“Your Incense Stinks!” Worship Gone Awry in The Book of Isaiah

The Lessons Appointed for Use on the Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 14c)

I’m fed up,” saith the Lord…“Your chancel-prancing nauseates me, your incense stinks! Your money is worthless; for God cannot be bribed. Your high-holy days have become a mockery, and this show you’re putting on makes me sick.

The prophets were never really ones to mince words, were they?

In a way, Isaiah might be described as the original shock jock: seemingly irreverent, provocative, and painfully truthful. He makes all of us squirm uncomfortably in our pews, perhaps because he’s hit a nerve, as he shouts out that it’s all a charade.

So, emboldened by Isaiah, let’s take the risk and be brutally honest: does what we say and do here really matter? Does what we say and do here make any real difference when we leave these doors? Because if it doesn’t, then Isaiah tells us we are wasting God’s time, we are wasting one another’s time, and blowing a lot of hot air in the process. When how we worship becomes incongruent with how we live, what was once a sacred mystery becomes a pious Ponzi scheme. Subject it to an audit, and you’re certain to find a fraud.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Both then and now, ritual acts of worship were intended to reveal God’s transcendence to a finite and flawed people. God gave us saints and symbols and sacraments as if to drop hints of God’s presence, despite the divine hide and seek. Renowned Hebrew scholar Abraham Heschel notes, “Of course, the prophets did not condemn the practice of sacrifice in itself; otherwise, we should have to conclude that Isaiah intended to discourage (even) the practice of prayer . . . They did, however, claim that deeds of injustice vitiate both sacrifice and prayer. Men [and women] may not drown out the cries of the oppressed with the noise of hymns, nor buy off the Lord with increased offerings. The prophets disparaged the cult when it became a substitute for righteousness.”

The shocking sting of Isaiah’s oracle is that God has become sickened by the very acts of worship he prescribed for his people to thrive. The means have been confused for the ends, and God will have none of it.

Despite this stark portrayal of God’s distaste for worship devoid of justice, there is actually good news here (the prophets are never without hope). This is, if we step back and look at it, a good thing: God doesn’t want lip service, God wants justice. And he wants us to do it.

“(Justice) is not just a value,” Heschel continues, “it is God’s part of human life, God’s stake in human history.”

Ah, yes, there’s that word again – Justice. It keeps popping up every week in these meddlesome prophets. And the orphans and widows, too. They get a lot of press as well. The truth is, we simply cannot talk about the prophets without talking about justice. And we cannot talk about justice without talking about those who are oppressed and most vulnerable. (As an aside, this is exactly why we pray for “those who are most vulnerable and in need” in the Prayers of the People.)

I’ll be honest with you: It is difficult, if not impossible, to get up here and preach on justice when, in reality, my life is quite comfortable as is. (I mean, who needs God when H-E-B is just around the corner?) Maybe it’s that French-Cajun laissez faire attitude that lets sleeping dogs lie, so to speak. Why stick out your neck when it’s bound to be chopped off? But I somehow suspect I’m not the only one who starts to sweat at the mention of that word “justice.” When we’re confronted with someone who comes along and declares “Thus saith the Lord” our laissez faire philosophy suddenly has a problem, because God is never neutral in matters of justice.

For me, one of those modern prophets has been the philosopher Cornel West. The son of a Baptist minister, West received his undergraduate education from Harvard University, and received a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1980, becoming the first African American to graduate from Princeton with a Ph.D. in philosophy. (I once heard him debate at Princeton, and it was absolutely captivating).

For decades now, West has continued to dish out critique to both conservatives and liberals for their failings to pursue justice. Though initially a hopeful supporter of a newly inaugurated President Obama, West has since issued harsh criticisms against what he sees as a political system that continues to perpetuate cycles of violence and injustice. In a time when many were praising the young president – even awarding him the Nobel peace prize in 2009 – Cornel West was that prophetic voice that openly questioned how a war-time Commander-in-Chief could possibly deserve a prize for peace.

Now whether you love or hate the current administration, is not the point. As I mentioned before, prophets are those people who cause all of us to squirm, who call all of us to task, because they seek to give voice to those whom we might rather ignore. In Isaiah’s time that was orphans and widows. In our own time it might be the homeless or refugees or a single mother who cannot make ends meet on a measly minimum wage. Prophets tend to call attention to the inconsistencies and inconvenient truths that make us uncomfortable, which is exactly why they are so invaluable.

One of the most moving definitions of justice I have ever encountered comes from a sermon Cornel West delivered at Howard University some years ago. “Never forget,” he reminds us, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Justice is what love looks like in public.

This is not just some word thrown around by hippie tree huggers or crusaders in the criminal justice system. God’s justice is rarely what we might expect, because it really has very little to do with fairness or recompense. God’s justice is simply God’s love writ large. As Heschel said, “it is God’s stake in human history.”

Justice is not merely forwarding an email or reposting an article on social media so that our friends (who already agree with us) can pat us on the back. Social media should not be confused with social justice. There is no such thing as an armchair prophet, because justice rarely falls within our comfort zone. Justice does not absolve us from the nitty gritty, messy process of politics and due process. Justice is what love looks like in public. Not a discreet or personal feel good kind of love, but the kind of love that Isaiah (and later Jesus) would announce “brings good news to the poor; proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” This lovely justice is life changing. It is transformational. It takes hold of us and will not let us go.

I almost hate to say this, but the prophets continue to press the issue: If we come here to worship and are not somehow expecting to be transformed in the process, we might well wonder whether should have come at all. God loves us far too much to let us keep up the act.

“Learn to do good,” Isaiah tells us, “seek justice.” For it is there you will find God.

 

The Rev’d Brad Landry

St. Paul’s – San Antonio

Proper 14c (2016)

 

 

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