholeness.” Both healing and shalom express something about all the ways that God is making things whole – complete.

We should also say that “healing” is a broader concept than “cure.” Cure is eliminating all evidence of a disease or condition, with finality. “Healing” encompasses the full range of ways we move toward wholeness -- including cure, andall the care, and all the efforts that make life better, at every level of our being – bodily healing, spiritual healing, community healing global healing. And we can pray for both – we pray for specific healing for specific hurts, and then we can stand ready for all the ways that God is loving us and moving us toward wholeness and healing.

Healing is God’s love at work, in us and around us, moving us and the whole world toward wholeness. Let’s start there.

And then, as we build this out, this Scripture offers us these amazing images, each of which offers us glimpses of what healing looks like, glimpses to add to our understanding.

Just as soon as the prophet has the people’s attention, God says this – offers this image – “Is not this the fast that I choose – to loose the bonds of injustice – to let the oppressed go free – to break every yoke.” The yoke is the bar of wood that holds animals together as they do their work. Throughout the Old Testament, it is used as a symbol of slavery and oppression. In our day, we might think in terms of chains – breakthe chains of injustice. As one writer says, “to loose the yoke means to offer freedom and release for people who have been used for someone else’s gains.”[2] To breakthe yoke is to dismantle the systems of oppression. Healing includes – it requires – the liberation of people once and for all. And so the prophet lists concrete acts of healing:

· feed the hungry

· shelter those living in the streets

· satisfy the needs of the afflicted

That last one is big – it involves letting suffering people identify their needs, so that we can be part of meeting those needs.[3] Healing involves freedom. Break the yoke.

And then we see this image – “God will make your bones strong.” This reminds us that healing involves and includes our bodies. Over Lent, we’ll be talking about all kinds of healing, but I don’t want to lose sight that healing includes our bodies. Throughout the Scriptures, God creates our bodies, knits our bodies together in our mother’s womb, breathes life into our bodies, loves our bodies, heals our bodies, re-creates our bodies. Our bodies are the medium through which we experience the world – and they are an essential medium through which we experience the healing love of God.

When we take the precautions that we are talking about to prevent the spread of the Corona virus, we are participating in God’s healing of our bodies. We are helping to prevent the spread of disease. When we don’t shake hands, but bow to each other, part of what we are communicating is a deep respect for each other’s body and life. Part of what we are communicating is an earnest hope for wholeness and healing. “I pray for you wholeness and healing.” Now that’s a passing of the peace.

Healing involves freedom; it involves our bodies; it involves each of us as individuals – and then we come to these amazing communal images. The people are crawling over the rubble of their individual and collective lives, and God says: “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt. You shall be called the repairer of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.” Healing involves the rebuilding, and repair, and restoration of communities – communities whole and healed.

We will be diving deep into this concept of “repair” in our Sunday Seminars during Lent. As Raqel expressed last Sunday and as you’ll see in the bulletin, we are entering a study and a conversation about “reparations” – the all-in work of repairing the centuries-long, continuing harm of American racism and white supremacy. We’ll say true things about the harm that racism causes, our part in it, the way we benefit – and we will also look for work to do – work to dismantle the systems and heal the harm – work tailored to heal the harm as identified by those who have been hurt. (Hmmm. Maybe it is more of a command than a promise when God says: “You will be repairers of the breach.”)

Healing includes the repair and restoration of communities. Restorers of streets to live in. It includes life.

And that brings us to the images at the heart of our Lenten theme. God says – as you engage in this healing work, as you work for the wholeness of each other and the world, “Your healing will spring forth quickly... you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” Healing encompasses all the ways that God is moving us toward wholeness, and it is always all about life. In the desert, a healing spring.

And there’s one more healing image here – “Then, your light shall break forth like the dawn.” Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen – clinical professor of family medicine at UCSF – describes healing by telling a story that her grandfather, a rabbi, used to tell. She calls the story “The Birthday of the World,”[4] and it goes like this:

In the beginning, God created the world, and the brilliant light of the world emerged out of darkness. But then, there was an accident. And the vessels holding the light – holding the wholeness of the world – broke – and the light of the world was scattered into thousands of fragments of light. The fragments of light fell into and became hidden in the things of the world – in the events of the world, in people and creatures. In you and in me.

Now as Dr. Remen’s rabbi grandfather tells it, we humans are born with the capacity to find this hidden light – the light that is hidden in all events and all people – and to lift it up and make it visible. And by doing that – finding the light and making it visible – glimmer by glimmer by glimmer – we restore the innate wholeness of the world. This task, in Hebrew, is called “tikkun olam” – the restoring, the healing of the world. It is a collective task that involves all of us [motion to whole congregation] – and every bit of us [motion to whole of self]. Dr. Remen says that by doing this – by finding and lifting up the light in all things – we “heal the world, one heart at a time.”

Healing is God’s love at work, in us and around us,

moving us and the whole world toward wholeness.

Feed the hungry. Shelter those living on the streets. Satisfy the needs of the afflicted.

And your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will spring up quickly. Your light will rise in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noonday sun. God will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong. And you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall be called repairers of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

In the desert, you will find, and you will be... a healing spring.

© 2020 Scott Clark

[1] The background of Isaiah 58 (generally thought to be part of Third Isaiah) is drawn from Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66” in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol.6 (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2001), and Tyler Mayfield and Jon L. Berquist, Commentaries in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2(Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2010). [2] Jon L. Berquist, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2(Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2010), p.5. [3] Berquist, p.7. [4] This telling of the story comes from an interview with Dr. Remen on Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being,

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