Homily from Service on Sunday, August 7, 2022 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
by Seminarian, Michael Thompson
Sermon preached by Seminarian, Michael Thompson
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Let us pray.
Let the words of my mouth and the collective meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. And set our hearts on fire with your love. Amen.
If you read an introduction to or commentary on the Book of Isaiah, you are likely to find somewhere, usually near the top, a statement like this: Isaiah is, for both Jews and Christians, one of the most beloved, often studied, and/or oft-quoted books of the Bible. This morning’s reading from Isaiah makes you wonder why. Isaiah is famous for passages we have read as predictions of Jesus as Messiah, but Isaiah is hardly warm and fuzzy. And if you were wondering about verses 2 through 9, which are omitted from today’s reading, they are not any warmer or fuzzier.
We usually think of prophets as people to whom God reveals the future. We conceive of prophecy as a sort of divine fortune-telling. That’s not quite right. Prophets see the world through God’s eyes. They call out the ways in which we fall short of God’s vision for our life together. Prophets call us to make real and alive God’s kingdom right here and now. Prophets call us out on all our “isms” and admonish us to treat each other as God’s beloved children whose faces bear the very image of God. Prophets issue divine warnings: “You guys are treating each other pretty badly. Change course or you’re headed toward disaster.” Usually, prophets offer their criticisms in the form of ancient divine lawsuits: God indicts us on charges and offers evidence against us.
As you can see, there are plenty of reasons prophets are generally not popular. Biblical and modern prophets often find themselves ignored, sometimes even facing the threat of death. That is not surprising because prophets criticize “the system,” whatever it might be, and “the system” does not like to be criticized or threatened. Prophets anger a lot of people, especially those in power. Isaiah is no different.
The Book of Isaiah, scholars believe, is a compilation of prophetic work from at least three and perhaps many other prophets over a long period of time. The first half of the book is believed to be the prophecy of Isaiah of Jerusalem. As that name indicates, he was active in Jerusalem, we think around the last half of the 8th century B.C.E. At that time, the Assyrians were invading the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). Israel would eventually fall, and Judah would eventually experience exile. Jerusalem was the capital of Judah and was the home of the Temple. The Temple served as the house for God’s earthly throne and the only place where sacrifices and other rituals could be observed. Jerusalem and the Temple were critically important, and Isaiah he stands at the center of it all – criticizing it.
In looking at this passage from Isaiah, we first need to pay attention to who is talking and to whom. Isaiah is the mouthpiece, but the words are God’s. And God is speaking to God’s people. Make no mistake. These are not God’s warnings to “others.” These words are not for non-believers. These are God’s words to the people God has chosen. When God says through Isaiah, “Here the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” this address is not to outsiders. God is calling us rulers of Sodom and people of Gomorrah.
Now the folks who put together the Lectionary must have quite the sense of humor. The Psalm has God saying, “I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; / your offerings are always before me.” But in Isaiah, God “has had enough of burnt offerings,” does “not delight in the blood of bulls,” and is tired of our processions and feasts – God says, “trample my courts no more . . . Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates.” These words would have been shocking where and when they were spoken – In Jerusalem, the center of Temple practice, at a time when the Temple was the center of Jewish worship. I dare say these words might make our little Episcopalian and Anglican hearts beat a bit uneasily too. After all, we love a good procession and well-executed liturgy.
My understanding of what God is saying through Isaiah here is not novel. In fact, it seems that this passage has long been interpreted to mean not to stop our ritual worship of God, but that our worship of God must extend so much farther. We are very good at the ritual. We are also very good at categorizing actions as sin or not. Now, of course, the actions that we categorize are typically not our own actions, but nonetheless, we are often very good at being the holiness police. Our rituals and sin detection often become things we think we do for God. We claim that our sacrifices and incense and processions are for God. We categorize actions as sinful so that we can keep God safe from unholiness. Just think of how many times you have heard, even jokingly, that Jesus is watching.
The thing is God does not need any of that. God does not eat; God does not need sacrifices. God is complete just as God is and has always been. God does not need our sacrifices of thanks and praise. God does not need processions, incense, prayers, feasts, or fasts. There is nothing we do that God needs for sustenance. God does not even need us. Let that sink in. God does not need us. That means that everything God does for us – from creating us to sustaining us to saving us – God does solely and purely out of gracious love. God does not need us or need anything from us, but God made one thing clear in the beginning: we need each other.
God’s message through Isaiah is to stop doing things because we think that God needs us. Our ritual and holiness serve to connect us to God – not God to us – and to connect us to each other. Our sacrifices and rituals should remind us that God calls us not to passive worship but to active, radical worship in everything we do and with everything we are. God calls us to a way of life. God calls us to work actively to turn this world upside down. God calls us to work against systems and actions that elevate some of God’s children over others. God call us to scream in the streets for justice for the oppressed and the marginalized. God call us to advocate for those who have no advocate. God calls us to be voices for the voiceless. God calls us to seek our those whom society discards.
This is the message that the prophets make sure is always staring us in the face – and we still haven’t gotten it. Ultimately, God came to us as one of us. Jesus did not say rules, commandments, and offerings do not matter. What he said was that that is not enough. Jesus reminds us that God’s purposes are so much bigger than we can imagine. Jesus reminds us that God’s kingdom is not just a fantasy utopia reserved for a future afterlife. God calls us to make God’s kingdom real and alive here and now. God does not need us, but we need each other. Don’t limit your holiness, worship, or relationships to Sunday mornings in a building. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Amen.