What Do We Think We Are Doing?

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
July 16, 2023

Scripture: Isaiah 1:11–20

Do we live the life we sing about? Do our actions on Monday reflect the character of the God we worshipped on Sunday? I’ve been wrestling with these kinds of questions about church and faith for as long as I can remember. During the deacons’ conversation with the congregation last week, I remembered a formative experience I had in the church of my youth. I was in middle school when my father took great care to teach me what it meant to be a part of a faith community, encouraging my participation in church activities and programs and informing me of my obligation to give a financial contribution. So, he expected me to pay tithes and give offerings whenever he gave me money. On Sundays, that church collected two offerings: a general fund offering, to which members gave their tithes and made good on their pledges, and what the church called “The Poor Saints” offering, which funded all human needs support for people who needed help. When one gave to the general fund offering, the church clerk called your name out in worship during offering time. The Poor Saints offering was an open plate collection. My father expected me to give to both offerings.

I faithfully gave to the general fund offering, and I liked hearing my name called. My father and the whole church knew that I had given. However, because The Poor Saints offering was open plate, I decided not to give the money set aside for it. I wanted to buy candy and snacks at the corner store after service. I don’t know when my father found out I was not giving money to help the poor, but when he did, he was angry and disappointed. And none of the other activities I was doing, singing in the youth choir, participating in the Easter and Christmas programs, and being a star student in Sunday School, seemed to assuage his disappointment in my neglect of the poor. There was a disconnect between my worship (praying to, singing about, and testifying to a God of love, grace, and mercy) and my treatment of my neighbor (explicitly demonstrating love, grace, and mercy).

I was performing religion, but I was not living the faith. My treatment of and actions toward my neighbor did not reflect the love, concern, and character of the God I was worshiping. So powerful was that experience that during my young adult years, I was hyper-sensitive to the church’s hypocrisies. I could enumerate the many ways the church’s treatment of certain people, like unwed pregnant young girls or LGBTQ people, or people of other faith traditions, was not consistent with the prayers, praises, and sermons we heard in worship.

In our text today, God confronts Israel about its hypocrisy and faithlessness. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God makes known God’s displeasure with the performing of religion over living the faith. After years of covenant relationship with a God slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, there arises a disconnect between Israel’s worship and its treatment of its neighbors. God had expected Israel to do justice but saw bloodshed; God expected righteousness but heard a cry (Isaiah 5:7b). Isaiah declares that the people who “are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight . . . who acquit the guilty for a bribe and deprive the innocent of their rights” (Isaiah 5:21, 23) will not be able to manipulate or satisfy God with prayers, praises, and sacrifices. God will not be gaslighted by the singing of God’s love, grace, and mercy by people who refuse to demonstrate that love, grace, and mercy to their neighbors.

In dramatic and vivid words of annoyance and rejection of Israel’s very best praise and worship, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God articulates God’s desire and declaration that Israel prioritizes care and compassion for the poor and vulnerable among them over their rituals, sacrifices, festivals, and convocations. In God’s eyes, high holy days and special services are meaningless spectacles if the welfare of the people is not a part of the assembly’s purpose, mission, and ministry. Praise and worship that do not testify to God’s liberating, active presence that delivered Israel out of bondage is phony. Rituals and convocations that do not embody and manifest that liberating presence to the poor and oppressed are hollow.

And this is the same attitude that Jesus encountered during his ministry. Jesus denounced the religious establishment, “Woe to you . . . hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). Jesus, too, saw the disconnect between worship and the work of justice. Jesus could not tolerate the performing of religion rather than the living of the faith.

Ah, but there is hope. In hard prophetic utterances, embedded within oracles of destruction is hope. The situation can be reversed. There is a way God can see and accept Israel’s worship, prayers, and sacrifices. There is a way for the covenant and relationship with God to be restored and reflect what matters most to God. God makes available options for changing Israel’s trajectory. There is no need to call in an expert or devise a new set of practices and rituals to please God. God summons Israel to reformation . . . learn to do good; seek justice; rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow, two of the weakest groups in Israel. God is faithful and just to supply everything Israel needs so the first priority can be care for the poor, rejected, and disinherited. The covenant is not nullified if Israel reforms and brings worship and social justice into alignment, living the faith they sing about.

And if the faithful is not moved by the idea that God is watching us, then there is no escaping that the world is watching those who come in the name of God. One of the most oft-stated reasons people give for their dislike of religion is its hypocrisy. They claim that they see more of the harm that religion has done than the good. In the last several decades, it has become increasingly clear that many churches and religious organizations have perfected the performance of religion. We are steeped in the rhetoric and rituals of religion that honor God as loving, merciful, and full of grace, but too many of us fail to love and show mercy to our neighbors. Politicians and ideologues know exactly which religious themes and rhetoric to deploy to gain political advantage. And yet, Christians who have mastered the performance of religion and testify the loudest about God as being loving, merciful, and full of grace are those who have taken center stage in advocating for the use of political violence, denying that the U.S. has been oppressive to minorities in the past, advocating for the denial of fundamental civil and human rights to LGBTQ people, and promoting the manufactured threats of so-called white replacement theory. These are the Christians who see social justice only as a threat.

Nearly five years ago, several of the most popular evangelical pastors and theologians put out what they called The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, the purpose of which was to address what they described as the “somewhat nebulous rubric of concern for ‘social justice.’” In their concern about social justice, they do not defend or plead for the most vulnerable in society, like the poor who strive to secure the basic human needs of food, clothes, or shelter; like the transgender citizens who are being denied education and health care and subjected to repressive violence and harassment; like the immigrants, braving hostile, treacherous terrain to flee violence, political repression, and economic devastation. They appear to want to separate worship from the doing of justice. But Israel discovered the hard way, in God’s economy, in the ordering of life and worship as a covenant partner with God, there are just some fundamental expectations from God about the care and concern for the vulnerable. Those who can’t or won’t love and care for whom God loves and cares for risk finding their most zealous worship and deepest theological beliefs hypocritical and untrustworthy by the very people they hope reach.

Like all churches that gather week in and week out in worship, God is summoning us to reform. The prophetic confrontation with Israel remains operative in our context . . . God expects our worship and works of justice to be in alignment. Do our eloquent prayers, melodious hymnody, and our sacred parchment and paraments reflect, forecast, and witness to doing good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, and defending the most vulnerable among us? Whatever religious or ideological misgivings we have about what is known as social justice, God is not proposing an either/or proposition but a both/and reality in covenant with a God of love, mercy, and justice. Worship and social justice go together.

Whatever we think we are doing, when we invoke and lift up God in our worship, when we hear and internalize the teachings of Jesus in our liturgy, we declare our intention to do good; seek justice; rescue the oppressed; defend and plead for the vulnerable. We live the faith we sing and pray about. When we do, we shall eat the good of the land. In our discernment about who we are, the purposes of our church, and whom we are called to be, we reckon with this call for reformation every time we gather in worship and offer our best service to God.

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