|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
February 5, 2017
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
On the speed dial of every rector’s cell phone are three people: the Sr. Warden, the Sexton, and the Altar Guild Director – and at a church like Transfiguration, that third person on the list very well may get most of the calls. Our worship is our core as a church, and it’s the heartbeat of our life together. So I feel a healthy sort of pressure to preserve our rich liturgical tradition, to make sure we worship as beautifully and flawlessly as we possibly can. I’ll let you in on a funny little secret: Gabby Guion, our AG Director, and I recently discovered that we share the same dream: that one day we will experience a “perfect service,” where every detail is just right and everyone does exactly what they’re supposed to exactly when they’re supposed to from start to finish. It’s like our great white whale, and…it hasn’t happened yet.
Here’s the thing, though, about this obsession with a “perfect” service, with getting everything “perfectly right” in here: it’s actually a distraction. It’s an idol. It’s not what worship is really all about, and it threatens to draw you and I farther from the one who we come here hoping to experience. Because no matter how perfectly we do everything here, if it’s not taken back out into the world, it does not matter.
- No matter how sweetly we say our prayers or sing the hymns,
- no matter how well we follow along with the chanting of the psalm, or how well we remember to cross ourselves or bow or kneel,
- no matter how earnestly we hold out our hands to receive the host or how devotedly we light a candle at the icon or shrine,
if all that we feel and hope and pray and do in here doesn’t move outside with us when we leave, then it doesn’t matter.
We make a mistake if we believe that what we’re doing in here is the point. That how well, how beautifully, how perfectly we enact the liturgical choreography of church is the point of the Christian life. One of my Anglican heroes is a man named Frank Weston, who was bishop of, of all places, Zanzibar, and almost 100 years ago he delivered an address to an international gathering of Anglo-Catholics – you know, the ones who make our worship seem like a Baptist prayer meeting – and in his address, he had this to say.
“I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.
If you are Christians then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly—it is madness—to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.
You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.”
If we think religion is only about me and God, that the only thing that matters is whether or not I’ve made a mental assent to the existence of God, or asked for Jesus to be my personal Lord and Savior, or attended Mass this week…well then, we need to pay attention to what the prophet Isaiah has to say to us. In his day, worship in the Temple was the height of holiness and everyone felt compelled to gather and pray and perform all the pious rituals that good religious people were supposed to do. They even fasted regularly, which is frankly more than most of us can say. And yet they still felt like God was far away, like God was silent or absent, like God wasn’t really listening to all their good, pious praying and religious talk. “Why?!,” they cried out. “Why isn’t God paying attention to us? Why isn’t God listening to us? Doesn’t God see that we’re good people doing perfect worship every week?”
To which Isaiah shares a sobering truth: nice prayers and nice fasts and nice services are not what God wants.
- True faith is not about what we think in our mind, or believe in the quiet of our hearts.
- Righteousness is not defined by how much time we spend on our knees, or whether we can perfectly recite the Nicene Creed from memory, or how many services we attend each month.
- Holiness is not about the frequency of our fasting, or the piety of our religiosity.
Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said, “It is a great mistake to suppose that God is chiefly interested in religion.” No, God is not interested in religion, but in people.
I didn’t pick this passage from Isaiah for us to hear this weekend, but I couldn’t have found anything in all of Scripture that we more need to hear right now. Our world is convulsing with suffering and discontent and malice, yet the priorities of Christians are not always apparent. Let me give you an example. 65 million people are currently displaced from their homes from war or violence, of which our country last year welcomed 1/10 of 1%. The Bible contains literally dozens of clear, un-nuanced directives about care of strangers, immigrants, aliens, and the homeless, yet according to a recent Pew survey, nearly 2/3 of Christians in our country feel no moral obligation to refugees. Another example: we know that for every nine executions, one person on Death Row is exonerated, and we know that Jesus outright rejected the use of retributive violence, yet nearly 2/3 Christians in our country support state-sanctioned killing. It’s obvious that there’s a disconnect between Sunday and Monday, between what happens in here and what happens out there. And my friends, the prophet Isaiah has a word for us, a word the Christian Church needs to hear now more than ever.
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?
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?
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
I know how tempting it is to come here for the lovely sanctuary and familiar prayers and beautiful music. I realize how tempting is to come here seeking a break from the conflict and rancor and pain and suffering happening all around us. I understand those who just want to slip quietly in and out of this church as a peaceful escape, to enjoy their holy interlude of serenity and to get their weekly God-fix. But what we do here is not escapism. What happens in here is not an end unto itself. God does not live here.
Because if we hide ourselves away, if we keep our light under the proverbial bushel basket, if we think that we can ignore what is happening in the lives of other human beings, and especially the most desperate, the most vulnerable, the ones who are even now walking through the valley of the shadow of death, then Isaiah tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised when we ring God and get no answer, or leave a message and God doesn’t hurry to respond. We can’t ignore the suffering of our fellow human beings without actually ignoring God, because we really only love God as much as we love the people we love the least.
If it sometimes seems like God is silent, maybe it’s because we’re not speaking God’s language. But if you listen carefully to Isaiah, you realize that we’ve been given the words to say: Here I am. They are the words we most desperately long to hear from God when we need him, and the divine irony is that they are the words God most desperately longs to hear from us: that we would stand before the hurting, hungry, lonely people of our world, and say “Here I am.” That every week in our city and state and country and world Christians would empty from their churches and the faithful would head out into the streets to loosen some bonds of injustice, to set some oppressed free, to share our bread with the hungry, and to bring in the homeless poor to places of safety. My God, if we did that, if we actually took the prophet seriously, if we actually took Jesus Christ seriously, we might be startled to hear a voice reverberating back at us from out of all that silence, the voice for which we’ve yearned with all of our being, the voice of our Lord and God, and it would say back to us, “Here I am. Here I am. Here I am.”
 Frank Weston, “Our Present Duty,” http://anglicanhistory.org/weston/weston2.html
 Attributed to Dorothy Day.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Silence of God,” Gospel Medicine (Cambridge: Cowley, 1995), 71.