Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
1 The vision about Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw in the days of Judah’s kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.
10 Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!
11 What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the LORD.
I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts?
13 Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
14 I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
16 Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; 17 learn to do good.
Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.
18 Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD.
Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.
If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool.
19 If you agree and obey, you will eat the best food of the land.
20 But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.
The LORD has said this. (CEB)
Seek, Help, Defend, Plead
There is some irony in reading a text that describes how God hates our worship while we’re among worshipers in the middle of a worship service. Isaiah spoke these words from outside the sanctuary, but we read them from inside the sanctuary. It’s almost a little embarrassing. But maybe that’s an appropriate response.
To put it mildly, this is not an easy text. Whenever Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned, you know judgment is right around the corner. So, when we read, “Hear the LORD’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!” we know it’s bad news, (Isaiah 1:10 CEB). This is not an easy text for me to expound in a sermon, and it’s not an easy text for you to hear.
Yet, “Hear” is exactly what Isaiah encourages us to do. It would be a shame if the accusatory tone and difficulty of this text were to cause us to turn our attention elsewhere so we don’t hear the Lord’s word.
First, I should say that the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is probably not what you think. I know one part of our culture has turned Sodom into an anti-gay rallying cry, and they use demonizing words like Sodomite, but the true crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah—the real wickedness—were greed and injustice. The prophet Ezekiel, when writing to the people of Judah about their own wickedness and how they had outstripped Sodom in it, wrote: “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy,” (Ezekiel 16:49 CEB).
“She didn’t help the poor and needy.” That was the sin of Sodom, and that was the sin of both Israel and of Judah.
Israel, and Judah failed to make the connection between their worship inside the sanctuary and their life outside the sanctuary walls. If we examine ourselves honestly, how well do we make the connection, ourselves?
Our congregation is doing and has done some really good things to care for poor and needy people recently. We support Thrive in order to support and care for kids who need help with their education. We made hundreds upon hundreds of lunches to feed kids through the summer so they wouldn’t go hungry. We’ve prepared meals for needy people during the holidays so they could have something a little more special than their everyday fare. We have an amazing nursery school program to give kids a start on their education. We have a fair trade store on campus. I know some members of our congregation volunteer at the Mission here in town. We’ve raised and donated thousands of dollars for relief and recovery efforts after natural disasters. We do, and we have done, some good things to meet immediate needs. At the same time, we could probably do more.
If we were to examine our complicity in systemic practices that negatively affect the poor and needy, however, we might not do so well on our grade card. Do we buy certified fairly traded goods, or do we get whatever’s cheapest regardless of how the poor might have been swindled or exploited so we could have inexpensive goods?
Do we shop at companies that pay their employees a fair and livable wage, or do we go to Walmart because what we want is cheaper there? A 2014 study showed that, because Walmart doesn’t pay their employees a livable wage, Walmart employees cost taxpayers 6.2 billion dollars in public assistance each year. This is America’s biggest employer, and it’s owned by America’s richest family. One Walmart in Ohio was found to be receiving donations of food for its employees because their employees couldn’t afford a Thanksgiving meal.
There are other systemic issues, too, regarding healthcare for the poor, education for the poor, incarceration rates for the poor, burdensome immigration processes for refugees and asylum-seekers, mistreatment of undocumented immigrants, and the list would go on.
We’re in the first chapter of the first book of the Prophets, and the first order of business is a blistering assault on our worship as it relates to everything outside of the sanctuary walls. It turns out that the first and most furious critic of religion is God.
I want us to hear what God is saying through Isaiah. There is a disconnect when any people worship a God who states over and over and over how deeply God cares for the most vulnerable people in society when we, ourselves, are complicit or outright neglectful in showing care for those Vulnerable-Beloved-of-God. God declares that it’s not merely a disconnect, it actually turns our worship into an abomination. Our worship, itself, becomes false. Worship that is not concerned with justice and mercy for the vulnerable of our society is obscene and perverse.
Part of the disconnect might actually be worship, itself. When we come to this place to worship, what do we expect? What do we want? If we worship so we can get something out of it, or so we can feel good, or like some kind of catharsis has occurred now that the benediction has been offered, we might need to reevaluate. If, after worship, we feel like we’ve accomplished something, like we’ve met an obligation, or satisfied a commitment, we might need to reevaluate. Even if we discuss matters of justice and God’s love for everyone, if we feel a sense of closure at the end of worship, we may need to reevaluate.
We’re probably here in this sanctuary because we recognize that worship is essential for us. How else can we have a serious engagement with God that gives us life, that transforms our community, that changes the world? We need to give God our worship. We need to experience God’s transformative love through worship. We need the strength of God’s grace, which we receive in worship, so that we can go outside these walls and serve the world. We know that we need worship.
It might also be ironic that worship is what allowed us to hear this text.
So, the idea that God hates our worship… well… verses 10 through 14 are pretty tough to hear. They’re a withering indictment of our worship. The intent of our worship is many-fold, but its primary purpose is not self-serving. We don’t worship God so that we can feel good about ourselves. In worship, we bring to God all that we have and all that we are, and we offer the whole of it to God for God’s purposes alone.
The prayer after communion, which we pray every Sundaym is a plea to God to send us into the word in the strength of the Holy Spirit so that we can give ourselves to others. Do we really want to give ourselves for others? Do we really want to serve God and work for God’s dominion by living out and fighting for the values of God’s dominion? Do we really want to represent that?
As bad as those verse are, it actually gets worse. “When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood” (Isaiah 1:15 CEB). When there is a disconnect between what happens inside the sanctuary and what happens outside the sanctuary, God will not even listen to our pleas. We shouldn’t expect our confessions and prayers in the sanctuary to cover our willful neglect of justice. Repentance actually requires us to change.
On Sunday mornings, we worship a poor, wandering, homeless, brown-skinned, Middle Eastern, Jewish, asylum-seeking refugee named Jesus, who was birthed by an unwed mother. How, then, can we think or speak negatively about any person in any of those categories Monday through Saturday? How can we speak about denying basic necessities, God-given human dignity and value, or a chance at a better life to any person in any of these categories?
[[Or, do we even wait beyond Sunday afternoon?]]
“Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow. Come now, and let’s settle this, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow. If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool” (Isaiah 1:16-18 CEB).
True worship—authentic worship—is how we live our lives before God. What we do in this or any other sanctuary is only a start to the worship we do on the outside. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Plead for the widow.
I really don’t have a way to give any of you, or even myself, closure at the end of this sermon. There will be differences in how this looks for each of us. So, maybe a loose end is what we need. In fact, this sermon is a little shorter than what I usually preach. Maybe that’s not a bad thing either.
This part of God’s word might not be pleasing to our ears, our heart, or any of our sensibilities, but this is a word we need to keep chewing on. This is a word we need to hear in the sanctuary, and a word we need to consider while we’re outside of it.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay