About two weeks ago, arguably the greatest rock drummer on the planet died. His name was Neil Peart, and for decades he was the beating heart of the Canadian rock band Rush, providing not only some of the most jaw-dropping drum parts and solos in rock history, but writing all the lyrics for their songs, as well.
In all the accolades and tributes that have rolled in, I think the best one was that Peart was “your favorite drummer’s favorite drummer,” which gets at the heart of his talent and career. He was revered for decades by other musicians, especially drummers; his impeccable time-keeping, his lightning speed, his dynamic sound, and his complex and sophisticated beats all combined to make him who they aspired to be in terms of excellence, even if their own style and music was very different.
Yet despite being universally acclaimed as one of the greatest drummers of all time, particularly by other musicians, Peart was notorious for being intensely shy and private, avoiding anything related to celebrity status. He really was “all about the music,” which many rock musicians claim but very few actually live out.
When Peart died, I saw a number of references to a documentary on the band from about ten years ago, which I found on Netflix and watched last Sunday night. And in the film I was stunned to learn that, in the 1990s, Neil Peart decided to relearn the drums. Now, remember that at that point he had already been playing for more than 30 years, and was widely considered to be the best rock drummer alive at that point. And yet he himself felt like his playing had grown too stiff, even robotic, so he hired a drum coach to help him change his style, spending a year and a half while the band was on hiatus learning to adopt a different grip on his sticks and become more fluid in his motions, to learn to dance on the drums rather than just beat on them, as he put it later.
The best drummer in the world wanted to be better, and so he went back into his basement with his sticks to practice. He broke his technique down to the most basic elements, and started doing practice routines over and over, as if he was a beginner again: practicing for hour after hour, day after day, for eighteen months, until he achieved the new mastery that he sought. Because Peart’s identity was always first as a student rather than a master; always about the music rather than the show.
The problem that Isaiah has with his people in our Old Testament lesson today is that they are all about the show. And they put on a good show, or at least they appear to think that they do. Isaiah quotes them complaining to God, “why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” This isn’t a case of the Israelites just making things up to try and get God’s attention. They are diligently following the forms of worship, including acts of fasting and humility, that they have been told to do throughout the ages to maintain their relationship with God.
And this prophecy happens right during the time that the exiles have been allowed to return to Israel after decades of captivity in Babylon, and so the people are especially confused, since it seems like God has just delivered and restored them. And since they’ve been back, they’ve been doing everything they’re supposed to do in worship to make God happy; so what is the problem?
The problem is, God’s isn’t impressed by just a show, no matter how good it is: “Is such the fast that I choose,” God asks through Isaiah; “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?” And then God goes on, just to make things clear: “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?”
Now, clearly, those are rhetorical questions; both the Israelites and we are obviously supposed to say, “oh, of course, that’s totally what you choose, God.” Not even the dimmest person is going to stand up and say to God, “Ummm, no, I don’t think so; you’ve been pretty clear in the past about how we’re supposed to literally fast to show our repentance. Plus how exactly are those things a fast, anyway?”
But those reactions are questions worth asking. First, God isn’t against fasting and repentance in particular, and certainly not worship in general. In fact, God’s Law actually requires Jewish people to fast on the holiest day of the year, the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. And that’s not a coincidence for this passage; honoring the Day of Atonement requires fasting, acts of humility and repentance, and spending most of the day in worship and prayer. So that’s not the problem.
What God has a problem with is when worship becomes all about the show, a set of rituals focused on form rather than substance, which has no discernible impact on the character or behavior of the worshippers. That’s what he thinks people were doing in Isaiah’s time. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers,” God explains; “look, you fast only to quarrel and fight and strike with a wicked fist.”
The outcome of fasting is supposed to be a renewed sense of focus on God, God’s will, and God’s saving grace; of showing to God, not each other, the sincerity of your repentance and your commitment to living differently as a result. But they aren’t focusing on God, they are focusing on their own interests, and violating God’s law about treating each other and their workers justly right in the middle of what is supposed to be a holy observance. It’s all just a show.
Then there’s the question of how the fast that God has chosen for them is actually a fast. What does it mean for loosing the bonds of injustice, breaking every yoke, sharing your bread with those who are hungry, and covering those who are naked to be a fast? Those are all proactive deeds, but fasting means to abstain from something; so what are we supposed to be abstaining from? Well, from all the injustices that bind people up: oppression, exploitation, greed, indifference, selfishness, fear.
Those are all things that we know are bad for us (and others!) and yet we often indulge in them anyway, which creates disease not just in our own bodies, but in the body politic, even the Body of Christ. Those are the things that God is calling us to fast from, to abstain from, not simply for a day but as an ongoing set of habits or practices. God even says, in the very beginning of the passage, that the problem is that the people seek God “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness,” which they clearly are not.
But that’s what God wants from them, from us: to practice righteousness; to practice living every day according to God’s commandment to love God with our whole beings and our neighbors as ourselves, not simply to play-act it for a special day. Now, to practice something, anything, means doing concrete, definable actions repeatedly and over time in order to get better at them. There are specific standards of excellence that guide you; it’s not enough simply to practice, because you can practice well or badly.
And the concrete actions that you are doing are not the same as the desired outcome; practicing musical scales, for example, is not the same thing as playing the piano well. But if you don’t practice scales, you won’t play the piano well. The same thing goes for practicing a language, or a sport, or whatever: you have to break down what it takes to reach the desired outcome into concrete actions that can be repeated over and over until they are mastered. And if you do enough of those actions well over time, you reach your goal, your desired outcome.
The same thing goes for practicing righteousness, God says. And whenever we find ourselves more concerned about the show than the substance, whenever we find our faith getting a little stiff, even robotic, we need to break down our technique to the most basic elements of practicing righteousness: share our bread with the hungry; cover those who are naked; satisfy the needs of the afflicted. And we need to practice those elements over and over again: hour after hour, day after day, until we achieve the mastery that God wants from us.
Martin Luther King, Jr. called this harnessing “the drum major instinct.” He said that one of the challenges of being human is the drum major instinct, the desire to be out in front of others leading the parade, keeping others in time, receiving the attention and adulation of being “the greatest.” But Dr. King didn’t simply say, “don’t do that.” Instead, he called us to harness that instinct through faithfulness. He argued that Jesus would say, “Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.” In other words, it’s about the substance, not the show.
Dr. King went on to say, “by giving that definition of greatness, everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.” And then as he concluded, he reflected on what he wanted said about him at his funeral (he would actually be assassinated exactly two months after giving this sermon). He said he didn’t want a long funeral, and that the speakers shouldn’t spend time talking about his awards and degrees and accomplishments.
“I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody….” he said. “I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked….I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I just want to live a committed life behind.”
No reasonable person could suggest that Dr. King didn’t leave a committed life behind. In fact, the danger these days is that we make Dr. King an object of worship rather than a model to emulate: we set aside a special holiday to remember how great he was, to share his most universally acceptable quotes with one another, to marvel at the strength of his courage and faith and love. And then we move on with our lives. But Dr. King and Isaiah and God all call us to do far more than that.
We are called to practice righteousness, not simply admire it: to actually loose the bonds of injustice, break every yoke, share our bread with those who are hungry, and clothe those who are naked, every day of our lives as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ. And that is no easy task. But it is our calling as disciples of Christ, who went before us to do exactly that and so much more.
And when we follow him by practicing our faith, we will not find ourselves lost and stranded in the desert: “the LORD will guide you continually,” Isaiah assures us, “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.” So it can be for us; so it will be and already is. So let’s keep practicing.