by Rev. Scott Summerville
“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong… ”
Isaiah 58:9b -11
Did you hear about the footprints? The footprints that the tides uncovered on the east coast of England. It was reported on the BBC last week.
Rough tides had worn away mud and soft stone and revealed ancient footprints, the most ancient human footprints ever found outside of Africa, footprints nearly 1,000,000 years old, indicating that humans had been in northern Europe far longer than previous theories had suggested.
The archaeologists were beside themselves with glee, describing it as the greatest archaeological discovery ever made in the United Kingdom. These are in fact only the fourth such footprints ever found in the only ones ever found outside of Africa. The tides of since wash these footprints away, so it is all the more amazing that they happen to be found during the brief time when they were exposed.
Aside from the scientific importance of these footprints, there was something else about them that was significant. These were not footprints of a solitary person; it was a small band of people: the footprints were of varying sizes, adult footprints and the footprints of children — a family perhaps?
The discoveries that are made in deep space — the awesome quasars and super galaxies and black holes — dazzle the mind. In some ways, though, it is even more awesome to uncover the humble footprints of our ancestors from nearly 1,000,000 years ago as they walked those ancient shores, foraging for food, dwarfed by the massive creatures that dominated the landscape.
A fragile human family trying to survive — these vulnerable creatures without armor or fangs and claws, surviving by their wits and by their capacity to function together as a society. This particular creature, if wandering alone, would not stand a chance. It was the bonds of loyalty and — may we even suppose — bonds of love that kept them together as they foraged along the shore in their daily struggle to eat and not be eaten. The bonds of family, the bonds of friendship, the bonds of community — our lives and the survival of our species depends upon these.
One of the greatest discoveries of all time — perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century — was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The first set of these scrolls was found in 1946 in a cave in the desert in the Dead Sea by some Bedouin shepherds. The shepherds had no idea what these old scrolls were. They took some home and showed them to some local elders, eventually selling some of them for $29. Fortunately someone realize the importance of these scrolls. They were subsequently purchased for $250,000 and given proper care and analysis. Further explorations in the area uncovered other caves and many other scrolls.
The most prized document found at Qumran was a complete scroll of the biblical book of the prophet Isaiah. The Isaiah scroll that was found in 1946 in Qumran was written roughly 150 years BC . To put this in perspective: before the Dead Sea Scrolls were found the oldest manuscript copy of the book of Isaiah that anyone knew about was only about 1,000 years old. The Isaiah scroll found at Qumran is over 2,000 years old. This is the kind of thing that makes archaeologists and biblical scholars do back-flips and pay for three rounds of drinks for everybody.
So here was this ancient manuscript dating back to before the time of Jesus, a complete copy of one of the major Hebrew prophets. Of course, the big question was whether this copy of Isaiah would be substantially different from the one we have in our Bibles that was based upon much later manuscripts. The scroll was examined carefully. Lo and behold, it was substantially the same as the text of Isaiah that we have in our Jewish and Christian Bibles. There were lots of small differences of grammar and punctuation and minor wording, but otherwise it was the Isaiah that we know.
According to the gospel of Luke the first time Jesus got up to deliver asermon, he pulled out the scroll of the book of Isaiah and read from it. We read from this scroll today. The portion of Isaiah which we heardtoday was written over five hundred years before Christ, at the time thatthe Jews who had been carried away into captivity in Babylon werereturning to the city of Jerusalem. A new king was in power –a newEmpire: King Darius and the Persians. The Persians allowed the Jews toreturn from Babylon to Judea.
You might think that the return of the Jews from Babylon would have been an entirely joyful occasion for the Jews of Jerusalem, but it was not so simple. The city was in disrepair; its ancient walls were broken down, and the Jews who stayed behind clashed and quarreled with the Jews who returned. There were religious disagreements; there were disputes over titles to land, and there were severe inequalities of wealth, exploitation and abuse of workers, and a large segment of the population was hungry. It was a society in crisis. With all this quarreling going on, the city walls were going unrepaired, and the problems of the society were growing. There was a lot of finger-pointing going on, blame and counter blame. And complaining… complaining! Constant complaining.
Isn’t it amazing how you can dig up an old book that was written thousands of years ago, and it can sound like it was spoken to the conditions of today? In the midst of all this complaining and blaming and finger-pointing, the prophet Isaiah spoke the word of the Lord:
“If you remove the yoke [of oppression] from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday….”
Isaiah spoke to a stressed and divided people. He called them to civility, to compassion, and to justice. He called them to join together to repair the broken walls of Jerusalem and to mend the divisions in their society. He called them to economic justice, consideration for the poor, and just treatment of workers.
Isn’t it fascinating how someone finds a 2,000-year-old manuscript in the cave, yet when they unroll the thing and look at the words, the world they describe is so much like our own? Today, in our stressed and divided society, we hear old words from an ancient manuscript. The writer claims to have a message from God: Take away from you the pointing finger! Pull together in mutual concern and together repair the broken walls.
I have a congenital condition inherited from my father which causes my pointing finger to be twisted; the older I get the more twisted it becomes. I am no longer able to point my finger effectively. When I try to point my finger at someone, half my finger goes one way and the other half points off in another direction. It’s frustrating, because it feels good to point fingers. It feels good to say: You! and you! and you! and them! and them! It is so tempting to blame the problems of the world on others while doing nothing ourselves.
We all want to live in thriving communities; we all want the benefits of thriving communities. I say again: whether it is the United States of America or the city of Yonkers or our own congregation or any one of our families: human communities can only thrive when people care and act.
Human communities and human relationships thrive only when people are willing to commit themselves, and when people are willing to work together and solve problems together.
Complaining and pointing fingers are so satisfying and require nothing except a mouth and a good straight finger. Solving problems and building community and creating conditions of progress and justice require creativity, commitment, and hard work. To those who are willing to take up that work, there is this word of hope from the ancient scroll of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:
“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. Your ancient ruins hall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”Grace and peace to you.