(Isaiah 58.1-5) We continue our sermon theme: Life Together, inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book by the same name. Today we think about “The Day’s Work.” Bonhoeffer reminds us that just because we are not within the walls of the church doesn’t mean we are not doing worshipful work. In our shared work of service and care, we practice together the work of worship.
Story One: Animal Farm
George Orwell’s 1945 novel Animal Farm tells the story of the animals of Manor Farm. They are under the harsh rule of the farmer. He drinks too much. He is violent with the animals. He even beats some of them with a whip. One day, the animals have had enough. They decide to revolt. They run off the farmer and his wife and set up their own society, with their own rules.
Life is good. They make decisions together, there is enough food for everyone, and everyone is taken care of. One of the main rules of the farm is this: All Animals are equal.
But over time, trouble begins to brew. A pig named Napoleon starts to take charge of the farm and the rules of the farm. There are power plays between he and some of the other animals, and he starts to gather more and more power. Instead of making decisions together as a group, there is a committee, a party, of a few chosen animals who make the rules for everyone else. Some of the reforms that they promised never come true. Anyone who stands against them disappears by suspicious circumstances. Eventually, some of the larger animals begin disappearing, and it becomes clear that Napoleon and the committee have sold them to the glue factory so that they can buy whiskey.
Finally, near the end of the story, everything has changed. Napoleon and his fellow committee members have started to wear clothes, walk upright, and even carry whips. Some of the other animals peek into the window one night and see them walking around at a dinner party in the farmer’s old house; they remark to each other that they can’t tell the difference between the humans and the pigs anymore. And, what is even worse, the one main rule of the farm has been changed. It now reads, “All Animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
It is a cautionary tale about human nature. How often have we seen throughout history people cry out for justice, but when given an opportunity, given security, given privilege, they fall into the exact same patterns as the oppressors before them? It is human nature to cry out for justice for the victim when we are the victim. But once things are better, we conveniently lose our passion for justice.
All Animals are Equal, but some are more equal than others.
Story Two: The Herald
The herald stands at the entrance to the house of worship, and what he sees breaks his heart.
It is a miracle that they even have a place to worship. Not too much earlier, they found themselves exiled to the kingdom of Babylon. They had sinned – had failed to follow God’s commands of justice for all of the community – and the society had fallen apart under its own greed and self-satisfaction and hoarding. The prophets warned them, but they ignored their calls. As a result of their sin, the Babylonians had destroyed their home – their houses, their Temple, their city – and exiled the rich and powerful off to Babylon.
But the people had cried out for justice. They cried out to God to save them from their Exile. They prayed for a release, for redemption, for a chance to return to the land of promise. And God heard their cries! They were allowed to return to Jerusalem, to their home, and begin to rebuild it. The Temple. The streets. Their houses. The community that they had loved and lost was restored to them!
But now, as the herald stands at the entrance to the house of worship, what he sees breaks his heart. One after one, the people of God leave for their homes. They have just finished their worship, their day of fasting. They have fasted from food for a day and were now returning to their homes to enjoy the feast. Each one, as they left for their homes, was full of self-congratulation. They slapped each other on the back, proud of the way that they had shown God how holy they were. Proud of their own worship. Ready to enjoy a well-deserved feast.
And yet, as they left the worship and walked toward their homes, they passed by those in desperate need in the community. Some were homeless, and had no feast to enjoy; every day was a mandatory fast, simply because they had no food to eat. Others were servants, treated as slaves; their job was to care for the needs of the rich and powerful, to cook their feasts, and to wait hand and foot on those who had the money to eat them. Yet others were afflicted – physically, as they dealt with disabilities that made them powerless and dependent; mentally, as they struggled to keep it together every day and were ridiculed when they could not; relationally, family member fought against family member and instead of taking care of each other, they were left to fend for themselves. These were the unseen.
Except for the herald. The watchman. The prophet. He saw them, and saw the injustice and abuse that they faced. He could take it no more. He railed against the worshippers as they left the Temple: “how could you treat people like this and think that you are pleasing God? How do you think that your day of fasting is what God wants? Can’t you see that you are doing exactly the same thing that you did before the Exile, when the community collapsed because of your injustice? Can’t you see that when you were the victim, you cried out for justice, but now that you are the privileged, you turn a blind eye toward justice?” His anger burned hot at the people of Jerusalem.
All Animals are Equal, but some are more equal than others.
Story Three: Jerry at the Donut Table
Jerry slid into the parking place at the huge church where he and his wife attended. The other three men that he was meeting were already in the car, waiting with the car running. It was the yearly Saturday that the men’s group worked at the Habitat House, and they were riding together to the site early in the morning. As they pulled out, the conversation eventually drifted toward the topic of fasting.
It was the first week of Lent, and they had all seen each other at the Ash Wednesday service a few days earlier. One of the new associate pastors was preaching that night, and she preached on the book of Isaiah. She talked about fasting and asked if anyone was giving something up for Lent. As Jerry was getting into the car, they were all talking about what they were giving up. Jerry had taken it to heart, but he wasn’t sure any of the others were, as he joined the discussion. One was giving up dessert, because his wife made him. Another was giving up Facebook, but was actually happy that he didn’t have to read all those political posts complaining about injustice. The third said he was giving up ESPN, and there was a collective gasp around the car.
“But the Super Bowl!” said one. “And Spring Training,” said another, “and basketball, Mike, basketball! How are you going to make it without basketball?!?”
“Well, that’s the best part. You see, I’m giving up ESPN, and I am sure that God will bless me for my sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean I have to give up all sports. I still have my phone to give me the score updates. And if it gets bad enough, I can watch Fox Sports on cable. I actually think it is a pretty brilliant plan.”
As heads nodded throughout the car, Jerry just rolled his eyes. Before he could talk about his Lent, they started getting closer to the neighborhood where the Habitat house was. And the people in the car were not short on opinions.
“Geez, this place is a dump. You know what these people gave up for Lent…work! And they loved it so much, they decided to live that way!
“I sure that they don’t have a problem showing up in the welfare line for a check though! And I’ll bet they all have as nice a phone as mine.”
“Sometimes, I wonder why we do this, even once a year. Sure, I can hammer a few nails in a board for a few hours, but what I would really like to do is tell them to get a job and buy their own house.”
Jerry could feel his anger rising as they pulled into the lot, but he wasn’t sure what to say, so he got out and found a pair of work gloves. For some reason a line from a book he read in middle school popped in his head: All animals are created equal, but some animals are created more equal than others….”
After a prayer on the job site, Jerry and the men from his church were paired with a middle-aged man named Jason. It took his friends a good fifteen minutes to leave the donut table…the one who had supposedly given up dessert for Lent had at least three by himself, and may have stuck a couple more in his pocket. But eventually, they got to work alongside of Jason. He easily outworked the four of them put together.
Before long, one of the men asked Jason what he did for a living, and he told them his story. “I actually build houses, ironically. I work for a contractor across town. Then, when the union bell goes off for the day, I drive back to pick up the kids from school and get them to a sitter. Then I work a second job for a couple of hours in the evening, before I get the kids home to bed.” One of them noticed his ring and asked about his wife. “Well, she decided a year or two ago that she didn’t want to be married, or be a mom anymore. She is struggling with some mental health issues and I am trying to give her the space to work them out on her own. The kids and I see her every month or so, but she is not really a part of their lives.” Another asked why they didn’t live closer to work….”About the time she left, I got called into the office at work and told that I was being let go. They said it was about my work, but I worked harder than anybody else on the job. There was a new foreman and some of the guys said that he wasn’t crazy about the color of my skin. So all at once, I lost a good job, and lost my life. Needless to say, it has been a rough couple of years.” A couple of the men were getting uncomfortable, until one of them asked Jason where he lived. “Well, pretty soon, I’ll live right here! You all are building my house!”
The men in the group were surprised, and a little taken aback. They were surprised such a hard worker and family man would need a Habitat house. They went back to work, but there was an awkward silence after that.
A few minutes later, three of the men left for the donut table again, leaving Jerry and Jason to work alone. After about fifteen minutes of work, Jerry suggested that they knock off for a break, too. As they walked up to the table, their backs were to them, but Jerry and Jason could hear every word:
“Can you believe this guy? Always an excuse! The color of his skin…I’m sure. Probably drinking on the job. And the way he wears that ring like a victim! What a sob story about his wife and his kids! He didn’t tell us what he other job is…I’ll bet he changes clothes and sits downtown to panhandle every night. As a matter of fact, I thought I recognized him from when my wife and I went downtown last weekend.”
Jerry had heard enough lies and judgments. He walked around the table, and knocked the donut out of one of the man’s hands. “How dare you! Can you even hear yourselves? So proud of yourself for all you give up for God, but you don’t have a clue what real sacrifice looks like. This man works harder for his kids in a day than you do in a week. Did you hear anything that the preacher said a few days ago? Isaiah railed against people just like you! Don’t you understand that the reason why everyone in this neighborhood is hurting is not them…it’s not their laziness. It’s you! Just like the preacher said, when she quoted Dr. King: we are all threads in the same garment…if one of us is hurting, it’s because someone else didn’t do their part! You have worked hard in your life, I’m sure. But you don’t understand that when you work hard, you get rewarded, but when people like this man works hard, he gets a pink slip. Don’t you understand that whenever God is angry in the Bible, it’s because people are smug and self-centered and can’t even see their own privilege! That’s when the community fails. That’s when everything falls apart. Did you even listen to Isaiah…why don’t you listen again?” as he pulled out his pocket Bible. By now, everyone on the site had stopped to listen, as he read from Isaiah:
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;[b]
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
By the time he finished, his friends had all slunk off the job site. Jerry could see them jumping into the car and speeding off to “not watch” ESPN. He walked over to Jason and shook his hand, and thanked him for his hard work, and the way he loved his children. They went back to the house and worked the rest of the day together. Jerry listened to him talk about his work, and they both talked about raising their kids. Jason’s kids came to the site for a couple of hours, and “helped” too, and Jerry took some pictures with them. As the sun started to go down and the tools were picked up for the day, Jason offered Jerry a ride. When they got back to the church, the two men exchanged information, and shared a hug. The “repairer of the breach” waved goodbye to the “restorer of streets to live in” as both thanked God for the other.