"Even though you make many prayers"--A Sermon for Proper 14, Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
So there are indeed external, geo-political…even existential threats that stand in the background of our Old Testament lesson today from the Prophet Isaiah. If I can oversimplify, these are that Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, and its capitol Jerusalem, where Isaiah lives and prophesies, are surrounded by much greater empires or kingdoms at its borders…Egypt in one direction and the Assyrian Empire in another…to name but two. Both nations are indeed greater than Judah, not in a moral or spiritual sense, but in the sense of having larger armies…and generally more people and resources. Thus the people of Judah are under constant threat of attack, of destruction, of exile. These threats indeed cause anxiety…real palpable fear. And to stave off attack…to stave off destruction…the very eradication of the people of Judah...their kings and leaders rely on both politics, in the form of treaties and alliances and economic partnerships with their neighbors…much like nations do to this very day. And, they also rely on something or someone else, someone who perhaps we are not so quick to turn to in the complex geo-political challenges of our own day…and that someone is God…Yahweh…the God of Israel…who they believe lives in their very midst…on Zion…in the Holy of Holies at the center of the Temple at the heart of Jerusalem. The people of Judah, the Israelites, seek security, wellbeing…they stake their very lives and existence on God…on God’s love…God’s provision…God’s supernatural protection of those he has called into being and loves entirely.
Thus the people of Judah want to, and indeed likely do, church very well. And when I say do church well, I refer to their piety and religious practices…they say their prayers…they offer the required sacrifices…they burn incense…they offer worship that is likely well attended, beautiful and by the book…the book being the Torah, God’s law, encapsulated in the first five books of our bible that proscribes the rituals and religious practices of the people of Israel. They take church seriously…it lies at the heart of their common life…and they hope that just such a way of being will indeed be pleasing to the God they worship…and that further God will indeed honor their prayers and praise…honor the central role that their ritualistic life has for them as a people…and thusly that God will indeed save them from catastrophe or capture or annihilation for the very sake of their piety…that God will indeed bless them for the glory they give to him through their obedient and faithful religious observance. As Isaiah says at the end of today’s reading, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Thus they indeed do their best to be obedient to the pious life set before them…that they may eat the good of the land…be saved, remain whole…even prosper as a people.
And I would say religious commitment and a pious life is generally all to the good…I indeed seek to be obedient to the religious practices that we value and hold dear…practices encapsulated in scripture, our own Book of Common Prayer, our own Rule of Life here at St. Julian’s…the accepted traditions, disciplines and teachings that have been handed down to us in our own day as the people of God. Further if I am honest, I have, like the Israelites before me, connected God’s blessing with these commitments and practices. I have often felt that hardship and calamity in my own life, for we all face both, is somehow connected to my own obedience or disobedience to God’s will as I understand it. If I but only spend more time in prayer, go to church even when on vacation, read the bible with greater frequency, care for people more fully, love God and others more deeply, that God will indeed supernaturally bless me…save me…protect me and those I love. I have, at times, fallen into the trap of believing that my own pain and suffering is the result of my own lack of religious conviction. And I have met few people in the life of the church who have not also found themselves in this way of thinking at one time or another. If only I…and I will let you fill in the blank…but something like…pray more…give more time and money…say yes to more…generally be better at and more committed to church and all it demands of me…then and only then will God hold at bay the enemies at my own borders…hold back the calamities that surround us all, including all those we love, in a world that is so sin-sick and broken…even at times saving me from my very self. And you see and likely have experienced the great paradox that this way of thinking then creates…for when the bad happens, when the calamity inevitably strikes…when the enemies successfully and violently attack…we are left with two equally unsatisfying outcomes…either a shame cycle of epic proportions for I have failed to do or be someone who satisfies God…someone with enough faith…someone worthy of God’s love…I just didn’t do church good enough…or…or God is not real, does not exist…or worse is a vengeful tyrant…again equally bad options.
And I think this is the real existential threat that Isaiah just begins to address in his prophetic words before us today…a threat far worse than the machinations of conquering empires…geo-political threats…economic uncertainty or really anything the world or our selves can throw at us. For this is ultimately about the role that God plays in our lives and world and the health and vitality of our very souls...the eternal and most important part of our selves. So as Isaiah suggests let us now argue it out…struggle with the real world we live in and the real lives we lead. And to this end, Isaiah acknowledges that the world is indeed sin-sick and broken…calamity is indeed hoisted upon us by the self-centeredness of both ourselves and others. Suffering is the consequence of living in a world in which love is a choice. We care little for our natural resources and thus they run out and the seas rise. We are then forced to fight for the little that is left…and violence ensues. We, at times, care little for those who look and live differently than we do and often, also, care little for those who are poor or in need and societal unrest ensues…often also resulting in violence. And thus as Isaiah says, there is indeed blood on our hands…not as a result of animals sacrificed on God’s altar…but as a result of our own blind self-interest. And this is what Isaiah says God decries about our religious practices…for we so often use them as a crutch to mitigate our own guilt…rather than as a means and power to amend our own lives.
To move from the theoretical to the practical…if I confess my sin to God…just as we will in a moment in our weekly corporate confession in this service…let’s say over anger I live with just below the surface that led to chewing out a colleague at work or spouse or child at home…only to feel better for a moment, a brief respite from the guilt I have for my behavior…then I have not washed my hands of blood…as Isaiah says, “Even if you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” However, if we use the moment of confession to acknowledge that I have a problem that I need and genuinely desire for God to help me with…to seek courage to ask others for help…to use our moment of confession and the forgiveness their offered to repent…to begin to walk along a new path…then…then our act of religious piety, our practice of confession, may indeed lead to a whole new sort of life…the blood begins to be washed away…we cease to do evil and begin to learn to do good.
Isaiah was clearly a religious and pious person…active in the ritual life of the people of Israel…a doer of the Torah…by no means is he suggesting that religious commitment and pious practice have no value. Nor would he ever suggest that God was not real…that God does not exist… or that God is a vengeful tyrant. For he, himself, hears the voice of God and speaks God’s words to us…words of life of hope of love…he affirms that though our sins are like scarlet, God will make them white like snow…that though our hands are red like crimson, God will make them clean and strong like freshly spun wool. Thus, Isaiah suggests that a faithful life is one in which our religious practices are not about winning God’s favor and blessing…for we already have that…but instead are a means, tools if you will, for encountering the living God…which affirms for us God’s presence in our lives…God’s provision in our lives…God’s love in our lives…God’s power in our lives…that then shapes us in particular and wonderful ways…shapes us into love spreaders and life givers…just like, or much like, God. Thus our religious commitments and pious practices are not about winning God’s favor and avoiding calamity or travail, but knowing, really knowing the love of God…being in relationship with our living God…a relationship that then elevates our hearts, buoys our spirits, carries us along as we negotiate a world and a life…full of mountain top moments and shadow filled valleys…giving us all we need…to indeed make it through to the other side…whatever potential destruction lurks at our borders…whatever life or, at times, our own selves might throw at us…and all the while…in and through that very same relationship with God…a relationship forged by faith and religious practice…God shapes us…God forms us….into people who know and name both evil and good…and then wash the blood from our hands by choosing the good. Amen.