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What True Worship Looks Like

Sunday, August 11, 2019. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Luke 12:32-40

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Worship needs justice, and justice needs worship.

One of the beauties of the ministry of the church in our time is that there is, I believe, a growing awareness that the Christian faith has not only to do with how we worship in the sanctuary on Sunday, but that it has to do how we live from Monday-Saturday.  Now, this is certainly not a new idea; others before us have known this.  And it is also the case that there are most definitely gaps between what we proclaim on Sunday and how we organize our priorities from Monday-Saturday; we are most definitely not in perfect alignment.  But my sense – from conversations with many of you and from observing the church at large – is that there is a profound desire to connect the faith that we profess during worship with the lives we live in the world. How does what we do in here make a difference in how we live out there?  Here at Lewinsville, we try to make that connection between worship and the world explicit in our WHY statement that, at our best, the reason WHY Lewinsville exists is “to love and serve God by responding to human need.”

Worship needs justice, and justice needs worship.

This connection between worship and justice had gotten broken during the time of the prophet Isaiah.  The worship life of the community had become hollow and self-satisfied.  We would do well to listen closely to Isaiah so that we might keep that connection strong.  The book of Isaiah begins with a thundering denouncement of the state of society in Isaiah’s day.  “I reared children; I raised them,” says the Lord, “and they turned against me!”  One translation says, “My people do not behave intelligently.” Things had gotten so bad that in verse 10, God compares them to the oppressive, inhospitable cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!  Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!”  A side note is that whenever God compares you to Sodom and Gomorrah, it is not a compliment.

Then God goes on a tirade in verses 11-15 about how God cannot stand to observe Israel’s worship.  God goes through a lengthy litany of all the elaborate rituals in which Israel engages in its worship life: sacrifices, burnt offerings, blood of bulls, lambs, goats, incense, new moons, appointed festivals, many prayers.  I don’t need them, I don’t delight in them, they’re futile, my soul hates them, they’re a burden.  You can just hear God tearing the liturgical calendar into shreds and throwing it all away.

What is up with this?  Why would God hate worship so much?  What’s wrong with worship?  We often talk about how worship is the very center of the church’s life; we have an ordination exam for new ministers that is devoted entirely to worship. Presbyterians spend enormous energy thinking about worship, planning for worship, we have a directory for worship, we want to be sure that worship is done decently and in order.  And Presbyterians are not unique in this.  Every other denomination, in its different ways, has its own serious approach to worship.

Is Isaiah 1 telling us that all of that worship energy is misplaced?  Israel itself devoted huge amounts of thought and time and biblical text to priestly rituals and activities.  Were they mistaken to do so?  Are we?

Things have gotten so bad in Israel’s life that God actually says in verse 15, “I’m done with you.”  “When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you.  Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen.”  Now, more than 1 person has teased me about how long my prayers can be, especially before a meeting, and here in Isaiah 1, the prophet makes it abundantly clear that lengthy, exquisite, carefully worded prayers do not guarantee a hearing by the Almighty.  They are at a dark place in their relationship with God.

Why is God so offended by God’s own people coming to worship God?  Verse 16 begins to give us a clue, in words that may sound haunting in our current American context.  “Your hands are stained with blood.”  You’ve got blood on your hands.  The Israelites would get all dressed up for worship, but God could see through it to the violence and injustice of their lives; and God can’t stand it.  In our own land where we have, as yet, been unable to find a way to balance 2nd amendment rights with common sense gun control legislation, and where mass shootings occur on a scale unheard of in other industrialized countries, we may imagine that as a society, we have blood on our hands.  Whenever we push the vulnerable poor to the side; whenever human greed exploits other people or the natural environment; whenever we isolate and hide ourselves in our ideological echo chambers, rather than finding ways to work together towards the common good, when those things happen, we have blood on our hands as a society.

So God says to Israel in verse 15, “I don’t want to hear from you.”  This is not good.

Then I imagine there is a bit of a pause, and in verse 16, God changes course. God says, actually, let’s do this.  There is a way back to me.  There is a path forward for you.  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean.  You’re not completely lost.  Cease to do evil; learn to do good.  Seek justice.  Live, God tells them, in sustainable ways.

Our relationships with God were never intended to be hollow, self-serving exercises in taking care of ourselves.  Our relationships with God have always been oriented towards the well-being of the neighborhood, towards the shalom of the wider community.  And the Bible has always known that the measure of the soul of any people is how they relate to the poor. “ Seek justice; help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.”  Pay special attention to those on the margins.  Worship needs justice to be grounded and real and honest.

During these turbulent times in which we are living, I want to tell you about one of the most energizing, most hopeful, and most painful experiences I have had the privilege of doing in my ministry.  Earlier this year, a group of clergy colleagues here in Northern Virginia – African American and white, male and female, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim – began to get organized around the need for racial healing and reconciliation. The group calls itself CURE – Clergy United for Racial Empathy – and got together initially after the blackface incident involving our governor. In May a group of 23 of us took a 3-day bus trip around Virginia, visiting sites of racial violence in our state’s history.  We went to Charlottesville, to the site of the 2017 neo-Nazi rally; went to Danville, site of an incident of police brutality in 1963, known as “Bloody Monday;” went to the site of a lynching in 1886; went to Richmond and visited the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, a notoriously cruel slave jail known as the “Devil’s Half Acre,” located just beneath the Clock Tower near I-95.  Along the way, we began to build relationships with each other, we had difficult conversations about race, history, white privilege, and what our faith calls us to do in our own time.  It has been profoundly hopeful because of the promise of these new relationships; but it has also been painful because I have a new appreciation for the terrible weight of significant parts of our history, and the torch has come to us to work towards our common healing.

On Sunday afternoon, September 22, from 4:30 – 6:30 p.m. at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, our little group is going to be sharing our experience in a public setting, and would love for you to come.  There will be a brief video of our experience, and we’re hoping to launch a series of group studies, where folks from different congregations can get to know each other and work towards healing a part of our broken social fabric during these days. “Don’t be afraid, little flock,” Jesus tells us.  Jesus’ own disciples were living in turbulent times, but he tells them, “your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.” Give to those in need, he tells them.  Do not store up your treasure in castles here on earth, but make yourselves the kinds of purses and wallets that don’t wear out.  Find your treasure in God, find your treasure in the well-being of other people, find your treasure in the common good.  True worship on Sunday is grounded in the slow and steady pursuit of justice from Monday-Saturday, even as the pursuit of justice needs the energy and the long-term vision of worship to sustain it.  To God and to God alone be all the glory, Amen.