January 26, 2014
This is a hard text for a pastor to preach on. I spend a lot of time preparing these “courts of the Lord,” planning for this time when we appear together before God. I often ask for offerings; I call the convocations and lead the solemn assemblies and guide the community in celebrating the holy festivals and speak our prayers. Planning and leading worship is one of the deepest joys of my pastoral vocation. The thought that our worship–these prayers and readings and songs and words–is a burden to God . . . well, this is a hard text for a pastor to preach on.
But Isaiah, of course, is not saying that God hates all worship. It is the worship of a particular group of ancient Israelites that Yahweh condemns. God is not listening because the people’s hands are full of blood. Whatever prayers and readings and songs and sermons are coming from the people’s mouths, God does not hear them because the Divine gaze is focused on their bloody hands.
The command comes down from God: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. In which case we can assume that the people are currently not seeking justice; perhaps they are even contributing to oppression, taking advantage of the defenseless orphans and widows.
Thankfully–considering where we are and what we are doing here–the heart of this passage is not disdain for worship, but a call to justice.
The problem with worship is not the worship itself, but the danger that we might mistake our worship for faithfulness; that we might use worship to make us feel holy, thus letting us off the hook for the hard work of actual holiness.
As an analogy–you might have heard of the relatively recent studies that show taking vitamins can actually be detrimental to a person’s health. It’s not because vitamins are inherently bad or unhealthy. It’s because they do not provide nutrients to our bodies as effectively as food. But people who take vitamins often think that they, therefore, do not need to eat foods that are rich in nutrients. They may skip the spinach and eat the french fries–because they think, “I already got all those spinach vitamins in my pill this morning.”
For some people, worship can be like a “God pill.” It’s a lot easier to attend church for an hour or so once a week than to try to follow Jesus all the time. But we can’t nourish our spiritual souls with worship alone any more than we can get all the physical nutrients we need from vitamins.
Of course, not everyone who takes vitamins skips eating healthy food. And not everyone who attends worship coasts on holy feelings from Sunday to Sunday. At it’s best, worship does not provide holy feelings, but helps nourish our spirits for the hard and holy work of justice to which God calls us.
Jesus tells the woman at the well that some day, ideally, we will all worship in spirit and truth. It seems to me that any kind of true worship has to acknowledge the injustice of our world and proclaim God’s deep desire for an alternative vision of shalom.
It seems that at least some of the earliest Christian worship did this. The book of Acts and the New Testament letters reveal how the earliest Christ-followers lived out a vision of community that was radically different from the values and practices of the dominant culture. For one thing, in an economic system that created a wealthy class and an impoverished class–with practically nothing in between–the church practiced mutual aid and, in some cases even complete sharing of wealth and goods. The earliest Christians were also radical in their inclusion of women–even as leaders in the emerging churches.
Paul reminds the church in Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28) These ethnic, economic, and gender divisions were the basis of Greek society–most people could not imagine how community could even function without the support of these unjust structures. God called the church to live out a community of radical equality and, in so doing, provide a critique of the dominant systems and a witness to the change God desires. A church that merely maintains the comfortable divisions of our broader society is not a church following Christ.
Of course, there are many examples throughout history of the Church supporting rather than critiquing unjust structures. The ancient Israelites are not alone in their sin. We Anabaptists enjoy blaming Constantine–in making Christianity the official religion of the Empire, he made the Church a part of the oppressive system, corrupting religious leadership with money and power and moving the church away from its position of being an alternative community.
Still, Constantine, for all of his power, could not have single-handedly shifted the Church from being an agent of holy change to a maintainer of the status quo. One wonders how much of Isaiah–or the Gospels for that matter–was read during the worship services of the day. The Church, while in some sense an entity unto itself, is made up of individual communities and people who form their spirits in worship and make difficult choices every day about how to live out (or not) the radical justice to which God calls us.
One of my favorite characters in church history is St. Francis of Assisi. When Francis read Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler–“Sell everything you have and give it to the poor”–he actually (crazy guy that he was) sold all his stuff. (Which didn’t make his father–who kinda thought some of that stuff was his–very happy.) There are lots of wonderful stories of Francis, and they basically boil down to him deciding that he had to leave behind his privileged position in society in order to truly follow Jesus. He also saw that the church was being corrupted by its wealth and power, so he gathered around him a community of people who wanted to follow Jesus in poverty and service. Now, the story is already great, right? But here is the best part. Francis went to the Pope to ask for his group to become an official order in the Catholic church.
Really. That Francis had hutzpah. Can you imagine the conversation? “Mr. rich and powerful Pope, my understanding of the way of Jesus is that we are called to poverty and service. The church, of which you are the head, is doing a lousy job of helping us figure out this whole humility/equality/justice/Jesus thing, so a bunch of us have started hanging out together and now we want you to let us be an official part of this church that, by the way, needs to take a good hard look at itself and repent.”
I mean, the recording of that conversation is pretty much static by now, but I’m sure Francis said something like that. And the Pope said . . . yes! Yes. I am baffled by this and can only conclude that the Holy Spirit was there with Francis that day.
Our history as a Church is a history 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 sects 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.