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Telling the Truth about Worship
a sermon based on Isaiah 1:1; 10-20
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Even Death Valley doesn’t get as hot as God gets in these searing words from Isaiah 1. The words in our first lesson today are mixed with smoke. Who can read them without getting reduced to ashes? God is the Sovereign Mad hatter who shoots at us with firebrands of finger-pointing and indictments. And sitting squarely in the bull’s eye of God’s displeasure, it seems, is our most treasured sacred cow. In fact, it’s what we’ve been doing over the past several minutes. God is attacking the honored practice of worship.

"You’re just like Sodom and Gomorrah" God lashes out, making the point that they’re about as in good a shape as the two places in sacred history known for their evil ways and complete destruction. It gets worse. Watch the sparks fly out of The Message . . .


. . . Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: I hate them . . .

. . . I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning.

. . . When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way . . . I’ll not be listening . . .

God sick of our religion? Worship charades? God looking the other way during the prayers of the people? These are fiery, scorching words all right. This is the most serious indictment on religious people and worship in all Jewish and Christian believer’s checkered history.

And what is it about worship that’s got God’s dander up? What makes God’s nostrils flare so? I think we need to reverently look at worship in Israel’s time but with an eye to our own practice of worship.

I need to be honest with you this morning as I listen to such trouble in the text. It’s not the worship order that’s amiss here. Ancient worship practice differed from ours. But it wasn’t the order of worship that angered God-not with them or us. If that were all there was to it we could just make some editorial changes in the bulletin to rectify that. Nor is the exact content of the worship service bugging God. The prayers of the people are fine. So is Call to Worship. I don’t even think God takes much offense at the holy chaos that occurs during the Passing of the Peace. And so what if we sing traditional hymns? Or praise music? Or Taize? Or Gospel Songs?

What incensed God was that worship lasted but an hour. God fully intended that worship was to be an all-consuming passion that impacted our entire 24-7 life and our neighborhoods. For too many Israelites in Isaiah’s day, worship was a performance-a reverent, heart-felt, intentional, carefully enacted-performance. The rest of the week was like one big intermission-a time when they could just be themselves and live the way they wanted to live with no outward or upward interference.

Incongruity is the real sin that God hates-singing one thing and doing another. Praying one thing, but never being part of the answer to those very prayers. Preaching against the enemy on Sunday and sleeping with the enemy on Monday. God says to these worshipers, "cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."

When our worship does not move us to "do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed . . ." then our worship has become disconnected from the faith that acts. In fact, Søren Kierkegaard, says that worship minus direct impact on our neighborhoods = silly geese.

I’ll paraphrase the story he tells. He takes us to the barnyard to listen in on a gaggle of geese at worship. Each Sunday they would all gather to hear wonderful words about themselves; the speaker would extol the glorious destiny of geese. "We were meant to become air-borne on the winds and to soar in the heavens," he would tell them. At the mere mention of heaven the ganders would cackle and the rest would curtsey. After the meeting they all would waddle home and return the next week. But that’s as far as they ever got. So they throve-they grew fat and plump and at Christmas they became the Christmas dinner-that’s as far as they ever got.

Behind the tubular necks and webbed feet, Kierkegaard saw a weak church in his homeland that had their performance of religion together once a week, but a worship that failed to impact their neighborhoods in practical ways.

I once listened to a prominent clergyman in Chicago describe the civil rights riots in Chicago. During that week of rioting several youth died. He said,


"I walked down the sidewalk on my way to seminary and I could see the blood still on the bushes where one kid got shot. So I went to church that Sunday needing to, hoping to, hear a word from God. I needed to hear the gospel help me to make sense of the bloodshed and hatred. Instead, I sat through the entire liturgy of the worship and not one word was said about the tragedy that had rocked Chicago during the past week. It was as if nothing had happened; as if God had nothing to say about the tragic week I had lived through."

I had my own epiphany of the incongruity that occurs when Sunday worship is divorced from the suffering that is all around us. I remember taking my little daughter, Liz, from Princeton to the famous Marble Collegiate Church in NYC to hear the late Norman Vincent Peale. This was the man and church that had given us the power of positive thinking, the movement that had inspired a nation. But I can still see us getting off the subway and picking our way through debris and past boarded up windows and execrations scrawled on the sides of abandoned houses. Liz and I actually had to step over some guy still sleeping it off on the sidewalk. Something about stepping over the homeless on our way to church that made that Sunday morning seem a wasted effort. We gathered as if such things did not exist and that was as far as we got.

This passage is not just about gaps between religion and human need, its really about God. For God does not write this ancient worshiping community off as a hopeless case. God does not splutter like an exploding volcano ready to burn a sinning world away in God’s wrath. Nor does God sit as a dispassionate, aloof God, no longer caring about the people who perform "worship charades" on Sunday. Instead, the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ, holds out hope. "If you become dead serious," God says, "then I’ll transform you just like colors can be transformed from red to white or white to black."

There is enough of a promise, enough hope, enough possibility in God’s offer to transform us in those few words, that we could build an entire life around it. We could start again. Anew. Afresh. Clean.

What would God say to our churches and worship today? Maybe God would single us out . . .

"You Charismatics and Pentecostals, go ahead and worship me freely. Raise your hands. Shout your praises-for I dwell in the praises of my people. Enjoy the gifts of the Spirit. But remember that without direct and deep involvement with My agenda-"do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed . . ." your worship is of little value or worth to me."

"And you reformed, refurbished, sacramental and liturgical types-worship Me with your Calls to worship, thoughtful prayers and sermons; you who have come know me through the rich symbols that point to Me . . . Rest not in words that speak of my justice without acting in my justice in your neighborhoods."

Phyllis came to church one night. Thursday night-that’s choir rehearsal night in eastern Pennsylvania. So we’re struggling through a difficult section of an Easter anthem. But right in the middle of the choir rehearsal Phyllis burst in to the rehearsal room wearing her stocking cap.

"I’m having a bad day. I just knew if I could make it to the choir rehearsal, you’d lay your hands on me and pray for me. That’s what I need now."

We all sat still like a gaggle of geese for about 20 seconds. Then, spontaneously and responsively, members of the choir just got up from across the room and formed a complete circle around Phyllis. And people began to pray for her. "God heal her cancer," said a soprano. "And let Phyllis sense your loving care right at this moment," sobbed another. We prayed spontaneously for several more minutes and then when Phyllis left we picked up our Easter anthem and started struggling again.

But we weren’t the same. We had let our guard down and stepped outside our ordered life-if only for a minute to exercise a bit of care-because someone was in need. And we will never be the same. The person who prayed for Phyllis to be healed had her prayer answered. Many of us stood with her family at the funeral, brought together by grief of course, but brought together by a worship that held up the hope of combining heart and head, grace and justice, death and life. Amen.