"The Service of Worship"

Epiphany 5
Isaiah 58:1-9
9 February 2014
Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                                   
You have come to a service of worship.   That’s what Protestants and Jews call their gathering to worship God.   A worship service.   Catholics call it mass, and Orthodox Christians call it the Divine Liturgy.   But we call it a worship service.   We serve up worship and you, the consumer, go down the buffet line and take what you want of it, whatever might taste good or be nourishing or whatever.   Right?   No, wrong.   It is a service of worship because worship and service are inter-related.   Isaiah would have us hear that worship cannot be disconnected from service.   To seek to worship God without caring for others is futile.   In the first letter of John we read “if you do not love a brother or sister whom you can see, you cannot love God, who you cannot see.”   So loving God and loving others go hand-in-hand.   I think Jesus called those two the great commandment.   

Last week we read the Beatitudes and thought about what it means to have our value system turned upside down.   We heard the challenge of Micah to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.   This week’s reading from Isaiah builds on that.   Isaiah spells that out what doing justice and loving kindness look like and says that any humility that isn’t connected to justice and kindness is false humility – false worship.
Hear these words of the Prophet Isaiah:  Isaiah 58:1-9

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. 
(New Revised Standard Version)

The primary role of prophets was to call God’s people to repentance, to demand their return to obedience and to remind the people what it means to live lives in keeping with the covenant. The opening command from God to Isaiah in 58:1 is, therefore, the most basic job description of a prophet: Shout out, do not hold back, raise your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
But what a shock to hear what the sin is!   God through the prophet challenges a fundamental act of worship – fasting and prayer.    Why do you come to me, fasting and praying to draw near to me, when your action toward others is not just and kind?   The people were so caught up their rituals that they forgot the spiritual meaning of worship.   ”The Hebrew people were caught worshiping worship. Not only are these worshipers convinced that acts of praise and worship evidence extreme faithfulness; they are more than a bit peeved that despite all these ritualized, public displays of devotion, God has not seen fit to answer their prayers.”  (Elizabeth Sweet, esermons.com)  

They have become competitive and very showy with their fasting – perhaps the way churches compete with their Outreach events and worship attendance numbers.   You know the real bottom line with God is whether lives are being changed – not whether bodies showed up to feel good about themselves.
This dilemma of false worship is seen sometimes when the pastor of a church gets too busy with all the tasks of church life that she forgets the primary role of a pastor is to love God and the people of God.   That’s been a bit of a challenge lately around here, as we have been so caught up in settling into our building and all that we need to accomplish to make this a good church home, that we forget that the most important ingredient in a home is love.    Are we preparing this home for the purposes of sharing Christ’s love or are we preparing this home so we can be more proud of how it looks?

Isaiah does not stop with challenging their false worship – fasting for the wrong reasons --  to get from God what they wanted.   He goes on to tell them what faithful devotion to God entails and it is a radical message.
You want to worship me?   You want to bow down and humbly with me?   You want to serve me?   Well, you have to care a lot more than you do about poor people.   Caring for people who are oppressed, hungry, homeless, poor means more than a little charity.   It means real compassion.   To really care is to seek change.   Like the homeless person who sits on the street saying keep your coins, I want change.

Well, this is when we all get very defensive because we know how complicated it is to really care.   It is complicated and messy.   Like last week when someone stopped for help here, and no matter how many episodes of “Lie to Me” I have watched and tried to learn all of Dr. Lightman’s tricks of the trade, I still cannot know for sure when a person seeking help is giving me a true story or a fabricated one to illicit my sympathy.  
So I err on the side of generosity, because I always have Matthew 25 going off in my head, “I was hungry, and you fed me.   I was in prison and you visited me….whenever you did it for the least of these my brethren you did it for me.”   So I pray and I ask questions and I get names and a story, and I try to witness to the love of God in my response.   But what they really need is not a hand-out but real change, and that’s where it gets difficult.

Isaiah also challenges his people for hiding from their kin.   That one struck home for me yesterday as I came home from the work day on the property and the Outreach Team meeting afterwards, and all I wanted to do was sit by myself and work on my sermon.   I was wanting to hide emotionally and physically from my kin, and I ended up being rude, and God was not pleased, and cannot be pleased with any sermon work that forces me to be rude to my family.   One can be clear about personal needs without collapsing into unkindness.
Isaiah promises that God will richly bless and answer the prayers of those who abide by the spirit of the law of love.   He says the light will break forth like the dawn and that healing will spring up quickly when our worship leads to service.   This is why we must not allow ourselves in this season of building fixation to forget that we are here to worship and to serve.   We are here not just to be charitable, to toss a little money at those in need, but to be willing to seek justice for the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed.   Maybe it means marching with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers or writing letters on their behalf.   Maybe it means adding showers so that we can be more hospitable toward the homeless and be part of a new effort at Family Promise.  

Maybe it means we will increase our giving to mission to more than 10% in the next five years, even while we are so consumed with our need for a sanctuary.
Peace is already a generous church.   We give away 10% every year.   Let us never grow weary of giving.  But we must remember that charity is no substitute for justice. Charity gives but justice changes.   It changes the lives of the poor for the good in a more lasting way.   

Justice sends a girl to school who can’t afford it, knowing that education will be empowerment.  Justice lends, expecting nothing in return, to entrepreneur in a developing country.   Justice demands that free markets begin to make room for the poor to sell their products at competitive rates  Justice insists that a fair wage is a fair wage, even if people will work for less.  Charity just a band-aid when structures in our corporate and political world prevent real change. 
“The highest form of charity involves a just relationship. In fact it stops being charity and becomes partnership with those who are in need.”   (by Brett Blair with Leonard Sweet, esermons.com)

“A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.”  (Pope Benedict)
As the head of a rescue mission once said, “Our biggest problem with Christians is that they all want to help the poor and speak out about generosity toward the poor.  They want to give gifts to the poor — especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But you can shake a stick at the number of Christians who come here wanting a relationship with the poor.”   More than one billion people worldwide live on less than $1 a day.  We need to reshape the way we help people; strengthening the poor so they can take control, solve their own problems, and rely on themselves in ways that dignified their existence.  

So let’s keep worshiping God, and let’s keep taking up special offerings for the poor, and let’s keep putting away at least 10% to help people beyond ourselves.  But let’s also make sure that we are interested in being authentic relationship with the poor and those who are marginalized in our society, who are children of God just like we are.  And let us make sure our worship leads us to authentic service out of a deep respect for the humanity and dignity of the other person.