A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the First Congregational Church of North Yarmouth, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on August 7, 2016.
Principal Reading Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Isaiah is one of the Major Prophets who lived some 600 years before Jesus and was called on by God to bring a message, be a prophetic voice, to God’s people Israel. This is the beginning of his prophecy. And right off the bat, he accuses the religious leaders of being like the people of Sodom and the people of being like the people of Gomorrah. As you may recall, God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah back in the days of Lot and his family. Over the centuries, these cities have come to be associated with sexual sin in general and homosexual behavior in particular. This is not what the people living there were condemned for – in the book of Ezekiel it is made clear that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is that ‘they had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not care for the poor and the needy’ (Ezek 16:49).
So then we forge ahead into this first prophecy from Isaiah and we hear that God is condemning their worship. And God is pretty clear about it. ‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? … I have had enough…. I do not delight…. who asked this from your hand? … no more; …..futile; ….abomination …. I cannot endure…. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates’ . The prophet goes on with God’s message for the people, ‘even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood’.
God will not even listen to their prayers any more. Their hands are full of blood. In those days, it was the practice to bring animal sacrifices to God. And then it became the practice that the religious leaders prepared a feast for themselves from the sacrifices of the people and gave the leftovers to God.
God says – NO MORE! You cannot go through the motions of worship and praise and then just keep living your lives the same old way.
‘Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.’
And then God relents, ‘let us argue it out’, or ‘let’s discuss it’. We can come to an understanding, if you will do what I have commanded you to care for the less fortunate, then ‘you shall eat the good of the land’.
So what does this have to say to us now? We do not have sacrifices during worship. Do we have solemn assemblies? Some might argue yes. The people of Israel followed all the prescribed traditions and rituals of the church in their day and yet God said, ENOUGH!’ Or maybe we should say, God said – it’s not enough. You are worshipping yes. But you are neglecting to care for the poor and needy. You do not rescue the oppressed. You do not seek justice. You do not defend the orphans or plead for the widow. Stop doing evil, God says through the prophet Isaiah. You have so much, God says. Care for the least of my children…
This reading is harsh. As I think about it, it is more than that, it is a condemnation. It makes me reflect on my own life as a minister. It makes me think about my life outside church. Do I present one side of me here at church, particularly in worship? Do I carry through in my daily life all that I believe God is calling me to?
And what about the church? What keeps the Church from changing our communities? We reach out in small ways and minister to those in need but what really changes? What does keep the Church from changing our communities? I think the biggest obstacle is fear. We fear those we think are different from us and we strive to keep them at arm’s length.
When I was doing chaplaincy at Maine Medical Center the summer of 2013, I spent every Wednesday at the Preble St resource center for the homeless in Portland. It was a new experience for me and definitely took me out of my comfort zone. This was something I had never been exposed to before. I had always had this sort of attitude of they are not like me. They are not like people I know. How does one get themselves into that situation anyway? Why don’t they just get a job and find a place to live? Do they want to just ‘work the system’? It was eye-opening and a very humbling experience – I was misinformed on many levels. I spent my time at the adult resource center handing out socks and towels and talking with folks. Their stories were as varied as the number of people there. By and large they did not want to be there. I also spent time at the teen center and the stories there from child abuse to teens being thrown out of home broke my heart. There was staff there helping them negotiate life and find jobs. Mine was a ministry of presence – listening to stories and helping them understand that God has not forgotten them and indeed loves each of them very much. I received so much more than I gave. The people there are no longer frightening and non-human. I now see them as people just like me – as children of the Living God.
This passage from Isaiah makes me explore and challenge what I do every day of my life. I try to look at our society and culture with the eyes of one who has listened to the stories of the homeless and ask why? And what can be done about it? I do not currently volunteer at Preble St but I support them with clothes and other items that I know they need. What else might I do? How might I do something differently to help promote justice and goodness? This is something I need to explore further.
How do we as a church seek justice for all people? How do we as a church rescue those who are oppressed? These are questions we must ask ourselves. Where do we stand in all of this? I know that many of you already do so much in the way of volunteering in our community and our world – helping with the food pantry, our own pet pantry ministry, working with children both here at church and in the community – and so many more – some I probably don’t even know of yet – wonderful!
I understand last week you learned about Grace Street ministry in Portland – a ministry to God’s children who are homeless. Yes, they are God’s children and until we can see them as people who love and laugh and weep and get angry and hurt just like we do, we will not be able to help them as God would want us to. We may not all be able to go walk the streets with them but I understand one of the greatest needs they have is for socks and also umbrellas and rain ponchos. Maybe in addition to our food pantry and pet pantry collections, we can also bring in socks to help this ministry.
Last week, I was on a women’s retreat. The oldest woman there was in her nineties. One day over a meal, Sr Maureen excitedly shared her newest ministry with me. She is corresponding with prisoners all over the country. She had just sent a birthday card to a new person on her list and had received a letter in return from someone who was very grateful for the outpouring of God’s love from a stranger in something as simple as a birthday card. I do not remember what Sr Maureen had done earlier in her life but even in her 90s she is finding ways of reaching out to share God’s love with God’s children who are having a rough time.
And these are just some of the many great and creative ideas to help us touch God’s people! But I believe we need to do more to help promote justice and goodness in our world. This fall we will have several gathering times to discuss what new ways we believe God is calling us to be in our world. Please be praying about it and join us for this very important discussion. Amen.