A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 8, 2010.
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Here is how verses 10 thru 17 of the first chapter in Isaiah are paraphrased in Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
“Listen to my Message, you Sodom-schooled leaders. Receive God’s revelation, you Gomorrah-schooled people.
“Why this frenzy of sacrifices?” God’s asking. “Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of burnt sacrifices, rams and plump grain-fed calves? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of blood from bulls, lambs, and goats? When you come before me, whoever gave you the idea of acting like this, running here and there, doing this and that—all this sheer commotion in the place provided for worship?
“Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.
“Come. Sit down. Let’s argue this out.” This is God’s Message …
The thought that God could become so disgusted with worshipping people and worship activity as to not even hear prayers, let alone turn aside from worship efforts, is not comfortable. Our society is full of places where people gather to worship. Religious groups seem to be constantly hosting conferences, revivals, and convocations. If God can be disgusted with all this effort, we need to understand why and what to do about it.
Worship involves all of our living, not mere religious ceremony. In his introduction to the Prophets in The Message, Eugene Peterson writes:
“One of the bad habits we pick up early in our lives is separating things and people into secular and sacred. We assume that the secular is what we are more or less in charge of: our jobs, our time, our entertainment, our government, our social relations. The sacred is what God has charge of: worship and the Bible, heaven and hell, church and prayers. We then contrive to set aside a sacred place for God, designed, we say, to honor God but really intended to keep God in [God’s] place, leaving us free to have the final say about everything else that goes on.
Prophets will have none of this. They contend that everything, absolutely everything, takes place on sacred ground. God has something to say about every aspect of our lives: The way we feel and act in the so-called privacy of our hearts and homes, the way we make our money and the way we spend it, the politics we embrace, the wars we fight, the catastrophes we endure, the people we hurt and the people we help. Nothing is hidden from the scrutiny of God, nothing is exempt from the rule of God, nothing escapes the purposes of God… Prophets insist on receiving God in every nook and cranny of life.”
Isaiah’s prophecy begins on that note with God in the role of Divine prosecutor calling the creation to serve as jury as God charges people who claim to belong to God with living so badly that Isaiah calls their leaders “rulers of Sodom” and the masses “people of Gomorrah.” Sodom and Gomorrah were cities that had become a byword for wickedness so extreme that they were completely destroyed.
Contrary to popular belief, the wickedness that condemned Sodom and Gomorrah had nothing to do with sexuality or sexual conduct. At Ezekiel 16:49, we read: This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
We read at Genesis 19 that divine beings visited Sodom. Although Lot, Abraham’s nephew, welcomed the visitors, Lot’s neighbors tried to mistreat them because they were strangers—undocumented immigrants! They needed food, shelter, and acceptance, but the people of Sodom treated them with ridicule and abuse. After Sodom was destroyed, Lot and his daughters, having now become strangers themselves, by-passed nearby communities and sought refuge in a cave because they feared being mistreated because they were strangers. This fundamental Biblical lesson is apparently forgotten or ignored by people who are hostile and suspicious toward immigrants.
It is especially important to notice that when Jesus compared someone to Sodom and Gomorrah, he never mentioned sex, sexuality, or sexual morality. Jesus referred to Sodom and Gomorrah when talking about the severe judgment that will befall people who refuse to show hospitality to strangers representing God. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment than for that town (Matthew 10:14-15).
In Matthew 25, Jesus said of certain people, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, …” (Matthew 25:41-43a). The people called “stranger” are among “the least of these” needy and poor souls for whom God builds the entire system of divine favor and condemnation. Their condition matters more to God than the stock exchanges. Their lot is the true measure of righteousness in a society. How we live with and treat “the least of these”—including strangers—matters matters to God more than all our religious houses, ceremonies, regalia, and posturing!
So Isaiah’s prophecy begins by declaring God has no use for religious ceremony by people whose living is hateful. I have had enough … I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Your hands are full of blood. On January 26, 1998, a group called The Project for a New American Century wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton that ended with a demand that American foreign policy toward Iraq change from monitoring Iraq’s production of chemical and biological weapons to “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power.” That was written almost four years before terrorists with no connection to Saddam Hussein conducted murderous attacks on September 11. After 9-11, that letter-writing crowd clamored to invade Iraq.
Religious people have done little to nothing to stop the war in Iraq. According to the National Priorities Project, the United States has allocated $743 billion—almost three quarters of a trillion dollars—for this war. More than 4400 U.S. military and civilian personnel have been killed. Tens of thousands more have been scarred with physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds that will require treatment. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and wounded in Iraq—we seem more interested in killing people there than knowing how many are dying. We have blood on our hands.
People are going bankrupt because they can’t pay medical bills. People are losing their homes. Families are suffering across this country. Have we forgotten that during the 1990’s, companies demanded that unions negotiate cuts in employee salaries and pension plans? Have we forgotten that executives took home record earnings while workers lost jobs and couldn’t support their families? We have blood on our hands.
God knows that church-going, hymn-singing, and offering-giving people somehow always find money to build and run prisons but won’t find money for parks, schools, and teachers. God knows that we won’t feed hungry children whose parents are out of work, won’t protect neighborhoods terrorized by violence and drugs, and won’t defend frightened immigrants from racist politicians who claim that immigrants are responsible for our economic problems. God knows we have their blood, sweat, and tears on our hands.
So God says to us, as God said through Isaiah to the people of Judah, “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. Praising God is not about singing and praying and reading the Bible.
· Praising God is about helping families overwhelmed by our economy live with dignity.
· Praising God is about helping children navigate the confusing experience of growing up so they become people with a God-sense about what is true, loving, good, fair, beautiful.
· Praising God is about opposing commercial and governmental policies and practices that oppress vulnerable people, and demanding that vulnerable people be protected, not exploited.
· Praising God is about standing up for immigrants, no matter where they come from or how they came here, because the love of God is not honored when people are oppressed because of their nationality.
· Praising God is about living so that people are not forced to gamble their lives and futures in wars to build an American empire so rich people can make more money while other people suffer heartache and sorrow.
· Praising God is caring about what God cares about so much that we live to do what God wants done in the world.
Praising God is about living like Jesus. Jesus praised God by feeding hungry people, healing sick people, and making down-and-out people his business that he put his life on the line. God expects the same kind of living—Jesus kind of living—from us. This is total praise, daily praise, and living praise that squares with God’s love, God’s truth, and God’s peace.
So let’s praise God by helping our children, teachers, and schools become better. Let’s praise God by helping our struggling neighbors. Let’s praise God by protecting people from mistreatment because they are immigrants. Let’s praise God by making sure workers are paid fairly and can work safely. Let’s praise God by the way we treat the air, water, and soil. Let’s praise God by attending to the elderly and helping the weak become strong. This is what living like Jesus means for us. This is total praise. If we won’t live like this, singing, praying, and preaching doesn’t amount to much with God.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.