The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints, Bellevue
Proper 14C, Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Isaiah is never not timely.
Human beings get all bent out of shape about certain things: the wording of our liturgy for example, or how we stack the linens on the chalice, or the hand motions used during the Eucharist. We worry about what the time cut off is for Evening Prayer or Compline. Or (this one is super fraught) which translation of the Bible is “official” for worship.
But today, speaking in the first person (through Isaiah) God says: I don’t give a flying flip about that crap.
The opening words of Isaiah stand our modern understanding of religion and politics on its ear. Of course when Isaiah is writing there is no separation of church and state. The king is annointed by the appointed prophet of God, the king is in many ways God’s agent on Earth.
So, speaking for God, Isaiah begins by referencing Sodom and Gomorrah specifically, not because they are the target of this sermon (they aren’t, we have been told the target in the introduction) but because his hearers would instantly know what was going on.
Sodom and Gomorrah are the famous “sin cities” but their sin has largely been mislabeled in modern Christianity. Isaiah is not talking about sexual sin. If you go back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah their sin is laid out plainly: the rich enjoyed fine food and drink while the poor and the widow starved, and the marginalized and the stranger or foreigner to their land were abused and shown no hospitality.
God accuses Israel of the same sin as Sodom and Gomorrah.
But in ancient Israel then there was this idea that we human beings could fulfill certain religious obligations and ceremonies and then go do whatever we wanted with the rest of our lives. And God makes it very clear that isn’t how things work.
Our lives, individually and (this is important) communally are our worship.
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
God pleads with Israel, offers to argue and tussle this out.
This piece is one of the (many) reasons why I love Isaiah so much. Here we are given permission to argue with God. To have it out with the Almighty. God isn’t asking for blind obedience, God isn’t asking for lock step.
But there’s no getting around what God is firm on. Our lives are to be verbs. Nowhere in God’s love poem, nowhere in God’s lament over Israel does God ever once mention belief. There is no Orthodoxy to quibble over. God doesn’t even seem all the interested in our worship. God does have active verb filled sentences to commend to us.
The object of those verbs matters too of course. We aren’t to seek wealth, but justice.
Rescue the oppressed (our society probably oppressed them in the first place)
Rescue the orphan (who our society probably made that way)
Plead for the widow.
Our lives as children of God are called to be a verb. In big ways and in small. As individuals and as a society. In other words: we are in this together. We who were made as custodians, caretakers for this world. We who were made for each other (that’s really what the stories of the creation of human beings are about).
My liturgy professor liked to say that the Eucharist is a dress rehearsal for life. That if we are attentive to it, and if we are awake enough it will shape us into the sort of people who live as God intended. Because the Eucharist gathers us with people with whom we share nothing else, gay and straight, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, black and white, we are united only as Children of God.
Together we listen.
Together we learn.
We repent of the things we have done, and those things we have not done.
We pray for our friends, our enemies, and those we don’t even know. The tradition of praying for people by their first names only is meant to remind us that before God: we are all alike. Before God human titles, ethnicity, citizenship, family connections mean nothing.
We are forgiven, all of us.
We offer our whole lives back to God for the good of all.
We are all fed equally, just what we need and no more.
We receive God’s blessing and we are ready to go out and live what we have just practiced.
If our worship does not prepare us for a life as people who seek, rescue, defend, and plead for those in need; then it has failed. If it does not form us into human beings who made this world a better and more just place for our siblings then God has made clear that our festivals are a stink, and our worship a burden.
Remember Isaiah. When we are considering how to vote, where to spend our money, how we will work, what we will say, what we do, daily.
Remember Isaiah. And remember God’s invitation to argue, to struggle: together. It is in the context of that struggle that God promises to remove our sins, to wash us clean. God knows this isn’t easy, we are invited into it anyway.
For our own sake, and for the sake of the world.