Rev. Janet Newton serves as minister at First Parish Church of Berlin, MA, a federated church of the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association, and lives with her wife and daughter on Martha’s Vineyard.
Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-9a (NRSV)
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
‘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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
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,
Reflection: Engaging Turbulence
Two sailboat captains get the weather forecast: there’s a storm brewing. What’s the best option? The first captain decides to move further out to sea and take her chances with the waves. She plans to drop her sails and weather the storm passively. Without sail power she will have little ability to steer the craft if things go awry, but she trusts her boat’s resilience.
The second captain also decides to move further out, but she wants to be more active in the storm: she’ll throw out a sea anchor. Resembling a little parachute attached by a line to the sailboat, a sea anchor works to keep the bow oriented toward the waves so that the boat doesn’t end up perpendicular to the waves and thus more vulnerable.
When faced with turbulent times, are we called to turn inward, to protect our own personal faith, or are we called to actively engage, to honor our values in the world? It’s easy, in our increasingly splintered and secular world, to turn to individual expressions of our faith. To focus on those things that grow our own souls, in private — perhaps because our world seems designed to challenge our equilibrium, and it can feel as if we have no support in our efforts to feel whole. We may turn to personal practices like yoga or meditation...those quieting, grounding expressions of spiritual wholeness that we hope will help us to navigate the turbulent waters in which we sail. But if all we do is the quiet, personal work, we are left exposed and vulnerable to the full fury of the storm. It’s tempting to try out the modern equivalents of sackcloth and fasting and call it faith, but as Isaiah reminds us, we owe our world and our God more.
Instead of dropping the sails and hunkering down in the face of the tempests of our lives, what if we tried the sea anchor option, the engaged option? It may actually offer more hope. Ministering in these times, buffeted by the maelstroms of active hate, rampant greed, the epidemic of meaninglessness that fuels addiction, and the necessity of responding to white body supremacy and climate crisis, I’ve sometimes found it hard to ask my people to do that heavy work, that active work. Our lives look too hard already. I might focus on caretaking, on buoying up, on spiritual care and feeding. But if that’s all I do, it’s the equivalent of engaging in that personal fast in sackcloth and ashes, dressing up in faith without figuring out how to live it large.
Those religious folk to whom Isaiah directs his prophecy could be easily characterized as spiritually hypocritical, talking the talk but not actually engaging the message. But we know the world is more complex than that. Perhaps they, too, were tired, and just wanted to feel close to God in whatever way that made the most sense in their turbulent world: through their traditional spiritual practices, through fasting and the humbling of the self. And so Isaiah reminds them that unless those personal practices are employed as the equivalent of a sea anchor, just one element in a more active faith, they are meaningless. We must anchor ourselves to locate the strength to steer directly into the storm, engaged in active faith, in service toward all with whom we share our world.
To practice righteousness without practicing care, to feed our souls through religious ritual without doing what we can to “loose the bonds of injustice...to let the oppressed go free” — this is just dropping the sails and hoping the storm will pass. But to feed our souls through religious ritual that we may have the strength to loose those bonds? Then our light is poised to “break forth like the dawn,” and our collective healing becomes possible. Then “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.”
God of justice and storms, of sacred urgings and holy truths, be with us as we respond to life’s challenges, the challenges of our bodies, our families, our communities, our nations, and our planet. Help us to ground ourselves in reverence and peace that we may find the strength to act for a more just world. Help us to feel what it means to live in the service of something greater, to evaluate our faith not through its trappings but through its actings.
New Prayer Requests:
We ask churches and church leaders to join us in the following prayers either by sharing them during worship, printing them in bulletins, or sharing them in some other way. To make a prayer request, please contact Drew Page at email@example.com.
Prayers of Intercession:
- For those affected by Friday's addition of 6 new countries to restrictions on immigrant visas
- For those suffering from anxiety or depression
- For those suffering or grieving after a shooting on a bus near Los Angeles on Monday
Prayers of Joy and Thanksgiving:
- For those churches who continually search for new ways to bring vitality and relevance to their congregations
- For opportunities for youth to explore faith and discipleship, and the mentors who guide them
- For family, friends, and support communities who give us strength in times of need
Please Pray for the Following SNEUCC Churches:
This Week in History:
February 4, 2004 (16 years ago) Facebook is launched by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg. Gathering 1500 university users in the first 24 hours, the social media platform expanded to local colleges within a month and soon had 1 million registered users. In 2006, Facebook was released to the general public. The rise of social media platforms in the years to follow changed the world of media, information, and person-to-person communication, creating new outlets for news, opinion, group communications, and advertisement, as well as controversy and divisiveness.
“Study the past if you would define the future.”