05 February 2017

Calling Out False Religion

Isaiah 58

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sacrament of the Lord's Supper

The Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday suggests that we read Isaiah 58:1-9a, possibly through verse 12, but leave off the last two verses.   It’s a long chapter, for sure. But I propose that we read the entire chapter.  In order to help us be attentive to the words of the prophet, I’m going to stay very close to the text. So keep your Bible close at hand.

First, there are several things you need to know about this text.  Chapters 40 through 66 are often known as Second Isaiah.   They were not written by the prophet Isaiah, who lived in the eighth century BCE, but by a community of prophets bearing his name, written in the sixth century, written to God’s people during their time in captivity in Babylon.  These words were written by and for a community in exile, far from home.  The community is anticipating a return, once the Babylonian Empire finally falls (which it did in 536 BCE).  Before they return home, however, they need to be clear about who they are as God’s people.  Second Isaiah calls the people to change, to confess their sins, to prepare their hearts for liberation.  And at the heart of Israel’s experience with God was something that was always true, straight from the beginning: the connection between worship and justice, the connection between worship and service, the connection between worship and action.  Israel has forgotten this, but the need to remember.

In chapter 58, God confronts Israel—and through Israel confronts the ChurchGod said to Isaiah, “Shout out. Do not hold back!”(Is. 58:1). What follows is a searing condemnation of false worship, false religion. Isaiah tells the people what Yahweh requires. This is an extremely provocative text.  No one comes out unscathed.  It's a profound statement on the nature and purpose of worship, on the imperative to connect what happens in the sanctuary with how we live in society. Here we learn the kind of worship God expects from us. And we discover what faith enacted in society is supposed to look like. 

True worship can’t be self-serving.  We don’t worship God for what we get out of it. We don’t worship in order for God to do things for us.  We don’t show up for worship each week to curry God’s favor to help us when we need or want something.  The worship of God is always an end in itself, which then shapes how we live in the world.  In other words, we cannot sever what goes on in the sanctuary from the way we live outside the sanctuary.  If your worship isn’t deepening your commitment to care for the needs of your neighbors, the needs of strangers, anyone in need, if your worship doesn’t lead to a more generous heart, a more expansive life, then something is seriously wrong with youre worship life.

Yes, it’s tough to preach on a text such as this because it says all that needs to be said.  So, let’s follow the flow of the text.
God commands Isaiah to, “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. 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” (58:1-2).  Here, God’s people say that they want to know and serve God, but they reject God’s will.  They think their nation is righteous, they think that their nation is doing God’s will, but it is far away, indeed, from God’s will.

Next, God (through Isaiah) echoes back the people’s complaint in verse 3.  (Note the quotations in the text.) “Why do we fast, but you do not see?”  In other words, they ask, “Why do we bother with worship, God, if you don’t pay attention to us?  Why do we practice our piety if you’re not going to listen to us?”  “Why [should we] humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Then God replies, through Isaiah, in verse 3b, and blasts them: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 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. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?”  All you do, God says, is boast about yourselves.  God asks, “Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” In other words, God says, Why do you go about being so mournful and joyful and preoccupied with yourselves?  God asks, “Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Instead, God says in verse 6, “Is not this the fast that I choose”—here it comes, these sweet words of life, the way of true religion.  “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?”  Every yoke!  Break every yoke!  It is not enough to simply remove the yoke of oppression.  You must shatter it!  God asks, “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?” (Is. 58:6-7).
You see, this is the kind of worship or religious expression that God desires of us.  This is what worship is for—worship enables us to be advocates for the oppressed, the broken and bound, the hungry and homeless, to open our hearts.  We Christians should be breaking the yoke of oppression, not becoming a yoke of oppression ourselves!  If after worship our hearts are still closed, are still cold, are still turned inward, are still selfish, then something is seriously wrong.

So, what will happen when God’s people really practice true worship, true religion?  Isaiah says, in verses 8 and 9, “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. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”  Then you will have God’s attention because God will know your heart is in the right place.  Then God will show up! 
For this—this is what Yahweh asks of us!  There’s absolutely no room for debate or argument on this matter.  This is what Yahweh asks of us, verse 9b, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 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.  Then. 
Isaiah tells us how the world will be transformed.  Verses 11 and 12: “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. 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.” 
Healing.  Watered gardens.  People fed and cared for.  Streets—the public square—restored so that people can live there, safely and securely.  That’s what God expects of us.  This is what God expects from the church.  And this is what God expects from governments, from those in power, who have been given the responsibility to care for all of God’s children.[1]

Then Isaiah goes on to say in verse 13, “If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

If we trample the sabbath, if we neglect true worship, if we selfishly insist on our own way and ignore the heart of God, then don’t be surprised if society unravels all around us.  If religion isn’t feeding the needs of God’s people, if it isn’t calling us to life, if it isn’t breaking yokes of oppression, then our worship is false.  If we’re not allowing people to blossom and flourish, to really live—and not only Christians and Jews, but Christians and Jews and Muslims, people of every religion and none—then our religion is false.  As our sixteenth century forebear, the reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) knew, one of the tests of a good society is whether and how it takes care of its poor.  Calvin was adamant about this in his ministry in Geneva.  One of the tests of a good society is whether and how it takes care of its poor.[2]  We are called to form and reform social structures so that the structures of society allow people to thrive.

True worship leads to service, to justice, to acts of love and mercy and peace.  Service and justice and acts of love and mercy and peace lead us back into the sanctuary to offer praise and gratitude to God.  Back and forth.  Worship calls forth service, which leads us back to worship.  Worship calls for justice, which leads us back to worship.  Back and forth—all to the glory of God!  Unless our worship leads us toward greater acts of mercy and enables human flourishing then it’s not of God—it might even be demonic.  And without an understanding of the connection between worship and justice, our worship will not be able to block the way of the demonic.

Back in 2004, the General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches met in Accra, Ghana.  The Communion is made up of denominations from around the world within the Reformed theological tradition, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA).  It meets every couple of years in different cities.[3]  As part of their meeting, the delegates from around the world visited Elmina and Cape Coast castles situated along the West African coast.  Beginning in the seventeenth century, these castles were places where captured Africans were kept shackled before being shipped away and sold into slavery.  When the council delegates climbed up the steps of Elmina’s women’s dungeon, they emerged to discover a Reformed (Calvinist or Presbyterian) chapel, over whose entrance were inscribed these words: “The Lord has chosen Zion” (Psalm 132:13). The delegates were shocked, horrified, aghast.  “For two centuries, people who considered themselves among the Lord’s ‘chosen’ had worshiped and prayed in this place while directly beneath them human beings were chained in misery.”  How could they have been so morally and spiritually blind?  “On this trade in humans as commodities, the wealth in Europe was built.  Through their labor, sweat, suffering, intelligence, and creativity, the wealth of the Americas was developed.”[4] 

How could they be so morally and spiritually blind?  We have to be careful here.  As Calvin knew, it’s easy for us to become very blind.  We have to be careful not to judge them too quickly.  Where are we similarly blind today?  We can pay lip service to the importance of worship or bemoan the fact that more Americans are not in worship on Sundays or we might look out with envy to megachurches packing crowds into their sanctuaries, however, worship attendance is no guarantee that the gospel is being preached and lived out in the world.  Many white Christians in both the South and the North filled their sanctuaries to capacity in the 1950s and 1960s, yet never offered a word of encouragement to black Christians struggling for their rights as American citizens, fighting to be treated with decency and dignity.  Many white churches never advocated on behalf of their black sisters and brothers, never risked anything for them, never put their bodies on the line for the sake of the health of the body of Christ.[5]  The Church at that time, desiring to avoid conflict—as if conflict avoidance and playing “nice” are synonymous with faithful discipleship—failed to make the connection between worship and justice, between worship and action, between worship and love embodied in society.  Some churches did make the connection, but not all—certainly not enough.  The Church is always tempted to do the same—we love to play it safe, avoid anything controversial. 

Where is the Church silent today?  Where are those places where worship is severed from service in society?  What about Catonsville Presbyterian Church?

Where are those dark places in our communities that wait for the dawning of the light?  Where are the wounds that need healing? Where are you going to bring light?  How are you going to be an agent of God’s healing?  How is your worship, the singing of beloved hymns, the saying of prayers, the hearing of this Word, how is your baptism shaping your service?  How will your time at the Lord’s Table this morning, how will broken bread and a cup of suffering change the way you live?  How will this meal inspire you to take up a cross and follow on behalf of your Lord?  How will this meal lead you into broken places, to places of suffering?  How will you embody the mercy and love and light of God?

[1] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), especially Book IV, chapter XX: On the Church and State; Spiritual and Civil government; The function and Authority of Civil Rulers; The Nature of Civil Laws; and The Christian Attitude Toward the State.
[2] William Stacy Johnson in John Calvin: Reformer for the Twenty-First Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 117.
[3] For more information about the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
[4] Story told by Johnson, 125.
[5] See Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016).

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