Sermon 2/5/2017 “True worship”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Isaiah 58:1-12
Day: 5Epiphany, Year A

“True worship”

A man I know named “John” wanted to please his wife on her birthday, so he did what all young husbands do in such situations these days: he visited Pinterest for ideas. Pinterest, for those who may not know, is a Web site that shows pictures of ideas, of outcomes, and either photos or short videos of each of the steps needed to accomplish the task.

What John found on Pinterest was a cake, and not just any cake, a five-layered rainbow cake. Each layer was to be a different color of the rainbow, and there was a clear sweet glaze over the whole thing.

It didn’t bother John that he didn’t cook or hadn’t made a cake before; after all, he had photos of each of the steps. So he assembled all the things necessary and followed the visual instructions. Except—and we could have predicted this—John’s cake didn’t look much like the end result was supposed to look. HIS cake was lopsided, with pieces of the layers broken off, and the glaze sank into the layers like potholes in the road.

John posted a photo of what the cake was supposed to look like, next to his outcome, then he showed a video of him patching the whole thing—badly—with store-bought white frosting. LOTS of store-bought white frosting. I laughed until my sides hurt, and wondered if John’s wife was pleased with his efforts.

I thought of John when I read our first lesson today. In it, God’s people had returned from exile and found their beloved Jerusalem not like they had left it all those years ago. The Temple was in ruins and their land was filled with aliens, people who had moved in and taken over and even married among God’s people. So the returnees decided to fast. They thought that by fasting they would please God, and God would provide them with the means to rebuild the Temple. And in the meantime they set about purifying their land of aliens—you know, making their country “great again.” Surely, they thought, God would see their piety and bless them.

Like John and his elaborate cake, things didn’t turn out the way they had envisioned. God got very indignant and told Isaiah to tell his people to STOP worshiping him that way. Turns out, God doesn’t want his people seeking him only through acts of worship, such as fasting. Instead, what God demands from us is justice toward our fellow human beings.

Apparently, God views worship differently than we do. We think that coming to church and worshiping God in the “correct” way—whatever THAT is—are what pleases God. But God views worship differently. God says we worship him when we:

  • Forego the systems of injustice we establish
  • Set the poor free from those systems of injustice we have created
  • Share our food with the hungry
  • Provide the poor wanderer with shelter
  • See and clothe the naked

This, God says, is worship. For God, living justly is the sign of true faith. I looked for scripture to back up my assertion and found plenty of it. Proverbs 14:31 says that if we insult the poor, we insult the Lord. Proverbs 19:17 says that is we give to the poor, we give to the Lord. Of course we find this in the gospels, also. Matthew 25 says that on the day of judgment God will separate us into two groups, those who loved the poor, loved the hungry, loved the naked, loved the refugee, loved the homeless — and those who didn’t. God says that if we don’t love absolutely everyone, then no matter what you say or how many times you attended church (or even fasted in his name), you don’t love him.

From our Old Testament lesson today we understand that a social conscience and a life spent in service to others, especially to the poor, is a sign of faith, and that a concern for and practice of justice is the mark of a real relationship with God. If you know God, this relationship will show in service to others. It may take a while for this learning and this mark to appear, but it will come as we mature in our relationship with God.

I know; some of you think that liberals have hijacked the concept of justice. And maybe we have. But not here. This isn’t me telling you that justice is giving all your money to poor people or to get involved in one of my causes or another in the name of God’s justice. This is God telling us that true worship is eating a little less so that we can feed people who have nothing to eat.

I read just this week that the existence of social welfare programs and food pantries and free health care eliminate the need for Christians to help others in the ways they used to have to do. “The government helps others,” the argument went. “And because my tax dollars are used, I’m off the hook for helping.” Jesus says, though, “If we don’t love the poor, if we don’t love the hungry, the naked, the poor wanderer then we don’t love him, either.

A poor wanderer, according to Hebrew understanding, was a person from another country who had come with virtually nothing but their skin. Our scripture lesson today tells us we are not only to feed such people, but to treat them like our family. God gives the stranger the status of family and tells us to do justice by taking them in.

In America we think of justice as an individual endeavor, freeing an individual to their own inalienable right. But biblical justice means connectedness, understanding that we are all one, and for individuals to see that their stuff isn’t just theirs. We are all connected, in ways we don’t fully understand and in ways we struggle to explain (as I proved yesterday at our Epiphany retreat).

So here is the great thing about Church of the Resurrection: By and large, from a historical perspective, our members understand about true worship, about justice, and about how we are all connected. My favorite thing about us is that we do not at all share the same political outlook. And—I learned this at our Bible study this week—we have long had a tradition of welcoming refugee families, taking them into our homes until they were able to provide for themselves.

At the same time, I am amazed at how God is guiding us to feed our hungry, alien, refugee neighbors right here in the Beauregard Corridor, also known as “immigrant alley.” Not by writing checks and giving the task of interacting with the hungry to others, but to us rolling up our own sleeves and serving those who are hungry because they are part of our God-family.

And Isaiah says that if we do the very things that we are doing—satisfying the needs of the afflicted—then God will “rebuild our ancient ruins” to “raise up the foundations of many generations” and “our light shall rise in the darkness.”

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