Isaiah is interesting today. These chapters come in a time of national recovery. We are in the 58th chapter, and what we have might be the four cornerstones for how to live, how to construct a good life, following a disaster. All ethics are situational and the situation in chapter 58 is building a new life after the old life has fallen apart. As we come out of the dark days, how should we proceed? What matters in our lives now? How do we rebuild?
Now you may not be coming through a dark chapter in your life. You may not be shopping for a post disaster ethic. We go through long stretches of stability when we count our blessings. That’s true. But disasters have a way of creeping up on us. Sometimes the problems looming on the horizon may be more public than private.
This week I was up in the Fox River Valley, an area more conservative than Madison. I saw one of those new fancy electronic bill boards on the highway. It was for a real estate firm. There were two pictures side by side: one of Hillary Clinton, one of Donald Trump. Both looked pretty grumpy. The line of the ad was simply the word Canada? Then at the bottom the billboard were the words: We can help you sell your home. And a phone number.
Probably no matter who wins, at least 20 percent of Americans will feel like the election is a national disaster. Canada may be considered by people of all political stripes. But after you get to Canada, then what? What would be the principles for living in your post-disaster world? On a day to day basis?
In Isaiah 58 there are four simple principles for recovery. First, quit pointing the finger at others. Stop blaming other people. Look into your own heart to understand the reasons things do not go well. Just stop blaming others. Take the responsibility.
Second, stop whining and start to speak well of yourself and others. It’s not complicated. Shape or mold your mind and words around the positive dimensions of your life and world.
Three, care for those in need, especially the most vulnerable, the sick, the poor, the widow and orphan. They need your help. Just do it.
And fourth, honor the sacred. In Isaiah this is the Sabbath. But in our post Christian age of the radically secular, hyper critical, deeply cynical, demythologizing reduction of everything to the empty materialism which marks our march to the banal; recovering at least a little respect for the sacred is not a bad thing. Show some respect not only for your own beliefs and traditions but for the sacred beliefs and traditions of others.
So that’s it. Stop pointing the finger. Speak well of yourself and others. Help those in need. And respect the beliefs which have sustained us all. And whether you decide after the election to head to Canada or to stay here, those four principles will serve all of us well.
Now Jesus is doing some meta-ethics in the final reading on these four basic principles. He’s not really changing the basic four, but he is considering their relative importance and the decisions that sometimes must be made. It is clear that in the Christian community of Luke, the most important of the four principles is to care for those in need. It’s more important than the sacred Sabbath thing, or how we speak. It’s more important than what we think, or our personal political persuasion. When we need to make choices we are to care for those in need. In Canada, in Madison, in our lives whether things are somewhat stable or we are in deep recovery.
Now what should we do with that reading from Hebrews. We read it because our second readings at this time of the year slowly work their way through the book of Hebrews. Hebrews is reshaping belief in Jesus at a time of intense change in the religious habits of the first century. Whatever the gods, Greek, Roman, Hebrew; sacrifice and temple worship is suddenly dying. It’s a big cultural shift. Sacrifice, temples, and priests are out no longer attractive. Nobody is coming to church anymore with a goat to kill to appease their god. Instead, people are gathering in small groups to share in intimate and mystical rituals of community, to talk about God, and to build an ethic in their troubled times.
And Hebrews portrays Christianity as part of this new cultural shift. Jesus is the final sacrifice, making continued sacrifice of animals unnecessary. Jesus fulfills the sacrificial requirement. So what we need to do now is build a new faith. Faith, the faith of the person and the intimate group becomes the important thing. And all through Hebrews the new virtue is faith or trust in God’s presence with us through Jesus.
Although the words and issues of Hebrews may seem strange to us; we are also in the midst of a great cultural shift in religion. As we look at the book, we may gain some insights for navigating our own way through transitions, cultural shifts, and deep personal changes.
In transitions things get compounded. Hebrews is really good at compounding the point, adding phrase upon phrase, example upon example, to make the point. In times of transition things get compounded. Now that can be bad, when we are in the negative stream and we just keep piling on. But it can also be good, like compound interest, when we are headed in the right direction. Think about how things become compounded in your transitions. How when it rains it pours. And when the sun shines, all seems good.
In transitions things get compounded. And in transitions the old is not discarded, but reshaped. Hebrews is built on a reinterpretation or renewal of the old sacrificial system and the old Hebrew ways. They are all reinterpreted rather than discarded. Abraham, the catalog of saints, mountains, blood all take on different, deeper, and more intimate meanings. Think about how the past is used to give meaning to the future. We need the past to shape the future in times of change.
And also in Hebrews in transitions, sometimes the old is used to pivot. We have one of those pivots this morning in this reading. The God of Mount Sinai, who was too overwhelming to approach, has become the God of Mount Zion, the God of your intimate future. The sense of God’s awe inspiring presence is used as a pivot to speak of a God who inspires through Jesus. This inspiring God desires nothing more than for us to stop pointing fingers, to speak well of others, to care for those in need and to honor the sacred: all in the name of Jesus. In times of transition and change, Hebrews lifts up the importance of living this simple life of faith, and sharing that faith with others, using our past to understand our future, using our past to pivot as needed, and compounding the goodness God intended for all creatures.