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Reach Out And Touch

by Nail-Bender inNC

based on Isaiah 58:1-12

When I was a young boy I had a great aspiration --

More than anything I wanted to grow up and be a fireman I think this desire started while I was on a field trip with Ms. Delecroy's kindergarten class We went down to the oldest firehouse in Macon, Ga., which is also one of the oldest in the nation It contained just about everything there was to engage a young boy's imagination There were the bright red gleaming fire engines into which we were able to climb The large hook and ladder truck with axes and polished equipment attached to its sides There were the lockers with all the fire-fighter's coats and helmets There was all sorts of other equipment, each item having some fascinating use for a small and wonder filled boy

But most of all, there were just the grandest things Two gleaming fire poles which disappeared through the second floor and extended all the way to the third floor sleeping quarters And I was certainly just going to bust with joy and excitement when we were allowed to slide down them, through the floor, into the engine room And I could just imagine the ringing of the bells, jumping into my big coat and shiny red helmet, and flying down those poles -- Certainly life could be no better than that ... certainly, to be a fireman would have just about been the best thing ever

Well, the years go by and life seems to sometimes unfold in ways which we could never imagine as young children

Yet today, if I am honest, there are times when I sometimes wished I had pursued that childhood dream I still think it would be an exciting occupation and one to which I might have been fairly adept

Of course, there is the long hours of training, the standard 24-48 hour shifts away from home, the long boring hours when training is done and nothing is happening Then there is the tough physical conditioning, and the living in close quarters for extensive periods of time, and oh yes, lest I not forget, the danger of fighting fires Well maybe, I could just claim to be a fireman What if I went out and bought a red fire-helmet and boots and a heavy fireman's jacket And maybe I could find a used fire truck, I've seen them for sell before Maybe I could get a Dalmatian, it seems that would sure give me that--fireman look And I have a second floor in our house, it probably wouldn't be too difficult to install a brass pole from the second to the first floor Then I could look like a fireman, act like a fireman, drive a fire-truck, ring the bell and blow the siren I could own a Dalmatian, install a brass fire pole, and slide down it each time I wanted to go to the first floor I could even tell fire stories But in the end, I might fool some people, and maybe even fool myself -- The truth would be, that if I refused to put out fires, I would still not be a fireman

Now, the church addressed by the prophet in our scripture text today, is a bit like this analogy You see, in this passage we view a church which is coming together in a community of faith They seek God every day, and they delight to know his ways They want to know how they may enter into relationship with him and what he requires They appear to be doing the things as required by the law and seem to be holy Ostensibly, they are a righteous nation and a good peoples and they inquire from the prophet what they should do --

In response to their question, they are asked by the prophet

"Why is it that you have fasted?"

And their response is that they have humbled themselves and that they have come before God in fasting and worship, they have come into the formal setting of religion and have been religious before their God

But the prophet sees through and unmasks their charade For like me claiming to be a fireman while refusing to fight fires ... They too were seeking to be defined in such a way which was not a truthful reflection of their actual existence They wanted to claim a worshipful relationship with God, however, they were refusing to do the things which God considered worshipful In the final analysis, the fasting which they undertook did not honor God at all It only acted as another barrier between themselves and a God who deeply longed for their obedience and sought to uplift their existence

And what was this worship that God sought, what was this true expression of honoring God, What was this thing which God so deeply yearned for from God's children --

Was it to sing wonderful songs to the glory of a mighty God? Was it building tombs to the prophets and decorating the graves of the righteous? Was it to stand in the market place and shout prayers to the people? Was it to enter into the temple and offer a sacrifice upon the alter?

 

No, the fast which God chooses, the thing which God would like God's people to do which most honors him is this -- To feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to clothe the naked God's fast is to seek to overturn oppression of all kinds -- physical, emotional, economic, and spiritual oppression God's fast is to minister to the afflicted in our midst God's fast is for us to reach out and to seek to love a hurting world

Now this text does not stand alone, it stems from a long line of prophetic discourse: Hosea, Amos, Micha, Jeremiah and Ezekiel

And then we hear Jesus repeat so much of this scripture in his ministry and indeed, add to in an ever deeper call to love God through loving our neighbor when he speaks of the greatest commandment --

Matthew 22:37-40 He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Now, I must tell you -- I am very confused when I look at the state of the church today, for it seems that so many have forgotten this central message Indeed, I am amazed when we, in the contemporary church, put so much emphasis on liturgical expression -- our worship services, our music, our communal public prayer, and so little time on the things which God clearly says honor him, reaching beyond our sanctuaries and into the world with compassionate and caring love

Moving out into the world where Jesus walked and ministered, out into that place where the messiness of life takes place

Now please, please, don't misunderstand me, I do not advocate that we should stop having worship services, singing good hymns, or coming together in communal prayer -- these are all extremely important features in our understanding of who we are as a people of faith in relationship to God Indeed coming together in this place is essential to our relationship to God and our relationship to the faith community, for we cannot be a Christian apart from the Body - there is no such thing as an individual Christian

Certainly to come together in this place is deeply satisfying to the soul and deeply meaningful in our struggle to be a people of faith Yet, when these things become the sole focus of our coming together, when these things become the only purpose of our being, brothers and sisters, if the things we do in here have no connection with the things we do out there if in our faith sojourn we have no room for the poor, the marginalized, the weak, those who have no voice then we cease to honor God The prophets and indeed, Jesus himself, make this abundantly clear And Jesus never seems to condemn those around him for maliciousness, only blindness "You don't see," he says, "You do not see."

 

But .... and here is the promise, here is the message of today's text, here is the point to which we must focus --- When we seek to love, and we allow Jesus to enter our communal life as a people of faith -- Then God's promise will be fulfilled and God will act in our midst Our need will be met, and the joy of his salvation will enter our realm The Holy Spirit will act in our lives in exciting ways which will bring light to places of darkness and sew hope in places of despair In closing, I would like to leave you with a story which speaks to our situation It is a story of transformation ... it is a story of Emmanuel, God with us In October 1988, as I was just entering this life of service, I was asked to take part in a local mission work team from Camp Ground United Methodist Church. I had not participated in this "servant oriented" worship before and truly did not know what to expect; yet, my friend, Bruce had asked me to go, and at that point in my life, I really needed a friend

I knew that there was something missing in my faith journey I wasn't sure what was missing, but I thought, well the other guys are going, and I might as well go too, so I went. When we arrived at the sight, I was overwhelmed by the level of need. The home was lived in by Ms. Baker, a 102 year old woman and, Hattie-Mae, her 82 year old daughter. Neither was in good health; yet, their exuberance for life and love for God was like the excitement of children. But though their spirits were bright, their home was not. They were either unable or unwilling to discard their rubbish. (I did not understand this behavior at the time. I do understand now.)

Their home was full of what only can be described as garbage. Hundreds of old newspapers, scores of out-dated magazines, empty milk containers, cereal boxes, worn clothing, and a myriad of other articles filled every niche and cranny of their home.

From floor to ceiling, all one could see was refuse. The home had recently been flooded and now all of this material was rotting. The stench was almost unbearable. And on top of this smell, when we arrived they were cooking collards. Now I'm not sure if many of you have ever cooked up a big mess of collards My mother used to do it all the time, and though I love collards, the smell of those things on a sticky hot summer day is just about overwhelming

 

You mix this in with a house-full of rotting garbage… well, you get the picture I'm not sure I have ever smelled anything as bad.

Worse, before the flood, Ms. Baker, had owned some chickens She told us, "Them waters came on up and I don't know where them chickens got to. You know I felt badly for her, a poor woman who had lost the source much of her food

Yet, as we cleaned the area in order to work on and repair the house, I began to feel less and less empathy for her For you see, I kept finding where them chickens got to … There in the rubbish, were the flat carcasses of drowned chickens

It was certainly not a very appealing work environment

But as we began to attempt to work on that very rotten porch, a remarkable event occurred. I was putting in some of the porch decking, when there Ms. Baker came Hobbling out so that she could keep an eye on us as the work progressed And she stood there in front of where I was working, bent and crippled from 102 hard years, framed by her rotten doorway, with the massive pile of filth as her backdrop …

Suddenly, I was overwhelmed. For there in front of me, stood Jesus. There, in the body of this frail and broken women, stood Christ. There, in the midst of the stench, and the refuse, and the dirt, the light of God's Kingdom shone around me and Jesus called to me.

And he calls to us, you know… He calls us to come and find him and minister to him, and he will minister to us He beckons to us to come and meet him in the lives and the hurts and the joys of those which we might rather forget He calls us to go with him to the places that society has forgotten

In the face of that 102 year old women, Jesus says, "I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and in prison and you visited me.

For I tell you, when you do unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.

What a wonderful thing it is to touch the King.

How many times do we you pass Jesus in our daily lives? How many times did we pass him on our way to Church today? Ms. Baker lived on a street that I traveled often. I must have passed by her house at least 50 times and never even knew it was there I was not malicious … only blind Make no mistake, Jesus is here -- in this world with us -- and calls to us in the plea of a small hungry girl, or in the cry of an elderly woman living in a house which is slowly falling down around her, or in the person of a homeless, dirty, and confused man ... or in a myriad of other voices

Children of God, Jesus has shared a remarkable experience of Grace with you through his life, crucifixion, resurrection,

Don't take this remarkable truth lightly…there is a reason for his gift.

Everyday, Jesus comes to each one of us, and offers us the possibility to reach out and touch him Jesus wants you to be His instrument in the world and share this same grace with those who so need our hands …and hearts …and love …and hope.

In the end

The picture of a laughing little boy on a gleaming fire pole is a joyous memory which is deeply cherished, but it is nothing more than a faded picture when compared to the joyous realm of the kingdom. A kingdom which is revealed to us by a loving Redeemer, when we truly seek to love and honor God. May God give us the courage to seek to worship in the fast which God chooses. Amen.


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Frank Schaefer, for JavaCasa Resources and the Desperate Preacher's Site, 1999