Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112: 1-10 (UMH 833), 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
Some of you may have been here a year or so ago, when Pastor Jacob was doing a short residency here and he shared with us a theory about the human condition, that I have to say really rings true. Preachers and other leaders constantly lament how consumer driven our culture is, how we just want things for the sake of wanting them and have no real sense of how that impacts us. But his theory is that its not quite so simple. Our problem is that we want the thing without the thing that makes the thing the thing. With me? We want the thing without the thing that makes the thing the thing. Maybe an example will help. Decaffeinated coffee. Now I am not a big coffee drinker. I don’t really like it that much so when I drink it I want it to have the maximum impact. Why is there such a thing as decaf? The whole point of coffee was that it had caffeine. Once we figured out that it could be bad for us at certain points in life, or if we had too much of it, instead of giving it up, we had to have it without the thing makes it what it is. We take it out because we want the thing without the thing that makes the thing the thing.
It seems this is not a new phenomenon. This is the second week in a row that our Old Testament lesson has shown us that even the ancient Israelites were known to want the thing without the thing that makes the thing the thing. Last week sacrifice was the issue. In Micah, God was not happy with Israel and so their solution was to bring animal offerings to God. Now, while bringing an offering is not in and of itself a bad thing, they wanted to bring an offering of livestock without offering their lives. They were only willing to give a little. They want to be God’s people, but found that doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly were just pretty difficult. So they try to have the thing without the thing that makes the thing the thing. They want to worship God, but without living the life God called them to live.
This week is a similar situation. The people want to do the right thing. It isn’t that they aren’t trying to at least make it look right. These aren’t bad people…in fact, they seek God constantly, they want to know God’s ways, the even ask for righteous judgments from God…so they are confident in their faithfulness. But there is a gap in their seeking God and in their attempts, or lack thereof, to live a holy life, the life God called them to live. So while they are engaging in all their pious rituals, they are still oppressing their workers, still serving their own interests, still ignoring other people. They want worship without justice, ritual without compassion, community for themselves but not for others. They want the thing without the thing that makes the thing the thing.
The city of Houston has thousands of churches. On Sunday morning, most of them are filled with worshippers like us. We come here every week. We say our prayers. We sing together. We hear the scriptures read. We try to do the things that God would have us do. Yet our city is still a mess. Houston is filled with the mentally ill who have slipped through the cracks, and with homeless youth who have no place to go and no one to love them. We live in the most diverse city in the country but we don’t live in very diverse ways and the difference of 5 blocks or one side of the freeway or another means very different outcomes for one’s life. There are huge gaps between rich and poor, housed and unhoused, native born and immigrant. And there is a gap between what happens in our churches on Sunday mornings and what happens in our city and our world the rest of the week. It’s the same gap that Isaiah’s people faced. In the time he was preaching, the Temple was packed. No one missed worship on Sunday morning. They sang the psalms, they prayed, they brought offerings.
But they didn’t let worship get in the way of the rest of their life. They kept their distance from God so that they could keep their distance from God’s people too. They didn’t want to draw the line that connected to the church to the world outside. But God reminds them that worship is supposed to change them, that’s the whole point. It should change all of us. The words we speak, the songs we sing, the prayers we raise toward heaven do not cease when we walk out the doors and into the world. The time we spend here is not meant to anesthetize our conscience for the rest of the week. The message from the prophets these weeks is that what we do in worship is of critical importance to our CHristian life. But it cannot be separated from acts of justice and compassion, and from God’s people being together. The prophet asks “is this not the fast i choose…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?” Not to hide yourself from your own kin… that’s the one that makes me squirm a little. We know that when God is talking about our kin, God means ALL our kin, God’s people, everywhere.We cannot hide. Much to my own chagrin, we cannot stay home and watch Netflix all the time while world bleeds. Worship is going to lead us into a vulnerability that at times we are not going to like. Because it means we cannot hide from our own kin, inside this place and beyond these walls.
This is the part we’d rather not have. It’s the part that is absolutely crucial to following Jesus that we’d rather take out….it’s the part where we want the thing without the thing that makes the thing the thing. Following Jesus, we find a God who is willing to be intensely vulnerable, even woundable if it means drawing nearer to his people, if it means not hiding from his own kin. Even in this place, we’d rather not be vulnerable….much less out there trying to talk to people who are so different from us, who really, if we didn’t come to worship, we’d never bother talking to in the first place. If we let worship mess with ourselves, we’ll find ourselves living the kind of fast Isaiah proclaims- the hungry will be fed, our work and labor will not exploit others, we’ll not simply care for the poor but invite them into our homes and churches. And then, Isaiah says, this what will happen- here it again from the Message translation:
“If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims,
q uit gossiping about other people’s sins, If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places- firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.
When worship messes with the rest of our lives not only are we healed but our fractured communities and our broken world. I’d like to tell you what to do from here, I really would. All preachers dream of this Isaiah moment where God says blow the trumpet, then say this. I’m not sure where God is calling you. But I do know that coming to this place and worshipping the one who calls is supposed to help us discern that. It’s supposed to change you. We do not come here to listen to scriptures without listening to God, to give offering without giving ourselves, and certainly not to hide from our kin behind stained glass windows. It’s supposed to change you. And then, says the Lord, your light will break forth like the dawn, your healing will spring up quickly and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.