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Worthless Offerings: A sermon for this season

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In a season when violence, political distrust and general uneasiness fill the headlines, the Rev. Thomas Brunkow, a retired Elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, shared these thoughts in a recent sermon. He notes the biblical truth that strength comes in loving one another and deep disarray comes when we indulge in fear and contempt.

Worthless Offerings
A Sermon by Rev. Thomas L. Brunkow
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

We are living in anxious times. If you’re like me, I cringe to turn on the news. Every other day we hear reports of another horrific, violent act — here in the United States or somewhere abroad. They are so fresh in our minds I don’t need to repeat them. The array of weapons used by lone wolves or terrorist groups is staggering. The randomness of the violence makes us wonder if there is any place we can feel absolutely safe. Add to that the non-stop coverage of the presidential election campaign that sounds anything but presidential often leaves me feeling sick, saddened and disgusted.

As a nation we are facing difficult decisions: What are we to do to protect ourselves and our families? How are we to respond emotionally to what seems to be our new reality?

And soon we will elect the next president who will guide us through this dangerous time. It will be an easy choice for me, but until the outcome is decided in November, anxiety runs high.

As a church we are facing difficult decisions: What is God’s will for us as we face these threats and fears? Is there any guidance from the Scriptures?

It’s good Reformed theology to regard the Bible as the living Word of God which has relevance for every time and place. So let’s take a look at today’s passage from the Book of Isaiah, to see if the prophet offers us any guidance. Yet we must be careful not to be too simplistic comparing ancient times to the modern world.

Our passage begins with a scathing indictment. “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teachings of our God, you people of Gomorrah”.   Isaiah is sarcastically comparing the kings and people of Judah to the most faithless and contemptible people in the Bible! Isaiah is not taking about sexual practices here. He is talking about God’s anger & disappointment in the peoples’ worship. “I’m fed up with your sacrifices, your burnt offerings of rams & fatted beasts, Your incense is an abomination”; “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.”   “I’m so disappointed with you people, I won’t even listen to your prayers!”

My, my! What have the people done to cause this blistering rebuke? Why would God reject the worship and the prayers of God’s chosen ones?

John Calvin in his Commentary on Isaiah identifies hypocrisy as the problem:

“The Prophet begins with stripping [the people] of their disguises, and justly; for while all hypocrites are accustomed to employ strange coverings for concealing themselves from view, that nation was particularly addicted to the vice… The unceasing contest between the prophets and the nation was to tear off these masks, and to show that the Lord is not satisfied with merely outward worship, and cannot be appeased by ceremonies” (p.54).

Whenever the people put their trust in the trappings of worship rather than in the Holy One of Israel there’s trouble. These harsh oracles found throughout the Book of Isaiah sound as if God intends punishment and destruction for Israel. But that is never God’s intention. Isaiah is issuing God’s wake up call. God wants the people to change their ways:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove evil from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good…”

What is required is a transformation of their heart and lives, not just an attitudinal change. Having identified the problem, Isaiah next identifies the remedy:

“Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (16-17).

 “Hear the word of the Lord,” thunders Isaiah. This is Torah. This is everything you have learned from your long experience with God! There is a glaring disconnect between your worship lives and the conduct of your private and public lives. You must begin to care for the most vulnerable ones among you — “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

This should not be news to us either. Isaiah stands in that great procession of Old Testament prophets—including Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea & Micah. And all of them agree with Jesus —— there is a claim upon the people of God in every generation to “welcome, defend, rescue, protect and plead” for the “least, the last and the lost” in every generation.

Ritual without justice is only noise. Prayers without compassion for the poor and the persecuted will go unheard.

Now, to be fair to the people of God in the 8th century B.C. they were faced with many threats, especially, recurring invasions by a succession of Assyrian strongmen. Judah hated paying tribute money to Assyria. King Hezekiah sought alliances with Egypt for protection. When Sennacherib invaded, every town suffered destruction and Hezekiah surrendered. They were afraid.

They feared the Assyrian army — whom they could see — more then they feared the Holy One of Israel — whom they could not see. And fear caused them to engage is bad behaviors that were displeasing to the Lord. Here is where I see this ancient text speaking to our world today.

The thing that alarms me most about this political season is the depth of fear that dominates so many fellow citizens. Fear seems to be the prevailing national emotion. And right up there along with fear is anger. Fear fueled by anger creates a pretty toxic mood in the body politic. Fear makes many Americans susceptible to the incendiary rhetoric we’ve been hearing in the campaign including xenophobic cries against the Other or the foreigners in our midst and at our borders.

And it saddens me that many, many folks included among the fearful are church-going Christians who should know better. After all, haven’t we be been taught from childhood, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.” We learn that after the resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious abiding presence in every time of trouble. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus says to us on today’s Gospel, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). In Christ the conflicts of history will finally be resolved.

The great assurances of faith seem to have been swept away by the rising tide of fearfulness in the hearts and minds of good Christians. Yes, there are real threats in this world—Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Orlando. Paris, Nice, on and on. I think it’s the randomness of much of the violence that frightens us, instills fear for our children, and causes us to be wary of travel. But how to do we prevent our fears from morphing into paralyzing paranoia?

Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite authors. I recommend to you her books Gilead and Lila. Did you know she is also a Calvin scholar? She has written an important collection of essays about American culture —The Givenness of Things (Farrar Sraus & Giroux: New York, 2015). In it she writes about the “cultural pessimism” of our times. There are always grounds for pessimism, she argues, because we are human and perpetually make a hash of things.

[But it ] “has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible.…And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, (and fosters) delusions of mortal threat.”

Based on her deeply held Christian beliefs Robinson has a response to cultural pessimism that calls for a more gracious, respectful and hopeful public life and conversation:

“When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism – exactly the same grounds, in fact — that is, because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.” (“Against Pessimism: The Fierce Hope of Marilynne Robinson” by Natasha Moore, ABC Religion and Ethics, 10 Feb 2016)

Marilynne Robinson is a modern day prophet, I think, encouraging us to practice what we preach, to ameliorate our fears by trust in God, and to respect the Other in our midst as a fellow human being made in the image of God.

In closing, I give thanks be to God that our salvation will not be found in Donald Trump, nor in Hillary Clinton, according to Isaiah: “For thus said the Lord, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength’” (Isa. 30:15). Our hope in these or any troubled times is our trust in the Holy One of Israel who has raised Jesus from the dead.

This sermon was preached by Thomas L. Brunkow at Trinity Presbyterian Church, in Arlington, Va. Aug. 7, 2016