Practicing Faith

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Len Scales
August 21, 2022
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Yesterday was the 30th annual Loaves & Fishes for Nassau! This beloved summer event, serving meals at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Trenton, is one way Nassau offers “food to the hungry.” It is led by expert congregation members! They know the best way to assemble a peanut butter sandwich and can exactly calculate how many meatloaves, brownies, butter pats, and water bottles are needed to serve our neighbors.

When people are dropping off supplies, I love hearing about how Madelyn was the brownie maker and that Agnes’ grandsons and their friends packed lunches including the final touch of a paper butterfly on the bag. I love seeing families and friends show up to serve meals, JB and sons joking with the guests, seasoned and new kitchen crew churning out the potatoes and gravy. Loaves and Fishes is an event that takes everyone’s generosity to pull it off.

AND as important as this late August tradition is, Nassau is aware there is more to following Isaiah’s direction to “offer food for the hungry.” It is why Nassau helped found and continues to support Arm in Arm, with its food pantries and mobile delivery that are reaching new numbers of neighbors each year. It is why we come together every month to donate to the hunger offering. Several of our partner organizations provide food and work toward food security for all.

Because we know “offering food to the hungry” encompasses more than today’s lunch, there is also systemic work to be done. To ask why is food access different for different people? How can we help repair and rebuild infrastructures to satisfy the needs of the afflicted?

It is why Nassau is partnering with Westminster on a micro loan program in Trenton, particularly inviting people previously incarcerated to seek support for their business endeavors. It is why Nassau’s leadership is working with our Antiracism Team engaging a series of webinars and conversations to build our capacity and expand our imagination for racial justice. It is why some people work toward legislation that will help provide what people need.

Each of these on ramps, as well as others, to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” is important. We each can engage from where we are to help our community.

Whichever onramp we personally take to offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, it is ongoing work. It is a practice of faith, to serve our neighbors and steward what God has given us.

Loving our neighbors is a way of being, and is something Crossroads Antiracism Training & Organizing stresses. The webinar series the leadership of Nassau is engaging in is called “The Challenge of Antiracism” and part of the challenge is that justice is something we have to undertake and practice without any end date.

Consider what practice does for someone learning an instrument or another language. It takes dedicated repetition, willingness to learn from mistakes, and often coaching or some form of accountability to really improve, gain new skills, and grow.

It only makes sense from this passage in Isaiah — to “offer food to the hungry,” “satisfy the needs of the afflicted,” “repair the breaches,” and to “restore the streets to live in”—these are large endeavors, not simple tasks. It’s something we work at over and over, from many different avenues and angles.

The task of caring for ALL our neighbors and creation itself, can seem like a daunting one that is out of reach. It can be hard to stay motivated to continue practicing faith. Challenges come and priorities shift and it can seem impossible to maintain the way of being that helps bend the moral arc toward justice.

At those times, God reminds us in this passage of Isaiah that our work can really make an impact.

The prophet Isaiah has seen God’s people struggling throughout the previous 57 chapters. They have been in parched places, experienced oppression and exile. So it is extra beautiful to reach these images in chapter 58 of the people becoming like a well-watered garden when they care for one another. It is a relief to hear that flourishing is possible. Earlier in this chapter there is conflict of what kind of practice God calls people to take up, and our passage responds it is practices that actually result in restoration. We find it is not “religious busyness” and personal piety, but rather a caring for the entire community.[1] This neighbor love is what will help heal “a society in disarray” and that is what is honoring to God.[2]

God also provides us perspective that the task is greater than any one person can accomplish, but it is something we can collectively work toward.

The story of Jesus feeding thousands shows up in all four gospels, but the version in John (that we heard earlier in the Time with Children) is my favorite, because generosity is first exhibited by a child. The young boy hasn’t been jaded enough by the world to withhold what he has for only himself. I wonder if the adults were motivated to give what they had after seeing a child offer five loaves and two fish for all five thousand of those gathered? Perhaps there was a small loaf of bread stowed at the bottom of their bag or another fish meant for the walk home. I wonder was the boy’s generosity multiplied as others added what they had to share as part of the distribution?

Like the feeding of the fiver thousand, it seems like it would be a miracle for us to be able to feed the hungry and repair all that is broken in our world, but we know the resources exist. God reminds us that it does matter that we share. We really can help one another and be inspired by one another.

It is that way with Loaves and Fishes, we see the regular volunteers who give two Saturdays a month to serve our neighbors and they help enable Nassau to come for our turn in August. We get to work alongside a young adult who is there because she enjoyed it so much when her church served at the end of the spring.

We can also look for motivating examples from others engaging systemically to help end poverty and care for all creation. One awe-inspiring example of people coming together across difference to care for their neighbors is the work Rev. Dr. William Barber mobilizes with the Poor People’s Campaign. For years, he and others have picked up Martin Luther King Jr’s vision and invite people in poverty to share their stories and unite for a better world. Barber calls this bringing together of people a moral fusion coalitions, because it is not people’s heritage, socio-economic standing, gender, or religion that gives them common ground, it is rather a moral commitment to the well-being of neighbor and creation. Millions of people have engaged with the call of the Poor People’s Campaign, in person and virtually, gathering together to work for the wellbeing of the 140 million people who are poor in our country.[3]

Barber helps everyone see they are not alone. All can practice generosity and care and exhibit agency. He upholds those voices who are in poverty as central, they are not pushed to the side because their resources are different.

When the road seems in need of restoration and the world in need of repair, let us remember that to offer food to the hungry to satisfy the needs of the afflicted is a practice we undertake together. It is a practice God joins us in, and reminds us that we can be called repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in. There is satisfaction, strength and flourishing to be had.

So whether it is the amazing mobilizing of William Barber, the five loaves and two fish of the young boy, or the generosity you see extended by the person next to you in the pew, may God renew us for the work ahead. Helping us practice faith in such a way that makes God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

We practice faith, and we strengthen our muscles, expand our capacity, make space for others to join us with their generosity that we may work with God in loving all of creation. We know that “offering food to the hungry” and “satisfying the needs of the afflicted” encompass all the different ways each of us can serve and love our neighbor with God and community alongside us. May we multiple the generosity among us and feel renewed in the well-watered gardens God promises.

[1] Texts for Preaching, Year A (Westminster John Knox, 1995) p.128

[2] Ibid, p.129