Rough Side of the Mountain
Delivered at Grace United Church of Christ
February 18, 2014
Praise the Lord! Twenty years ago, I never imagined I would be standing in this position. It’s amazing how God works in our lives. I am so blessed to be part of the Grace United Church of Christ family and so indebted to our Pastor Rev. Melody Seaton for giving me this opportunity. She’s been a friend and a mentor and a dear sister in Christ. I thank God for her.
The scriptural text is found in Isaiah 58:1-12. The focus of today’s message will be verses 3-6.
Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12 Focus: Isaiah 58: 3-6 (NRSV)
3 ”Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
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?
Today marks both Ash Wednesday and the middle of Black History Month. Pray with me today on the topic: The Rough Side of the Mountain.
Gracious Lord, I’m available to you. I pray that you use me as your instrument. Speak a word through me, Lord, so your people may hear a Word from you. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight. You are my blessed redeemer. Amen.
This Oracle from the 58th chapter of Isaiah was addressed to Hebrew exiles that were just beginning to return to Jerusalem from Babylon beginning somewhere around 537 BCE. After being held in captivity for 70 years, those coming out of exile had expected immediate and glorious restoration, but instead they found themselves frustrated by many hardships. As we can imagine while they were in Babylon, and even after leaving their place of captivity, they tried to hold onto their religious traditions, one of which was fasting.
What were the purposes of fasting for the newly freed Hebrew exiles?
- First, fasting was meant to prepare them. It was meant to put them in a proper attitude, allowing God to conform them to God’s purpose and to God’s will.
- Second, fasting was meant to cleanse them. It represented a purging for the physical body, ridding it of impurities.
- Third, fasting was meant to strengthen them spiritually. It was meant to help them think more clearly about the spiritual challenges they were facing and those they were about to face as they made their transition from Babylon to freedom.
So again, fasting was intended to prepare them, cleanse them, and equip them, but over time they forgot the true purposes of their sacrifice, and the act of fasting turned into a baseless religious ritual. That’s when God sent the prophet Isaiah to set them straight.
Let’s take a closer look at today’s scripture:
- In verse 2, the prophet speaks the words God has given him to say: “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God” (58:2).
- In verse 3a, the people consider their practices to be pious in their own eyes and try to rationalize their actions to God: “Why do we fast and you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (58:3a)
- Later, in verse 3b, God answers through the prophet: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers” (58:3b). In other words, their fasting is a show, having no effect on how they treat others around them.
- Their fasting had become a mockery of God, not a means to honor God. And in verse 4b, God speaks through the prophet to let them know: “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (58:4b).
- In the final say so, God, with sarcasm, ridicules their fasting practices. “Is such a fast that I choose a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to YHWH?” (58:5)
So, what of the modern day? If God looked at our practices today, would God ridicule them?
I submit to you that for some of God’s people in the modern day the legacy of slavery represents a form of postexilic turmoil for which we have to prepare, cleanse, and equip ourselves through fasting and prayer. And similar to our Hebrew counterparts, we’re on a journey from bondage to freedom. For Black people in the present day, this trek involves climbing toward freedom up the rough side of a proverbial mountain.
Let’s take a closer look at this mountain.
Enslaved American people of African descent first heard it on Juneteenth. Against great odds they pressed toward the mark of this new thing called freedom, hoping to find peace and happiness along the way. The journey was rarely linear, however, as they had been led to believe. It coiled and turned in on itself like a serpent. The travelers sometimes grew weary, wandering for generations, getting distracted, finding it hard to stay the course, a task that sometimes required listening to their inner voices to the exclusion of other voices.
An observer standing at the summit and looking down might be able to detect three distinct groups of climbers, with isolated stragglers along the way.
The first group seemed to have the hang of it. They were the overachievers, the elite. They were the ones who had fully assimilated and were having boulders moved out of their way by the powers that be. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with it. This first group consisted of the determined ones who had learned to walk the walk and talk the talk and reap the benefits the former captors had to offer them. Some of the people in this first group even took the lead. They had earned positions as pacesetters and opinion leaders. They were graced with gifts and privileges those a little farther down the mountain did not have. I guess they could have shared the wealth a little better– maybe not. Who’s to say? All I know is that many of them never even bothered to look back to check on the progress of those who trekked behind them.
Then there’s the second group. This second group moved along not as quickly or confidently as the first group, but they moved nonetheless. They were in the middle – you know the middle. They were the average, the routine, and the “nothing special” people, who were struggling everyday just to make ends meet. And in most cases, their ends actually met more often than not. People in this second group tended to listen carefully to instructions and to follow them as best as they could. They had been assigned a certain station on this journey, so they got up every morning and put on their work clothes and moved with relative comfort along the path. If you put one foot in front of the other day in and day out, you’re bound to get to where you need to be? Right? Right?
Then there’s the third group. They wanted to reach freedom just as much as the others, but they struggled hard every step of the way. They were the stragglers – you know the stragglers! They enjoyed none of the privileges and advantages the others seemed to have. They walked on the wrong side of the road sometimes. They bumped into each other. They never had the right equipment. And they could never seem to get their footing just right. Hateful people often threw up all manner of stumbling blocks and challenges to impede their progress. And some of the haters even questioned their right to be on the road to freedom in the first place. But in spite of it all, many of the stragglers crept along, taking one step forward and four steps back!
Frustrated and often angry, many members of this third group found themselves stopped dead in their tracks from time to time. Faced with the choice to fight unknown powers, flee to another mountain, or freeze, they perceived they had no other alternative except to freeze. A lot of them lost their expectations of ever reaching freedom – that is, they had no expectations at all really, except to exist until they stopped existing.
It is the third group that is the focus of this word today.
Many of God’s disinherited people are still in the wilderness, languishing near the foot of the mountain. They are trying to get a foothold in order to continue the climb. Yet, they feel abandoned, lost, and alone, and too often trauma creeps up to trigger new horrors and disappointments every day. For them, one failure begets another. They’re caught up in a mad cycle! I’m here to tell you today that this is the stuff that fasting and prayer is meant confront! During this Lenten season, this Black History month, we need to focus our fasting on freedom and pray that it will come!
Fasting! What shall we give up on behalf of the stragglers?
I submit to you that there are three things we have to be willing and able to sacrifice if we are to help our brothers and sisters climb the rough side of the mountain:
- We need to give up amnesia.
Let’s not forget where we came from. The social dynamics of slavery practiced in America constituted a gross abuse of power against a people who had been kidnapped from their native environment, thereby destroying their African values, self-images, and self-concepts. According to Dona Richards, “the benefits of African culture were stripped away – not one by one – but brutally, in one sudden and total act. Family, language, kinship patterns, food, dress, and formalized religion were gone. What replaced them was the order of slavery.”
Acclaimed theologian James Cone has also admonished us not to forget. He speaks specifically of black women’s faith. Cone asserted that faith empowered black women by giving them courage, patience, and hope that God would help them. Cone further noted: “On the one hand, faith spoke to their suffering, making it bearable, while, on the other hand, suffering contradicted their faith, making it unbearable. That is the profound paradox inherent in black faith, the dialectic of doubt and trust in the search for meaning, as blacks ‘walk[ed] through the valley of the shadow of death’ (Ps 23:4).” And I might add: And climbed up the rough side of the mountain. People, we need to give up amnesia.
- We need to give up apathy.
Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves. And, as most of us well know, our neighbors come in all shapes, sizes, and dispositions. And some of the most negative of these characteristics are passed down through the generations like a pernicious, pseudo-genetic code that manifests in childhood dysfunction, family violence, traumatic stress, fear, and hopelessness. We need to shed our apathy and help each other redefine who we are as a people.
Redefinition. Lee Butler addressed this when he wrote that for African American people the question “Who am I” must begin with reflection on our African heritage. He pointed out that when Black people ground their origins in America alone, they are able to claim only their identification as “slave,” which results in a false identity from which they have to be liberated. Butler maintained that it is our responsibility to help each other to liberate ourselves from the depraved identity of “Slave American.”
In other words, we need to care about each other enough to prop each other up. Some time ago, Patty LaBelle recorded a song: “It’s only me. I’ve come to see you, and I know what you’ve been through.” Those languishing at the foot of the mountain need somebody to see them and to understand what they’ve been through. They need somebody to have empathy, not apathy.
They need somebody to keep whispering to them: “You are a child of God.” “You are made in the image of God.” “You are important to me.” “Take my hand, we can do this thing with the help of Almighty God!” To use terminology from Butler, we need to keep reminding each other that slavery was once our circumstance but it doesn’t have to be the essence of our being. Let’s give up apathy, people, in the name of Jesus!
- We need to give up inertia.
As most of you already know, inertia is a lack of movement or absence of activity. As a people, we need to give it up! We need to do something actively to confront injustice and empower God’s people who are struggling to climb the rough side of the mountain. And I contend that we need to address the problem on both a macro level and a micro level, simultaneously.
At the macro level, we need to confront political disenfranchisement, economic disparity, and social dissolution. We need to “shake our fists” at the existing power structures (also known as “the rulers of darkness in high places”). Let our indignation be known. Raise our voices. Tweet our Tweets, Pin on Pinterest, Post on Instagram, update Facebook, and generally spread the word about inequities embedded in policies that hobble God’s people on the mountainside.
We also need to confront injustice at the micro level.
We need to obligate ourselves as members of a beloved community to stop by and tend to the needs of God’s people who have given up hope, people who are languishing, and people who are scorned, brutalized, and almost defeated by life.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus directs us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, provide clothing for the destitute, care for the sick, and visit those who are in prison. And when we have done it to the least of these – our brothers and sisters – we have also done it for Jesus (Matt 25:40).
And when we have done it to the least of these – our brothers and sisters – we have begun to confront the physical and psychological victimization and spiritual despair that keep God’s people in chains. Now there are chains that enslave and there are chains that bind people together in love. One set of chains must be broken while at the same time another set of chains must be fortified. Of course, chains of any kind are only as strong as their weakest links. On the rough side of the mountain, we need to do what we can to tend to the brokenness that cripples God’s people on an individual level. Get rid of inertia. Give it up!
Let’s return once again to scripture:
Sometimes we need to reach back and lend a hand. On behalf of God’s people who are struggling to climb the mountains of life, (1) we need to give up amnesia, (2) we need to give up apathy, and (3) we need to give up inertia.
Isaiah 58:6 says,
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?
Now, my question to you is this: What will you give up on behalf of those who are struggling to climb the rough side of the mountain to freedom this Lenten season? A struggle like this requires fasting and prayer! God bless you!
My ongoing prayer is that God, our Protector and Sustainer, will help us make this journey and to show us how to look out for others along the way. Let us give up amnesia. Let us give up apathy. Let us give up inertia. Let us climb the mountain toward freedom fasting and praying along the way. Now, may the Lord bless you and keep you! May the Lord make his face to shine upon you! May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give your peace, until we meet again. Amen.
 Stanley, Charles (2001-01-16). Charles Stanley’s Handbook for Christian Living: Biblical Answers to Life’s Tough Questions (Kindle Locations 9881-9882). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
 Dona Richards, “The Implications of African-American Spirituality,” in Molefi Kete Asante and Kariamu Welsh Asante, eds., African Culture: The Rhythms of Unity (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, Inc., 1990), 215.
 James Cone, The Cross and Lynching Tree, 2011, 124.
Lee H. Butler, Jr., Liberating Our Dignity, Saving Our Souls (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2006), 11.
Lee H. Butler, Jr., Liberating Our Dignity, Saving Our Souls, 12.