I like to be honest from this pulpit. I like to be real. So let’s be really honest this morning. Have you ever prayed and had the feeling that God’s not listening?
You come to this place of worship and you go through all of the motions. You sing all of the hymns. You actually pray during the moment of silence, instead of spending those moments planning the rest of your day. You listen reverently to the choir’s anthem, and like few people, you even listen intently to every word of the sermon. But as the organist begins playing the prelude, you wonder if it was all just a big waste of time.
I believe this is a reason some people stay home on Sunday mornings. They are not getting through to God and God isn’t getting through to them. And Randy, as the Choir Director, guess what? Sometimes, they say it is your fault. They say that the music just doesn’t inspire them. But most of the time, it is the preacher’s fault. They usually say something like, “I am just not being fed anymore at that church.” Have you heard that before?
Well, Randy, I have some good news for us! Isaiah suggests that their belief that worship is a waste of their time, that God is not listening, is not the choir director’s fault, and it may not be the preacher’s fault either.
Isaiah says that the reason that you may feel like worship is not bringing you close to God, the reason you don’t feel like God is listening, the reason that you feel like God has not heard a word you’ve said is because God has not been listening to a word you’ve said.
Now, I believe that the entire Bible and Jesus himself came and taught us that God operates by something we call grace. Salvation, and prayer for that matter, conversation with God, a personal relationship with God can not be earned, and it is in no way deserved. “We are saved by grace and not works lest anyone should boast.” I know that. And I believe that with all of my heart.
However, Isaiah says that if we truly want to know that God is listening to us, if we truly want to feel close to God, if we want our worship on Sunday to mean something, there are some things that we must do.
And if we don’t do those things, according to Isaiah, God might respond to our worship this way: “What are your services to me? I have had it up to here, I am sick to my stomach of all your worship! I have no desire for any of it. Stop tramping into my courts. And I have had enough of your preacher with his fancy robe who thinks he is all that with all of his seminary degrees. Your prayers, your hymns, they have become a burden to me. I have stopped listening!”
So, according to Isaiah, what must we do to be heard by God?
Put away the evil of your deeds. Pursue justice and champion the oppressed, give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause.
If we want to be heard by God, if we want worship to be meaningful, Isaiah says that we better doing what we can help the most vulnerable members of our community.
My friend Rev. Dr. William Barber has he wonders why we spend so much time doing the things about which “God says so little” while doing so little of the things about which “God says so much.”
I wonder if Isaiah is suggesting that the church might re-evaluate our committee meetings. Like any congregational-led church, we have a lot of committee meetings here. Isaiah may want us to ask: “What has been the subject of your longest, most arduous church meeting? What was the agenda of that meeting that caused your spouse at home to worry about you, or even question your whereabouts, because they thought you should have been home hours earlier?”
Was it about how our church could could advocate for those in our community who feel oppressed? Was it about meeting the needs of children who do not have the support of family? Was it about defending the rights of widows or the rights of the most vulnerable members of our community? Was the agenda something about which God says so much? Or was the agenda something about which God says so little?
Rev. Michael MacDonald writes that many Christian Americans not only never have any lengthy church meetings about how they can better serve the poor, they just simply have a bad attitude about serving the poor. So bad, that many folks probably wished they had the license to rewrite the many scriptures which speak for the poor.
I would argue that many people actually believe they have such a license. Because as a pastor, it has been my experience that whenever I have spoken on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable, someone almost always accuses me of being a “liberal.” Then, they will something like, “The Bible says that God helps those who help themselves.”
When in fact, the overall message of the Bible says nothing close to that. Aesop’s Fables say that. Benjamin Franklin said that. Thus, I want to respond: “Who’s the liberal here? The one who is conserving the Judeo-Christian teachings of the Scriptures to help the poor, or the one who is re-writing the scriptures with the words of a fable or Deist Ben Franklin?”
For example: This is how McDonald said some Americans would rewrite the story of the Good Samaritan:
The lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “Now by chance a priest was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and saw a man who was hungry and ill clad. He thought about stopping to help him, but decided that the man had probably been planted there by advocates for the homeless, so he walked by on the other side lest he give encouragement to those who wanted to divide society along class lines in order to gain political power for themselves.
So, likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, thought about helping him. But the Levite was afraid that he would rob the man of his independence, and he could plainly see that the man had sandal straps by which to pull himself up. So, he too, passes by on the other side.
But a Samaritan came near him and was moved by self-righteous pity. The Samaritan bandaged his wounds pouring oil and wine on the, no doubt as a publicity stunt to make his own self feel good and look good before his peers.
Then the Samaritan put the man on his own animal and brought him to an inn. The next day, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, and will repay you whatever more you spend,” thus encouraging the injured man to live like a parasite off other people’s hard-earned wealth.
Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? The lawyer said, “[Well of course] the two who showed him mercy by walking by on the other side.”
And God says, “You can pray without ceasing but I won’t be listening. I won’t listen to those of you who pervert justice, those of who champion the cause of the rich and powerful, those of you who take advantage of the powerless. God ahead, have yourselves a worship service, have three of them, but I won’t be there.” God says, “I simply don’t listen to the prayers of those who are all about feeding themselves while orphans and widows, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, go hungry.”
I believe Baptist evangelist Tony Campolo is right when he says that the one thing every Christian should do is not only write a check to help the poor, but help the poor in such a way that we actually build a relationship with them, get to know them on a personal level.
This is what I want to do when we begin feeding the food insecure later this year as the prelude to a new worship service. I don’t want to merely hand them a brown paper bag lunch out the back door, with perhaps a scripture verse stapled to it, or a religious tract thrown inside of it, and then encourage them to go someplace else to eat it, out of sight, out of mind.
I want us to sit down at the table with them, get to know them, listen to them, love them, befriend them, be family to them. Let them know that you are willing to fight for them, defend their rights and plead their case. Be there to help them become the person that God is calling them to be.
Campolo says, in a way that only a good ol’ Baptist could say it, that one important reason that Christians should want to do this is because on the last day, when we are standing before the Great Judge, as God is separating the sheep from the goats and points to us and asks the question, “When have you clothed the naked, fed the hungry, given drink the thirsty, when have you shown generosity to the least of these my brothers and my sisters?”—That is when you are going to want to have the new friend we met around that table standing beside us, and we are going to want to be able to turn to them with confidence, pat them on the back, and say with a smile, “Go ahead, you tell it.”
Do you want to come to this place on Sunday morning and really have an encounter with God? When Terri begins playing the Postlude, do you want to know that you have actually communed with the creator of all that is? Isaiah, and I believe Jesus says, that will depend on how you commune with the most vulnerable members of our community.