Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 58) transports me to a platform in front of our nation’s Capitol Building, fifty years ago today, when the newly elected President, John F. Kennedy, addressed the nation with a beckoning call that struck a chord in the hearts and minds of a generation and has continued reverberating up to the present generation (showing up today as a word bubble on the Google logo): Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. Listen to the line in the context of the paragraph immediately preceding it, and you will see how incredibly current the challenge is for America fifty years later: In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. Many people listening then in 1961 answered the President’s call to be a light for our country and our world. One of them, Sargent Shriver, died just this week at the age of 95, leaving a legacy of many highly effective programs that have made a deep impact for good on the world. Had it not been for Sargent Shriver, my friend Bethany would not be in El Salvador working with the poor through the Peace Corps (a program he founded). Had it not been for Shriver’s wife, Eunice, my friend Ralph and my nephew David would not enjoy participating in the Special Olympics (a program she founded). The Shrivers’ energy, faith, and devotion truly did light a fire, the glow of which still lights our world in many ways.
I think the prophet Isaiah would have loved the challenge posed by President Kennedy, and the response demonstrated in the lifework of Sargent Shriver. Our passage today is a similar call to action, to service, to the kind of work for peace and justice that will light the world. Responding to a worshiping community that placed a high premium on ritual observance, Isaiah reminded them of the kind of prayer and piety that pleases God. No doubt Isaiah sat among a congregation that loved to sing the great hymns of their faith, from the Psaltry, the Lord is my light and salvation. . . blessed are those who walk in the light of your presence. . . light shines on the righteous. . . And the prophet must have looked out and noticed all the dark corners of injustice and poverty and exploitation surrounding the temple. And so he made an appeal as memorable as President Kennedy’s, speaking in God’s voice: Is this not the worship I choose – to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them. If you do these things, God says, then your light will break forth like the dawn. If you do away with oppression and malicious talk and finger-pointing, and spend yourself on behalf of the hungry, then your light will rise in the darkness. There is an if-then application to our prayer life as well as our worship: If you do all this, the prophet tells us, then you will call and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, “here I am.”
We, like the ancient covenant community, sing hymns and praise songs filled with references to light. This little light of mine. . . Send the light. . . I saw the light – there are literally 1,000 hymns listed on CyberHymnal that include lyrics about light. But here’s a curious thing – not a single one of them references the if-then formula of Isaiah 58. We want to rise and shine and give God the glory; we long for the beauteous light to break forth, but too often our worship, like our hymnal, misses out on what it takes to make that light shine. I believe President Kennedy and Sargent Shriver understood what it took, even if they didn’t have praise songs to reinforce that understanding. The light shines whenever people ask what they can do for their country, their community, their world, when they answer their own question by spending themselves on behalf of the hungry, by loosening the chains of injustice. I think I can hear Bethany singing along with her sewing circle down in El Salvador now, marchemos in la luz de Dios – we’re marching in the light of God. I think I can hear the Special Olympics volunteers singing along with David and Ralph – This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.