The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12].
Many years ago I was having a conversation – okay, an argument – with someone who was railing against the hypocrisy of confession. “Do you mean,” he said, “I can commit all kinds of sins, do terrible things, then walk into a little room with a priest, and say a few ‘Hail Marys’ and a couple ‘Our Fathers,’ and have the slate wiped clean – and then go out and do all those terrible things again – and then come back and have the slate wiped clean again? What kind of sense does that make? How hypocritical is that?”
And I tried to argue back that it wasn’t quite as simple as that, that “amendment of life” was also part of the whole process. But I had to confess that, at bottom, I agreed with him: to go through the motion of the ritual, without also intending the effect of the ritual, is hypocritical. To say the prayer, without also at least trying to do the prayer, is just plain gross hypocrisy.
That is what is being said to us in our reading from Isaiah today.
In this passage the prophet warns about the danger of hypocrisy. In this passage the prophet points out just how damaging – and how damning – it is when the service of God in worship and the service of work in the world become hypocritically disconnected from each other. The prophet speaks here about fasting – which, along with sacrifice, was a central element in Temple worship in Jerusalem as it was restored after the Return from Exile. Fasting with prayer was a primary ceremonial way of drawing close to God.
Yet the prophet is very clear that the people’s service of worship in fasting is missing something: “Is this what you call a fast?” the prophet says on behalf of God, “to bow your head, and put on sackcloth, and wear ashes, all go through the proper, expected ceremonial motions – and yet at the same time to serve your own interests, and oppress all your workers, and quarrel and fight, and strike with a wicked fist? Is this what you call a fast?” the prophet says.
No, if you’re going to fast, the prophet says, then fast all the way; if you’re going to do the ceremonial service of worship, then serve all the way, and live out your ceremony in practical service in the world. If you’re going to humble yourself with fasting, then live out your humility by letting the oppressed go free, and breaking the yoke of bondage, and not indulging your arrogance and your violence and your lust for power. If you’re going to give up your food in fasting, then live out your giving by offering your food to the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted. If you’re going to draw near to God in the service of worship, the prophet says, then let God draw near to you, to make your light break forth, and your healing spring up, and your bones be strong, and your streets be restored – so that you may be empowered in all ways to live out God’s work of service in the world.
That, the prophet says, is what keeps your ceremony from devolving into hypocrisy.
And I think Isaiah’s message is just as powerful for us today as it was for Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE. I think we too need to be aware of the danger of hypocritically disconnecting our service of God in our worship, and our service of work in everyday life around us.
For us too, our service of worship and our service in the world are not two different things, but they are deeply related to each other, they are integral aspects of the single reality of God’s mission for justice and peace and compassion and love throughout all creation. And that vision is powerful for us today, too.
Now for us today the dominant image of worship is not so much the fast as it was for Isaiah, as it is the feast. The Holy Eucharist, our principal act of worship on the Lord’s Day, is a symbolic and sacramental feast, a reminder of the Seder feast Jesus had with his disciples before his crucifixion, and of the meals Jesus shared with his apostles after the Resurrection, and it is a pointer to the Great Feast, the Wedding-of-the-Lamb Feast, the Messianic Banquet, which was Jesus’ favorite image for what God wants this world to be. Every Sunday, we say, is a feast day. And for us, too, as for Isaiah, our ceremonial service of worship in feasting is meant to lead us to practical service in the world to share that feast with everyone.
If our feast brings us here to be fed with bread and wine, to be nourished with the spiritual food of Christ’s Body and Blood – then our feast ought also to send us out, to share our food and our spirits and our resources with the hungry and the marginalized and the outcast, so that feasting can be something everyone can experience.
If our feast brings us here to proclaim our faith in a God who is Trinity, who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, whose very Being is right-relationship – then our feast ought also to empower us to go out, and in the name of God to build up right-relationships with neighbors and strangers and refugees and enemies and everyone we can reach.
If our feast brings us here to be connected one with another, to enjoy friendship and fellowship with each other as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ – then our feast ought also to serve as a model of how we can be connected with all sorts and conditions of people, to enjoy friendship and fellowship in the name of Christ with those who make up our neighborhoods and communities and nation and world.
For us here at Trinity, our service of worship and our service in the world are deeply intertwined aspects of the single reality of God’s gift to us. In fact, I often tell people that that is one of the things I admire most about this congregation: that we hold together in balance our worship and our work, our service of God in liturgy and music and beauty and our service of God’s world in outreach and ministry and mission. Holding those two things together is what gives us life; holding those two things together is what makes us salt for the earth and light for the world; holding those two things together is what attracts new people to want to come be a part of this dynamic church community; holding those two things together is what opens the way for our church to grow ever deeper into God’s mission for us.
And God’s mission for us, at this time and this place, I believe, means being even more out there in the world, even more than usual, to be living witnesses to friendship and fellowship and community and right-relationship. When there seem to be so many forces in culture and society and politics that want to divide us, so many forces that seem to want to tear us all apart, it is more important than ever that we Christians not be hypocritical, that we work and pray and act, in church and out of church, for compassion and coming-together and right-relationship. Our service of God in worship and our service of work in the world are not two separate things, but are the twin motions of mission which witness to God in all.
How can you move in God’s mission for right-relationship this very week?
May God be with us in our service of worship and our service in the world, so that we may share with every creature the feast of the riches of God’s grace. Amen.