God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"The story is told about a few Christians from a well-endowed congregation in a large city who wanted to spend a night with some homeless folks on the street during Holy Week. They were looking for the suffering Christ in the lives of those who spend their days and nights suffering from hunger, disease and rejection. It was a chilly night, and the rain rolled in about midnight. Looking for shelter, a handful of church and homeless folks felt fortunate to come upon a church that was holding an all-night prayer vigil. The leader of this homeless group was a pastor at one of the most respected churches in the city. As she stepped through the outer doors of the church, a security guard stopped her. She explained that she and the rest of the group were Christians. They had no place to stay and were wet and miserable, and would like to rest and pray. Enticed by the lighted warmth of the church, she had forgotten that her wet, matted hair and disheveled clothing left her looking like another homeless person from the street. The security guard was friendly, but explained in brutal honesty, "I was hired to keep homeless people like you out." As the dejected group made their way back into the misery of the night, they knew they had found their suffering Christ, locked out of the church."
In our reading from the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah calls the people to worship in a way that leads them to care for those who are hurting. The Israelites had returned to Jerusalem from exile, but the time of restoring Israel was difficult and disappointing. They complained that, even though they performed the expected rituals, God did not seem to be present. The Israelites spent hours and hours in worship, hours and hours of fasting, hoping to find favor with God. When the people ask why the Lord does not acknowledge their fasts, God responds by telling them the difference between the fasts that God requires, and the fasts that the people are offering. The fasting of the people is self-serving and corrupt. They fight among themselves and ignore the needs of others. True fasting involves repentance and turning to God by self-denial and humility that brings justice, liberation and acts of mercy. God's promise to restore Israel will happen when the concern for the well-being of others becomes more important that empty rituals. Rituals are of no value unless they are accompanied by the pursuit of justice.
When they were not at worship or fasting or participating in other religious rituals, they were treating other people badly. Isaiah points out that you fast all day, but you oppress your workers. You fast, but then you quarrel and fight and strike out at one another.
That's not what God wants. God wants us to fast and pray and worship with all of our hearts, and minds and souls. But God does not want us to stop there. According to Isaiah, God wants us "to loosen the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share our bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house, clothe the naked. Do not hide yourself from those in need."
The Israelites got so caught up in trying to please God with their fasting and worship, that they ignored the needs of others. A gap existed between their seeking God and God's ways, and their actual way of life. Their acts of religious piety and devotion are meaningless when they are separated from acts of justice and mercy. God does not reject their fasting and worship, but insists there be a connection with those in the community who are in need.
As one author put it, "Worship is the most important thing we do together. It is the place that forms us into the people of God. It is the place where we inhale God's love and grace, so that we can be sent forth to exhale God's love and grace in a broken world in need of redemption." But that means we have to go out into the community. We cannot stay in church and serve ourselves. We are called to go out into the community, out into the world to help those in need, and to address the attitudes and structures responsible for injustices, to fight the injustice that put them there.
In our gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus calls his followers to be the salt of the earth. Salt was a necessity in the ancient world. Rome was built near a salt mine because it was so important for daily life. Roman soldiers often received a salt ration for their pay and were sometimes asked by their commander if they were "worth their salt." Salt was also used as a preservative for food. So when Jesus tells his disciples that they are the salt of the earth, that was a huge compliment. The disciples and their message of love and forgiveness were a necessary part of everyday life, as necessary and important as salt.
Jesus also calls them and us to be the light of the world. He calls us to be a light that draws people to God, a light that illumines the darkness, a light the shines into the corners of a dark world. The light that comes from within us is not just meant for us, but for the world. We can't leave the lessons that we have learned from Jesus within ourselves. We are to take our light out into the community and the world, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless. We are called to see, really see, the needs of others and do what we can to help. We can't save the whole world but we can help the person standing right in front of us.
In order for our light to be seen, we must be willing to go where darkness exists, so the light can overcome it. We must go into the dark places, bearing the light of Christ. It is not being given to us for our personal enjoyment.
During Isaiah's time, the temple in Jerusalem was standing room only. No one missed a service. They sang psalms, said prayers and gave offerings. But what they did not do was let their worship change them. They did not let their worship inspire them to transform their community. They did not want to make connections between their worship and their neighbors. They ignored the poor and everyone else who was not like them.
Another author put it this way. "We hope you are not planning to go through the motions of worship, singing the songs but never engaging your hearts; hearing the scriptures but not listening for God; or giving an offering but not giving yourselves, because, if so, you are not doing God any favors. You do not get points for attendance. If you really worship God today, then you will share with the poor, listen to the lonely, and stop avoiding those in need."
Worship is important. It is the foundation of all that we do as Christians. It is our time for prayer, and learning, community and fellowship. It is our time to hear the word of God and think about what that means for our lives. But we can't stay here. From our worship, we are called out into the world, to spread God's love and mercy and justice to a world that is desperately in need of it. Amen.
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