August 21, 2022
Isaiah 58:9b-14 Psalm 103:1-8 Hebrews 12:18-29 Luke 13:10-17
This past week I’ve had the opportunity to worship in other churches – first in Memphis last Sunday, then in Little Rock on Friday when I attended a funeral for a priest I have known for many years. Each time I have the opportunity to attend another church and sit in the pews, I’m reminded of the beauty of our liturgy. I also had the opportunity this past week to discuss our liturgy with some strangers to the Episcopal Church and a priest from another denomination. One of these was the artist who painted the mural on the flea market across the street from St. Paul’s.
We visited about his work as we watched the work being done to restore our stained-glass window above the Narthex. Not only did I enjoy talking with him about his art and how art speaks to people, I shared with him – and the others I spoke with about our liturgy, that I consider our liturgy to be like art, for it speaks to us in ways that words cannot. There is power in words and when put together in poetry or prayer, it can move our souls.
Large portions of Isaiah are poetry, such as the lesson read today. Listen again to the first few verses:
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
As I read this, the yoke that we must remove is the yoke of sin; it is the yoke of living for ourselves rather that caring for others.
If we share our food, if we care for the afflicted, the Lord will guide us and we will be like a watered garden – healthy and full of life. Isaiah is sharing this with the Israelites, who are in exile. He goes on to remind them of their covenant and says that:
if you honor [the Sabbath], not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Isaiah, like the other prophets, is calling the people to put their relationship with God and one another first. If they do, God will restore them, and their foundation will be restored.
Unfortunately, some take this too literally and rather than observe the Sabbath for worship and renewal, they place its observance above all else. In today’s gospel, the leader of the synagogue is indignant because Jesus cures a woman on the Sabbath. He says, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” Jesus responds sternly:
“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
The people who oppose Jesus, we are told, “were put to shame” and began “rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.”
Serving others is, in itself, a form of praising God. When our rituals become more important than people’s needs, our faith is misguided. The prophets warned the people over and over again of this, saying they were worshiping false gods and putting themselves first and ignoring the needs of the “widows and orphans.” The rule of life that Jesus taught is really simple. Love God, love others as we love ourselves.
Our liturgy may be like art which stirs our souls, but as is found in the Letter of James, “faith without works is dead.” Last week sitting in the pew at Cavalry in Memphis, from the opening hymn to the closing hymn, the music brought up within me powerful emotions and helped me reconnect with my call to serve as a priest in the Episcopal Church. The fact that the presentation hymn, Take My Life, and Let It Be, begins with “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord to thee,” might have had something to do with this.
To be consecrated is to be made holy, and although ordination did not make me holy, it did represent my desire to live a holy life. The hymn continues with, “take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise. Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of thy love; take my heart, it is thine own; it shall be thy royal throne.” This is my ongoing prayer, that I might have the strength of faith to use my time on earth to praise God, and I pray that my heart may be one with God. I pray that my hands might move at the impulse of God’s love.
I pray this over and over again because I am fully aware of my tendency to be one of the hypocrites that Jesus is speaking to in today’s gospel. Over and over again I get caught up in what I want and what my selfish heart desires. I get caught up in our liturgy and fail to take that next step and carry the love of God into the world.
Our opening hymn today [for the 10:30 service] was, coincidently, the one that was sung at the service I attended Friday to remember Fr. Jim Dalton: I have come with joy to meet my Lord. It, too, is a powerful reminder of why I am here. The second verse speaks to why we are here today, “I come with Christians far and near to find as all are fed, the new community of love in Christ’s communion bread.” The next verse speaks of our divisions ending as love makes us one. A prayer I have for our church, our community, our nation, and our world. These traditional hymns both challenge me to open my heart to experience God’s presence, and to experience our worship rather than simply lead it.
Having said that, I do want to make it clear, there is so much more to our liturgy than the hymns and music. I love our spoken Rite I service and its solemnity. The poetry of the Rite I language combined with the periods of silence centers us in prayer and worship. The poetry in the words for both Rite I and Rite II is powerful. And the movement from the scriptures, prayers, confession, and profession of faith to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and the receiving of the bread and wine involves us on a profound level that, for me, defies logic.
Today, as our service concludes, I invite you to read closely our post communion prayer and its call to go forth to love and serve the Lord, as I will say at the dismissal. We come to receive so that we might share the love of God with others throughout our week in what many refer to as the “real world,” the world which is sorely in need of experiencing the peace and love of God that we find here on Sunday mornings.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, we come to you this day in need of your love, your comfort, and your guidance. Fill us, we pray, with your life-giving Spirit that, being renewed and strengthen we might share your love with others. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.