Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Heb. 11:1-3, 8-16
Throughout today’s service we’ve been exploring the elements of our worship, the sources and meanings of our rituals and practices through which we participate in the liturgy – the work of the people. We decided to do this because of the observation we made during the mutual ministry review that many of us are not cradle Episcopalians. We haven’t all been formed in the elements of Episcopal worship. The vestry believes that worship will be more meaningful for us if we have a better understanding of what we are doing.
It is a delightful coincidence that the lectionary includes a passage from Isaiah that presents us with a stark reminder that worship isn’t primarily about rituals. Rituals are important – in fact, our culture needs to recover the place of rituals if we are going to thrive as people. It does matter what we do here on Sunday mornings. But Isaiah makes clear that the value of religion is not its rituals, its sacrifices or offerings; rather it is the offer of forgiveness for our failures, and a moral and spiritual framework for living our lives in goodness and justice. Listen to him again: cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow… though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.. No matter how dynamic worship is, and how well we understand our rituals, it’s all fruitless if we turn our back on the poor. Too much worship has implicitly supported injustice and ecocide by its apathy. If our hymns drown out the cries of the poor, we’re likely to experience a famine on hearing God’s word, despite our apparent piety.
But Isaiah isn’t alone in this perspective. If you’ve ever wondered whether biblical faith was countercultural, this morning’s texts shout an undeniable YES THEY ARE! As Isaiah proclaims that the world’s understanding of religion is upside down, the Gospel calls us to be accountable for our actions in a way that has never been demanded, and that roots readiness in being confident about the promise of the reign of God. Then the Book of Hebrews insists that faith calls us to move away from the safe status quo places of our lives onto journeys that offer no guarantees; only promises. Nothing could be more counter to our cultural expectations, especially during this political season when the search for national security has been raised to the level of insanity.
Hebrews calls us instead to live by faith, and defines faith as living as if the things we hope for were facts, and that the eternal truths that are not visible are as much a part of reality as things we see. Faith looks at life over the long haul. We live in a culture that has taught us to expect and demand things instantly. President Obama agreed with the Book of Hebrews when he spoke at the Democratic Convention and said, through every victory and every setback, I’ve insisted that change is never easy, and never quick; that we wouldn’t meet all of our challenges in one term, or one presidency, or even in one lifetime.
People who understand that life is bigger than their life or their lifetime see possibilities and hear calls that others don’t. That’s the story that the Book of Hebrews recounts about Abraham and Sarah and their family. The story reveals that faith is built, albeit unevenly, from generation to generation. Abraham’s father, Terah, left his ancient homeland of Ur with his family. He only got as far as Haran and decided to settle down there. It wasn’t his destination, but maybe he got tired and decided he couldn’t go any farther. But after Terah died, Sarah and Abraham sensed a call to leave Haran and go to an unknown place that God would show them when they got there. As Hebrews tells us, they embarked on their journey “not knowing where they were going.” When they figured out where “there” was and arrived, they lived in tents the whole time. They had their children in the tents, and watched them grow up there. The story continued as those children carried forward the lineage of an imperfect faith.
It takes more than a generation to build a faith that understands that it takes more than a generation to fulfill a dream. So we need to teach our children to live by faith, and we need to model to the world what it means to live by faith. That doesn’t necessarily mean we need people to spend more time in church, though if the church nurtures that kind of faith, it can be a good thing. Rather it means we need to keep moving out of our comfort zones.
I was talking about church with my son, Jonathan, this past week. He was remembering his experience at Loyola High School – a Jesuit institution. He was thinking about how the church could be renewed, and he naturally went to the positive experience he had with religion in high school. He said, “When part of what is expected of your religious life includes going on an urban plunge, rebuilding houses in Louisiana, and protesting at the School of the Americas in Georgia, it gives you a different understanding of Christianity.” He suggested making mission as expected a part of church involvement as baptism, confirmation and catechism. I can hear Isaiah saying, “This is Isaiah the prophet. I approve this message.
This last week I read an article about a friend of mine who stepped out Abraham-like into uncharted territory. Chris and his wife, Susanna, started attending the church I pastored. He and I used to have lunch together regularly to check in with each other. He had just started teaching poetry to incarcerated youth. He was always an inspiration to me, and the article brought tears to my eyes. I want to share one part of that with you. The interviewer asked him what inspired him to create “Street Poets.” Here’s his answer: Self-preservation, actually. I had come to Los Angeles in the early 1990s to go to film school. I’d sold my first screenplay and for the next few years was paid very well to turn something dear to me into something unrecognizable. I’d sold out. As a result, I lost access to the creative side of myself. It was as if someone had turned off the spigot, and I had no flow left. I was unmoored, adrift. I was pretty freaked out by it. I was living in Los Angeles in the period following the Rodney King unrest. One day I saw a classified ad in the Writers’ Guild magazine for someone to teach creative writing to incarcerated youth. I knew immediately it was what I needed to do. It was as if my soul said, “OK, buddy, here’s a lifeline.” So I started going out to this juvenile detention camp once a week for two hours at a time. The director had hand-picked six young men who were waiting for me that first day as I walked in. They were so ready for this opportunity some of them even had poetry in hand. They reminded me of myself—of how important writing had been to me as a youth. One of them said, “Where have you been, man?” and I heard his question as the voice of Spirit asking me: Where had I been? It was a damn good question. I’d been disconnected from myself.
Good religion binds us to God and to each other so we can move out of our comfort zones, our safe and familiar places, and into the fullness of life. There will continue to be bumps on the road. But, as Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “fear not, little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Be ready to both give and receive from the hand of God.