Proper Worship - Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 5A (Isaiah)
Isaiah 58:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
58 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose, 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?
6 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?
7 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?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually, 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.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Reading scripture can be convicting. The word of God can speak strongly to our journeys of faith and whether our religious practices are consistent with the way we live. It’s easy to grow complacent; to think in terms of a spirituality that has no connection to the way we live our lives. That is, what we do on Sunday morning is unrelated to what we do Monday through Saturday. On Sunday morning it’s just me and Jesus. The rest of the week, it’s just me. In part this idea is rooted in an otherworldly vision of the religious life. Faith is all about escaping this world for the next. In that context, questions of justice and injustice have little relevance. Let’s just sing love songs to Jesus until he comes back to rescue us. As for the world around us—well, it’s of little concern. But is that what God wants from us?
Isaiah speaks to the people of Judah on behalf of God. They have been fasting and praying, but to what effect? Isaiah says to the people: “you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” In other words, you come to worship God, but that worship has no earthly implications.
It is difficult to read a passage like this without some form of introspection. Is this me, whom Isaiah describes. Is my worship of God of no earthly value? Do I believe that I’m humbling myself and seeking God, even as I miss the message that God is sharing? As the song declares: “Open my eyes Lord that I may see.”
As I write this reflection the country in which I live is embroiled in a debate about immigration and the status of refugees coming from war-torn countries, such as Syria and Iraq. There are those in our midst, many of them good church people, who believe that the first order of business of the American government is to protect the citizenry at all cost. Other, many of them good church people, believe that God is calling on this affluent nation that is embroiled in many of the wars that are producing refugees to do our part. Other nations are taking in refugees. Why can’t we?
When we ask these kinds of questions it’s helpful for us as Christians to consider the biblical story. What is the narrative arc of scripture? What role does the refugee or the stranger play? One can find texts to support both position. There are passages that affirm Israel’s right to defend its borders (heck, Joshua describes not only the settlement of the Promised Land but a genocide). But there are plenty of other texts that offer a different view. As we read in Hebrews 13, when we entertain strangers we may be entertaining angels. In other words, make sure you’re hospitable to the stranger.
So how should we respond? Should we leave things to the government? Should we fill in the gaps? Should we push the government to show hospitality? For American, one need only point to the Statue of Liberty to get a sense of our perceived values (of course we have never truly lived up to them, but they are aspirational and worth pursuing). Living as we do in a different time from that of the prophet, how should we apply the text? After all, unlike the ancient world religion and government aren’t quite as intertwined. We separate the two from each other, for we are a secular nation. While that may be true, should people of faith try to act in ways that are consistent with their faith traditions, even when it comes to matters of governance?
In the reading from Isaiah 58, the people addressed are returned exiles. They’ve been living under the thumb of a foreign empire. Now, they’re back home. The question is, what responsibility does the community have for its people, including those who are homeless.
I must admit that I’ve never housed a homeless person in my own home. My congregation, however, participates in a local a homeless shelter program that rotates from one faith community to the next. We partner with another congregation, so our building is impacted every other year (though we help out when not in our building). For one week, about thirty or so folks, most of whom are in between things, eat and sleep in our building. Everyone feels good about this. In fact, it involves more people from the congregation than any other activity. While this is necessary, I often wonder whether we do this to pat ourselves on the back. We’ve done our part!
Well, back to the fast. According to the one modern scholars call Third Isaiah (the prophet who speaks from within the Isaiah school to the returned exiles), the fast that God chooses is one that leads to justice. Food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless—that’s the fast that God desires. When we do this, it seems that when we call out to God, God will call back “Here I am.” This appears to be the way in which the people of God are to live in the land of their redemption
So, what does worship have to do with justice? Or justice have to do with worship? Whatever responsibility we have, it’s important recognize that God doesn’t distinguish between justice and worship. True worship, it would seem, includes justice. Love God and love and neighbor are intertwined. For those of us who affirm God’s call to justice, it’s important to remember that doing good things does preclude worshiping God. To set aside worship in pursuit of justice can, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest, lead to “arid moralism evident in the view that social action is sufficient and that we may sidestep the heart of the matter—the love of God for each and all and for all those whom God loves” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 21].
It is our tendency to engage in either/or, black and white thinking. The fact is that God desires our worship and our service. As Paul puts it in Romans 12:
12 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom. 12:1-2).
What is good and pleasing to God? It is to offer our lives to God as a living sacrifice. That involves all of life, not just a part of it. To put things a bit differently—when I was listening to N.T. Wright speak about Creation/New Creation at the recent Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Symposium, he spoke of worship as standing at the intersection of heaven and earth. Worship is that place where heaven and earth are held together. Our task, he told us, wasn’t to build the kingdom (something progressives are apt to do), but “build for the kingdom.” Thus, what we engage in is meant to serve as signs in the present moment of the presence of the new creation. In other words, it is a reminder that the emperor is not God. For us, the nation itself does not define our ultimate purpose in life.