Thoughts on Isaiah 1:12-17

The following is an excerpt from this past Sunday’s sermon. You can read the whole sermon here.

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Our history as a Church is a history of God’s people as agents of holy change and maintainers of the status quo. During the Holocaust, many Christians supported the Nazi party and others joined the Confessing Church–risking their lives by opposing Hitler.

During the Civil Rights era in the United States, the Apartheid era in South Africa, there were Christians who wanted to uphold the racial divisions in society and others who argued for change. Martin Luther King, Jr., argues in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that the church should be the headlights, not the taillights–the church should be leading the way toward racial justice, not following behind popular opinion. And that letter, of course, was written to fellow clergymen who were telling him to calm down and be patient.

And of course there are issues of justice today that the churches are not speaking about in one voice: the violence in Israel/Palestine that we discussed last week; questions of environmental care and justice; the death penalty–which is a hot topic in our own state legislature right now; rights for sexual minorities; the deep racial inequalities in our penal system, immigration . . .

Sometimes the tension between being holy change and maintaining the status quo is held by opposing religious groups–different congregations and denominations. And sometimes the tension is also held within individual communities. Because rescuing the oppressed and defending the orphan and pleading for the widow are all well and good in theory. But in practice, justice requires structural change–and we are all standing on this structure together. Those of us who are pretty comfortable are understandably not too excited about the possibility of the ground moving under us–of losing our balance and sliding into a less comfortable position.

Being nice is a lot easier than doing justice. Attending worship is a lot easier than doing justice. Following rules is a lot easier than doing justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I am generally in favor of being nice and attending worship and following rules. Really. It’s just that . . . well . . . I need to use a phrase here that I have come to really hate. I just told Twila this week how much I hate it: “The Bible is clear that . . . “

I hate that phrase because the Bible is an ancient text written in various foreign cultures and languages, much of it based on oral transmission of stories over centuries, copied and translated over and over again through the ages. Not to mention the internal tensions and downright contradictions within the books of the Bible.

I hate that phrase because almost every time I hear “the Bible is clear that” it is followed by something to the effect of “homosexuality is a sin.” Honestly, I am somewhat befuddled by the number of people who think the Bible is clear on this issue. I do understand how people can have opinions that difer from mine regarding the ultimate witness of scripture related to human sexuality. But I do not understand how so many people can think the Bible is clear on this. Because it is not.

Even on things that we would think are pretty clear moral issues the Bible can send mixed signals. Like, for instance, that we should care for aging parents. Seems good and right. But then you’ve got Jacob tricking poor, blind, dying Isaac. And Jesus telling the would-be disciple who wants to stay with his ailing father to “let the dead bury their own dead.”

“Clear” is not often a term we can use when speaking of the Biblical witness.

Still, I think in this particular case I need to use the phrase. Taking into consideration the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, the proclamations of the prophets, the life and teachings of Jesus, the testimony of the early church–considering the full breadth and depth and complexity of the Biblical witness–yes, I will say it: The Bible is clear that God desires justice.

It’s not that God does not desire our offerings and songs and prayers and sermons. It’s just that all of those things are not ends unto themselves. God does not desire worship for worship’s sake.

God desires worship because it is a time set aside for us to come near to the heart of God, and we cannot truly be near to God’s heart without beginning to share the Divine desire for justice.

God desires worship because it can open our eyes and our hearts to the plight of the oppressed and vulnerable in our society.

God desires worship because it is a way for us to open ourselves to the power we need if we are to work with God for holy change in the world.

Jesus speaks of worshiping in spirit and truth. So may our worship ever be in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the truth of the Divine desire for justice.

Amen.

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