Just about everyone has a story to tell about the first time God let you down. Maybe you were 8, 10, or 20 years old. You did everything right, just the way you had been taught. You knelt by your bed, clasped your hands in front of you, & prayed with all your might. You gave yourself away; you held nothing back. You asked God for a sign, a hand, a map, or a cure, & you waited, confidently, for God’s answer to your prayer. Only it never came. Your need was not addressed, not directly anyway, & you either learned to pray another way or else you gave it up altogether, because God turned out to be more stubborn than you had thought – more stubborn or more distant, but in either case, not who you had thought.
Why do we fast & you don’t see? God’s people ask in our reading this morning. Why afflict ourselves & you don’t notice? It is not just an individual complaint; it is a human complaint that affects our lives in community as well as our lives individually. “Why do we worship, but you do not reveal yourself to us? Why do we pray, Sunday after Sunday, for peace, for good health, for safety, but you do not give us those things? Why is the world so far from our desires for it, & why don’t you speak – loudly & clearly – so the whole world can hear?”
God’s silence is stunning, especially for those of us who talk a lot. We think, perhaps, that we can solve the problem by making more noise ourselves, but it is only when we stop, & hush, that the silence can teach us anything: namely, that our disillusionment is not a bad thing. Take the word apart & you can begin to hear what it really means. Dis-il-lusion-ment. The loss of illusion. The end of make-believe. Is that a bad thing? Or a good thing? To learn that God’s presence is not something we can demand, that God’s job is not to reward our devotion, that God’s agenda may in fact be quite different from our own. Is that a bad thing or a good thing to know?
Announce to my people their crime, God says to the prophet Isaiah, to the house of Jacob their sins. They seek me day after day, desiring knowledge of my ways like a nation that acted righteously, that didn’t abandon their God. That is how God answered the chosen people when they wanted to know where he had gone, & it is one of those answers that makes you wish for the silence again. “It is not I who have forsaken you,” God says to the people, “but you have forsaken me. If you cannot hear me, it is because you have strayed far from my voice. It is not I who am ignoring you, but you who are ignoring me.”
The big disillusionment for the chosen people was that God was not where they thought. They thought God was supposed to be with them when they prayed & fasted & studied their scriptures. They thought nothing pleased God more than to find them on their knees, dressed in sackcloth & covered with ashes – but they were wrong.
God was not at their prayer desks with them. God was out in the streets, warming his hands over a can of burning garbage with a bunch of drifters, delivering sacks of groceries down at the trailer park, handing out blankets to those who slept shivering in the bushes. God was not parked in their sanctuaries, waiting for one of them to stop by for a chat. God was in the emergency room at the hospital, in the waiting room at the employment agency, in the lobby at the police station, not only to comfort those who were stuck there but also to stir them up – reminding them of their birthright, their inherent nobility; reminding them that they were the long-lost sons & daughters of heavenly royalty, who were meant for more excellent lives.
Isn’t this the fast I choose, God said to the sackcloth & ashes crowd, releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, & breaking every yoke? The big disillusionment for the chosen people was that they could not serve God without serving their neighbors. Their relationship to God was not separable from their relationship to other people, especially the least of them. They had hoped they could keep their faith a private matter between them & their God, but that turned out to be an illusion.
“It is a great mistake to suppose that God is chiefly interested in religion,” wrote an archbishop of the last century, & Isaiah seems to agree. God is not interested in religion; God is interested in human beings, & particularly in the demolition of our illusions. Illusions such as: that we can hold ourselves apart from one another, that we are not related to one another, that some people are simply destined to be winners & others to be losers & that there is nothing to be done about it, except perhaps to build some walls & install some security systems & relocate some neighborhoods in order to keep the one from spilling over into the other.
Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
I am guilty. Sheryl & I are relocating our neighborhood, leaving the parsonage for a townhome development of new construction in Arcadia. I am leaving to prepare for my retirement years, yes, but also because we are tired of the noise & locking our doors all the time & defending myself against the people I was called to serve. Not the ones inside the church. I do all right with you – I think. It was the ones outside the church who spook me: the cars that congregate in the parking lot late at night; the women who hurl abuse at being given one more phone number to call instead of the help they need; the children who cling to their mother’s legs with eyes 100 years old. They are only the tip of the iceberg, & I know it. I know Lexington is full of catacombs where people exist on very little light & air, where bullets fly & babies’ stomachs growl & old people freeze to death in their beds because they cannot pay their utility bills.
So, I’ve left. I had an illusion that the new development would be different, & so far it has been. I can see open country & clouds & soon the wildflowers will be out. But if I look close enough, I can start seeing other things: the many Hispanics who are doing the construction work, the old trailers sitting next to large brick homes, the old folks at the grocery store with almost nothing in their shopping carts, trying to decide between beans & cereal for dinner. I had an illusion that our new place would be different, but God has disillusioned me.
Hiding ourselves from our kin is not a city issue or a rural issue but a human issue & living with the fact of it is like living with a sore that will not heal. Everywhere you turn, it hurts. In order to hide from your brothers & sisters, you must avert your gaze a lot. You must learn when to look & when not to look. You must plan your routes through town very carefully. Tinting your windows helps or wearing dark glasses. Better yet, stay home altogether, or live somewhere with a guard at the gate. We can do that. That is one of our choices, but if we do, then we should not be surprised when we call on God & get no answer, or leave a message that is never returned, because we cannot hide ourselves from our kin without hiding ourselves from God. Isn’t that a kick in the pants? We cannot defend ourselves against each other without defending ourselves against God.
God has given us another way, a way as old as Isaiah & as up to date as the evening news. We can surrender our illusions of separateness, of safety & superiority. We can leave our various sanctuaries & seek God where God may be found, gathering in the streets – or a bus station – to figure out how to untie the fancy knots of injustice & how to take the yokes of oppression apart. We can pool our resources so that the hungry have bread & the homeless have houses & the naked have something to cover their shame. Above all, we can learn to claim our own kin, asking them what their names are, telling them our own, & refusing to hide from them anymore. Then your light will break out like the dawn, says the Lord, & you will be healed quickly. Then you will call, & the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, ‘I’m here.’
If God is silent, it may be because we are not speaking God’s language yet, but there is still time. God has taught us how to break the silence & has even give us the words: I’m here. They are the words we long to hear, but they are also the words God longs for us to speak – to stand before a brother or a sister in need, & say, I’m here.
Those of us who decide to try it should listen really hard when we are through, because there is likely to be an echo in the air – not silence anymore, but the very voice of God, saying, “Yes. Hello. Welcome home. I am here. I’m here.”