Be the Church
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
St. Philip Lutheran Church
7 August 2022 + Lect. 19c (Pentecost 9)
Rev. Josh Evans
Some YouTube videos just speak to you, you know? One of my favorites – aptly titled “[Stuff] Pastors Say (When Writing Sermons)” – hits particularly close to home.
As the video opens to the preacher sitting in front of their computer, text message conversation bubbles pop up on the screen:
“Hey, what are you preaching on tomorrow?”
“No idea … probably God.”
The video continues as the preacher pores over opened bibles and commentaries:
“The bible actually says that?”
“How much trouble will I get in…?”
“I wonder what the Greek says…”
“The lectionary sucks!”
“I got nothin’.”
And then this one, which more than just the preacher might be left asking after this morning’s gospel reading:
“Talking about wealth and money again? Jesus!”
This summer, I decided to shake things up in our worship. I opted for the alternate set of first readings and challenged myself to preach primarily on these Old Testament texts, always read but too often neglected in Christian preaching.
What I didn’t realize is just how repetitive it would become.
The first few Sundays were great: the story of Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb; the passing of the prophet’s mantle to his successor, Elisha; and the miraculous (and humbling) healing of Naaman signaling the outpouring of God’s grace to “outsiders.”
Then came Amos and Hosea and now Isaiah … and I have to say, it’s all starting to blend together and feels a bit like I’m preaching the same thing. Even in our recent gospel readings, Jesus seems to offer little in the way of thematic diversity. (It’s almost like Jesus is a prophet too…)
Talking about wealth and money (and social justice) again? Yep.
Last week, “the rich fool,” as some bibles title the story, had so much stuff he didn’t know what to do with it all, and so he built more barns, bigger barns, just to keep all his stuff in. All of which came as a mini-parable in response to a request posed to Jesus: “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance [all our stuff] with me.” In the parable, after storing up all his stuff, the rich man dies – and what becomes of his stuff then?
The parable isn’t meant to be an indictment against having stuff per se, but in the tradition of the prophets, it’s meant to be a somewhat uncomfortable redirection of priorities. Do we selfishly hoard our stuff? Or do we use what we’ve been given as a part of God’s commonwealth, caring for our neighbors in need and recognizing with gratitude the source of all we have and are?
Then today: “Sell your possessions and give alms,” Jesus says. And just before that, he reminds us: “Do not worry! Consider the ravens and the lilies. How much more will God care for you, just as God cares for all creation?”
These teachings invite us to reconsider the meaning of abundance. Not as stuff or wealth or money to be hoarded for ourselves alone, as though there won’t be enough to share. But with awe and gratitude at how much there is to share and go around for all.
Isaiah’s audience seems to have lost touch with these teachings. And God’s response leave no room for ambiguity:
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Enough of [your] burnt offerings! Incense is an abomination to me.”
Their worship and ritual practices have become meaningless. Why?
The answer, though a bit gory, seems to lie in “hands full of blood.” Not the blood of their ritual sacrifices, but blood at the expense of mistreating the oppressed and the vulnerable in their midst. (Michael Ruffin)
“I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.” Translation: No act of worship, no prayer, no ritual, can make up for how you (mis)treat people. God simply won’t look the other way and ignore it any longer.
Their priorities are misguided, and their feasts and festivals occupy center stage. Is it because of their love of liturgy and pure-hearted devotion to God? Or is it because they’re to pull one over on God and distract God from what they haven’t been doing?
I’ve wondered a lot lately about what those outside of the church must see when they look in at us. We throw around words like “discipleship” and “evangelism,” and we yearn to attract more “young people” to our pews and fill our new member classes and bible studies. Yet for all our efforts at aspirational mission statements of “radical inclusion” and flashy social media posts, the payoff seems bleak. The new members are few and far between, oftentimes only breaking even and making up for those who are no longer here.
Back in March 2020, when the pandemic interrupted nearly every facet of our lives and forced us to adapt in “unprecedented” ways, churches came up some pretty creative solutions:
We poured money into HD cameras and high-quality sound equipment for online worship. We quickly became Zoom experts for virtual coffee hour and bible studies, when many of us had never even heard of Zoom before. We held outdoor services and parking lot communion, even in bitterly frigid Midwest winters.
For the last two and a half years, churches have gone to tremendous lengths to innovate our worship life. “Church isn’t canceled,” we would say, “it just looks different.”
So, I have to wonder: What if we put even half as much energy into things like “seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow” as we have into clever ways to make sure we can still find a way to gather for weekly worship?
Which prompts even larger questions still: Why are we here? What does it mean to “be the church”?
At St. Philip, we have several answers to that question just outside our sanctuary. You can see it every time you walk into our building. In fact, it was one of the first things I saw when I came to visit during my interview process.
It’s emblazoned on the rainbow-colored banner in the narthex:
Be the church.
Protect the environment.
Care for the poor.
Fight for the powerless.
Enjoy this life.
Surprisingly, there is nothing on that list about “going to Sunday worship.” Not that that list is meant to be exhaustive, or that worship isn’t important.
But truthfully: We’re already really good at worship. It’s the part of being a church we often take for granted. And it’s the first thing we figured out how to adapt (and re-adapt repeatedly) during the pandemic.
Isaiah’s audience seemed to be really good at the worship stuff too. So much so that it had become a distraction. It’s not that their worship wasn’t important. It’s what their worship had become. It was ritual void of any concern for their neighbor, least of all those who were most vulnerable.
God’s judgment in the words of Isaiah leaves no room for ambiguity. It is a scathing indictment of a people who had abandoned the heart of God’s teachings.
These words are also a challenge and an invitation.
“Come now, and let’s settle this,” one translation offers. (CEB) God’s assessment of the situation is not up for debate. It is what it is. But it’s not irreversible.
God’s people – however and wherever we gather for worship – are meant to be “a demonstration of the justice and presence of God.” (Joy J. Moore) This is why we worship.
God calls us to be the church – in all of what that means.
God calls us to gather here for worship, around word and sacrament, to be fed and nourished. God calls us to confess our shortcomings, ceasing to do evil and continually learning to do good, and to receive God’s forgiveness.
And God calls us out: to be sent forth from this place, to seek justice and to proclaim God’s reign of love, bearing witness to God’s abundance and that there is enough for all.