Bound or Free?

Scripture: Luke 13:10-17

 

Nothing Special?

On the face of it, this story of healing and controversy has little to draw our attention. Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath again, and someone calls him out on it again, and the narrative just moves on. We’ve already done the whole “Lord of the Sabbath” thing in Luke 6:5, so this feels a bit like a faint echo of that more majestic response.

Couple that with the fact that these days we are generally a bit uncomfortable with Jesus doing miraculous things, since we don’t see the same thing happening around us now. “That was a long time ago,” some say. “God doesn’t work that way anymore,” some say. And so we are sometimes quick to dismiss what we believe ourselves to be incapable of replicating.

All that means that we aren’t paying too much attention to this story. Which is unfortunate, because it may be one of the most important healing stories recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Why is it so important, you ask? Because (I believe), it more fully connects Luke’s important themes of Sabbath and freedom than any other healing story recorded in Luke.

Lord of the Sabbath

Let’s talk first about Sabbath. If we’ve already read the first twelve chapters of Luke (which is how the gospels were intended to be read—from beginning to end like a book), then we would have already picked up on how the Sabbath is an important day for the Jews of Jesus’ day, and how refocusing the Sabbath is an important part of Luke’s gospel. Jesus does a lot of teaching on the Sabbath, and he is frequently doing it in local synagogues wherever he finds himself. But Jesus also defies Sabbath rules as defined by the Pharisees when he gleans grain to eat, or when he heals those with physical ailments or demons. Even Jesus’ death later in the gospel will be complicated by the Sabbath.

Early on in these confrontations, Jesus responds with the now-familiar line: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Lk 6:5). In telling that same story, Mark’s gospel also records Jesus as saying “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27).

So as we read here, we see another Sabbath healing, another Sabbath controversy, ……yadda yadda Lord of the Sabbath. And we think that is all there is for us here. But there is more.

Liberation

You see, it may well be that the primary theme of the Gospel of Luke is liberation—it is that God (in no small part through Jesus) paves the way for us to experience true freedom, freedom that allows us to live into God’s desires for each of us and all of creation.

Luke (and Jesus) set the tone for all this at the very beginning of Luke’s gospel. In chapter 4, on the very first Sabbath mentioned in the Gospel of Luke and before Jesus begins his ministry, Jesus reads these words aloud from the scroll of Isaiah while attending synagogue:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).

After reading these words, Jesus tells his hearers that he is the fulfillment of this prophecy. And then he begins going about and living it out.

He teaches: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20)

When disciples of John the Baptist come to inquire of Jesus, he has them shadow him for a while so they can see for themselves. Then he says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22).

Jesus proclaims—quite literally—the year of release, the year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor.

But we should not think of Jesus as a miracle worker. Nor is he a revolutionary, per se. He brings instead liberty, breaking us out of the prison of our sin and circumstance so that we might know God and live more fully as the human beings God created us to be. We cannot live thusly without being free, because we cannot be free when slavery robs our choice.

Those victimized by the cycles of violence need liberation in order to break free and be able to choose God.

Those victimized by the cycles of poverty need liberation in order to break free and be able to choose God.

Those victimized by degenerative physical conditions need liberation in order to break free and be able to choose God.

All of them need to experience some kind of release before they are able to experience anything more, and especially anything as mysteriously wonderful as the life of Christ. It is (I believe) much as envisioned by Abraham Maslow’s concept of Hierarchy of Needs. No one, whose basic needs of food or safety are under constant threat, is much capable of attending to deep inward reflection or contemplation of God’s love. You become a slave to your need. When your being is threatened, your energies and resources are devoted to protecting and preserving yourself. For those victims of violence, poverty, or degenerative physical conditions, attending to anything but the immediate and crushing circumstances of your life is nearly impossible. This does not mean that they are in any way less human. They have only been treated less humanely.

 The Ignorance of the Healthy

And it is frequently in this way that I believe the powers of darkness work to keep us from growing with God. It is why, in our scripture reading, this woman is said to have been bound by Satan. In keeping her hurting, in constant pain, and shamefully disfigured, Satan has effectively distracted her from pursuing God. But thank goodness God was not distracted from pursuing her.

For eighteen long, painful years, she has been thus distracted. And over that time, “she has become accustomed, if not resigned, to her long and serious illness… For eighteen years this unnamed woman must strain to see the sun, the sky, and the stars. For eighteen years she has become accustomed to looking down or just slightly ahead but never upward with difficulty. For eighteen years her world has been one of turning from side to side to see what those who stand upright can see with just a glance. She is used to this, and no one questions her fate” (Townes, Feasting, 382).

It has been eighteen years, the synagogue leader likely knows. And like many a healthy person might, he thinks she can easily enough wait another day. No need to break the rules. No need to defy religious custom. If she has already waited 6,570 days, why can’t she wait one more?

Oh, the ignorance of the healthy……

Some in our church family—including some of you present—live with chronic pain. Some have physical ailments that might well be even more severe than that of this woman. And some of you have battled your condition much longer than eighteen years.

What if you could respond to this synagogue leader’s question: “She’s waited so long already; can’t she wait another day?” ——What would you say?

I imagine you would say—with the loudest, strongest voice you could muster up: “NO!!! She definitely can not.”

You would say this because you know something that this woman knows and Jesus knows, but the healthy synagogue leader most certainly does not—This woman is in bondage. Her affliction holds her back. It beats her down. It holds her captive and keeps her from living life, from doing the things she wants to do. It isolates her from friends and family—even her church. It is as much bondage as if she were in prison, for that is how it often feels: You are serving a life sentence.

Jesus Knows

Jesus knows. There may not be another human being in all of history that knows quite what you are up against—who knows your struggles, who knows the darkness, and who knows the isolation and shame. But Jesus knows.

And even more than knowing, Jesus acts. The woman never asks to be healed—she may well have lost all hope of healing—but Jesus calls her over and speaks words of liberty to her. Putting his hands on her, he breaks through the barriers that keep her a social outcast and he draws her back into the center of a community. In doing so, she is made whole again.

But healing is not enough for Jesus. He also confronts this callous synagogue leader who would make the woman a victim yet again, rebuking him for his lack of love. And Jesus even dares to suggest that the Sabbath is the perfect day for liberation. He actually invokes the Sabbath tradition to support his action here.

Creation Sabbath vs. Exodus Sabbath

The thing about the Sabbath is that there are actually two Sabbath traditions in the Bible. The first, found early in Genesis 2 after the first story of creation, is rooted in God’s own actions. Having finished the creation of the world, God rests from the work of creation to bless and consecrate the Sabbath. On account of this, as we read in the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, the Sabbath is to be a day of complete rest, with no work whatsoever being performed.

But the other Sabbath tradition suggests something different. Its genesis is found in Deuteronomy 5, where God claims the Sabbath is a time of remembrance. In Deut 5:15, God says, “Remember what it was like when you were a slave in Egypt. Then with overwhelming power I brought you out of there. That’s why I have commanded you to observe the Sabbath each week.” So the Deuteronomy tradition of the Sabbath requires the day be observed and kept holy in recognition of their release from their slavery in Egypt. In this tradition, Sabbath is about remembering liberation and God’s “overwhelming power” to free us from bondage.

It is this second Sabbath tradition that Jesus hearkens back to now. Since the Sabbath is about remembering how God liberated our ancestors from slavery in Egypt, is it not the perfect day for a person to be liberated from their own bonds of slavery?

What Jesus suggests is something like our doing a baptism on Easter Sunday. It just makes sense to couple the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus with an observance of the symbolic death, burial, and resurrection of one who is publicly committing to following Jesus. As Jesus begins his resurrected life, so the baptismal candidate “begins” living a newly resurrected life in community as well.

The Sabbath, Jesus instructs, is about liberation. It is about breaking free of the bonds that hold us back and reaching forward to the new life God desires for us.

Hard Left?

But in our own Sabbath-like traditions, we are still frequently deceived into elevating rules over people and emphasizing ritual over transformation. In the eyes of so many in our world, Sunday worship services are anything but freeing. Over the last 50 years or more, we have put so much emphasis on “right behavior” in church that most of the non-church-going population thinks worship is about following cumbersome rules and being inconvenienced for an hour a week. It is no wonder that they are not drawn to us.

None of this happened because we are or were bad people. Quite the opposite, really. We felt the awesomeness of our God. We believed in the sacredness of worship. We acknowledged our responsibility in preserving the tradition we have received.

And so we, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, set about to do just that.

With everything good in our heart, we decided the best way to teach our children of the sacredness of the space of worship was to force them to be still and quiet when they were there, even when there weren’t any services going on.

We decided that the best way to keep pure the tradition we have received was to limit contact with other church traditions.

We decided the best way to educate people of the tradition was to reinforce that tradition through repetition. So we did not require anyone to think for themselves; we controlled interpretation by giving an answer to every question.

More or less like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we built a hedge around our tradition because we loved it and we didn’t want to trample it—even accidentally. But like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we built a hedge so large and thick that no one could see what was in the middle anymore. No one could see the tradition we loved. No one could see the light of God in the middle. No one could see anything except a hedge.

Which made us look like nothing more than gardeners cultivating a hedge. And some of us have been doing this pruning for so long I wonder if even we have begun to forget what this was all about. I wonder if some of us have begun thinking it’s all a contest in growing the best hedge.

But God is still there. The traditions we love are still deeply embedded in there somewhere. But an unbeliever can see nothing except the obstructions we put up between them and God. Our Sabbath—our worship—is seen as archaic and lifeless. Our churches are seen as places that take and take and take—time, commitments, money……

But this should not be so. Our Sabbath—our worship—is to be a place of liberation.

That is why I believe God is behind the changes in our religious landscape. Because God and Jesus and the story of Luke is still alive in the world—God is still working to liberate us from slavery, to liberate us from ourselves.

As church membership and attendance drop around the country, as many churches are struggling to make their budgets each year, as many communities of faith are even forced to close their doors—we are tempted to believe that the powers of darkness have gotten the upper hand. But I don’t think so.

I think God is tearing down the hedges we have built around God and our traditions. I think God is removing the barriers we have built—barriers that were built in good faith, but have since become obstacles to God’s mission. I think God is demolishing the walls that have begun to block the light of God.

I think God is liberating us from ourselves, inviting us to move closer, to look deeper, and to encounter anew the raw closeness of God and God’s love.

Berliner Mauer

I used to do a lot of reading and research into modern German history—say, the 1920’s through about 1970. There’s a lot of really neat stuff that even today has yet to be translated into English, making it off limits to the average person. But one of the things that has always captivated me is the Berlin Wall.

I think origin of my interest was my vivid memories of the day the Berlin Wall came down. Among other things, I remember a teacher moved to tears when she discovered the news. I wonder now if she was of German descent and had relatives behind the Wall.

The biggest discovery I made about the Wall in those days continues to haunt my mind. The most common explanation offered up for its being built is that it kept East German citizens from getting out of the country. Therefore, they were completely under the authority of their government who controlled everything—groceries, petrol, utilities, housing, etc. In other words, these textbooks claimed the wall was built to keep people in.

But the earliest documents I read described a motive entirely inside-out from this–and far more honorable. The aim of the wall was to protect the people from corrupting influences and to preserve the ideology. In other words, it was designed to keep bad people out; it was intended to protect the convictions the government and many of the people held dear. But what may have begun with the good intentions of protecting and preserving ended up being a system of bondage and oppression. A haunting warning for future generations, to be sure.

Wrapping Up…

I tell these stories and ask these questions because I am dead serious about following the cause of Christ. If being a disciple of Jesus means I must take up my cross, abandon my family, let the dead bury their own dead, give all I have to the poor, have no place to lay my head, and the like—then it must also require me to be willing to give up even my ideas of right religious practice in order to follow where God is moving.

Humility is not a quality often associated with Christians anymore. We claim to know what we know absolutely, and we will fight to the death with anyone who believes otherwise. Some churches even encourage their members to leverage and destroy any relationships they have in misguided attempts at evangelism.

But Jesus always values relationships over rules. He always chooses people over ritual. Like God, Jesus is persistent in meeting people where they are, rather than forcing them to do it his way first. And if we are serious about being called “Christians,” we’re going to have to start doing all that too.

That cross is just a chunk of brass. That statue is just a piece of plaster. This space is just a building to gather in. It is more than that, but it is just that, all the same. Because what matters—what truly matters—is people. At least, that’s what matters to God and Jesus.

If we can’t understand that, then we won’t be able to get along with each other. And we won’t look much like followers of Jesus. We will look like gardeners trying to repair a hedge planted a long time ago. We will look like custodians of a museum of religious artifacts and language. We will look like a synagogue leader trying to drive away the liberating power of God because it does not follow our rules.

We will be slaves to ourselves, rather than free people in Christ and liberators of the world with God. If even an ox may be freed to drink water, why do we keep so many bound and without access to the living water of Jesus Christ?

Bound or free? Slavery or liberation? The choice is yours. The future is God’s.

A Love Story

Last week, we had guitar virtuoso David Smart helping to lead us in worship. For all of you who weren’t here—you truly missed a treat as David shared his musical talents and pushed us, entertained us, inspired us, and let God move through him.

Before the service last week, someone asked me whether I was going to play my guitar with David and do a duet. I assured that person that once they heard David play, they would understand that I had no business even looking at a guitar while David was in the house. And he did not let down.

When I got home, I saw my guitar in its case by the wall. And I couldn’t decide if hearing David play inspired me to practice more, or if now I should give it up completely—given that I will never be able to play like that.

So guess my surprise when God told me I needed to bring the guitar this week to worship. And guess how much I protested. We had words—God and I. But God won. God always wins, eventually.

And anyway, if nothing else, my playing today will remind you of how awesome David was last week, and I trust you will express your gratitude for that to God—even as you pray for me and my improvement.

Sing Me a Love Song, by BarlowGirl

The tension is thick in the air Making it hard to see
I fear what is to come And what will become of me
I say a prayer help me not run away Will you please hold me

And sing me a love song again Say the words that heal my heart
Sing me a love song and then Let your words remind me who I am

You’ve never failed me before Why do I feel betrayed
If I close my heart to you now The darkness would have its way
I crave your voice help me not fall away Will you please hold me

And sing me a love song again Say the words that heal my heart
Sing me a love song and then Let your words remind me who I am

‘Cause you are all I need And all that I want is you with me
You are all I need And all that I want is you with me

So sing me a love song again Say the words that heal my heart
Sing me a love song and then Let your words remind me who I am

Scripture: Isaiah 5:1-7

 

Love Stories

“Let me tell you a love story……”

You hear that, and you just settle in a little bit, don’t you? Everyone loves a good love story, and the best thing about a good love story is it doesn’t matter how it ends. Unrequited love, tragic death, “happily ever after”—they are all fair game, and usually equally well received.

Love stories just draw us in. This past week I encountered a moving love story told by a young man with severe OCD—obsessive compulsive disorder (“OCD”). His story, I warn you in advance, is a tragedy.

He spoke of his anxiety—locking doors 17 times, flipping light switches 13, avoiding cracks in the sidewalk…… And he spoke of his nightmares: germs sneaking into his skin, awful car accidents, being murdered because he forgot to lock the door, the house burning down because of lights left on……

But the first time he saw her (he says), everything in his head went quiet—all the tics, all the images—it all just disappeared. And at first it was all great—she liked that he kissed her goodbye 16 times, and that she felt safe because he definitely locked that door. But then things started going wrong. She said he was taking up too much of her time. She told him it was all a mistake.

But how, he asked those hearing his story, how can it be a mistake that he doesn’t feel the need to wash his hands after touching her? “I want her back so bad,” he says, “that I leave the door unlocked. I leave the lights on.”

Somehow, his story warms my heart and breaks it at the same time. Maybe that is why the tragic love story seems to be the most common of all.

Love Songs

And of course equal in pull to the love story is the love song. Since the invention of music, I believe we humans have been singing love songs. And many (if not most) of them are tragedies.

On the last day of the Mission Summit in Overland Park, I brought my guitar. I knew I would have a bit of downtime, and the plan was to rendezvous with a friend and play some bluegrass together, partly to draw some attention to his booth in the exhibit hall. Before long though, some other exhibiters were inviting us to come to their booths so they could sing along. Thus we became traveling minstrels of a bluegrass persuasion, something I’m not sure ever existed before that moment.

Anyway, one exhibiter told us it was his anniversary. His wife was at a different booth on the other side of the hall. Would we be willing to stroll up and sing a love song to her? At this point we were already feeling sufficiently goofy, so we agreed. We just needed to find a song we both knew.

“Oh, I know!” One of us said. “Sittin’ on Top of the World”!

It was in the spring, one sunny day
My good gal left me, Lord she went away
Now she’s gone and I don’t worry
Cause I’m sitting on top of the world.

Well that didn’t work. What about “Love on a Mountain”?

My Papa used to talk about the young days
When he and Mama first settled there
He would talk about the love of the mountains
That he and Mama shared together there

It was about here that we remembered this was a song about the singer’s dead parents. Probably not ideal for our purposes. Oh! I’ve got it!

I’m going away to leave you, love, I’m going away for a while
But I’ll return to you some time, If I go ten thousand miles

The storms are on the ocean; The heavens may cease to be
This world may lose its motion if I prove false to thee

Then I stopped playing. This song starts with promise, but also ends with grief and mourning. “How about this one,” my fellow minstrel asked?

Don’t that road look rough and rocky?
Don’t that sea look wide and deep?
Don’t my baby look the sweetest
When she’s in my arms asleep?

Oh yeah. That song is the lament of a husband leaving his wife even though he loves her. How about this?

If death is worth than crying because God took you away
Why do I long each day to be gone
Life without you is worse than the grave

Nice sentiment, but she’s already dead in that one. He’s wishing he could go to heaven to be with her.

I walk the floor, Sweetheart, and wonder:
Have you found somebody new?
And will they always make you happy,
And love you, Darlin’, like I do?

Unrequited love. She left him this time.

We began to get desperate, trying to think of any song with women and love.

Mama spoke to me last night. She gave to me some good advise.
She said, Son you ought to quite this old rambling around
And marry you a sweet loving wife
But there’s more pretty girls than one……

Oi! That’s really not going to work. Ooh! Long Black Veil is a love song!

Ten years ago on a cold dark night
There was someone killed ‘neath the town hall light
There were few at the scene and the all did agree
That the man who ran looked a lot like me

The judge said, “Son, what is your alibi?”
“If you were somewhere else then you won’t have to die.”
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life
I had been in the arms of my best friend’s……wife……

Yeeeeah…… Probably not the best song on an anniversary.

I don’t think we ever found a bluegrass love song that didn’t end up involving death, unrequited love, separation forever, or your best friend’s wife.

It reminds me of that old joke. What do you get if you play a country song backwards? You get your house back. You get your truck back. You get your wife back. You get your dog back……

Isaiah’s Love Song

The love song sung here in Isaiah is also a tragedy. It is the story of unrequited love. It is actually the same love story told in the old bluegrass song “Sitting on Top of the World.” In the bluegrass song, the guy sings of his girl leaving him. But as the song progresses, he gets more and more upset about his girl running off. By the end of the song, he is telling her never to come back. With each verse comes the refrain: “Now she’s gone and I don’t worry, ’cause I’m sitting on top of the world.” But the repetition and the blue chords used suggest (to me) the singer is really trying to convince himself he’s better off without her.

The same sort of sadness is found in the song of our scripture reading. Isaiah, speaking for God, announces that he has a love song—a ballad—to sing—a statement that was as sure to draw an audience then as now. The song speaks of a man and a vineyard. In hope and love of what could be, the man works furiously to prepare the soil, ensuring it is fertile through sweat and backbreaking labor. He buys the best plants available and tenderly plants them. He builds protection for the vineyard to keep away birds, thieves, and other dangers. He painstakingly builds a winepress so all will be ready at harvest time. But all was for naught. The vines never produced anything edible.

And then, as the story in our Bible is told, the man interrupts the song: “What more could I have done? Didn’t I do everything I could? Am I somehow in the wrong? How did this happen?” As Abraham Heschel has written, “[the man] feels hurt at the thought of abandoning the vineyard He rejoiced in, and in which He had placed so much hope and care” (The Prophets, 107).

But the man doesn’t wait for the answer to his questions—he knows what the people will say: There’s nothing more that could have been done.

So here’s what I’m going to do then, the gardener says. I’m going to let it go to ruin. No longer will I protect it. No longer will I work its soil and keep weeds at bay. Why continue to invest in something that never yields results?

Here’s what the parable means, Isaiah says. You are the vineyard. God is the gardener. I have tenderly and lovingly nursed you. “[You] should have produced the good grapes of Justice and Righteousness, but instead [you] produced Bloodshed and a Scream” (http://www.thecommongood.org/blogs/detail/1216/).

But just as with the gardener in Isaiah’s song, and just as with the singer in “Sitting on Top of the World,” I hear some sadness and grief even in this interpretation. “Everything God did for that vineyard…—every hole dug, every rock removed, every selection made, every planting done, every protection established…and every watchful expectation held—was love’s eager work. And when it all ended in acres of stinking fruit, the rage that followed was love’s other voice. Anger, as C. S. Lewis said, is the fluid love bleeds when you cut it” (Duke, Feasting, 341-3).

They have indeed cut God, and God indeed bleeds too.

But like all wounds, even love can heal from the deepest cut.

So this may be the end of this song, but it is not the end of the vineyard. God’s wounds heal from the cuts inflicted upon God’s love, and the parable of the vineyard is picked up later in the book of Isaiah. God causes a shoot to begin to grow out of a seemingly dead stump.

Isaiah 27:2-6

And then, in Isa 27, we are invited to take up the love song of the vineyard once again—this time singing with God of a vineyard most fruitful. [Read vv.3-6]

There will be life in this vineyard again.

This is the good news: God hasn’t stopped planting and tending vineyards, even those that have caused God pain. Anger fades. Pain subsides. Wounds heal. And the Divine Gardener can be found back at work, coaxing new shoots from old stumps and working soil that has long been beaten down and knotted with thorns.

And God hasn’t stopped singing love songs either. The one I like the best is the song about a son named Jesus, who ran into the burning building of this world in an attempt to save everyone he loved. He didn’t make it out alive, but those he saved continue to croon ballads of his love—even to this day.

Reminders

We sing these songs—and God sings these songs—because we need to be reminded of God’s love and we need to remind others. Sometimes we can hear something over and over and we still miss the point. But in that tender moment when we are open to hearing, we will not remember unless someone is singing.

This book—the Bible—is a love story. It is the story of a God who wants to be in relationship with us. It is the story of a God who loves us. It is the story of a God who fights for us and meets us where we are, even when we just want to run away and hide.

It is also the story of failure—mostly ours. It is the story of grape vines that don’t produce, of spouses who are unfaithful, of blind men picking specks from the eyes of others, of church members who can’t get along with each other, and of following the powers of this world instead of God.

But it is also the story of the relentless, untiring, tenacious pursuit of us by the God who loves us, and who is willing to spare no expense to fold us into that love.

I Don’t Like Mommy!

This past week, my two-year-old daughter ate a bit too much fruit and got diarrhea. Despite our efforts, her poor bottom got terribly chapped and painful. After pooping in a diaper (we quickly got tired of cleaning up dirty panties), my wife couldn’t get her to hold still so she could clean her up. It just hurt too badly. I had to hold my daughter down while my wife cleaned her and put medicine on her wounded skin. All the while she is screaming. My daughter that is.

My wife tried to pick her up to comfort her when all was said and done. It didn’t go well. She screamed for daddy. My daughter that is. So I picked her up, took her into the quiet of our bedroom, held her to my chest, and spoke to her softly of how much she is loved. In a few moments, she picked up her head, began wiping her eyes and sobbed: I don’t like Mommy!

I smiled. But not because it was funny. I smiled because my love for her was breaking through me in a way I could not control. And I spoke again to her of love, emphasizing her mommy’s love for her:

Sometimes (I told her) mommies and daddies have to clean a boo boo and put on medicine in order for it to heal. And sometimes that hurts. But it won’t heal unless we do it.

Does Mommy love you? ——[sobbing] Yeah.

Do you think Mommy wanted to hurt you? ——[still sobbing] No.

Do you think your bottom will get better because Mommy loves you enough to put medicine on, even though it hurt? ——[sobbing a little less] Yes.

Do you love Mommy? ——[wiping tears] Yes.

Daddy? (she asked me), Mommy make my boo boo better? —-Yes, honey. She does.

OK (my daughter said). I get down now.

And that was it. It was not my love that she needed—she knew she had that. She needed to hear a love song, to be told the story of her mother’s love for her.

Some of you may need to hear a love song today too, so this is sort of where I am ending today too. As the Bible and our tradition remind us of the love story between God and us. As we tell it to each other, adding our own chapters. As we plead for God to “Sing us a love song again.” And as we sing for one another.

Let us remember this love story. Let us sing this love song.

Walking It Out

Scripture: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

Me Likey Worship

I like worship. I like coming together as God’s people and playing music, singing songs, reading scripture, praying, and everything else. Well, sometimes the sermons can be a bit much, but you know……

When it comes to music, I like the BIG organ pieces and the lively pieces for brass quintet, the delicate string point-and-counterpoint and the booming rock melodies……

I even like the ancient stuff of worship that we don’t do that often as Baptists: responsive readings, praying the Lord’s Prayer together, singing the Psalms, foot-washing, gathering just for prayer, and the like.

I think many of us like worship, which is probably why we defend our worship practices like a mama bear protecting a cub.

Fiddle a little with worship, and a pastor could soon find herself in a pinch:

  • Stray too far from a normal communion service and you’ll probably hear about it
  • Choose unfamiliar hymns to sing and you’ll never stop hearing about it
  • Do a little reordering or suggest a different service time, and it could well be the last thing you do

Sometimes, I fear, we worship our worship. I mean, we start to get tunnel vision to other ways of worship and think that this way is the only way something can be done. If (then) this is the only way it can be done, then it must also be the way God wants it done. And if it is the way God wants it done……well then, I’ll drive you out of town on a rail before I let you change it.

We can worship our worship. We can forget that worship is not about a fixed set of actions or rituals, but about praising the God who made us and gives us life. It is about dipping into the life-giving water of the Spirit as sinners seeking to be transformed by God’s presence and love.

We forget that worship—as some of you have heard me say before—is more jazz than classical. Worship is not about playing the notes on the page as perfectly as possible. It is improvisation. We move, and God moves. Or God moves, and then we move. And so on. Back and forth. Forth and back. Each adapting, each responding. Each playing a few more notes before switching off again to see what the other adds to the music.

This kind of improvisation can easily happen with any order of worship—But I do think it must begin with an order of worship of some kind.

Back many, many, many years ago when I was a trumpet performer and playing jazz regularly, we played off what are called lead sheets. These contained melody, lyrics, and harmony, but they must be transposed to the right key for your instrument. When we were learning new songs, these were where we started. But as we learned the song, its key changes, melody, and harmony, we would begin to deviate from what was on the page. Add a little riff here. Switch the lead back and forth there. Always listening to one another. Always adapting.

In this way, our order of worship is like a lead sheet. It tells us where we are going, what the major key changes are, and the basic elements of worship. But it doesn’t tell us what will actually happen.

Doing worship like this may not be popular, and I do know why: all this is hard. Because it takes more trust in the Spirit than most of us can muster up, even in our Sunday finest. Because it takes more trust in one another than we are willing to give, even among our church family. And because it takes us out of a position of control, and Lord knows we human beings like to be in control.

We like our worship. We protect our worship. We try to control our worship so it will be done right……right? And all that may explain why we continue to be so challenged by these words in Isaiah.

Isaiah’s message to his hearers cannot be missed: God hates our worship. God hates our sacrifices and our festivals, our offerings and our prayers—everything.

I think our immediate response to these words is the same as that of the original hearers: Geez. How is it possible for God to hate something so precious to us?!?

Sodom & Gomorrah

Now admittedly, these words are not addressed directly to us—they are addressed to another place, time, people, and religion. But yet they are found among the texts we claim to be inspired, and authoritative for faith and the practice of the Christian life. And they are just as edgy and cutthroat in exposing our misguided tendencies as they were for the original hearers.

Sodom & Gomorrah are long past by the time Isaiah speaks these words, so God is not speaking to those cities as much as about them. They frame an analogy that God is making—that ancient Israel is walking the same path as Sodom & Gomorrah, falling guilty of the same sins.

Now somewhere along the way we’ve gotten it into our minds that the sins of Sodom had to do with sexuality, but almost every reference to Sodom & Gomorrah in the OT has to do with sins of injustice: robbing the poor, taking advantage of the widow, mistreating the traveler, and so on. And such is the case here in Isaiah.

We read in v.15: “When you stretch forth your hands [that is, in acts of worship]…your hands are full of blood.”

The answer to how they got that way is found in the remedy prescribed by God: “Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (v.17). A failure to do these things is the cause of their bloody hands, and if they resume a practice of God’s justice, God will again accept their worship.

Here, God through Isaiah is saying that these are the offenses for which Sodom was judged, and (by analogy) these are the offenses that are keeping God from acknowledging the Israelites’ acts of worship.

And if we will read the Bible honestly, I think we have to recognize that these offenses will keep God from acknowledging our acts of worship as well.

Rejection of Worship

As with ancient Israel, the details of our worship are not as important as the lives we live. Isaiah tells his hearers that God hates our worship. But God doesn’t hate it because God doesn’t like it—like I don’t like canned spinach. God hates it because it is an offense to God when we are inhospitable to one another and then think we can be OK with God. It is impossible to be in a right relationship with God while taking advantage of people, ignoring those who are in need, and pursuing justice only for ourselves.

This is something that Jesus tries to teach us over and over. What do we do when we want to make an offering to God but we remember we have offended someone? Jesus tells us, “First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:24).

Jesus also says that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt 7:21–23).

This emphasis on right living over right worship is found in other places in both the OT and NT. But as one last example this morning, consider this teaching from James chapter 1: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (vv. 26–27).

The Bible teaches all this quite clearly: Our worship is meaningless unless our lives are characterized by caring for others. Either we are a caring church or we are no church at all.

Walking It Out

Now that may seem harsh, but there is hope. There is always hope. Because God wants to walk it out and talk it out with us. That is actually closer to the Hebrew than most English translations of v.18. The Hebrew means something like: “Let’s go walk and let’s get our heads together.”

This reply seems to be God’s instinctual response when something goes wrong—something we’ve been seeing a lot of in the SALT group on Thursdays, as we have been reading through the first chapters of Genesis. A person sins, and immediately God is there—prompting conversation, willingly adapting, showing grace, and working to preserve the relationship.

So also here God emphasizes that everything can be worked out, if only we will work with God. Every time I botch things up. Every time I give up. Every time I fail to show love and compassion. Every time I respond with a harsh word. Every time I am judgmental. Every time I push God away.

Every time, God comes calling: Walk with me. Talk with me. We can work this out. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18–19a).

These verses are so amazing to me. They revel in and reveal the power of the resurrection—the idea that there is no one too far gone for God to breathe new life into them. But they also show God’s jazz musician side, as God invites us to walk it out with God, to talk it out with God. And to experience the beautiful music of relationship as we grow into new life.

May God’s endless patience and love break through the walls of our lives.

May God’s boundless creativity discover in us new footholds of faith.

May God find us caring persons and a caring church, and accept this: our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.