February 5, 2017














Epiphany 5 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by Berkeley Johnon


It isn’t often that I focus on the first reading in my homilies, but today this reading from Isaiah speaks so loudly and so clearly to us that it cannot be avoided.


Unlike passages where it is sometimes difficult to discern exactly what’s going on, this one is crystal clear, and speaks directly to us in our time.


Do we understand that that is why Isaiah is included in the Canon? It is because this book continued to speak to subsequent generations in their time. It is because the people discerned that the prophet was articulating Yahweh’s will, Yahweh’s desire, Yahweh’s demand of and for us.


And just what is that, exactly?


You have heard it said that the Old Testament God is a God of wrath and anger, and the New Testament God is a God of love and mercy and forgiveness; but I say unto you, the God of Hebrew Scripture is a God that demands justice and does not care for external appearances and empty liturgy which fail to enact justice, and that Jesus, as the fulfillment of that law, is the very embodiment of that divine call, that divine demand, for justice.


Phony displays of piety that fail to enact justice for God’s people are not only insufficient, they are empty, devoid of efficacy, or, as Brueggemann states, “a fakery untouched by the true character of Yahweh.”[i]


Listen, as Brueggemann condemns this “feel-good worship that violates the true intention of Yahweh:

  • They have turned worship into an act of self-indulgence void of ethical content.
  • These verses establish the core problem of the community, namely, a hypocritical gap between the actual conduct of the community and the intention of the community expressed in worship.
  • These verses spell out the fraudulent liturgy of the community.
  • Implicit in this alleged prayer is the accusation … that the purpose of worship is to gain advantage (Look at verse three: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”)
  • Worship that is calculated and manipulative is of course no worship at all. Of course such calculating worship never ‘works’ with God”
  • Such worship gives no access to God, because the God of Judaism is not open to instrumental, calculating manipulation. This kind of worship embodies a complete distortion of Yahweh and eventuates in a complete distortion of social relationships.”

What this text is telling us is that worship without humane economic practice is bad worship. Indeed, it is no worship at all, as it will not make our voice heard on high.


What is the worship that God hears, you ask? Verses six and seven. Look at them, read them, consider them, inwardly digest them. And do we hear how they echo the very message of Jesus himself?


The fast Yahweh requires must address economic injustice, or as Brueggemann so beautifully puts it, “neighborly attentiveness.”


And then Walt brings it right into the present day: “As this text deeply contradicts such social practice in that ancient time, so it deeply challenges the temptations of an affluent, post-industrial society short on neighborliness.”[ii]


Wow, does anyone else feel convicted, because I sure do. Should that be a cause for despair? Of course not, because we have the answer right in front of us, in verse eight. When we enact this social justice here on earth, our light will break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly. Or, in the words of the gospel this morning, our saltiness will be restored.


In order to be salt, we must practice justice. That is the heart, I believe, of these lessons and this sermon. External compliance with religious observance, no matter how devout, is not heard by God. It is salt that has lost its saltiness; it is light that has been placed under a bushel (think about that image in relation to the events of the past week and the cover of the New Yorker, where Lady Liberty’s light has been extinguished).


Pious observance of a fast that ignores injustice is empty. It is salt that has lost its saltiness.

If anything in our scriptures is non-negotiable, it’s this concept of economic justice and neighborliness, and yet, in our halls of power, we hold a prayer service, and then walk into an adjoining room, and abandon it with the stroke of a pen.


But what can we do, you ask? What power do we have? Isn’t it all out of our control?

No, I tell you, and the answer can be found in the second reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians.


Paul acknowledges the very same weakness and fear we all feel when we’re in the spotlight, but reveals it’s not about us, or our lofty words or wisdom; and I have a story for you that illustrates this truth.


I was in my second day, my second day, as a chaplain intern in CPE back in Boston after my first year in seminary. I arrived at my assigned unit, the post-surgical unit, and signed in at the counter. As I was doing so, I noticed the head nurse conferring with another nurse over a chart. I saw her glance over her shoulder at me and ask the nurse “Is that him?”


Immediately my heart sank, and I wondered, “oh God, what could I possibly have done in one day to screw things up?, and began trying to recount what I might have said, or something I might have forgotten to do” that was about to land me in trouble.


As I was going through this exercise, the head nurse, who was rather intimidating and hadn’t exactly been welcoming during my orientation period the previous week, approached me and requested I come with her. She led me into a small room at the end of the nurses’ station and shut the door. Oh man!

She then began to tell me about a patient who had just come out of surgery. He was paraplegic, and had come in for an elective procedure on his back, and something had gone wrong, a nerve had been hit or severed, and he now had lost his eyesight and it was likely irreversible.


And not being the sharpest tool in the toolshed, it slowly began to dawn on me that I wasn’t in trouble at all. “Oh,” I interrupted, “so you need me?” “Yes,” she replied with a quizzical tone and look in her eyes. “Oh,” I replied, “I thought I was in trouble.”


“No; can we continue?” she asked, abruptly. “By all means,” I replied, relieved and now refocusing my attention on how I might be of service.


Well, the patient, as you can imagine, was quite angry, and the nurse told me that he was yelling and being disruptive and that this could affect his recovery because he needed to remain calm and still following his back procedure, and they were hoping I could help. Of course, I replied, let’s go.

When we entered his room, there at least 15 or 20 people in the room, I kid you not, all backed up straight against the walls of the room. He was a larger-than-life character, a business owner who had overcome so much in his life, and now he was dealing with the reality that he would never be able to see again. They told him I was there and I came over to him and he reached out his hand and I took it in mine and introduced myself. I don’t remember what I said, and the point is, it didn’t matter, because it had nothing to do with me, or any gifts of lofty words or wisdom that I possessed. All I can tell you is that within about 30 seconds, as he began to articulate what had happened, he became tearful and the energy in the room was completely transformed.


And when I say completely, I mean completely. He began by apologizing for becoming so angry and acknowledging that he knew it was an accident and telling them he was sorry for lashing out. Within two minutes, all the tension had completely drained out of the room and we got to the heart of what was really distressing him at that moment: the Rolling Stones were playing at Fenway Park, and he had managed to get two tickets, for himself and his 12-year old grandson, and now he wasn’t going to be able to take him because he couldn’t see and his grandson was too young to wheel him around, and he was afraid that now they wouldn’t be able to go to the concert together. I glanced up at the administrators in the room as I offered him assurance that that was something that could easily be taken care of with a letter, and they nodded yes; and yes, as so often happens in my ministry, the tears turned to gentle laughter and relief.


This is power we all possess people. This patient couldn’t even see me, and I didn’t have any words of power to “fix” the situation. I just showed up, with nothing more than Jesus Christ, and him crucified. It was a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that my faith, so that our faith, might not rest on human wisdom, or any gift we might imagine we possess, but on the power of God.


Each of us has this power of healing in Christ. Each of us is equipped to be salt, to be light, to transform the darkness of this world into a place of neighborly attentiveness. But, as the prophet tells us, without equivocation: our prayer, our worship, our liturgy, and our action, must reflect and fulfill God’s call, God’s desire, and God’s demand for justice, or our prayers will not be heard on high. May we, as we partake of this Holy Communion, and once again affirm that we are very members of the Body of Christ, and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom, find the strength, the power, and the will, to enact God’s justice in our time. Amen.

[i] Brueggemann, Walter; Isaiah 40-66; Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, p. 187.
[ii] Ibid, pp. 188-91.

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