Searching for the Signal 5 — The Rev. Jessica Tate (audio available)
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Searching for the Signal 5
17 July 2011
Fairfax Presbyterian Church
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.
Somewhere this week, maybe even here, a group of good church people will gather together. They will ask one another what they are doing wrong. They go to worship regularly. They pray. They offer bible studies. They provide quality programs for kids. They have a great choir. They support local mission projects. They are doing everything they are supposed to do as good Christians, and yet something is missing. Their church isn’t growing. They can’t seem to get other people to join them.
If they are feeling brave, they might even admit to each other, or at least to themselves, that even though they are doing all the right things…worship, bible study, prayer…even for them, something is missing. No one can quite put a finger on it, but something is missing.
That’s what the people in Isaiah’s community are grappling with. They are carrying out all the practices of faith—humility, fasting, worship—all the good and right things for a community of faith to be doing, emphasizing, and offering. As best I can tell, Isaiah’s got a good thing going. His people are worshipping daily. They are fasting. They are humbling themselves. They are doing all the things they are supposed to do! There’s no half-empty sanctuary, no dead-weight on the membership rolls. These folks are walking the walk. It’s every pastor’s dream! ….at least from the comfortable distance of 25 hundred years later.
From a distance things in Isaiah’s community look great. It looks like they are the kind of faithful people we’d like to emulate. But, when you get a closer look, something isn’t right. Something is missing. Isaiah’s people ask God, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” They are doing everything they are supposed to do to get God to favor them. They are engaged in every faith practice they know, and yet they feel that God doesn’t notice them. Despite all their good efforts, they are not coming closer to God.
Do you ever feel that way? Like you’re coming to church, you joined the youth group or a women’s circle, you serve on the session or the board of deacons, you pray with your kids… You’re doing everything you’re supposed to be doing and something is still missing? Do you ever feel like you’re going through all the “right” motions, all the stuff that pastors and good church folks tell you to do and you still don’t feel any closer to God? You still don’t have that sense of peace or purpose or assurance? Or that the church is doing all the “right” things—regular worship, good music, exciting programs for children and youth and older adults and still people aren’t knocking down the doors to get in?
That’s what Isaiah’s people are saying. They’re doing all the right things and still something’s missing. God isn’t favoring them. These folks have been through a lot. As best as biblical scholars can tell, Isaiah’s people have returned to Jerusalem after the exile. The people of Israel were captured by the Babylonians and forced from their homeland for generations. Finally, they are back in Jerusalem. The Temple is still in ruins, but the people are home.[i] They are trying to understand what went wrong that led to their demise.[ii] And they are trying to go forward without the exile happening again, without losing God’s favor and protection. They are asking, “Why, God?” “Why are you still distant?”
Sometimes we do that, too. We come to church. We pray. We support a mission project. We do all the things we’re supposed to do because we want God to favor us. To protect us. To heal us. To save us. We’re doing all these faithful things in order to make demands of God. We do these things in order to get something from God. We pray and worship so that we can say, “Why God? Why didn’t you help me? Why didn’t you heal my loved one? Why don’t you feed those starving children? Why don’t you make me feel less empty? Why God?”
The question and confusion of Isaiah’s people, the question and confusion we sometimes feel, is met with a voice of the Lord that I bet Isaiah’s people didn’t want to hear, because I certainly don’t want to hear it.
Through the voice of Isaiah we hear the voice of the Lord say, “Announce to my people their rebellion. Rebellion? What? The people are worshiping daily. They’re fasting and praying. What? It gets worse. Announce to my people their rebellion, God says. Day after day they seek me. Day after day they worship and fast, as if they practiced righteousness, as if they did not abandon my laws.
Day after day they worship and fast, as if they practiced righteousness, as if they did not abandon my laws.
What a curious thing to say to a people fasting and worshiping, trying to restore a relationship with God.
What a strange thing to say to a people, to a church, trying to stay focused on the idea that worshipping God with honesty, joy and imagination is the first and most important thing we do together.
What a curious thing to say to a people, a church, trying to keep practices of worship alive and invigorated when Sundays are increasingly crowded out by sports games, and weekend trips, and family gatherings, and a whole host of other options in a world that is less and less church centered.
What a confusing thing to say to people who are doing all the right things, all the faithful things.
For worship of God IS the most important thing we do together. It is where we glorify God. It is the time that we put a halt to our self-centeredness and focus instead on the One who creates, redeems and sustains us. That’s why I often begin worship the way I do: when we gather for worship we enter a universe larger than the one that occupies us most of the time. When we gather for worship we give thanks for gifts not of our making. Worship is important! A colleague of mine rightly says, “Worship is the place where we inhale God’s love and grace, so we can be sent forth to exhale God’s love and grace into a broken world in need of redemption.”[iii]
And now God is saying that they’ve got it wrong. Worship and practices of faith are not what pleases or offends God. In and of themselves, these practices won’t restore or deepen a relationship with God.[iv]
My friend and colleague Andrew Foster Connors tells of a homeless immersion experience in Baltimore, in which those, like us, who have homes spend the night on the streets with the homeless. A “walk a mile in their shoes” kind of experience.
It so happened that the night the well-heeled were sleeping on the streets was rainy and cold and miserable. During the night they heard that one of the local churches was holding and all-night prayer vigil. If ever there were an experience that would make you want to pray through the night, it would be a cold, wet night on the streets. So the little band of homeless-for-a-night folks walked over to the church.
When they arrived at the doors of the sanctuary, they were stopped by a security guard. They explained that they were looking for a respite from the weather and would be happy to participate in the prayer service. The guard responded that he was instructed to keep folks like them out of the church.[v]
I think what God says to Isaiah’s people –and us—is that sometimes our correct religious practices miss the point.[vi] God frowns on prayer vigils that keep out the homeless. God isn’t interested in our fasting for fasting sake. God isn’t interested in whether we had traditional or contemporary music in worship this morning. God doesn’t want us to pray just because we’re supposed to pray. God is interested in how these practices of worship and prayer change us. Because that’s exactly what they are supposed to do. Practices of faith change us.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at phoning it in. I can go to the gym and spend an hour on the treadmill without really pushing my body. I can study just enough to pass a test without actually learning the material or thinking creatively. I can put together a sermon without wrestling with faith or hearing any good news. And I can definitely say a prayer without pausing for one moment to actually give thanks for the food before me or to hope earnestly for someone to experience healing or to listen for what God’s Spirit might be calling me to do.
What God says to the people is you can’t phone this in. You can’t just go through the motions of worship and prayer and fasting and all that other religious stuff you’re supposed to do. God’s not interested in worship for worship’s sake or prayer for prayer’s sake. God is interested in changing us because God is going in a very specific direction and we’re supposed to come along.
Luckily, God tells us what direction that is. This is what the practices of faith are trying to get us to do. This is the fast I choose, God says, these are the practices that matter:
– to loosen the bonds of injustice
– to let the oppressed go free
– to break every yoke
– to share bread with the hungry
– to give shelter to the homeless
– to cover the naked
– to not hide yourself from your own kin.
That last one’s a little funny. It doesn’t really translate directly into modern English. Kin, of course, means your tribe or your family, people you’re related to. Which, you’ll remember from that little parable about the Good Samaritan, is everyone—everyone is our neighbor; everyone is connected to us. Hiding yourself from your neighbor means refusing to see someone, pretending they don’t exist.[vii]
Have you ever done that? I have. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve pretended I didn’t see the homeless guy on the corner because I didn’t want to give him any money or try to figure out the best way to help him without enabling him. I’ve walked into a crowded room and turned my head because I saw someone I didn’t want to talk to. I’ve ignored the dorky kid on the school bus because I didn’t want anyone to know that outside of school we were actually friends.
You remember in Avatar, what the blue Na’vi people would say when they greeted one another? I see you. They didn’t literally mean, “I see you.” Of course they see each other. What they are saying is, I see you, I notice you, I acknowledge you as a fellow pilgrim on this journey of life. That’s what God means in not hiding yourself from your kin. I see you.
I see you and so I can’t ignore you. I can’t ignore that you don’t have as many opportunities as me. I see you and can’t ignore the pain that you are in. I see you and so I have no choice but to share my food with you, or my home, or my closet full of clothes. I see you and so I care that you are hurting, that you’ve lost your way, that you are in need.
When I was in college, I worked for a YMCA program called Project Starfish. The point of the program was to help under-privileged second graders who suffered from “summer slide.” While they weren’t in school for the summer, their reading skills would suffer tremendously. So we offered these kids a reading camp, where they’d come and practice their reading skills in the morning and then in the afternoon, we’d do fun stuff like go on field trips and to the pool—stuff these kids wouldn’t get to do in the summer because they couldn’t afford it.
There was one little girl who was late every day, Lakesha. She’d come in 15 minutes late, 30 minutes late, and hour late. Always late. I’d had it with her tardiness and one morning pulled her into the office and told her how frustrated I was and asked her why in God’s name she was late again.
I remember her brown eyes looking up at me. And this little seven year old told me that she was late because her alarm hadn’t gone off. Her mom drove a taxi over night and wasn’t home in the mornings when Lakesha had to leave for school.
I tell you what. In an instant, I saw her and I was caught up short. This little seven-year-old, got herself up, dressed and to school every morning without any parent at home. Her reality was one I couldn’t even imagine. I had two parents at home, both were there in the mornings, both helped me get ready, made sure I had breakfast and my homework and drove me to school if I missed the bus. Lakesha, at seven, didn’t have any of that. I’d been teaching her all summer and finally that morning things clicked. I see you.
That’s the fast that God is interested in. God wants our worship, our prayer, our fast to change us, to help us to see one another, to reorder us, and to reorder our laws and our communities so that no people are knocked down again and again by injustice because of their skin color or sexual orientation or how much money they have. God wants our worship to change us so that we will not be silent or drive on by when we see people who are suffering from lack of healthcare or shelter or education. God wants our prayer to shape us into people who share our food, welcome others into our homes, and go through life not just co-exisiting with others, but seeing them, caring for them, loving them.
Ultimately, worship and prayer–all the practices of faith–are about changing us, about molding into the people God wants us to be, about fashioning our lives so that justice and compassion are central to who we are. They aren’t extra things we tack on to our weekends, or items on the to-do lists of good Christians. Justice and compassion are part of our very essence.
I was camping on a beach last week that had some amazing tidal pools. We walked along the beach and looked at all the shells and stones and driftwood that washed ashore in the relentless ebbing and flowing of the ocean. My sister picked up a stone and handed it to me. It was so smooth, almost soft, worn down by wave after wave rolling in over it, wearing down its rough edges, refining its curves. Practices of faith do that too. They slowly and persistently shape us, wearing down our rough edges, refining our shape so that we are molded into right relationship with God and with each other.
That is precisely why we worship, I think, to be slowly and persistently shaped. That’s why we pray, to have our rough edges worn down and our shape refined.
And if you’ve forgotten that, maybe it’s time to be reminded. If you’ve been phoning it in, maybe it’s time to get serious. If you have given up hope, maybe it’s time to hear the good news once again.
In this place, in this sanctuary, we practice our faith. We step into God’s house, we admit our brokenness, we inhale God’s grace. We greet one another without agenda, but in peace. We hear the good news of new life. We stand proud and say what we believe. We celebrate one another’s joys and we grieve each other’s sorrows. We are bolstered by the community gathered, no matter how imperfect. And ultimately, we are sent out into the world, molded, shaped, encouraged…to seek peace in our own relationships and in our communities. To stand firm in our faith in a world that is quick to dismiss faith as foolishness. To do every single thing that we do in love, because we don’t go alone, but with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit in and among us. Now and forever.
[i] The Discipleship Bible. Louisville: WJK, 2008, p. 931.
[ii] Foster Connors, Andrew. Pastoral Essay in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1. Louisville: WJK, 2010, p. 316.
[iii] Foster Connors, 316.
[iv] Foster Connors, 316.
[v] Foster Connors, 318.
[vi] Hanson, Paul. Isaiah 40-66: Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995, p. 204.
[vii] Dempsey, Carol. Theological Essay in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1. Louisville: WJK, 2010, p. 316.