Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Going through the Motions

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (August 11, 2019)

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 (Common English Bible)

The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw in the days of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah… 

Hear the Lord’s word, you leaders of Sodom.

    Listen to our God’s teaching,

        people of Gomorrah!

What should I think about all your sacrifices?

    says the Lord.

I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams

    and the fat of well-fed beasts.

    I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.

When you come to appear before me,

    who asked this from you,

    this trampling of my temple’s courts?

Stop bringing worthless offerings.

    Your incense repulses me.

New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—

    I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!

I hate your new moons and your festivals.

    They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.

When you extend your hands,

    I’ll hide my eyes from you.

Even when you pray for a long time,

    I won’t listen.

Your hands are stained with blood.

    Wash! Be clean!

Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.

    Put an end to such evil;

    learn to do good.

Seek justice:

    help the oppressed;

    defend the orphan;

    plead for the widow.

Come now, and let’s settle this,

    says the Lord.

Though your sins are like scarlet,

    they will be white as snow.

If they are red as crimson,

    they will become like wool.

If you agree and obey,

    you will eat the best food of the land.

But if you refuse and rebel,

    you will be devoured by the sword.

The Lord has said this.

A colleague of mine in the Midwest serves a Baptist church. They follow the Revised Common Lectionary, like we do most Sundays, and like we’ve been doing here over the summer, my colleague has been preaching from the Old Testament prophets. He’s read Amos and Hosea and their ardent proclamations to “practice justice or else.” The problem is that my colleague serves a politically mixed congregation, and somebody asked him, “Hey, could you please tone down on the politics?” So he said one Sunday morning, in effect, “Hey, y’all, I did not make this stuff up! I’m just reading straight from the book!” 

I could see how in our profoundly polarized society picking a string of texts from the prophets could be perceived as promoting a political agenda. The prophets don’t shy away from politics, as in the affairs that affect the polis, the city, the community. That’s different from partisanship. 

The prophets aren’t sages living up in caves somewhere, giving wise nuggets of advice to individuals who seek them out; they’re agitators who convey God’s word to the whole society and especially those who lead it, the kings and religious authorities. The prophets’ themes are clear and consistent, and they don’t back down from them: justice, righteousness, God’s anger at idolatry and oppression. Their indictments of their societies are equally clear: God’s people have not held up their end of the covenant and there will be consequences.

Each prophet has a different angle on how they get that message across. Remember Hosea from last week with the family imagery: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms…  I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them.” Isaiah takes another approach, basically saying, “Your worship is hollow and I’m sick of it because you won’t take care of the vulnerable among you.” 

That’s putting it mildly. “Your incense repulses me,” Isaiah shrieks, “I hate your new moons and your festivals… Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood.” This first chapter of Isaiah is actually written in the form of a legal indictment and Isaiah is indicting Judah, the southern Kingdom, for failing to live up to that covenantal responsibility to care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan—those whose unfortunate circumstances landed them outside of family or clan networks of support—people who Yahweh had specifically, repeatedly said to care for. 

Right “out of the gate” Isaiah accuses the leaders of Jerusalem of being like the leaders of Sodom and the people with being like the citizens in Gomorrah, those two infamous cities who were known for their brutal inhospitality to strangers in their midst (That’s another obvious thread that runs through the prophets, by the way, care for the stranger, the immigrant, along with the widow and the orphan). Another prophet, Ezekiel put it this way, speaking for the Holy One: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.”

To quote my colleague in the Midwest: “I did not make this stuff up!”

One aspect of this that strikes a nerve with me as a religious professional is how Isaiah takes a dig at their worship. When he says “Your incense repulses me.” In the original Hebrew of that verse there’s a nuance to the phrase that basically means “Your worship makes me want to vomit!” After listing the prominent features of Judean worship—their sacrifices; burnt offerings of animals; incense offerings; their festival calendar; their prayers, all of it; practices that God has over generations commanded the people very specifically to observe—she basically says, “All of that is meaningless for you and offensive to me because you’re not doing what else I commanded you to do: do good and seek justice.

Can you imagine God saying the same to us? What would be on the list? How would the prophet indict an American assembly in 2019? “I am sickened by your hymns and sermons and organs and prayers and Communion!” Or with another style of worship: “I am repulsed by the stench of your praise bands and screens!” 

There is a part of me that pushes back against what I imagine Isaiah would say to us. We do our best to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” here at St. Mark’s, or at least we try. Our Session and staff are quite responsible with our money; no opulence here. Our building is used for an array of really good work in this community, so much so that there’s a lot of wear and tear. And in our preaching and praying and singing, our eyes are constantly turned to the needs of the world outside our doors and our responsibility to meet those needs. My reflex is to point to other communities, like the ones with a gazillion American flags on its stage, or to point to other preachers, like the televangelist with the $54 million jet

I think back to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Gangerford and Shepherdson families were locked in a feud and had been for so long that nobody could remember why they were feuding. People had been killed on both sides. Yet both families were sitting in church one Sunday listening to a sermon on brotherly love… with the rifles tucked between their knees. Back to Isaiah: “Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood.”

It’s as if Isaiah says, “You’re just going through the motions of talking about loving your neighbor.”

The catalogue for examples of religious hypocrisy is a very thick one. Thinking about the American history of white supremacy, how often have people perpetuated all sorts of evil on a Saturday night only to show up to worship the next Sunday morning? 

And after the events of last week in El Paso and Dayton, I think about how fed up people are (and rightly so!) of the rhetoric of “thoughts and prayers.” “Save your prayers,” people are saying, “and do something.” It is a ritual, if you think about it, for politicians and religious figures to offer prayers for the victims following a mass shooting. The hypocrisy comes in when those same leaders are frozen in inaction for doing anything to prevent similar tragedies in the future. 

Then I remember that old proverb, “When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you.” One way of rephrasing what Isaiah is trying to tell Judah is, “You’re just going through the motions.” 

In what ways do we as a faith community simply “go through the motions” of talking about seeking justice and doing good? How do we as individuals “go through the motions” of coming here on Sunday to reaffirm our desire to be the people we want to be, and maybe even the people we believe God calls us to be, but then go right back to the same weekly ruts, the familiar routines of tending to our needs and our needs alone? 

How do I go through the motions? How is my worship at times insincere because it pays lip service to justice in the echo chambers of social media or my narrow social circles without any concrete follow-through on my part? How do I not live up to my own earnestly-held values and commitments?

And yet… and yet, the story doesn’t end there, for Isaiah’s community or for ours. After such an indicting critique, there is a twist of grace:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean… 

cease to do evil,

    learn to do good;

seek justice… 

Come now, let us argue it out… 

[don’t you just love that line? “Let’s argue it out” Let’s sort this out together….]

though your sins are like scarlet,

    they shall be like snow… 

God holds out hope that the people can change. They get a fresh start. They get another chance to try again… and another… and another… What mercy! 

The famed preacher Fred Craddock told this story:

I went to a dedication service of a beautiful building at the University of Oklahoma. It had a tall tower, great facilities, all kinds of marvelous things. I was there for the dedication. And the young man, the campus minister, had a very brief prayer: “Lord, burn down this building and scatter these people for the sake of the gospel.”
God, when our gatherings and festivals and sacrifices and temples… when our words and prayers and posts and bumper stickers become mere “shells” of the real thing, burn them down and scatter your people for the sake of your gospel of justice and love. Amen.