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Isaiah the Priest: Worship as Rehearsal

August 26, 2013

A sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 11, 2013

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Isaiah 1:1-20

The book of Isaiah leads with a divine word from God and, as has been the case in many of the prophetic texts we have read together this summer, God is very displeased. The 8th century prophet Isaiah is speaking to the people of Judah, focusing on the city of Jerusalem.  He is prophesying in the years after the Assyrian siege of Judah in 715 BCE, a siege in which many Judean cities were destroyed but Jerusalem was spared.

Isaiah’s message is for the remnant spared by God, a group of people whose very presence witnessed to God’s faithfulness….but the memories of where they came from had faded quickly; they had forgotten who they were.  Isaiah immediately gets his hearers attention, referring to them as the leaders of Sodom and the masses of Gomorrah, two cities destroyed by God for their unfaithfulness.

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

God is fed up with the worship of the people of Judah.  God despises their offerings, incense, festivals, gatherings, and even their prayers.  All of that is meaningless to God because when they raise their hands in praise to the God of Israel, their hands are covered in the blood of injustice and human suffering.  They are worshipping God but not loving their neighbor.

Some have come to see burnt offerings as a means of manipulating God, of purchasing God’s favor and good will.  Capitalizing on this misrepresentation of burnt offerings, the costs of the animals used for sacrifice has gone up and up and the poor can no longer afford to “worship”. Isaiah’s first call as a prophet of the Lord was to tell this remnant people, “Your worship of God has come unhinged, disconnected from the life of justice and righteousness that is partner to authentic worship.”

Though the book of Isaiah offers many judgments, there also exists within it a strong undercurrent of hope that is never extinguished.  In today’s reading, Isaiah follows up his scathing indictment of worship practices in Jerusalem with an invitation to transformation.  Isaiah offers to the people of Jerusalem God’s solution for reconnecting their worship to God: cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Do these things, Isaiah pleads, and your bodies, minds and spirits and the worship that you offer will be pleasing to God.

It’s good practice to read these words from Isaiah within a worship service. They are a challenge to us to reflect and think about why we worship and what worship means for the whole of our lives.  In the Companion to the Presbyterian Book of Common worship, worship is described as the time in which “we rehearse together what it means to be God’s People.”[i]  Worship is where we practice and remember who we are as God’s people, Christ’s body.

Notice the emphasis on the words rehearse and practice.  What we do in here is a demonstration of what we are called to do in the world.  Worship has movement.  We are gathered: we step over the threshold into this place to receive the gift of God’s self and the gift of one another, of community.  We are sent: we step over the threshold out of this place to share the gift of God’s self and holy community with the world. Worship doesn’t end at 11:15.  There is no closure. There is a call to action, a charge to love our neighbors as they want to be loved, to serve the poor and oppressed, to seek what is good for the most vulnerable among us.  And there is a blessing, a reminder that God accompanies us in the work that we are called to do.

Worship flows – in the door and out of the door.  Perhaps the biggest challenge we continue to face as the church is to keep that flow going, to bring the fullness of this complicated, hurting world and the full realities of our own lives into our worship so that we are prepared to work together when we’re sent from this place. Andrea Bieler, a professor of worship at Seattle Pacific, tells this story of how we encounter one another and the call to justice and healing at the Lord’s Supper:

It was in the Chapel of the Great Commission in Berkeley, California, on December 3, 2001, that the Reverend Jim Mitulski presided at the table.  He broke the bread, lifted it up with his left hand, and pointed to his own body with his right hand, saying, “This the body of Christ. The body of Christ has AIDS.” He paused for a moment. Then he opened his arms, embracing the congregation with his body and his words: “Please join me: We are the body of Christ. The body of Christ has AIDS.” I heard voices in the room more stammering than in full confident unison: “We…are…the body…of Christ. The body of Christ…has AIDS.” The atmosphere was loaded with earth-shaking electricity generated by this one gesture of a man who dared to point to his own body and then embrace the whole congregation – with the consecrated bread in his hand. He, a pastor infected with HIV, presented his body as the body of Christ.

This was a deeply sacred moment for me.  All of the sudden I had a deeply “felt” sense for what I have understood on a cognitive level for quite a while: Our individual bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and the assembly around the table is (in the flesh and not only representationally) the body of Christ. Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is manifested not only in bread and wine but in the actual bodies as they come to the table. It was at this worship service that I was fully immersed, with all of our senses, into this mystery.[ii]

When we meet together here at the table today, we are the Body of Christ and the Body of Christ is unemployed, struggling to eat without food stamps, mourning, seeking friendship, recovering hope.  The Body of Christ is an undocumented immigrant, a new grandmother, a domestic violence survivor, a young black man afraid for his safety.  We meet here so that we recognize each other in the world as brothers and sisters, together seeking a better country, the city that God has prepared for us.

[ii] Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff, The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, & Resurrection, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), p. 134-135.

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