Isaiah 58:1-9 is a challenging text about people who go through the motions of religion so that they don’t actually have to do what religion calls for. If you act like you’re doing what God wants, maybe you won’t have to do what God wants.
So, Isaiah says, you guys are fasting according to the law, but while you fast you spend all your time squeezing every last shekel out of the poor while you even underpay the guys who work for you. Hey! What exactly do you think biblical fasting is for, Isaiah wants to know?
It’s to share literally gut-level experience with people who don’t have enough to eat. It’s to walk their walk with them so you’ll feel what they feel, know what they know, and care about what they care about.
The point of fasting is to be more like your neighbor so you can love your neighbor more like yourself.
If you’re busy stealing the little that the poor have left, while at the same time you’re fasting, you’ve kind of missed the point.
It’s not what you do. It’s what you do it for. What matters is what you’re really up to, appearances notwithstanding. Your action in fasting might look right, but if your motive is to fool God and to squeeze others, then God, “to whom all hearts are open and from whom no secrets are hid,” is not fooled.
So the thought we’re going to work with in this sermon is really simple: It’s not what you do; it’s what you do it for. It’s not your beliefs; it’s how you act on your beliefs.
Sometimes your beliefs are fine but your motives are dark. Sometimes both are just fine. The trick is knowing the one from the other in actual experience.
Now let’s have some fun. Let’s talk about Republicans and Democrats.
We have a great divide in our country. One way (among others) to picture it is as a divide between small government and big government, between the government that governs the least and the government that gets into everything. With increasing ferocity, the tenor of our times has brought us to believe it’s got to be one way or the other. Black or white. They’re mutually exclusive, so it’s zero sum. Every gain by one is a loss by the other.
Really? Here’s a different and somewhat higher perspective.
I don’t think God cares if you’re a small-government guy or a big-government guy. I don’t think God cares if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. I think God cares if you’re a Christian.
Put a little differently, I think God cares a lot less about what you profess to believe than what you actually do in the name of those beliefs. Again, not what you do, but what you do it for.
A core principle of the right is that people who are self-motivated, energetic, entrepreneurial, and persistent deserve to succeed and will be who they were created by God to be. That’s a great belief, right and noble.
A core principle of the left, on the other hand, is that, despite our best efforts, there can only be so many opportunities to rise in an economy, and there are going to be many people, no matter their entrepreneurial spirit or lack of it, who will be blocked, and the society must take some responsibility to help them.
That’s great stuff, too. Generous.
But that brings us to the heart of it. In both seemingly opposite core values there is potential for tremendous goodness and health. However, in both core values, there is also the opportunity for selfishness, mean spirit, if not outright greed.
It’s not what you do, it’s what you do it for.
The dark side of the right’s idea of self-sufficiency kicks in when we stop caring about people who can’t take of themselves to our satisfaction, blame them for their inadequacies, and shut them even further out of the system. That’s the ticket to becoming judgmental and mean.
The dark side of the left’s policy of taking care of others kicks in when it’s done to self-promote and feel good about one’s self while keeping the other person in perpetual dependency. That’s the ticket to becoming a smug and superior limousine liberal.
Seeing clearly about real motivation, though, is one of the greatest problems in human nature. The problem is that we see our opponent’s real motivations with diamond sharp clarity while we take the purity of our own pure for granted and fail to examine ourselves very closely. That, as I say, is human nature.
So Republicans are always mean, Democrats say. Democrats are so naïve, Republicans say. And sure, those things are right. Some of the time. But God wants us to do better. The hard thing that Christians do is to see when the dark take on the opposition is not right, in other words, on those occasions when the opposition’s integrity is alive and well in actual practice.
For our faith challenges us to understand that there’s more to the health of our common life than the rightness of our own beliefs and actions. We are challenged to perceive the ways and times in which the other side is bringing its version of goodness and rightness to bear. That means engaging in conversation and listening. It means speaking forthrightly and honestly without rhetoric, condescension or intimidation. It means taking perspectives other than our own seriously.
Sometimes small government is right, but not always. Sometimes government intervention is right, but not always. The trick is knowing the right thing to do at the right time.
To see and respect the integrity of your opponent requires not only great perceptiveness, but great courage and great self-confidence. Self-confidence, because it must be bedrock truth for me that the goodness of my opponents’ beliefs and actions do not take away from the goodness of my own. Life does not need to be zero sum, where every gain by one side is a loss for the other, always balancing out to zero. Life is only zero sum when, out of anger, fear, arrogance, smugness, superiority or just plain meanness, we are unwilling to see that we are all in this together, that we will rise or fall together, that we are all part of something greater.
Republicans and Democrats have their own unique gifts to offer in the service of God’s vision for our life together.
For those gifts to be offered successfully, we must embrace Isaiah’s fast, which, in our time, calls us to fast from indulging in malicious mistrust of other people’s different gifts, to fast from indulgence in politicizing everything to the point that there is no mutuality left, to fast from building ourselves up at the expense of the other.
And do not concern yourself whether they’re taking Isaiah’s fast seriously in Washington or not. If you believe in democracy, as good Republicans and good Democrats always have, then you have to believe that goodness and wisdom rise up from the ground level, not down from the political peak.
Goodness and wisdom start right here, in this town, in this congregation, on your block, in your household. We are the light on the hill. How we treat one another in this church and in this town is where light breaks through in the world.
So let’s be good Republicans. Let’s be good Democrats. And let’s be Christians.
Be the salt of the earth and the light on the hill. And your God will delight in you and dwell here with you, not off in heaven or Washington D.C., but right here in Killeen.
The Rev. David Hoster is a priest at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Killeen.