Tag: Worship

True Worship and Justice – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9C (Isaiah 1)

Herbert Hoover birthplace. Iowa
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
1 The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
    you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
    you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
15 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.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.
18 Come now, let us argue it out,
    says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be devoured by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
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                The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah don’t have a good reputation. They are often fodder for prophetic comparisons. Jesus compared the towns in Galilee who rejected his message to Sodom (Mt. 11:24). In the preceding two weeks, the lectionary offered us readings from Hosea, who spoke words of judgment and grace to the northern kingdom of Israel. Now the lectionary takes us south to the nation of Judah. Here we find the prophet Isaiah, speaking to the nation of Judah and the city of Jerusalem during the eighth-century reigns of Uzziah and his descendants to the time of Hezekiah (vs. 1). The prophet brings an indictment against the nation of Judah using the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that had been faced divine judgment, as a foil. These two cities have continued their notoriety down to the present. Unfortunately, they have been used by anti-LGBTQ preachers to condemn those whose sexual orientation or gender identity skew differently than the majority population. Such is not the case here in Isaiah. The prophet has something else in mind. That something else is essentially false worship. The concern here is worship that is offered by those who engage in unjust acts.
                 In verse 9, a verse not included in the lectionary, we hear this dire warning: “Had not the Lord of Hosts left us some survivors, we would be like Sodom, another Gomorrah.” It’s a declaration picked up by Paul in the letter to the Romans (Rom. 9:29). I am by inclination something of a universalist. I want to believe that in the end all will be reconciled. Yet, we have these words of judgment present in Scripture. They won’t go away, as if nothing mattered in life. At the same time, this word about survivors serves as a reminder that God is faithful to the covenant, even if the nation is not.  
 
This passage in Isaiah 1 doesn’t start out well. God says to the people whom God designates the “chieftains of Sodom” and the “folk of Gomorrah”: “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” God has had enough of their burnt offerings. God is tired of them trampling God’s courts. Their incense is an offense to God, along with their festivals and worship services. Indeed, we hear through the prophet’s voice the word of the Lord: “And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen” (vs. 15 Tanakh).
 
                What does God require of them, instead of their crime-stained worship services?  God wants them to put away their evil deeds. God wishes them to “learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (vs, 16-17 Tanakh). You hear an echo of this declaration in the words of James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 NRSV). In fact, when we read the book of James, we find important continuity with the prophets. Thus, the prophet speaks not only to his own day but to our own. It is a word to the church that has, unfortunately, tended to support oppressive movements. Slavery was defended in the nineteenth century as biblical. Martin Luther King had to issue his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” because white clergy (like me) counseled against pushing the envelope on civil rights. Isaiah declares that God prefers justice to our sacrifices. Nevertheless, the compassion of God is sufficient to turn things around. Our sins might be as scarlet, but they can be like snow. They will be washed away if we are willing to obey God’s vision for humanity. That vision is one of justice, mercy, compassion. The alternative isn’t good.  
 
                Having heard the indictment and the reminder that God expects justice from God’s people, that does not mean God doesn’t welcome our worship. As Ron Allen notes, “The Priestly God does not object to worship as such. God objects to worship that is not rooted in authentic desire to honor God’s purposes by living in mutual support,” Allen goes on to address the problem of churches blessing uncritical nationalism, as revealed in the slogan “’America First’ even when doing so harms the quality of life of people in other lands, and when doing so will eventually harm the quality of life in the United States” [Connections, 218].  Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the mid-second century CE, addressed this call to connect worship and justice:

Let us offer our complete faith, our devout minds, our obedience, and our continual labors to the Lord that he may be pleased with us. Let us give earthly garments to Christ so that we receive heavenly robes; let us share food and drink in this world so that we may join Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the heavenly banquet. [Quoted in Connections, p. 219].

Cyprian seems to draw in part upon Jesus’ vision of the day of judgment in Matthew 25. Isaiah has a similar vision as well. How might we, living in this age of Trump, when many in the church have embraced a repressive vision for the nation, one that turns away the refugee, neglects the hungry, and encourages narcissism? Isaiah has a warning for us. If we gather for worship but neglect justice, God will not be pleased. With that in mind, the better way is to walk in obedience to the God who demands justice.   

 

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First Fruits of Liberation – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1C (Deuteronomy 26)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

26 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

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          We have begun the Lenten journey. In the reading from the Gospel, Jesus has begun his sojourn in the Wilderness, where he will be tested (Luke 4:1-11). The people of Israel had been a wandering people and they two were tested.
          The people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. That is the scriptural message, whether we take it literally or not. As the people of Israel draw near the river that separates them from the Promised Land, they are given instructions by God through Moses. The word we hear in Deuteronomy 26 envisions the people settling in, putting down roots, planting crops, and then harvesting the crops. With this assumption in mind, the call for first fruits is given. When the time comes to beginning harvesting the crops, the people are to take the first fruits of that harvest, put it in a basket and then bring it to the designated place where the priest will receive it. In doing this the people honor the God who liberated them from bondage, the God who was with them throughout the years of wandering and is now with them as they settle into life in the Land.
As we begin the Lenten journey, might we hear this word that comes to us from the Hebrew Bible as a call to worship and a call to stewardship? There is a liturgy involved, which reminds us that stewardship is an act of worship and not merely the means of paying bills. While it is a call to stewardship, it is also a call to share the proceeds of the harvest with others, most specifically the Levites (priestly class) and the “aliens who reside among you,” the bounty that God provides. Stewardship, it seems has something to do with sharing. It’s a concept we were supposed to learn in kindergarten, if not before, but a concept that is easily forgotten. Thus, instructions must be given.
As the offerings are brought to the altar, the people make a declaration of faith. They are called upon to remember from whence they came. Who am I? That is a question that continue to get asked. It’s a question that leads us to do genealogical work and check our DNA. In this confession, the people acknowledge that “A wandering Aramean is my ancestor.” The people of Israel, having finally found a place to settle in, are reminded by this confession that they have been a nomadic people. Their DNA is rooted in the tribes and people of Aram, which is the land of Syria and Southeastern Turkey.
So, who is this ancestor? Is it Abraham and Sarah? Yes. Is it Isaac and Rebecca? Yes. Is it Jacob and his family? Yes. In fact, it’s Jacob and his family who went down to Egypt and settled, only to discover that there was to be no security in that land. The initial benefits of living in Egypt proved fleeting. In time the wandering Aramean and family, though small in number, became a great nation. That led the Egyptians to feel threatened. They feared that a time would come when this tribe could gain enough strength to change the nature of Egyptian society. Does that sound familiar? Could it be a reason why some wish to build walls to keep “those people” from adding to their numbers? Is it a reason why there is a growing resistance to welcoming refugees to our shores? One scholar has even translated the opening declaration as “A wandering Syrian refugee is my ancestor.” So, as we contemplate this reading, could there be something of Egypt in our souls?
The confession remembers that Jacob’s descendants were treated harshly. They were sentenced to hard labor. When the descendants of this wandering Aramean cried out to God, their voices were heard. God saw the people being oppressed, and so God acted to liberate the people, bringing them into the Promised Land. Now, it is time to honor that God by bringing offerings to God as a sign of gratitude.
This reading from Deuteronomy speaks of a land that will be filled with milk and honey, a land of abundance. The confession serves as a reminder that the people of Israel are themselves immigrants and descendants of immigrants. They may have found a home, where they can settle in, put down roots, plant crops, but it is not a land to be possessed. It is a land to be received as a gift of God, to be shared. William Greenway writes of this concern: “by anchoring Israelite identity in an immigrant, a ‘wandering Aramean’; by reminding the Israelites that they were themselves poor, marginalized, oppressed strangers in a strange land; and by urging them to share their bounty ‘together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you’ (so, no ritual or ethnic sectarianism; all attend to the basic needs of and break bread with all).” [Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery & Cynthia L. Rigby. Connections:A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 1143-1146)].  Do we remember from whence we came? Do we come to the altar bearing expressions of first fruits, or what is left over from our abundance? Are willing to share, and what does that mean?
As you read this confession, you may notice that the person is to speak this confession as if experiencing the whole. This is a community confession that identifies the person with the community, and not just the present community, but the historical community. One’s current identity is rooted in one’s ancestry. What happened to Jacob and his descendants matters. We who are part of the family of Jesus, by adoption, have been brought in to this ancient tribe. We too are called to bring first fruits and acknowledge that our ancestors are wanderers, and thus we too should tread lightly on the land that is not ours but belongs to God. With this reminder that we are in many ways, spiritually, on journeys that involve a lot of wandering. We may have settled in and put down roots, but it is important that we continue to honor the one who liberated us, and we do this by being good stewards of God’s abundance.
                 

 

God’s Dwelling Place – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14B

God’s Dwelling Place – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14B

1 Kings 8:22-30,41-43 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. 23 He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, 24 the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. 25 Therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, ‘There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.’ 26 Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.
27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! 28 Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; 29 that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. 30 Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.
41 “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name 42 —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.
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                God is everywhere. God is above us, around us, perhaps below us. Whether we feel that presence or not, we confess by faith that God is there. We call it omnipresence. If God is omnipresent, then why bother with buildings? Why not worship out in nature? Many people claim to do just that. In the story of Israel, it is said that God moved around with the people, dwelling in a tent. When the people finally settled down, David wanted to build a more permanent house for God. After all, David had a nice house. Shouldn’t God have one also? The word sent to David through Nathan the prophet was that no such request had ever been made by God (2 Samuel 7).  God was fine with the tent! But, the Ark of the Covenant wouldn’t rest a tent forever. According to the story-line, the job of house-building would fall to his heir. Here in 1 Kings 8, David’s son and heir Solomon gets to dedicate that house, the temple of God. Apparently, God gave into the need of the people to have a more permanent space to approach God. Nonetheless, the question is, does God need a house?
                When Solomon builds this house for God, Solomon is quite aware that God is bigger than any house, no matter how grand. In fact, heaven itself cannot contain God. Nonetheless, the Temple is built, and it serves as a sign of God’s presence with the people. The first lesson from the lectionary, continues the story of Solomon, the successor to David (his son by Bathsheba). In the previous week’s reading, Solomon succeeds his father, consolidates his power, and famously prays for wisdom— “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” God responds positively to this request (1 Kings 3:3-14). Having established his rule, Solomon has turned to building a house for God, the house promised to David, but which David would not build.
 
                The question for us concerns not only the process of building Solomon’s Temple, but its meaning for today. There is a debate underway as to the spiritual value of church buildings. Why expend money on something like a building when that money could be used for other things. After all, many church buildings are used only a few days a week at most. Then there are debates as to the form of a building. What is its purpose? Is it designed to reflect the sacred, the sacramental, or is it more utilitarian? In the medieval period, churches great and small were built to remind the people of the sacred. Visit a cathedral in Europe, and you might stand in awe. These churches were often built, not in a day but over several centuries. I am in the process of writing a chapter of a book on sacred architecture during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Reading about these buildings, and the design purpose is illuminating. They were often designed both to tell stories and to reflect the tastes of their patrons. Then again, there are those plain style churches that marked New England, buildings that were designed not for sacraments but for preaching.  The same is true today. Some build auditoriums that are no different than a concert hall. Perhaps lacking any symbolism, even a cross. Others may still desire to build sanctuaries that cry out the sacramental and the sacred. Preaching may be still central, but so might the Table.  Still, the question remains as to whether God requires a building so that we might encounter God?
 
                In Solomon’s prayer dedicating the Temple, he recognizes that God is bigger than the building. However, he also understands the power of the Temple as a sign of that presence. Solomon prays that God will be attentive to the prayers either offered within the Temple, or toward the Temple. Why? Because God has placed God’s name on that Temple. The name of God, in ancient Judaism, was sacred. It is why one should not take God’s name in vain (that means more than cussing). Jesus spoke of this—don’t swear by the Temple, which should give us pause about using the Bible as a device upon which we swear to tell the truth or fulfill an office (Matt. 5:33-37). So, be careful how you speak and pray, so that you do not take God’s name in vain.
                Returning to Solomon’s prayer and the way in which we approach the sacred, what role does the building play? What role the furnishings? There is a move today for preachers to abandon the pulpit or replace the wooden or stone pulpit with a clear plastic one. It is said that such a move makes one more transparent or real. I wonder, however, if this move makes the preacher the focus rather than the word delivered. In other words, is not the pulpit more than a stand upon which we put our notes? Could it be that it is a reminder that the word spoken is not just that of the preacher, but is a sacred word? Thus, the pulpit is a sacred symbol. The same could be said about the Table. I’m all for understanding the Table as a gathering place rather than an altar. I believe that fits with Jesus’ institution. But it too provides a symbol of God’s presence. That does seem to fit with Solomon’s prayer. Solomon asks that God heed the prayers offered in or toward the Temple, for ours is a faith that has a material element to it. In fact, isn’t that the core Christian message? That the Word of God became incarnate, dwelling among us.
                While the building doesn’t contain God, the building has a message to send. It may speak of the sacred. Or, it might suggest that church is more like a community gathering, with music and speaker. It’s religious, but not necessarily “sacred.”
 
                We don’t have all of 1 Kings in front of us. Once again, the lectionary creators have abridged the conversation, with the focus on Solomon’s prayer. While not all the prayer is included, it is appropriate to note that the “foreigner” is mentioned. That word is especially poignant right now, when a nativist spirit has taken hold in the United States. Even Christians have embraced the fear of the other. Yet, here we have a prayer that offers welcome to the foreigner. This is a prayer asking God to bless the foreigner who comes to Jerusalem to pray. Heed this prayer, the people pray. God responds positively!
 
                The question here is whether God needs a house. It appears that God may not need a house, but God has chosen to put God’s name on a house so that the people might have a tangential reminder of their connection with God. Thus, it helps us spiritually to have that tangible reminder, that a church building provides, especially one that is not completely utilitarian!

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.