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August 11 Sermon: Tired of Church

I’ve been ordained for nearly a quarter-century, and in that time, people have told me, in no uncertain terms, what they like and don’t like about worship. Some people like organs. Other people like guitars. Some people don’t like “political preaching.” Other people don’t like “preaching that ducks important issues.” Some people love passing the peace. Germophobes and introverts can’t stand it.

Now the God who speaks in Isaiah 1 seems irritated with just about every aspect of Israelite worship. The bleating of sheep and lowing of cattle, smoke rising into the heavens, the crowds jostling in the temple courtyard, the smell of incense and the sounds of prayers—God repudiates it all. It’s as if the Lord strolled into the sanctuary or the Ramsey Center, took a big, fat, red ink pen, and scribbled all over the program. No, no, no, no, no!

Why is God fed up with worship? First, let us be clear about what God is not angry about. Having heard of the Lord’s weariness with burning incense and sacrifice, we might be tempted to think that the Lord has no use for high church smells and bells, as if the Israelites in the 8th century BC were guilty of nothing more than being a tad too Episcopalian. No; that’s not it. Nor is it the case that God’s refusal to acknowledge the outstretched arms of the Israelites at prayer is a rejection of charismatic or contemporary worship, as if the Israelites were a tad too Pentecostal.

And nor is it the case that God is questioning the sacrificial system per se. True, the Lord does say, with some indignation, “Who asked you to bring all this when you come before me?” but the Israelites, if they’d been quick on their feet, might have replied, “You did!” After all, the temple itself was built by King Solomon only with God’s permission, and the rubrics for worship had come down from on high through Moses. We don’t sacrifice rams or bulls in temples because since Isaiah’s time, God has become human in Jesus Christ, and God in Christ offered himself on the cross as a sacrifice to reconcile us to God. But in Isaiah’s day, that last, ultimate sacrifice had not yet been made.

It’s the hypocrisy that has God sick and tired of worship. The Israelites would present themselves in Jerusalem as God’s devoted covenant partners, and having made the requisite offerings, they’d return home forgiven, and go right back to sinning. Worship was their “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

God didn’t expect perfection from the Israelites coming into God’s presence. The temple, the prayers, the shedding of blood and the burning of incense were for imperfect people. They were God-ordained means to bridge the gap that opens between God and human beings when they did wrong. The same thing is true of our rites and rituals: confession and pardon, sermons and sacraments, prayers, videos, mosaic, and stained glass. The grace of Christ touches us through these elements of worship and reconciles us to God. The question is: are we engaged in a good faith effort to serve the Lord our God and ask for God’s forgiveness when we inevitably stumble, or does our participation in a worshipping community give us a license to sin the other days of the week? Good faith does not have to be particularly strong. A person with weak faith may say, “I don’t know whether I can be forgiven for what I’ve done.” The Good News is, “You can be.” But the one with bad faith, as opposed to weak faith, says, “I can do as I please because God will forgive me!”

Bad faith merely stores up divine wrath. When it overflows, there’s no escape. Ask the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, two notoriously evil cities that Isaiah name checks. What did they do that brought the hammer down on them? It might not be what you’re thinking. “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy,” said the prophet Ezekiel. “They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” You’re thinking; “Wait, I knew they were bad, but not in a Marie Antoinette way. In… other bad ways.”

You’re remembering the story in Genesis. Two travelers arrived in Sodom at nightfall, and Abraham’s brother Lot invited them to stay the night with him. In a world without hotels or restaurants, a world in which travel between inhabited settlements took you through desert wastes, showing hospitality to strangers was a fundamental ethical obligation. Lot met that obligation, but his neighbors did more than shirk their duty to be hospitable; they tried to abuse the wayfarers in the worst way imaginable. They surrounded Lot’s house and demanded that he hand over his guests so that they could rape them. Now it turns out that the strangers were angels. They struck the crowd with blindness. The next morning the angels hustled Lot and his family out of the city, and then the Lord nuked it.

It’s not a story about consensual relations, and it really has nothing to say directly to our recent debates over marriage. It does speak a devastating word of judgment on communities and systems that organize themselves take advantage of vulnerable people. And so this is why the prophet who begins his divinely inspired rant by invoking the names of Sodom and Gomorrah concludes with a clarion call to do justice and defend the cause of vulnerable classes of people—widows, orphans, and the like. God’s covenant community had been organized around two great ends: to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves. But in Isaiah’s day, God’s beloved community, like Sodom and Gomorrah of old, had reorganized itself around exploitation. And that wouldn’t do. The people had blood on their hands, and no amount of animal sacrifice or rote confession of sin could cleanse them.

Sodom and Gomorrah was in the news this week. The Boy Scouts of America are facing a new lawsuit that alleges the organization continues to cover-up a “pedophilia epidemic within their organization. Asked if any of the alleged scout abusers are still involved in scouting, one attorney said, “We asked the BSA to help us identify these perpetrators. We’ve hit a stone wall with the Boy Scouts.”[1] At the U.S. Olympic Championships in Kansas City, gold medalist Simone Biles blasted USA Gymnastics for failing to protect her and other athletes molested by Dr. Larry Nasser.[2] These are obvious parallels to Sodom and Gomorrah, not only because the nature of the sin, but also because these organizations are alleged to have prioritized protecting sinners more than protecting vulnerable people.

But I saw Sodom and Gomorrah in the news this week in a different way. Jimmy Aldaoud was born in Greece shortly after his parents fled their native Iraq. Jimmy, age 41, was granted refugee status along with his parents, and he arrived legally in the US in 1979. He struggled with diabetes and mental illness, schizophrenia, and the latter condition was a factor in a string of scrapes with the law. In June Jimmy, who spoke no Arabic, was deported to Iraq, a country he had no memory of. Jimmy died this week, homeless and unable to gain access to insulin. Jimmy Aldaoud was a Chaldean Christian, a Catholic denomination with roots in the Church of East, and if you’ve been attending Sunday school this summer you know that the Church of the East were those two nature Christians who spread from Mesopotamia all the way to China in the early Middle Ages. At any rate, our brother Jimmy is dead. Lord knows that our immigration and law enforcement and mental health systems are stretched to the limit, but are we organizing these systems around protecting vulnerable people, or around some other values?

“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. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

You are citizens. You have families. Some of you are shareholders. Others of you belong to community organizations. You may be employees of businesses small and great. You aren’t on the hook for what these systems do, but you are on the hook for your functioning in these systems. So I’m asking you to do this: act with integrity at home, and in the workplace, and in the public square. Always tell the truth. If you see something, say something. Push and prod your organizations in the direction of hospitality. Be a voice for the voiceless. Practice truth-telling and compassion six days a week, and even if you sing off key, or miss a note, or nod off during the sermon, the Lord will take delight in your worship on the seventh.

Image: Alpha Stock Images -

[1] Corky Siemaszko, “Boy Scouts of America have a 'pedophile epidemic' and are hiding hundreds in its ranks, lawyers claim,” NBC News, (accessed August 9, 2019).

[2] Ben Kesslen, “'You had one job': Simone Biles on USA Gymnastics' failure to protect athletes in abuse scandal,” NBC News, (accessed August 9, 2019.

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