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Oct. 4 - “Eyes on the Prize” - Rev. Plank
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 4th, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“Eyes on the Prize”
Text: Philippians 3:13b-14: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Scripture Lessons: Philippians 3:4b-14
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that, good or bad, your past has little bearing on your value as a human being to the end that hearers will be strengthened to forget the past where it needs forgetting, and to press on toward the prize waiting for them in Christ.
Prayer for Illumination: God of grace we are bold to ask you yet again to sit with us as we hear your Word this morning, and to open our minds to understand what you say. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Philippians 3:4b-14: We continue our reading from last week from this letter that Paul wrote to the church in Philipi while he was being held in a Roman prison. Listen for God’s Word here.
Who are you, really? How do you define yourself? You’ve got certificates and awards on the wall, accolades galore. You’ve got money in the bank, and investments that yield dividends. You’ve got a nice house, a reliable car. You’ve got all those shirts you love. You’ve got 3 jobs. You have your habits. You have your titles. You have your government issued ID. You have your candidates. But who are you, really?
I can tell you who you are not. You are not your job. You are not your accomplishments. You are not your bank account. You are not your car. You are not your habits. You are not your image. You are not your political party. Those are all things on the outside. They’re all things that might make people think they know who you are, but none of them are things that go deep, things that truly define you, things that make you the person you are. What is at your heart? When you strip away everything external – everything that has been bought or given or earned or put on – what is left that is you?
The age old question, and often a difficult one to answer. It’s easy to define yourself by external things. Paul had a definition. He was somebody. He had bearing. He had status. He knew who he was. If you were to read the Law of Moses and then make a man based on that Law, you would get Paul.
Like all Hebrew boys he had been circumcised at 8 days old and marked forever as a child of the covenant. He was born into the tribe of Benjamin, one of the 12 Hebrew tribes. He was from a good family. He was faultless in following Hebrew Law to the letter. He studied and learned and taught and knew the Law and traditions inside and out, and in fact, knew his culture so well that he became a Pharisee. He had his B.A. and his M.A. and his J.D. and his Ph.D. He was so zealous in his faith that he reacted harshly, swiftly, and violently to any threats to it. And so when the Christian movement came along, Paul led the charge to persecute these followers of Jesus. He was recognized for his service and had his picture in the papers and spoke at the local churches and had community awards on his desk for all the good he was doing for his people.
And then it was all stripped away. On his way to put another notch in his persecution belt, he was struck blind and knocked from his horse on the road to Damascus. A vision and a voice: “Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). And so he fasted and prayed and was visited by a disciple of Jesus and was healed and anointed to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. His degrees no longer mattered, his awards were irrelevant, he was forgotten by the press, abandoned by his family. And his new identity led him first to preaching this new gospel, but then to trouble, and then to the hellish pit of a Roman prison.
You remember the Roman prisons: dark, dirty, crowded, hopeless. Nothing more than holding places for those condemned to die. And there in the corner, as close to the dim sunlight creeping down the stairs as he could get, sat Paul, writing. Paul who had been a pillar of his community. Paul who had been lauded and praised for his actions. Paul who had awards and recognition galore. Paul who then threw it all away, ashamed of his past, and became filled with the hope of a new gospel. Paul who then was recognized for preaching for Jesus Christ. Paul who had lost even that and was now nothing – a deathrow inmate in a Roman dungeon, writing in the dark.
Paul was in a moment of crisis. He was at a moment of crisis, and whenever we arrive at moments of crises we question our value. We question what we could have done that would make us deserve this. Or what we could have done better to avoid this. Have you ever been fired from your job? There’s little more demoralizing than that: than that crystal clear message that says: “we don’t want you anymore.” And then what? All your training, all your business cards, all your job titles, all your professional accomplishments go down the tubes.
Have you lost someone you love? I know many of you have. I know many of you have suffered devastating loss, crippling tragedy, overwhelming misfortune. What difference do your awards make when your nephew has cancer? What does it matter how much you have in the bank when your brother dies in a car accident? Who cares what sins you’ve committed when your grandmother tells you she loves you before she closes her eyes for the last time?
In that prison, Paul was in crisis. Not his first crisis, and not his last. At any moment, the jailer might come and drag him off to be beaten and crucified. In the meantime he sat in the dank filth of his fellow condemned inmates. And I think then that he came to a realization. All that he had been in both of his lives; all that he had earned, all that he had worked for, all that he was recognized for, was absolutely worthless. It made no difference.
The fact that he was a Pharisee didn’t get him a cozier cell. The fact that he knew the Law wasn’t going to spare him from punishment. The fact that he was from a good family didn’t get him better meals. The fact that he had committed countless acts of violence didn’t get him any worse quarters. The fact that he had abandoned his violent past and turned to peace didn’t get him time in the exercise yard. None of it mattered.
In those moments of crisis, you find out who you are, really, if you have the courage to look and see. We have been living through a national and global crisis for months now. And a lot of us have had to grapple with these questions. And you find out if your whole definition comes from external things like titles and awards and friends and pastimes, because there are times when all those things can vanish in the blink of an eye. In those moments of crisis you sometimes find out that nothing about your past matters at all. And so from the depths of the Roman prison, Paul chose to find yet a new identity.
His whole past, his accomplishments, his failings, his fame, his misery, all that he had used to define himself he decided to toss out. “I consider them rubbish,” he wrote, “that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:8-9).
In the depths of that prison Paul was forced to confront himself. And he came to a place where he said “I am not my titles. I am not my family. I am not my history. I am not my education. ‘One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus’” (vv. 13-14).
When it comes to who you are really, you can let your past go. God doesn’t care about your past. God doesn’t care about your awards or your failures. You are forgiven your sins. You are forgiven your triumphs. The past is wiped clean and what is ahead of you is the prize God has called you for. You’ve faced crisis, but this crisis too, will pass. You will face crisis again, but crisis is not the prize.
The prize is something better, something grander, something more magnificent. The prize is the glory God has called you for. Keep your eyes on the prize and it doesn’t matter what glittery distractions pop up because you’ll find the focus to keep moving forward. Keep your eyes on the prize and it doesn’t matter how hard you get hit, because once you get your wind back you’ll find the strength to get back up and keep moving forward. Keep your eyes on the prize and no matter how dark the days, you will keep the faith that a new day will dawn. Keep your eyes on the prize, because good or bad, proud or humble, nothing that has happened up to this very moment needs to define you any longer. Through all the ups and downs, sorrows and triumphs, God is calling you ever onward. Amen.
Sept. 27 - “With Fear and Trembling” - Rev. Plank
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 27, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“With Fear and Trembling”
Text: Philippians 2:12b: “…Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
Scripture Lessons: Philippians 2:1-13
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that fear and trembling are to be expected before any genuine salvation to the end that hearers will be encouraged to stay the course as they work out their own salvation.
Prayer for Illumination: Gracious and loving God, speak your Word into our lives this morning. Encourage us where we need encouragement, challenge us where we need to be challenged, and give us wisdom to understand what you say to us. We ask this in your name. Amen.
Philippians 2:1-13: Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi was one of those he wrote while in prison in Rome. Listen for God’s Word here.
When I was a freshman in college, my best friend was still a senior in High School. And together one day, we made him a fake ID. That might be surprising to you because I am and have always been kind of a dork. So maybe it’ll surprise you less to learn that we made him a fake of my student ID for the singular purpose of him being able to avoid the $2 drop-in fee to come workout with me at the school’s gym. But a fake ID is a fake ID, and the rules are the rules, and wrong is wrong.
And I was a kid and not very careful and my parents found out. I was still living at home that first year. It was my mom who discovered the crime. And she told me that she and my dad needed to have a conversation and then they would let me know when they wanted me to join them. Fear and trembling, the apostle says in our reading. My stomach was in a knot. I felt sick. I didn’t think I was really hurting anyone. I thought I would get away with it. I thought it was no big deal. But my parents finding out helped me instantly understand that I knew better. I know fear and trembling. You know fear and trembling too. Few among us haven’t had fear and trembling experiences.
When Paul wrote those words, when he wrote “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), he wrote them from the floor of a Roman jail. Jail might even be too glamorous a word; “dungeon” might be better, or “pit.” The Romans didn’t really make a practice of keeping people in prison. It’s not like it cost them much, there certainly weren’t many advocates against cruel and unusual punishment that would ensure prisoners were provided with adequate food and health care and space and sanitation. But even so, it cost money to keep people locked up. And Rome didn’t get to be the most powerful empire of its day by spending all of its money.
The way for Rome to use its resources most efficiently when it came to prisons was that their use was limited almost exclusively to a holding place for those awaiting execution. The rich were placed under house arrest. The poor were often exiled. The only reason to hold anyone anywhere was if you were going to make an example of them through public execution and you didn’t want them to get away before then. So when Paul went to prison, he probably didn’t have many expectations of getting out.
Instead he sat in what was most probably a kind of a pit. It would have been dark. He would have been cramped and crowded with other prisoners. If he was lucky, he would have had room on the floor to lie down and stretch out, but the ceilings probably would have been too low to stand. It would have stunk terribly. There were no separate latrines and certainly no one was getting showers. During the day, enough dim light would creep in that he could see to write, but only barely. And footsteps on the stairs would mean the jailer was coming – maybe with meager rations, but it was just as likely that he was coming to take another unfortunate soul off to death.
And in that dank, dark, hopeless environment, is it any wonder that Paul wrote of fear and trembling? And not just any fear, but φόβος fear; a word we recognize from our word phobia meaning not just fear, but slavish fear; terror. In the belly of a Roman dungeon, covered in filth, surrounded by the condemned, and awaiting almost certain death, Paul wrote to the church in Philippi of fear and trembling.
But what is interesting is that even if his condition influenced his choosing of those words, he wasn’t describing his condition when he wrote them. Instead he talked to them about humility, about believing that it just might be possible that other people might have a valuable perspective that you do not have. – an easy thing to remember while sitting on death row. And then he closed this passage by saying “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12).
Fear and trembling is for the jailer’s arrival, but Paul talks about fear and trembling with respect to salvation – to being saved. That’s what earns fear and trembling for Paul. And he says further that salvation is not always something that just comes to you easily, but that it is something you have to work out. The Greek says “work your salvation out of yourself” (my translation). Paul wrote from his chains and said “I can give you what you need to hear, but even after hearing it, you need to find a way to dig deep and work that salvation out of yourself.”
Salvation is not just in the afterlife. That salvation comes from God alone and there’s nothing we can do to get it or lose it. But there’s salvation on this earth too. There’s salvation that means being saved from your present condition. There’s salvation that means the world can be better than it is right now. There’s salvation that means hope even when you’re in the midst of despair. But that kind of salvation is not a one-way gift. That kind of salvation you often have to work out of yourself.
If you’re caught in a bad situation, and you want to find salvation, a very brave thing that you can ask yourself is “what is it that keeps me from being saved from this reality?” And that question is brave because you might not like the answer. But you can’t always wait around and expect it to resolve on its own, because often it doesn’t. And though I believe with all my heart that God is in control, I also believe that, just like I do with my children, sometimes God might look down on us in some colossal mess and thing, “Let’s just see how this plays out… let’s see if they can solve this on their own this time.”
And this last couple of weeks feels like one of those times to me. Things are so rough in our country right now. This next part of what I’m about to say, I have written and rewritten and rewritten, and I’m sure I still don’t have it right. But I’ll say that things are rough. There’s a supreme court vacancy, again, only weeks before a presidential election. There was more news about the proceedings following the killing of Breonna Taylor – another killing of an unarmed black person by police officers – news that is unjust and not right. An incredible 204,000 people now have died of Covid-19. And in the midst of that our country seems to grow more divided by the day. And during this time when we deal with this pandemic that truly spans the entire world, when we have this awesome challenge to face, we are saddled with the deep pain and uncertainty of our division. And forgive me, my friends, but I am so angry that there have been so many opportunities this last 7 months to unite our country and our president instead sows more and more seeds of division.
Things seem really grim to me this week. And I read this passage from Paul where he says sometimes you have to work your salvation out for yourself. And it takes fear and trembling.
Someone once asked the controversial Jordan Peterson if he believed in prayer. And he said that he didn’t believe that God was some kind of genie that grants wishes. “But,” he said, “I do think that if you sit on the edge of your bed, and things aren’t going very well for you, and you ask what foolish thing you’re doing to make it worse, that you’ll get an answer right now. And it won’t be the one you want, but it might be the one that if you listen to, would set things straight.”
And so here is why working salvation out of yourself takes fear and trembling. Because if you dig deep and if you are humble and if you are honest, and you say: “This world is so scary and broken, how have I contributed to that brokenness?” at least for me, I can readily find answers about times when I have been selfish, greedy, uncaring, unkind, judgmental, and unchristian. And so we can work salvation out of ourselves, but first we have to be honest about where are. And that involves responsibility, and it involves sometimes a terrible reckoning with the truth. Salvation is on the other side of that, but there is fear and trembling first.
Salvation on this earth quite often takes initiative on our part. It takes work. It takes strength. It takes bravery. It takes the indefinable quality that gives you the hope to go on even when you’re sitting in a Roman prison. It takes the courage to leave an abuser. It takes the courage to a face another day after devastating loss. It takes the grit and determination to dig deep inside yourself to find the will to go on when everything around you tells you to give up. Working out that kind of salvation takes fear and trembling.
If you’re not afraid of the work it takes to find that kind of salvation then you don’t understand it. Work your salvation out of yourself with fear and trembling.
But the fact that you’re afraid of it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. The fact that it causes you to tremble doesn’t mean it’s not the path to freedom. The fact that it’s hard doesn’t mean that it’s not right. And the fact that it’s scary doesn’t mean that you have to do it alone. There are brave women and men who have worked out of themselves their salvation who stand now not as prisoners, but as beacons of hope. Ordinary women and men and heroes and heroines of history. And there is the one who found that salvation who inspired millions. The one who became obedient to death—even death on a cross! The one who therefore God exalted. The one who has the name that is above every name (Phil. 2:8-9).
Jesus who gave Paul the strength to write of hope from a Roman dungeon. Jesus who gave Peter the strength to preach the gospel even though it cost him his life. Jesus who gave Martin Luther the strength to revitalize the Christian Church. Jesus who gave Dr. King the strength to lead a movement of liberation and justice. Jesus who gives the hopeless the strength to look for hope. Jesus who took a murdering persecutor like Paul and helped him work out a salvation that led to the spreading of the Good News throughout the world and through the ages. Jesus who offers the magnitude of that strength to you. Your salvation is near. Your freedom is near. Your liberation is near. And with Christ for you, who can stand against you? Amen.
 Aubrey Marcus Podcast, “How to Live a Meaningful Life with Jordan Peterson,” June 13, 2018.
Sept. 20 - “A Bad Investment” - Rev. Plank
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 20, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“A Bad Investment”
Text: Jeremiah 32:8b-9: “I knew that this was the word of the Lord; so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him seventeen shekels of silver.”
Scripture Lesson: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that Jeremiah’s land purchase was a phenomenal expression of hope to the end that hearers will have courage, believing that no matter how insurmountable a tribulation might seem, there is life beyond it.
Prayer for Illumination: God of possibility, you see beyond our present circumstances. Open our minds and hearts to help us do the same, and give us the courage to trust where you lead us. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Scriptural Context: Jeremiah preached before and during the Exile. These verses this morning come to us in the midst of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. Listen for God’s Word.
The courtyard was beautiful. There was a well that sent up sparkling reflections on the walls when the sun was directly overhead. There were palm trees and flowers. The arches around the courtyard provided shade and kept the stone floors cool, even in the desert heat. It was a good place to sit and think. Jeremiah had done it hundreds of times before. But as he sat on the edge of the well it felt strange. Because this time he was a prisoner.
In the arches, where doorways led out to the rest of the palace, there were chains and guards. The guards weren’t very intimidating, they were just the young trainees. But he still knew escape was impossible. The real soldiers were beyond the courtyard on the city walls. Because outside the walls was Babylon. And every so often, while the trees swayed in the breeze and the water sparkled, the walls would shake as an enormous stone hurtled into them. He was trapped. A prisoner inside a city under siege.
He’d gotten himself into that pickle, but only because he was doing what God had asked him to: he’d spoken the truth. He’d warned people and spread God’s Word. And when God’s Word isn’t the same as what people want to believe and want to hear, they get mad. So here he was in the courtyard-turned-jail.
And then one day, completely improbably, he had a visitor. Boots clicked together and a door creaked open, and in came his cousin Hanamel. He looked ragged and afraid. He had sneaked to the city away from the main force of the Babylonian army and come to find Jeremiah. Hanamel owned a plot of land outside of town. And the holdovers from the old tribal days before the kings were still strong in Jewish culture, which meant that land was owned by a family. You didn’t just sell it to whoever came along, and you didn’t abandon it unless you were taken from it by force. So Hanamel wasn’t just going to leave it, but he did want to hit the bricks and get away from the invaders.
So he came to Jeremiah to get rid of his land. He didn’t want it anymore, but he couldn’t leave it, and he only had one relative who could take it and keep it in the family. So his proposal was that Jeremiah buy it. The price was ridiculously low for what it was: 17 shekels… just a few ounces of silver. Even at that cost though, it would be a ludicrously bad investment.
Everyone could see that Babylon was going to win. Jerusalem was getting weaker all the time. Food was getting more and more scarce, and as the siege went on, the Babylonians started to get hungry too. So they began to send out raiding parties to the countryside to hunt and gather from farms and vineyards and fields. That made Hanamel’s land next to worthless. The Babylonians would pillage it any day now, if they hadn’t already. Not to mention the fact that Jeremiah was in prison, which meant he definitely couldn’t do anything with the land. And once the walls were breached it was a good bet that Jeremiah would either be killed or captured by the invaders, so that would only make things worse. But Hanamel was desperate and the idea of not fulfilling his duty never crossed his mind. So he asked his doomed, imprisoned cousin to buy his worthless land that someone else had stolen already. And Jeremiah agreed.
It made no logical sense. No investment broker in history would recommend taking that deal. There was no good reason to buy that land, but he did. He signed and sealed the deal and did everything by the book and when his cousin walked away, he was the doomed imprisoned owner of a worthless piece of land that someone else had stolen. And people couldn’t understand it. Why would you buy land when the whole country was under siege? Why would you do anything so mundane when the world was falling to pieces? Why would you buy land, which is an investment, when the whole country is under siege and it’s probably going to be stolen anyway?
You know as well as I do the problems that we face as a nation right now. Combating white supremacy and working against a global pandemic are arguably the two biggest, but close behind is the deep and painful division in our country, that only seems to worsen the closer we get to the November election. Our western states are on fire. Our planet is still recovering from the massive fires in Australia and the Amazon within the last 12 months. Our ecological future looks grim, our economy is struggling, and the effects of the global and national shutdowns are nowhere near fully realized yet. That’s to say nothing of the impact of all of this on the already fragile mental health of our nation.
We are under siege. And every new terror that the news brings feels like another stone crashing into the walls that once kept us safe. The problems of our time are so all-consuming that it seems like nothing else matters. Nothing else is important. Nothing else should occupy our time until we can resolve at least some of this unrest. There’s a bumper sticker that’s been around forever that says “If you aren’t outraged, then you’re not paying attention.” I know people my age who refuse to have children because they don’t want to bring someone else into this broken, beat up world.
Jeremiah, sitting in his prison, with an army outside the walls chipping away at their defenses and starving them out, just waiting for their opportunity to annihilate them, had every bit as many reasons to be consumed by the tragedy around him as we do, arguably even more. To give up hope, or to blindly devote himself to working against what was going on. But he pauses from that to make a terrible deal on a trash piece of land. And people ask him why.
And he pauses in the process of dripping wax and sealing the documents and putting them in clay jars for safekeeping. He looks up at those around him who are staring at him like he’s the world’s biggest sucker. He looks at those questioning faces and sighs. And he says, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land” (32:15).
This terrible investment flies in the face of all logic and reason. But that’s something that acts of faith often do. Because that’s what this mundane land transaction is: an act of faith. It is a simple act that looks to the future. And looking to the future is enough. Because if we can see beyond this future we face, even for one simple and mundane act, that is a powerful start. It is an act that rejects the idea that imprisonment and siege and destruction will reign for the rest of time in Jerusalem. It is an act that rejects the idea that God’s people have lost their homeland. It is an act that rejects the idea that there is no longer anything but tragedy here for the Israelites.
It is not some naïve misunderstanding of the facts, or someone who’s had the wool pulled over his eyes. This simple land deal is an act of defiance. And in signing the deeds and paying the 17 shekels, Jeremiah is fulfilling God’s command to demonstrate that the forces of evil and chaos and destruction in this world will not prevail. And instead, hope is alive, and one day it will spring up in full strength.
Young couples will buy houses to start their families. Tribes will buy fields so that they can settle more permanently and provide for each other. Merchants will buy vineyards and invest in the community. It is not the end of Jerusalem. Even with armies outside the gates and the walls tumbling down, it is not the end. Even with intrigue and chaos and fear, it is not the end. Even with despair and violence, it is not the end. For God has plans for hope and for courage and for justice and for peace that are embodied in this simple land deal.
It’s like getting out of bed the morning after your mother dies. It is an act of hope! It’s like kissing your husband after you get fired from your job. It is an act of hope! It’s like buying groceries for the week after your spouse says they want a divorce. It is an act of hope! It’s like buying school supplies for your children, ore registering to vote, or making a dinner reservation. It is an act of hope! An act that says that life will continue beyond this moment, no matter how desperate this moment may be! And with every act of hope we chip away at the darkness, we beat down its offense, we parry and thrust and fight against it with all we have. With every act of hope, we follow God out of the darkness and back into the light. Amen.
Sept. 13 - “Treasure Hunting” - Rev. Plank
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 13, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
Text: Luke 12:34 “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Scripture Lessons: Luke 12:32-40
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that worship equips us to do God’s work to the end that hearers will feel empowered and inspired to do God’s work in the world.
Prayer for Illumination: God our Creator, we come to you humbled and awed by your grace for us. Give us a spirit of understanding this morning so that we may better know what you call us to do. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20: The book of Isaiah opens with the prophet’s writings to the kingdom of Judah; and, as is true of many books of prophecy, begins with a biting critique. Listen for God’s Word.
Luke 12:32-40: Jesus speaks to his disciples in Luke in a much softer tone in these verses, but speaks of some of the same things as Isaiah. Listen for God’s Word here.
Lauren and I replaced one of our cars recently. My trusty old Jeep, which served us well for years, finally at 22 years old just needed too much work to justify. The Jeep is dead, long live the Jeep. So we got a different vehicle, that’s newer and has things like air conditioning and working interior lights, which I’m led to believe come standard on cars these days? But getting into that new car the other day, I did that thing that always happens when you switch cars after having gotten used to one.
I tried to stick the key in a non-existent ignition. I reached for an absent gear shift. I unlocked the doors instead of rolling down the windows, and I fumbled for the seat back adjustment lever. Our bodies adapt so quickly with their muscle memory. You get so used to doing things a certain way that you stop thinking about it. Repeat an action enough times and it becomes hard-wired into your system. It’s the reason that you never have to re-learn to ride a bike; it’s the reason that quarterbacks don’t have to look to make sure the laces on the football are in the right place before they throw a pass; it’s the reason pianists can play entire pieces of music with their eyes closed. We go through the motions of that action so many times that we can do it without even thinking about it.
Doing things without being fully conscious of what we are doing or why we are doing them goes far beyond muscle memory; take our rituals surrounding holidays: Easter, for example. Why do we put out eggs for Easter? They’re used in decorations, we dye them, we get plastic ones filled with small toys or candy; they’re everywhere. But, why? When Jesus rose from the dead, and stunned the disciples by appearing to them in the upper room, did he hand out eggs to them and say “Happy Easter guys, figure out something to do with these.”
No, we use eggs in our celebration of Easter because early Christians often adopted certain pagan rituals and symbols as a means of spreading the gospel. Easter is celebrated right around the time of the spring equinox, which for many cultures marked an enormous celebration of fertility and new life. Eggs are an almost universal symbol of fertility. So the early Christians said: “you have a celebration of new life? So do we! Ours is about a man named Jesus, come and join us! Bring your eggs!”
But even knowing that little bit of history, we probably don’t call it to mind when we dye eggs each spring. We go through the motions and celebrate Easter with eggs because that’s what you do. It’s easy to do things like that on autopilot. We shift out of park without even looking at the gearshift. We do school shopping because it’s the end of August. We dye eggs without once thinking of how that tradition got started. We mouth the words of the Lord’s Prayer while we mentally make our Sunday afternoon to-do lists. We sing the doxology, focusing on that leadwork in the window that we’ve never noticed before.
Going through the motions is as old as time. In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures this morning, the people to whom Isaiah writes have altogether stopped paying attention to what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. The formal worship of God, as practiced by the Israelites, was highly ritualistic. Animals were sacrificed and burnt offerings were offered to God. Everything from the slaughtering, to the butchering, to the parts offered as burnt offerings, to how the blood was treated had extremely specific guidelines.
The rituals in the Temple were being followed to the letter. Sacrificial slaughter was by the book, burnt offering ceremonies were immaculate, incense tinctures were perfect, every festival was kept, not one word of a prayer was misspoken. But God speaks through Isaiah and says in no uncertain terms “these rituals just won’t cut it anymore.” God says “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts… Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… I cannot endure solemn assemblies… your new moons and your appointed festivals… have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them” (vv. 11-14).
This is confusing, coming from God. Israelite worship depended upon these rituals. There are chapters and chapters in the first five books of the Bible – what our Jewish brothers and sisters call the Torah or the Law – devoted to the proper practice of the rituals of worship. These rituals were so important that an entire Hebrew tribe – the Levites – were entrusted with enacting them and overseeing the teaching of them. And here, God appears to Isaiah in a vision, and through him God says to the people: “stop the rituals!”
But as the passage progresses we see that the root of God’s anger is not the smell of incense, it’s not the burnt offerings, it’s not mud on the Temple floor, it’s not that the festivals have gotten too raucous, it’s that worship has become empty. The people forgot why they did any of this worship in the first place. They had gone back to the old ways of corruption, exploitation, pettiness, bitterness, but were still engaging in the ritualized worship of God, failing to acknowledge the hypocrisy of their empty worship. “Wash and make yourselves clean,” God says, “Take your evil deeds out of my sight!...”
And I don’t know about you, but I feel some conviction reading this text the week of the 19th anniversary of September 11th. We all have been reminded this week of that day. We’ve been reminded of the unity so many of us enjoyed on September 12th – though it bears mentioning that a whole lot of Americans who were Muslim or had Middle Eastern roots were scapegoated hard that first September 12th. But I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the unity that was present then is gone now. And so the anniversary of September 11th, 2001 one comes, and there are pictures of the towers and we say “Never Forget,” never forget the sacrifice, never forget how we came together, never forget the heroism, etc. But I think we forgot. We devolve deeper and deeper into our echo chambers instead of working to build relationships across lines. I’m not willing to go so far as to say that our memorializing of September 11th is a ritual that’s become empty, but I think we’re already starting to see it be on autopilot. And that’s the beginning of what evolved to where the people of faith were.
And so God offered an alternative to their empty worship. God reminds the people what worship really is. Worship is not just some collection of rites and ceremonies. God says “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (vv. 16-17). This is not a tirade against ceremony or organized religion; it is an urgent call to stop just going through the motions, and to transform worship into something more powerful than hollow rituals.
Because worship is about so much more than going through the motions. We’re gathered virtually worshiping today, but for what? It’s about more than rituals. It’s about more than burnt offerings, festivals, and “solemn assemblies.” It’s about more than hymns, more than the Apostles’ Creed, more than the collection plate, even more than celebrating the sacraments. Worship is about praising God, and more than that, it’s about doing God’s work. Worship goes beyond the prayers and hymns and ceremony. Worship is seeking justice, encouraging the oppressed, defending the cause of the fatherless, pleading the case of the widow. Worship is building relationships and healing our communities.
The Directory for Worship, which is the section of the Presbyterian Book of Order that outlines in detail how and why we worship as a community of faith, is absolutely clear in its understanding of the relationship between worship and doing God’s work in the world: “God’s call to compassion is proclaimed in worship. Those called are equipped and strengthened for the ministry of compassion by the proclamation of the Word and by the celebration of the Sacraments” (W-7.3002).
We are called and empowered through worship to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humble with our God. We are called to build bridges, to be restorers of the breach, to forge partnerships and strengthen relationships. We are called to plant instead of destroy, to build up instead of tear down. We are called to make the world a kinder, better place. This is worship.
It is a call to worship echoed throughout the Bible. “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). This is worship. And it is a worship that Jesus describes as being rich beyond imagining.
When I was a kid, my mom would design a treasure hunt for me and my brother on the last day of school. Riddles and clues would lead us to a cache of summer toys, hidden somewhere clever. But when we got too focused on the clues, when we got too stuck in the literal, and couldn’t wrap our minds around what the words on the paper were pointing to, we went nowhere and our treasure hunt just led to frustration.
When we get so caught up in saying the right words, saying the right prayers, playing the right music, singing the right songs, we get caught on the clues and miss the treasure. The treasure is not a worship service. The treasure is worship that uplifts God’s people, that empowers them to serve others and stand up for those too beaten down to stand for themselves, that urges them to do justice and love kindness. Jesus calls us to make for ourselves through our worship, “an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34).
The kingdom of God is not merely some far away heaven, that we go to when we die, it is a world of peace and love and justice. It is the treasure at the end of the treasure hunt. And when we work to do God’s will, we build up that kingdom in our hearts. By doing God’s work in the world we are empowered and blessed to experience heaven on Earth! That is why we rejoice that we are empowered to answer God’s call to do justice. That is why we go into the world and do God’s will. That is why we worship. Amen.