Text: Isaiah 58: 1-12
This is the first Thanksgiving in which I have found
that my experience of the holiday and preparation for it
has been impacted by the internet.
I found information on the whereabouts of this service on the internet,
thanks to Len Grossman’s passion for webpages.
Luckily I did not find there the name of the preacher for the evening,
or I may have been tempted to leave town….
(The invitation to preach came a few days later, from a real human.)
Via the internet, we have gotten any number of Thanksgiving greetings
from family and friends throughout the country,
and a member of my congregation forwarded one of those humorous messages
that make the rounds through cyberspace.
In case you haven’t gotten this one yourself, I’ll share a bit of it with you.
It starts out, “Martha Stewart will not be dining with us this Thanksgiving….”
It then goes on to outline a litany of ‘adjustments’ to the plan for the day.
“Since Ms. Stewart won’t be coming, I’ve made a few small changes…
Our guests will note that the entry hall is not decorated
with the swags of Indian corn and fall foliage I had planned to make.
Instead, I’ve gotten the kids involved in the decorating
by having them track in colorful autumn leaves from the front yard.
The mud was their idea….
Our centerpiece will not be the tower of fresh fruit and flowers that I promised.
Instead we will be displaying a hegehog-like decoration,
hand-crafted from the finest construction paper.
The artist assures me it is a turkey.
We will dine fashionably late.
The children will entertain you while you wait.
I’m sure they will be happy to share every choice comment
I have made regarding Thanksgiving, pilgrims and the turkey hotline.
Please remember that most of these comments were made at 5:00 AM,
upon discovering that the turkey was still hard enough to cut diamonds….”
And on it goes, all the way to the comment that the finale
will not be a choice of twelve scrumptious homemade desserts,
arranged artfully on a beautiful silver tray,
but rather the traditional pumpkin pie, garnished with whipped cream
and small fingerprints….
Martha Stewart isn’t coming to my house either.
(And) the fact that you are here tonight is probably a good sign
that she’s not coming to your house, for if she were,
you would surely be home putting the finishing touches
on an elaborate centerpiece made from herbs, plants and flowers,
picked this fall and dried in delicate bunches,
tied and hung for the last several weeks in your backyard greenhouse,
then carefully arranged in a copper pot
that has been in the family for at least six generations….
Martha Stewart is the target for a lot of potshots and criticism -
from comedy segments on Saturday Night Live to this email.
I think the reason is that she represents such an extreme.
She is punctilious about food and design and dishes -
and because most of us are so different from her,
she draws our satire and our ridicule.
I have nothing against Martha Stewart.
In fact, there’s a part of me that longs to be Martha Stewart -
to spend my life surrounded by beauty and creating beautiful environments
for gathering family and friends.
I would love to have her many properties - and her money -
and all those wonderful appliances, gardens, dishes … and storage!
TV cameras in my kitchen I could live without, of course,
but in my heart of hearts I wish I had time to be more like Martha Stewart.…
In my heart of hearts, I yearn for a life full of beauty and order,
where everything is neat and clean and I can devote my full attention
to creating a beautiful table for a select group of my closest family and friends.
Such a life, of course, would be a short-lived fantasy, for it would mean, ultimately,
a life cut off from the realities that make life real, the realities that call me to faithfulness.
It would mean a life apart from the ‘interruptions’ that make up most of my ministry -
the people, the challenges, the distortions, the demands.…
In our text for this evening, the prophet Isaiah is talking about worship,
and his words provide an insistent reminder
for all of us who have illusions that worship - or life -
can be understood as separation from the world around us.
Isaiah calls all people of faith to a reordering of our priorities -
to a reconsideration of the basic question of the purpose of worship.
This passage, by an author known to scholars as Third Isaiah,
reflects issues that were critical in the early restoration period,
the period after the exiles returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple.
The passage reflects a tension between two groups - the ‘Liturgists’ shall we say,
who were fixated on worship, well-done and punctilious,
and the ‘Activists’ who were more focused on life outside the sanctuary
and were always wanting to break down the wall between the Temple and the world.
It’s a familiar tension, and I would wager that most of the congregations
represented here tonight have those same tensions among their membership.
Isaiah 58 is, in fact, a polemic against the ‘Liturgists,’ a group that is described
as self-righteous and meticulous in matters of religious observance.
They engage in serious theological study. They seek out divine oracles.
They engage in cultic rites and fasts.
But, according to the prophetic voice, they have privatized religion
and left the entire realm of social relations and commerce
vulnerable to ruthless and self-serving exploitation.
All this religious posturing, says Isaiah, is a sham, mere external motions,
hypocritical acts that fail to meet the test of genuine religion -
for despite their evident spiritual life, they are guilty of severe sins of omission.
Their faith is what Paul Hanson calls “faith in the subjunctive mood.”
They worship “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God” (2b).
But Isaiah’s implication is clear: They worship as if
they were a nation that practiced righteousness … but they are not.
The problem is not that the people are unreligious …
that they are doing something wrong. .
Rather, the problem is that they are hypercorrect in their religious observance …
delighted, in fact, to exhibit their piety.
They have memorized all the necessary prayers
and perfected all the conventional ritualistic actions, but God remains unimpressed.
(For) in the very exercise of their religion they are missing the essential point,
that of mispat, God’s order of compassionate justice.
The purpose of fasting was to demonstrate a ‘day acceptable to the Lord’
a phrase that we see in Isaiah 61:1-3, a description of Jubilee,
the time in which God’s order of compassionate justice is restored.
Jubilee is a time of healing, for the canceling of debts,
the release of slaves, the return of confiscated property.
Isaiah locates God’s central concern not in the punctilious practice of cultic worship
but in the exercise of justice and the practice of compassion.
Without attention to justice, all the pious motions of religion are mere ‘as ifs’.
The prophet calls them back to the classical understanding
that grew out of the experience of the Exodus …
the feeding in the wilderness …the gift of a homeland.
It is a rigorously moral understanding that places the one
who would be true to God on the same side
as the ones whom God reached out to help and empower,
those suffering injustice at the hands of political authorities,
those imprisoned for acts of conscience,
those denied their fair share of the land’s produce,
those denied housing and proper clothing,
those turned away even by their own relatives.
The appeal is impassioned and it goes to the heart of the community.
The appeal is to authentic humanity and the restoration of genuine communal solidarity.
One loses track of election-related news these days, but I think it was about
two weeks ago, the day after the now infamous, unfinished election,
that I heard an NPR interview with a woman in Florida,
who was part of a group from across the country
that had been fasting and praying for the nation since sometime in October.
The gist of the conversation had to do with what they were going to do now …
given the ambiguity of the returns.
(Little did any of us know that the returns would be just as ambiguous two weeks later.)
While the woman kept repeating that she wished more of us
would pray for the Lord to attend to the needs of this nation,
I could not help but wonder what the concerns,
underlying her prayers and fasting, might have been….
Was she praying for the well-being of all in the nation, rich and poor,
English-speaking and those who prefer to speak a native tongue?
Was she praying for a living wage for all, including immigrants - legal or not?
Was she praying for policies that would make it genuinely possible
for women to get off of public assistance and support their families?
Was she praying for public health and public education -
for access to services that would help all people overcome
the accidents of birth and thrive in this country to the fullness of their capacity?
Or was it possible that her prayers … perhaps … were more limited?
“My children … my neighborhood … my job … my religious community…”
Were her prayers perhaps for the prosperity and protection
of people who looked and prayed - and voted - as she did?
The Community of Congregations is small part of life in the villages
of Oak Park and River Forest. We are not a major player.
We could hardly be called ‘movers and shakers’.
We have little money in the bank.
What was the financial report last week - $147 in our account???
(Remember that when it’s time for the offering a bit later in the service!)
And as an interfaith organization, we don’t even worship very much.
This once-a-year gathering is about it.
But even though we gather in worship only once a year,
we bring food to share with those who are hungry.
Isaiah would be pleased.
Rather than spending our time perfecting the practice of interfaith worship,
we focus on being a fragile umbrella for the healing of the world….
We are a founding sponsor of the West Suburban PADS homeless shelter.
We operate a Food Pantry and assist shut-ins.
Last fall we were part of a Vigil Against Hate,
and we stood with our sister congregations, Pilgrim Congregational
and the Metropolitan Church of the Incarnation
against threats of arson and violence only a few weeks later.
For the last year or so, each bi-monthly gathering has begun with a dialogue
about the uniqueness of the sacred space in which were meeting,
thus broadening our understanding of the different traditions represented,
and this fall we have begun a very significant dialogue on social justice.
It was a powerful moment last Thursday evening when it was suggested that -
as significant as our communities’ values may have been
over the last several decades - they were not as clearly centered
on the goal of social justice as they might have been …
and perhaps it is that challenge that lies before us as an organization,
an organization that embodies
the call to compassionate justice in these communities.
The Community of Congregations is a fragile gathering of the faithful.
We do what we are led to do by the imagination of our hearts.
We do what we can.
(And) I am heartened by the words of the late Archbishop of San Salvador,
Oscar Romero, who wrote:
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work….
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete,
but it is an opportunity
for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
The Community of Congregations is a fragile gathering of the faithful,
but as we gather tonight for this unique and wonderful time of prayer,
I am also heartened by the words of Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman,
who wrote what is becoming the new classic book on worship,
used in seminaries for persons of many faith traditions. He writes …
I don't know if … ‘the family that prays together stays together,’
but I am convinced that a community of souls
who are so accepting of each other that they want to stay together
will probably also want to pray together.
And then it will be true that their successful liturgical celebration
of community - and God in their midst -
will further enhance their chances of staying together.
For their worship will be just that: theirs,
born of the mutual self-discovery that they are a people of God,
charged with a mission to care for one another
and, together, to care for the world….
The prophet Isaiah sets forth a litany of observations
and then another litany of hard questions.
What kind of worship does God want?
Scraping and bowing? Sackcloth and ashes?
‘No,’ says God, ‘I choose the fast of justice,
the fast of sharing and sheltering…’
(And) if you practice this kind of fast, says Isaiah,
‘your light will break forth like the dawn
and God’s presence will be known and experienced in your midst.
The Lord will guide you and satisfy your needs in parched places…
You shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt.
You will become a repairer of the breach,
a restorer of streets to live in….’
What a profound word! What a profound promise!
‘If you do this simple thing of remembering
the command of compassionate justice,’ God says,
‘I will bless you and you will become the catalyst
for the restoration of community …
a community with broad and porous boundaries,
where each person is valued as a child of God,
and enabled to thrive to their fullest capacity.’
That promise alone is cause for thanksgiving!
Martha Stewart is not coming to my house tomorrow.
Our two sons are coming - they are en route as I speak -
and it will be wonderful to be united again as a family.
We won’t have twelve choices of homemade desert,
but we will have the comfort of knowing that one of us, at least,
instead of contending with holiday traffic,
was able to gather with fellow members of our community -
in this fragile setting of interfaith public prayer,
to offer thanksgiving to God and to offer ourselves
for the struggle for justice for all of God’s children.
We do what we can. It’s a beginning -
and may God’s grace indeed enter and do the rest.
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