Owning our song and prayer

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

For someone whose writings are preserved in a collection of religious texts, the prophet Isaiah seems singularly critical of religious practice and observance. We listened tonight as verses from the first chapter of Isaiah were read, and the prophet can hardly be accused of not speaking his mind. [The Lord says] “Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and the 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.” Tell us how you really feel, Isaiah… God is wearied by Israel’s religious festivals!

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“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?” Now that’s an interesting question—“When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?”—because it would certainly not be unreasonable for the people to answer, “uh… well actually… uh… you did, Lord.”

Because all of the things about which Isaiah is so critical have their origins in the torah: the sacrifices, the festivals, the whole works. “We’re only doing what you instructed our ancestors to do; we’re just trying to meet the obligations required of us in order to keep our side of the covenant relationship.”

But no, they’re really not. That’s Isaiah’s fundamental insight here. They’ve become religious practitioners, which is something entirely different from being a covenant people. Again giving voice to what he has heard as God’s message to the people, Isaiah continues, “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.” What, then, are they to do? “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.” Such things are as much grounded in the torah—and are as least as much an expression of covenant faithfulness—as are the holy days and rituals.

This is what Israel has forgotten, and it is the prophet’s task to call them back. This is what prophets do, you see: they speak a hard and critical word into a forgetful society.

I find fascinating that in his list of the things that are wearisome to God, Isaiah includes Sabbath: “New moon and sabbath and calling of convocations.” In its origins Sabbath had been such a defining counter-cultural practice. Remember, this is a people with a story of having been enslaved in Egypt, where they knew nothing of a day of rest. This is a people called to establish itself as an alternative to a world driven by a seven-day a week market-place, a seven-day a week economy.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

Sabbath was never meant to be a burden or a rule-bound obligation. It was given as a gift to be shared by all who were in the land; male and female, young and old, servants, foreign visitors… even the livestock! It is a “consecrated” day, meant to shape the people differently from how they’d been shaped in Egypt. Differently, too, from how the surrounding cultures operated. Yes, markets should close. Yes, the obligations of the economy should be set aside. Yes, we should all have time to rest, to breath, to savour the goodness of “the heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them.”

And yet even the great gift of a sabbath day has been debased, and so Isaiah sweeps it all together with the rest of what he sees as failed religion. “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord”—let us argue it out… bring it on, and see if you can show me that there is any integrity to your religion. “[T]hough 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.” There is hope, in other words. There is a way to go back to first things, which is at the same time the only way forward. But, the prophet adds rather ominously, “but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

I hear this final warning as being less a prescriptive threat of punishment and more a description of how things will turn out if Israel keeps going through its religious motions without actually embedding them in an alternative culture that will “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” If you play by the rules set by the nations around you, they will devour you. They’re better at it than you are, Israel; stronger than you. Your only possible future is to find your strength by becoming an alternative people; God’s people.

I hear Isaiah’s strong words as being important for the church. All church traditions have their established practices—their “liturgies” or way of doing things when they gather—but I think that Isaiah’s words have a particular force for a church that roots its gatherings in sacramental and more formally liturgical patterns. Look around, and you see that we are surrounded by the paraphernalia of religion.  Liturgical rites and symbolism can be a great gift, but as Isaiah says even of something so significant as Sabbath, they can go dead on us, becoming something done by rote without any attention to what they are meant to express. That’s why it is so important that we actually own the words we say and sing and pray. That’s why it is so important that each time we come forward to share in the bread and wine we “embrace the mystery,” as Gord Johnson puts it in one of his communion songs. That’s why it is important to side-step the narrowly religious matters of “correct” ritual and dutiful obligation, and embrace what lies at the heart of coming together as a singing, praying, learning, and celebrating people. To cite Robert Capon,

[We gather as a church to] taste and see how gracious the inveterately hospitable Lord is. To share still another bottle of the great old wine he’s always kept your cellar full of. And to relish once again the old tall tale about how he came to his own party in disguise and served the devil a rubber duck.  You go, in short, to have a ball to keep company while you roll over your tongue the delectable things that have been yours all along but that get better every time you taste them. (Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox)

Freed from being mere religious observance, it becomes a thankful celebration of what we were first given. And because the “inveterately hospitable Lord” wants us at this table, it begins to sink in that He wants room made for everyone.

I think Isaiah would approve.


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