Authentic Worship, Not Yours or Mine but Ours!Epiphany
This week our worship committee met to discuss many of the elements of our worship together. We wrestled with the order of our worship, how we can enhance our singing together, and how we celebrate communion. Christine and I also met the next day to further explore these challenges. A few years ago, many churches faced differences in contemporary versus traditional worship styles. Our new challenge is the divide between in-person and virtual worship.
Perhaps, instead of how we worship, today’s scriptures challenge us to ask, What does our worship lead us to do?
Our worship is something we take seriously. We come to a place or we come to a time when we listen and try to participate. Yet, what does our worship lead us to do differently; how does our worship lead us to think differently in our lives?
Isaiah 58 describes a time when the Jewish people were having an argument about what constitutes authentic worship. The Israelites had returned from captivity and are beginning to rebuild their community in Jerusalem. The temple was still destroyed. In spite of having no temple for worship, they continued to fast and perform religious duties. However, they were arguing about how to fast and what counted as a proper fast. Isaiah says, “none of the above.’
In this passage, Isaiah is trying to help them understand authentic worship. He opened this passage with the affirmation “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways.” They at least seemed to be trying to serve God but Isaiah confronts them, your worship is nothing but a sham.
The Israelites thought they were worshiping. They fasted and attended religious services. Isaiah confronts them, “Why do you fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” But they were more about positioning themselves as faithful and moral than about deepening their faith in God. They magnified their own religious performance merely so that God would take notice of them.
They oppressed their workers who they considered “less than” themselves. They fasted only to pick fights to set themselves apart from those who did not worship or practice faith, the way they did.
In verse 5, Isaiah speaks for God. The kind of worship that God prefers is worship in which you humble yourself and bow your head like a bulrush, which is something that no one would notice. God clarified through Isaiah, “The fast I choose is:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
…to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless into your homes;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and
not to hide yourself from your own kin.” Authentic worship is a lifestyle that goes beyond participation in a worship service. God is clarifying that the worship he chooses has to do with economic justice and solidarity. It addresses the distance between the haves and the have nots.
Again Brueggemann explains that the Bible is candid and knowing. “It knows that food, shelter, and clothing are what counts as humanness because they are the conditions of security, the signs of dignity, and the marks of membership. If one does not have these basic provisions, he does not belong, in fact, she does not exist.” Our worship is often in isolation from the real needs of the world around us. We have forgotten the things that are most important. We are indeed members of one another, and we belong with and for and to each other, and that care of each for the benefit of all is required for our community to work.
What does our worship lead us to do? It may not be to go into the streets ourselves. It may mean to vote. It means that we will change our conversations to show less distinction between “us” and “them.” They are on the streets, they are the ones who are captured by an economic or mental health situation, that we can neither engage nor understand. How might we shift our conversation to “our” as a result of worship?
Too often we use “they” or “them” terminology. It is “their” situation, it is not our own. So how do we bridge this divide? How do we become, as the gospel says, salt and light for a world that is both dark and tasteless?
In the Corinthian passage we read, Paul paints a much more internalized connection to Christ that involves participation in Christ rather than just outward imitation. We have the mind of Christ. Our simple acts of generosity and caring in the life of our congregation – acts we might be tempted to pass over lightly as people simply choosing to be nice to each other–are in fact the appearance of Christ’s own love bubbling up in the lives of people in whom the Spirit dwells.
I have always been attracted to that last part of Isaiah 58, verse 12: “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” It is that promise of who you are to become, the salt and light. We are to make a difference. It is who you are. It is what we begin doing to live into who we already are.