The Irony of the True Fast: Reflections on Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)

Lectionary Reflections
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 9, 2014

On the second Sunday in February many churches celebrate "Scouting Sunday" where faith communities long associated with Cub and Boy Scouts often have members of their troops, both Cubs and Boys, "troop the colors" into the sanctuary, recite the Scout oath, then sit with their families as the verities of Scouting are recounted and on occasion serve as the source of the day's sermon. I live in the city that boasts the national headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America, so such displays of support for the organization are especially common here each year.

Yet this year, 2104, there is a deep irony, coupled with a deep sadness that ought to haunt such celebrations. In 2012-2013, the Boy Scouts were riven with the struggle that is a prominent one across many parts of our culture, namely the question of sexual orientation in public life. Can gay Scouts be full participants in Scouting? Can gay den leaders and Boy Scout troop leaders find a place of acceptance in Scouting? After much public debate, the organization attempted some sort of compromise position. Beginning this year, openly gay Scouts will be welcome in the organization. However, adult leaders who are gay are not welcome. This latter decision left many long time leaders outside of the organization they have loved and served, in some cases for decades. On one side of the issue, Pascal Tessier became the first openly gay Eagle Scout on January 15; on the other side a den leader, Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian, was no longer able to participate in her leadership of her den of Cubs. So on this Scouting Sunday what is a preacher to do?

There is an emerging alternative to the over one-hundred-year-old Boy Scouts of America in Trail Life USA. In this new organization, all gay and lesbian persons are banned both as members and leaders. This stance is based on the stated belief that any persons involved in relationships outside of marriage, defined as being only between one man and one woman, are "sinful," and thus unacceptable to the best tenets of scouting, as Trail Life defines it. One can certainly imagine that Trail Life will find its place in many more conservative churches that bar LGTBQ persons in all cases.

My son was a Cub and Boy Scout, and fell just a few workdays short of attaining the status of Eagle Scout. He would be the first to say that he is now glad he did not finish. He recently told me that any organization that rejects persons he has known and now knows in any way is not worthy of his participation. This stance on his part is one of the primary reasons why he cannot any longer participate in a United Methodist Church, given its written policy that claims "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," a claim I too have long rejected and have argued against for nearly forty years.

And now for the irony of the text of the day. The great passage of Isaiah 58, one of the quintessential texts that clarifies what true justice is in the sight of YHWH, speaks directly to the homophobic claims of the Boy Scouts of America, the United Methodist Church, and any public organization that seeks to bar LGBTQ persons from full and free participation at all levels of that organization. The rich sarcasm of the text sounds an alarm against any who would claim for themselves the right to determine who is in the realm of God's care and who is not. "Call aloud! Do not hold back! Like a shofar raise your voice! Announce to my people their disobedience, to the house of Jacob their sins (Is. 58:1)! Clearly, the evil of the people needs to be revealed and confronted.

Yet, what is that evil? Are not the people of Israel overtly pious? Are not they singularly religious? "Day after day, they seek me, and delight to know my ways, just as if they were a nation that (actually) practiced righteousness and did not in fact abandon my justice" (Is. 58:2a). Oh, they see themselves as a people of God; they worship up a storm, they mouth the sayings of YHWH, they claim to practice just what YHWH wants from them. "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, when you take no notice" (Is. 58:3a)? These people shout their piety to the skies, but feel they are not receiving the notice of their God that they so richly deserve. We are doing what you want, YHWH; we are excluding those whom we know you hate, so why do you not reward us for our faithfulness?

But the reality in God's sight is far different than these so-called pious ones assume. "In fact on your fast days, you seek only your own interests, while you oppress all your workers. Your fasting leads only to quarreling and fighting, striking others with wicked fists. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high" (Is. 58: 3b-4). Those who quote isolated Bible verses in order to club LGBTQ people, and who do so in the name of some pious stance, are exactly these ancient people of Israel, who pray and fast but who in their communities exclude and hate others they refuse to understand and care for.

2/2/2014 5:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
  • Opening The Old Testament
  • Methodism
  • Progressive Christianity
  • Christianity
  • Protestantism
  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.