I have reflected on my friend’s comment and, though it does not sit well with me, I know there is truth to what he has said, especially after hearing today’s reading. True worship is more than religious ritual, going to temple every day (church) weekly, fasting, and listening to the scriptures. God does not want us to act pious when we have sins on our hands and in our hearts. He is not looking for us to go through a series of religious rituals and acts alone. There are many people who leave God, turn from his love, his compassion, and his grace at the door on their way out of church. I have seen and been one who has. Think about this as an example, have you ever swore or honked a horn when you’re cut off or not let in to merge. I have. ``I have also done this as I am rushing off from church on Sunday to run a seemingly endless list of errands. So, maybe it could have been me that one summer day, tearing out of our driveway beeping and screaming after being cut off as I left church. I certainly left my Christianity at the door after service once or twice.
The passage from Isaiah talks about the importance of helping others. It speaks of caring and doing more than just rituals to please God. Let’s take a look back at what the writer goes on to say. Isaiah talks about how acting compassionately for those in need is more important than fasting, correct worship, and the knowledge of doctrine.
58:1 Shout 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.
58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
58:3 "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.
58:4 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.
58:5 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?
Okay, so how many of us fast on a regular basis? Maybe to make this more relevant we could think of something we do more weekly...hmmm like go to church or pray: daily, nightly, at meals (grace). Can we start to relate how one can feel our prayers are not answered? How it may seem to fall on deaf ears? Maybe it feels more like an empty series of thoughtless movement? Sometimes I have thought that when my mind drifts during service. (Thank goodness that before we start every Sunday, Rev. Suzannah reminds us of a phrase or word to get us back focused on to the reason as to why we are here. Thanks Suzannah!) Maybe it’s because worship and prayer are only part of the equation. Let’s now recall where this passage goes...
58:6 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?
58:7 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?
58:8 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 rear guard.
58:9a Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
58:9b If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
58:10 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.
58:11 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.
58:12 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.
More important than anything, GOD wants us to have genuine compassion for the poor, the helpless, and the oppressed. We cannot be saved by deeds of service alone. We cannot only go to church on Sunday and think we are doing what pleases God. We especially cannot come to church thinking it is the only thing we need to do as Christians; that if we celebrate communion and leave God in church the rest of the week, we think we are all good in His eyes.
God calls us to grow personally through acts of religious ritual, fasting, and worship. He also wants our service to go beyond ourselves and into the community, to grow by serving our neighbors. By doing acts of charity, this means not just sending money, but to roll up our sleeves and help in areas of injustice, working with those in need. We have to take His word out to society by doing good works. All the prayer services in church on Sundays and saying grace at the table are good, they just cannot be alone. We have to go and help. We have to be the light of God’s love to the faces that our society has not shown love. We need to be the smile at the soup kitchen, when a hungry soul comes in. We need to stand up for those that our society has oppressed.
As a child we did not have much food. We had to go to the food pantry. We had free lunch at school. We even ate dinner at the soup kitchen. I remember many times feeling embarrassed by my family’s needs. As I look back now, I can also remember helping at that same soup kitchen. I remember not being embarrassed when I handed out the soup and bread on the line. No, I remember feeling love, having compassion, and knowing that being there to help is exactly where I needed to be. See, I never felt as a child that God didn't love me. No matter what we had been going through personally, I knew what it is like to feel God’s love go through me to another person. It is an amazing experience.
I have previously spoken about the time I was at a ministry event praying for a man who had just come from a detox clinic. Prayer with that man, for that man, a complete stranger was about compassion. I was in a park, on a Sunday afternoon, with a man in need of compassion. Here was this man who is an addict, just released from prison, living under the Mixmaster highway in Waterbury. He needed love, he needed prayer. God blessed me to have this man touch my heart and change my life. This didn't happen in a church, not that I couldn't feel or show love and compassion in church. I just have to do what this scripture talks about. I have to share my faith with others and help this world we live in.
I recently have been ministering to several different people who have addiction in their lives. I have experienced much pain and suffering along my own addiction recovery road. In ministering to these people, some of whom are of my own family, I understand compassion. It is a feeling like no other. Recently I was praying for a person and was so moved by the Holy Spirit I started to cry. I could feel the pain from my own experiences as I could see the suffering in the eyes of this person. I knew one thing; I loved them with the unconditional love of God. I had to tell this person, right then and there. They needed to know what God’s unconditional love is and I instantly hugged them. Maybe it helped me more than it moved them, but then again maybe not.
This is exactly what Isaiah is discussing. Words cannot express what it feels like to transfer God’s love through you to another human being. God has blessed me with that opportunity to be like a vessel to delivery his compassion, love, and through this I have grown in faith as well as closeness to God.
I know that our church service helps me get closer to God. I can feel God’s love here at St Paul's. I can see it in the work we do. I know that I grow personally by praying just as I have grown from quietly reading my bible at home or in my hotel room when on business trips. See, I know God provides me these things for my personal growth. What happens when I help those in need is a deeper strengthening of my relationship with God than all the bible reading, all the prayer, and all the fasting I could do. Giving God’s love to the world is the best way to praise God!!! Oh and by the way... doing these things has answered all of my prayers from when I was in need. I can't say I am saved by my acts without my faith in Christ but I can say that my faith lacks sincerity if I don't help others.
So in closing I ask are you among the dead in church? Are you stuck in a rut in your worship? Is it not time to grow in faith through acting on the injustice around us? Are you ready to roll up your sleeves and show our world the love of Christ Jesus our God?