Saturday, February 4, 2017

Should Church Feel Good?

Isaiah 58:1-14
Ordinary 5
February 5, 2017
William G. Carter

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? 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? 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? 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?

I don’t know what kind of response that the prophet Isaiah received, but I know the kind of things that people say to me at the back door. They say a lot of things: they tell me their children are getting married, or volunteer to bring a crock pot of chili for the Ice Festival, or about an upcoming surgery or a recent head cold. It’s all good information.

Most of them speak about the hour-long worship service that they have just been through. “The choir was good today,” someone will say, or “How about those bells?” A couple of weeks ago, when I used a stolen prayer for the service, a number of people asked for a copy. They rarely ask for a copy of my own prayers, which is good because I don’t always write them down, so I was glad to give it to them.

Once in a while, someone may say something about the sermon. That’s a good corrective for me, because they will often quote a line from it that I didn’t even say. As one of my teachers said, “That’s good preaching. You stirred up something in them that they’re still chewing on.”

But as I’ve told many of you, of all the comments at the door, my favorite is when somebody says, “That was a good worship service. I felt good about worship today.” I like that. It’s not just about the sermon, or the music, or prayer, or the good looking ushers. It’s the quality of the whole worship service. That’s what really matters.

Worship is what gets God’s attention. What matters is not merely the show up front, or the quality of singing in the pews – but the whole thing. Worship nurtures our faith. Worship expresses our faith. Worship responds to the grace of God by expressing the grace of God. So I always hope to hear somebody say, “That was a good worship service. It felt good to be here.”

But today Isaiah sounds a warning to us. He’s been sitting in the back row of the sanctuary for a while. He can watch what has been happening in here, but he can also get a pretty good view of what’s happening outside the door. And he begins to see that there is a serious disconnection between what we do in this room and what we do when we go back to the neighborhood.

Now, what’s been happening inside the sanctuary has been pretty important. The people gather to praise Yahweh, the God of freedom, the God of love. They sing. They give. They listen to the scriptures tell of God’s long-standing relationship with his people. They support one another in taking on spiritual disciplines, like praying for the needs of the world, or fasting from food as a way of focusing on God.

But back there in the last pew, the prophet Isaiah can overhear a little grumbling from the people. “Why isn’t this working? We come and tell God what we want, but God doesn’t seem to be listening. We voluntarily give up a meal in order to pray, but God isn’t paying attention. We humble ourselves, and take on all of these practices and disciplines, but God won’t even stifle a yawn. Why won’t God look at us?”

That’s an interesting thing to hear, because from where he’s sitting, Isaiah can watch some of these very same people as they go about their business outside the door. These are the very same people who come into the sanctuary, humble and committed to prayer, while under their breath they are murmuring about how demanding the priest is.

These are the same people who sponsor task forces on peace and justice, but continue to pay their cleaning ladies less than minimum wage. They live in their big house on the hill and dress in designer clothing as they go to worship. Meanwhile they conveniently seem to forget they are funding the mortgage on their vacation house from wages that should be rightfully be going to their underpaid factory workers, and those designer clothes are stitched offshore for nickels a day in some sweatshop.

There is no question in Isaiah’s mind why God isn’t listening. Among God’s people, there is a disconnection between what happens in the sanctuary and what happens out on the street.

In an important article on worship and ethics,[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff reminds us that the God we worship is a God that loves justice. According to the scriptures, justice is not about punishment or prisons or law and order. That’s not the Bible’s view of justice. Biblical justice is looking out for the people who get trampled on. The Bible keeps pointing us to the widows, the orphans, and the aliens, because traditionally they were the ones who didn’t have access to the same basic services as everybody else.

To these ancient categories of people, in our day we might add the single parent, the homeless child, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, those with chronic illness, the victims of prejudice and exclusion, to say nothing of those who come from a different land or speak a different language. God says, “A holy people will look after these folks, and bring them into the community so as to enjoy its bounty.”

For instance, take the whole discipline of fasting. In many spiritual traditions, for thousands of years, people have voluntarily skipped some meals as a way to devote themselves to God’s purposes. That’s a wonderful and pious thing to do, and Jesus himself fasted for forty days in the desert.

But when you are fasting to pursue God’s purposes over here, and then you neglect your neighbors and ignore God’s purposes over here, there is a serious spiritual disconnection, and God won’t pay you any attention. As someone comments on Isaiah’s text, “The God of Judaism is not a God who likes to be flattered in a more or less passive routine of worship; this God is out working the neighborhood and wants all adherents doing the same.”[2]

“What kind of fasting do you think I prefer?” asks the Lord. “Isn’t it to loosen the bonds of injustice, to break the yoke of oppression? Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless and the poor under your own roof?” If we come here to worship a God who makes every person, a God who declares that each of these persons resembles the divine image, there isn’t a person alive who is not our own kin.

In his book called The Dangerous Act of Worship, Mark Labberton tells about his experience as a guest preacher. He’s a seminary president, so he gets around. And Mark often sees what the congregations take for granted.

One Sunday, he says he was preaching in a big, big church. It was a fancy place. Everything was elaborate stone work – the sanctuary, the pulpit, the communion table. Mark had finished his sermon, and then joined the host pastor right behind the communion table. They stood together and led the congregation in the communion prayers. Then, in his words, this is what happened:

The elders went up and down the stairs to receive the trays of each element. One of the elders lost his balance as he reached the top step and accidentally collided with another elder. Both silver trays crashed onto the stone steps, making the loudest reverberation in the quietest moment, communion bread tumbling all over the steps. It was a noisy, messy, awkward situation. It was also just an accident.

I saw such a look of fury and hatred pass between the two men as I have rarely seen. It was an embarrassing and painful exchange. The hatred was far more of an offense to that communion meal than the accident itself. For an instant it seemed the curtain was pulled back and I saw what our instincts often reveal: it’s about us more than about someone else.[3]

And while all that fussing is going on, there were people outside that big stone building, homeless people, hungry people, who would have given anything to have a piece of bread to eat . . . while the elders are upset with each other about spilling the trays.

Do you know what God wants?  I think you know what God wants.

·         God wants a connection between Sunday and Monday.
·         God wants a connection between a warm sanctuary and a chilly homeless shelter.
·         God wants a holy people who care about all the people.
·         God wants us to stop wasting food, especially when others are starving, and to step up the distribution program.
·         God wants those who have a lot to stop taking advantage of those who have little.
·         God wants the hungry to be fed, and the cold-hearted to be strangely warmed.
·         God wants the Sabbath to be about God’s concerns, and not merely a day off from human responsibility.

I think we know what God wants. And it is a privilege to be part of a church that seeks to be what God wants.

In fact, when we gather for worship, hear God speak, and then take our neighbors as seriously as we take our Lord, we might just hear God say, “Now that was a wonderful worship service!”

 (c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy,” Theology Today, April 1991, pp. 8-9.
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 189.
[3] Mark Labberton: The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downer’s Grove: IVP Books, 2007) 44.

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