One of the topics in Confirmation Class is how the Episcopal Church interprets and talks about Holy Scripture. Confirmands are often surprised to hear the labels “Old Testament” and “New Testament” are not helpful labels. Instead of calling the first portion of Holy Scripture the “Old Testament,” we call that portion the “Hebrew Scriptures.” We make that change for two reasons. One, we want to remind ourselves that the Christian Scriptures do not eliminate the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures – as if the “new” testament makes the “old” testament obsolete. Two, the use of the “old” can connote irrelevance. Neither of those things being true, we try to reframe our language.
Today’s Hebrew Scripture reading is a classic example of how our language can taint our interaction with Scripture. Many of us hear the words of Isaiah and the judgment of Israel’s worship, and we slip into “they” language. They are being as sinful as Sodom and Gomorrah – the same people who “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”[i]. Their worship, their sacrifice of animals, is meaningless to God. Their prayers will be ignored by God. They have blood on their hands. The shifting of audience is easy enough for us; not being a community that offers sacrifices anymore, this piece of Scripture really can feel like an “old” testament.
That’s why I like one scholar’s rereading of this passage. He argues we need to reframe today’s passage in our modern context. Instead of condemning ancient practices, he rereads the text for the modern church as God saying thus: “I hate your worship. Your prayers make me sick. I loathe your music. Your sermons are a sacrilege. Who asked for your offerings? Your Holy Communion stinks. I want none of it.”[ii] I do not know about you, but that rewording made this passage come alive in ways “old” texts never do. Suddenly, God is not talking about them; God is talking about us – our worship, our actions, our behavior. With new ears for this text, God is not criticizing outdated, foreign practices – God is criticizing the thing we are right in the midst of: our worship, our music, our prayers, our communion, this very sermon!
Hearing this passage as a modern reading shook me up this week. All week I have been pondering our worship – the primary marker of our identity. Does our communion stink? As I thought about the sacred meal this week, I could imagine how communion could be so rote communion loses its meaning. But then I began to think about my experience with communion. As a priest, I receive communion two to three times on a Sunday – sometimes more. Despite that repetition, something about the physicality of communion keeps communion fresh. Sometimes the wafers are stale, making them hard to swallow; sometimes the bread is dry and crumbly, making a huge mess around the altar; sometimes, especially by 11:15, my breakfast is so far gone that eating communion feels like a desperate attempt to ease the rumbling in my empty stomach. The same happens with the wine: sometimes the wine burns going down; sometimes the wine soothes a dry throat; sometimes I wish I could take a long draw of wine to wash down the gluten-free wafer that is stuck in my teeth. Those experiences may sound silly or trivial, but I find God in every one of them: How often have I longed for God the way I long for food when I am hungry? How often have I cursed the mess of life before realizing Jesus makes our life messy? How often has something from church or a word from God nagged at me like a wafer that scraped my throat on the way down.
I like thinking about those physical-spiritual connections in Eucharist because they do what God is challenging us to do in Isaiah today. God is not saying worship is inherently bad. The sacrificing of animals, the prayers, the offerings were all thing the community of God had been instructed to do. There are whole books of the Bible that laboriously detail how to do these things, thoughtfully making concessions for those lacking the resources to make the recommending offerings. God is not saying God hates the festivals, is repelled by their sacrifices, and will ignore their prayers because God finds them archaic or brutal or wrong. God’s fervent and harsh criticism of their worship is the hypocrisy of their worship. In verse fifteen, God says, “I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” What God is pointing out is the irony of their worship. Here they are, their hands covered in the blood of the sacrificed animals – what should be a pure, sacred offering to God for the blessings of this life. But what God sees is different blood: their raised hands are not simply covered in the holy blood of sacrifice; their raised hands are covered in the blood of the oppressed, the orphan, the widow. God, rather bluntly, says, “Do not come to me with the pretense of humility and righteousness when nothing about your life is righteous. Do not come to me as though you are pure and sanctified, when I see you covered in the blood of the innocent you trampled on the way into the temple.”
In the aftermath of two more mass shootings last weekend, the cities of Dayton and El Paso gathered in vigil, in prayer, and in conversation. In Dayton, the governor offered the kind of speech one usually offers in times such as these – a sense of condolence, an encouragement to come together in mutual support, an acknowledgment of grief. But the residents of Dayton were not having that speech this week. As the governor was speaking, someone in the crowd shouted, “Do something!” The governor continued his speech, and two more voices cried out the same call, “Do something! Do something!” The governor maintained his cool and kept going with his scripted speech, but within moments, the crowd was chanting in one voice, “Do something!” so loudly the governor’s speech was completely inaudible. Perhaps reflecting the tenor of a nation who is emotionally exhausted by the repeated trauma of mass shootings, the people of Dayton broke. No longer content to receive prayers and idle words, the people of Dayton demanded the governor do something to change their reality.
I think that is what God is really upset about in our scripture lesson today. God is not bored by their worship or saying the acts of worship of the Israelites are inherently bad. What God is saying is their worship is invalidated by their actions outside the temple. The people of God cannot do evil, ignore injustice, forget the oppressed, shun the orphaned, and leave the widowed behind while still seeking refuge in God. God wants us to do something. In fact, in verse seventeen, God says, “Learn to do good.” We can pray all we want, we can mourn mass violence, we can even criticize politicians about their lack of action. But God is looking straight into our eyes today and saying, “I am glad you are here and I love you. But you need to do something.” And if we are unclear about what that something is, God tells us right here in Isaiah: cease doing evil, do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. When tragedy strikes, when the world feels like the world is falling apart, when we feel helpless or overwhelmed by the evil of this time, God says your worship of God is odious unless you are doing something.
Now I do not want you to leave today thinking this service is meaningless. Quite the contrary, “worship is essential for us and requires of us an awed and candid engagement with God that is life giving, community transforming, and world altering.”[iii] What would be meaningless is for you to go through the motions, or for you to seek solace only, and not strength; pardon only, and not renewal. The prayers, your offering, our music, the sacred meal are meant to empower us to go out in the world and do something. I know that can be scary. I know you may be thinking, “well, I have very strong opinions about guns and what our country should be doing.” But I also know the people I have spoken to on both sides of the issue do not want the slaughter of innocents. To that, God offers us encouragement. God says in verse eighteen, “Come now, let us argue it out.” God does not want you to run away from the evil of the world, but to dive in and figure out a way to do something. God wants you to engage because God knows you can. In fact, God says, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” God does not hate our worship; but God does not tolerate our worship when our worship is void of action – when we forget the dismissal of our deacon, to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. Today, God invites us to wash the blood of the innocent off our hands, and to go out and do something: to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. Amen.
[i] Ezekiel 16.49.
[ii] Paul Simpson Duke, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 319.
[iii] Duke, 321.