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Tweaking the Order of Worship

A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on February 6, 2011.
Isaiah 58:1-12

False and True Worship

58Shout out, do not hold back! ¨   Lift up your voice like a trumpet! ¨Announce to my people their rebellion, ¨   to the house of Jacob their sins. ¨2 Yet day after day they seek me ¨   and delight to know my ways, ¨as if they were a nation that practised righteousness ¨   and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; ¨they ask of me righteous judgements, ¨   they delight to draw near to God. ¨3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? ¨   Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ ¨Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, ¨   and oppress all your workers. ¨4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight ¨   and to strike with a wicked fist. ¨Such fasting as you do today ¨   will not make your voice heard on high. ¨5 Is such the fast that I choose, ¨   a day to humble oneself? ¨Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, ¨   and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? ¨Will you call this a fast, ¨   a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 Is not this the fast that I choose: ¨   to loose the bonds of injustice, ¨   to undo the thongs of the yoke, ¨to let the oppressed go free, ¨   and to break every yoke? ¨7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, ¨   and bring the homeless poor into your house; ¨when you see the naked, to cover them, ¨   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? ¨8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, ¨   and your healing shall spring up quickly; ¨your vindicator* shall go before you, ¨   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. ¨9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; ¨   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, ¨   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, ¨10 if you offer your food to the hungry ¨   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, ¨then your light shall rise in the darkness ¨   and your gloom be like the noonday. ¨11 The Lord will guide you continually, ¨   and satisfy your needs in parched places, ¨   and make your bones strong; ¨and you shall be like a watered garden, ¨   like a spring of water, ¨   whose waters never fail. ¨12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; ¨   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; ¨you shall be called the repairer of the breach, ¨   the restorer of streets to live in.

Psalm 112

Blessings of the Righteous

1 Praise the Lord! ¨   Happy are those who fear the Lord, ¨   who greatly delight in his commandments. ¨2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; ¨   the generation of the upright will be blessed. ¨3 Wealth and riches are in their houses, ¨   and their righteousness endures for ever. ¨4 They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; ¨   they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. ¨5 It is well with those who deal generously and lend, ¨   who conduct their affairs with justice. ¨6 For the righteous will never be moved; ¨   they will be remembered for ever. ¨7 They are not afraid of evil tidings; ¨   their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. ¨8 Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; ¨   in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. ¨9 They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; ¨   their righteousness endures for ever; ¨   their horn is exalted in honour. ¨10 The wicked see it and are angry; ¨   they gnash their teeth and melt away; ¨   the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.

Matthew 5:13-20

Salt and Light

13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Law and the Prophets

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,* not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks* one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

What does the order of worship have to do with being salt of the earth and light of the world?  How can the order of worship impact our witness for God?  At first it may seem that the passages selected for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany don’t match. 

And most pastors and congregations aren’t worried about people being too observant in their worship attendance.  In case you haven’t noticed, membership in many of the mainline churches has been dropping for several years.  I don’t know many pastors or congregations that are worried about having too many people show up and commit themselves to prayer and fasting each week.   The churches with huge memberships aren’t complaining about having two or three Sunday morning services.  So in one sense, we might find it hard to relate to the context from the passage from Isaiah 58 even before we try to connect it with the excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount taken from Matthew 5.

But if we think long enough, the connection begins to appear.  There was no shortage of religious rituals in the time of Isaiah’s prophecy, the time that Jesus preached, and there’s no shortage of religious rituals today.  The Bible remains the world’s most sold book.  There are more churches in our communities than gasoline stations.  Each congregation has its worship hours and routines.  The congregations may not have as many people as they would like, but they exist because people continue to gather, pray, sing, and preach.   And if we’re honest, we’ll admit that many worshippers define their relationship with God and life by these weekly worship rituals.    We are very concerned about worship styles, music, lighting, settings, length, and other things.  Some congregations have different services to accommodate differences in worship style (“contemporary” versus “traditional”).   We invest lots of time and energy concerning worship.

But the message we read in Isaiah 58 is clear.  The preacher is instructed to proclaim God’s unflinching controversy with worshipping people.  God says for the prophet to shout it.  This is not to be a soothing call, but a clarion blast like from a trumpet.  God has a major issue with God’s people surrounding the issue of worship.  

And it seems the people have an issue with God as well.  They’ve been observing the rituals.  They are faithfully attending the services.  They’ve prayed and fasted and fasted and prayed.  They know the hymns and are keeping the holy seasons.  But God doesn’t seem to notice.  Their prayers don’t seem to be effective.  The fasting doesn’t seem to make a difference for their society. 

Ritual doesn’t mean Righteousness.   There’s nothing wicked or evil about having a regular order in religion or anything else.  But God isn’t fooled by our ritualistic singing, praying, preaching, fasting, or any other religious activity. 

After ordering the prophet to “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins,” God detailed the problem plainly: Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.  Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.”  (Is. 58:4)   The ritual observances were no substitutes for righteousness. 

Real worship is about our relationships.   Righteous worship can never be divorced from our relationships.  This is the clear message that we see in the following excerpt from Isaiah 58:  Is this not the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide your self from your own kin? (Is. 58:6-7). 

Our relationships with vulnerable people shed light on our relationship with God that we can’t conceal by singing, praying, preaching, and fasting.  If we are unloving, we can’t be righteous.   And without righteousness, all religious ritual is merely self-serving.  If we won’t live to God’s glory in loving relationships with others, our singing, fasting, praying, and preaching amount to nothing more than religious self-indulgence. 

Real worship involves living with prayerful and prophetic vigilance and vitality concerning the “bonds of injustice” and the “thongs of the yoke” of oppression and injustice in our communities.  Real worship can’t be divorced from untying or breaking the “thongs of the yoke” that make people poor, sick, more susceptible to political, economic, social, and other forms of oppression.  The “thongs of the yoke” include the rules and laws that institutionalize inequality, promote greed, and make life hard for vulnerable people such as the elderly, poor people, children, people who belong to ethnic, religious, and social minorities, workers, and immigrants.  The Bible reminds us that religious people can’t ignore those laws, rules, regulations, policies, procedures, and traditions when we sing, pray, preach, and fast. 

The prophet declares a truth every community must recognize:  the fate and future of every society rests on how that society treats its most vulnerable members.   If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.  Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.  (Is. 58:9b-12).

Public officials at every level of government need these words.  If we want to rebuild rundown neighborhoods and crumbling streets and bridges, we must remove the oppressive yoke of poverty, oppression, and willful neglect we have placed on people we refuse to love as brothers and sisters.  If we want to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, we must live in loving fellowship with our brothers and sisters.  This isn’t just high-sounding political rhetoric.  It’s a divine imperative.  The state and plight of every society isn’t based on how much we enrich people on Wall Street, but how we lovingly lift people starving on the  back streets, alleys, and rural places around us.  Divine justice is not based on trickle-down economics, but on people and societies being actively engaged in untying and breaking every thong in the yoke of oppression.

 And God wanted the community addressed in Isaiah 58 to know that God holds religious people accountable for breaking and untying the bonds and yoke of oppression in our times and places.  If we will not speak God’s truth in our own settings, and if we will not live God’s truth in our own dealings, the religious rituals don’t matter.  In the final analysis, justice is the love of God applied in our relationships with others.  Injustice results when we fail or refuse to apply God’s love in those relationships.  Poverty, homelessness, poor healthcare, illiteracy, crime-infested neighborhoods, high prison populations, and run-down communities (physically and spiritually) are signs of injustice.  They show us that God’s love is not being done on a widespread basis.   

Real worship leads to real discipleship! Real worship means you and I have a holy obligation to do more than sing hymns and look dignified on special days.  Real worship means we must feed hungry people, clothe and shelter homeless people, and treat them as brothers and sisters rather than eyesores?  Real worship means we must love God so much that we love others in God’s love, fight for others in God’s love, heal others in God’s love, feed and shelter others in God’s love, and do it in obedience to God’s love.  

Worship without discipleship is worthless.  It really isn’t worship at all because worship involves the worthiness of God to be honored, loved, obeyed, and trusted!  If we won’t honor, love, obey, and trust God in our relationships, we aren’t following God no matter how regularly we fast, sing, pray, preach and do the other things we associate with discipleship and worship.

This is what Jesus meant about being salt of the earth and light of the world.  God’s people are to be the prophets of love.  That means we are prophets of justice.  When we fail or refuse to be prophets of justice we become salt-less salt and shuttered light.  Unloving religion is unjust religion no matter how faithfully one observes its rituals, sings its hymns, and preaches its scriptures. 

Jesus emphasized that the gospel of love is simply the fulfillment of the moral law, not a substitute or replacement for it.  We can’t fulfill the moral law without being agents of God’s love.  Because we are agents of God’s love, we speak truth rather than lies, no matter how popular lies may be or how unpopular the truth may be.  Because we are agents of God’s love, we live to restore fellowship rather than glory in breaking relationships.  Because we are agents of God’s love, we live to lift those who are oppressed and oppose those who are proud.  We live for justice because we agents of God’s love.  We live for peace because we are agents of God’s love.  We live for truth because we are agents of God’s love.  We live in hope because we are agents of God’s love. 

But make no mistake.  We live for God or for ourselves, with God or against God, as agents of God’s love or as agents of our own vanity.  And we do this or fail to do it in every breath and heartbeat.  Worship is about our relationships, not our rituals.  Worship is about realities, not regulations.  Worship is about loving and serving God as we love and serve others, and loving and serving others as we love and serve God. 

Andrew Foster Conners (Pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland) has shared this pastoral insight that seems especially relevant to our view on worship.

One year during Holy Week, a few Christians from a well-endowed congregation in a major metropolitan area spent a night with homeless friends on the street.  They were looking for the suffering Christ in the lives of those who spend their days and nights suffering from hunger, disease, and rejection.  It was a chilly night, and rain rolled in close to midnight.  Looking for shelter, the handful of travelers felt fortunate to come upon a church holding an all-night prayer vigil.  The leader of the group was a pastr of one of the most respected churches in the city.  As she stepped through the outer doors of the church, a security guard stopped her.  She explained that she and the rest of their group were Christians.  They had no place to stay and were wet and miserable, and would like to rest and pray.  Enticed by the lighted warmth of the sanctuary, she had forgotten that her wet, matted hair and disheveled clothing left her looking like just another homeless person from the street.  The security guard was friendly, but explained in brutal honesty, “I was hired to keep homeless people like you out.”  As the dejected group made their way back out into the misery of the night, they knew they had found their suffering Christ, locked out of the church.

… True fasting—and by extension, true worship—leads not simply to a reordering of the liturgy, but a reordering of the life of the community.  Those who have share with those who need, those who are free loosen the bonds of those who are yoked with injustice, and those with shelter extend it to the homeless.  What concerns God is not our reordering of worship, but how worship reorders us.

 Tweaking the order of worship isn’t about contemporary versus traditional singing.  It’s not about how many hymns, anthems, spirituals, gospels, or other songs we decide to sing.  It’s not about who makes up the choir, how many choirs we have, and all that.  It’s not about whether the preacher uses a manuscript or not.

Tweaking the order of worship is about moving from focusing on liturgy to focusing on loving and living relationships.  It’s about people who’ve made God’s love the driving priority of their living so they become God’s redemptive agents in the world.  It’s about people who burn with such a zeal for God’s justice that they refuse to standby as Palestinians have their homes and land taken and are subjected to daily insults and apartheid-like conditions in Israel.  It’s about people who love God’s truth enough to confront bankers who loan money to developers who live large but are really broke, but refuse to lend money to working people trying to provide for their families.  It’s about people loving their neighbors so much that they make laws provide for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender couples to have the same civil rights as heterosexual couples.  It’s about setting our brothers and sisters free from the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration created by the “War on Drugs” that targeted black and brown people and neighborhoods.  It’s about prophetic people standing with their vulnerable brothers and sisters and proclaiming God’s justice in our prayers, songs, and sermons.  It’s about people living for God and our vulnerable brothers and sisters because God is worthy of our devotion and our brothers and sisters have a divine right to our love.  

Let’s tweak the order of worship in these ways.  Then God will make us agents of healing.  Then we will be called the repairers of broken hearts and lives.  Then we will be called the people God used to remake and rebuild broken families and neighborhoods, and our broken world.  Then we will show what it means to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and the children of God.