Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 5th of Third Month, 2023
Speaker: Donne Hayden
Scripture: Isaiah 58:2-9, NRSVUE
2 Yet 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; they ask of me righteous judgments; they want God on their side.[a] 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 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 straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 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? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator[b] shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”
These words from a prophet in ancient Israel in the 8th century BCE were absorbed by George Fox and used centuries later in 17th century England, words still vibrant with truth in the 21st century.
My leading to speak about Fox on fasting this Lenten Sunday began a couple of weeks ago when, for another project, I was researching the early Quakers’ objection to church liturgies, rituals, and prescribed observances, like required fasting on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and each Friday during the period of Lent. In George Fox’s objection to fasting, I saw how Fox had absorbed and used language from the passage Nelson read today from Isaiah. Fox sounds very much like a prophet; his language rings with phrases from the Old and New Testaments. Here is one example.
In 1654, there was a severe drought in England. There being little-to-no separation of church and state at the time, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Realm, called for a nationwide fast to end the drought. The title of the response issued by George Fox, “A Warning from the Lord to all such as hang down the head for a day,”1 echoes the “warning from the Lord” language of Isaiah and other prophets. Listen:
Your Fasting and Mourning for a day, as a custom [i.e., common practice], is not accepted [by] God, God accepts it not, to fast one day, and feast another; but this is the Fast that the Lord doth require of you, to break off the Bonds of Iniquity, to shew mercy to the Fatherless and Widows, and let the oppressed go free; cast off your Pride, cast off your Highness, ambition and honor, for these things the drought comes upon you…
In a Quaker tract a few years later, George Fox again takes on the language of prophecy:
“This is the word of the Lord God to you that fast and afflict yourselves, and observe days, & meats, which the Kingdom of God stands not in. You that fast, you want the Bridegroom, you want Christ, [but] the bond of iniquity is amongst you; and this fasting and afflicting of your selves for a day, & days, is not the Fast that the Lord requires, which breaks the bond of iniquity.”
Another mention of fasting from Fox is found in the lines on the cover of the bulletin today:
You that have denied the world’s formal praying, pray always in the Spirit.
You that have denied the world’s giving thanks and their saying grace and living out of it,
do you [i.e., make sure you do] in everythinggive thanks to the Lord through Jesus Christ.
And you that have denied the world’s praising God with their lips while their hearts are far off, do you always praise the Lord night and day.
. . . you that have denied the world’s fastings,
keep the fast of the Lord that breaks the bonds of iniquity and lets the oppressed go free,
that your health may grow and your Light shine as the morning.
As I said, we can read the words of Isaiah and Fox today and see how they are still true. Could we fill in the blanks for this nation in the 21st century?
to break the bonds of iniquity in systemic violence, corporate greed, political corruption, environmental destruction, ____fill in the blanks?
to undo the straps of the yokes of oppression in systemic racism, gender inequality, poverty, drug addiction, white nationalism, _________fill in the blanks?
I will let George have the last word today. The following epistle from him, written in 1667 and 39-pages-long, was part of a 2004 exhibit in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C titled “Voices for Tolerance in an Age of Persecution” (and “bound with 40 other Quaker tracts.”)2 Here is an excerpt:
Now all who are called Christendom [all those who call themselves Christian nations], they profess to believe in the name of Christ; yet look at them, see what a confused family it is, worse than the Turks, and Moguls, and the heathen; for in the Turks' country there are Jews, Christians, and Turks, and the Turks keep their sabbath upon the Sixth-day, and the Jews upon the Seventh-day, and the Christians upon the First-day; and the Turks do not persecute them about religion, but let them enjoy their meetings.
And that all who are called Christendom, professing the name of Christ, that they should persecute one another, and tear one another to pieces about worship, and religion, and the steeple-house, which they have given the title of church to; which is a title taken from the people, and given to a house. And that they should persecute one another about eating flesh and fish, Lent, the holy days, and about fastings, and about white coats, black coats, girdles, tippets and hoods, altars, crosses, and candlesticks, and about processions, and running to graves for relics, and such visiting places!
And that they who profess Christ should fall out about outward things, and tear one another to pieces about outward things, and kill, imprison, and burn one another about such things; and about their sacraments, and baptisms, which are bread, and water, and wine.
The kingdom of God does not stand in meats, nor drinks, nor flesh, nor fish, nor holy days, nor fasting days, nor tippets, nor hoods, nor girdles, nor white coats, nor black coats, nor altars, nor candlesticks, nor processions, nor beads, nor steeple-houses. The kingdom of' God stands in righteousness, and faith, and joy in the holy ghost; and where there is righteousness there is peace; and where there is true faith there is victory, and building one another up in the holy faith;
Therefore love one another, instead of persecuting one another; and be meek, and not high; and entreat, and not threaten; and bless, and do not curse; and love, and do not hate; and do good, and not evil; and live in the will of God, and do not be self-willed; and mind the religion of Christ, and not your own; for you persecute one another about your own things that you invent, and not Christ's; for Christ's religion does not admit any persecution or violence, nor to hate friends or enemies…3
SPOKEN WITHOUT NOTES:
Apparently, I’m not finished.
I find those words from Fox so powerful because I look around this country today, and I see the same kind of things happening now that happened when George Fox was alive and that happened among the ancient Israelites.
As I told friend of mine a few days ago. I can't hold it all. Can't hold all the horrific history that I know too much about, and all the suffering going on today. Can’t hold the amount information we have about suffering and wickedness. I can't hold all I feel about the gun lobby and the violence in this country.
I'm too small, my life is too small. I can't hold all of that. I can't listen to the news anymore.
I know there are millions of people on this planet working against these inequities and iniquities. People are doing incredible work. It's just that there are billions of us, and the “bonds of iniquity” are so big now.
If you too feel like this, I want to tell you that you should never underestimate the power of your smile, your kindness, your goodness to the people around you. The power of not engaging in the hatefulness that surrounds us in this country, in social media and elsewhere.
What we can do as individuals is take this question to heart: “What does the Lord require of me?” Where should I be? I should be in love and kindness, wherever I am, with the people around me. I can hold that. I can hold you. And that's what God requires of me.
God doesn't require me to save the nation or the world. Just to do what I can [to love and be kind] where I am.
2 Folger Shakespeare Library website.
New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2023 Donne Hayden. All rights reserved.