Here, I am

hari stephen kumar
February 9, 2014.
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 25:31

I could never be a minister.

I don’t know how ministers do it.

Let’s face it, we’ve been spoiled, right? Sarah made it look easy. Scott is so graceful.

It’s only when you are in my shoes, up here, filling in, that you realize just how much ministers do to make this look so smooth.

So, fair warning: this ain’t gonna be smooth.

I mean, we as church members often come into a Sunday worship service and leave in about an hour’s time without thinking too much about what all went into that hour.

Let’s check out the bulletin shall we? There’s the prelude music, the announcements, the call to worship, the first hymn, the invocation, the Lord’s prayer, the Gloria Patri (no idea what that is), the time with the young, the scripture readings, the anthem, then this sermon (which, by the way, I’m getting to, hang on a bit), then the second hymn, then the joys and concerns, then the pastoral prayer (Sarah set a high bar for that one, by the way, I gotta tell you I’m nervous about how I’m going to do it), the response, the morning offering, then the closing hymn, and the benediction, and then the hellos and goodbyes at the door.

Whew.

And oh by the way, while we are holding this in our hands, let’s not forget the bulletin – this thing that someone hands to us when we walk in the door, this thing that we might only glance at briefly as we settle into our pews, but it’s something that Delores works so hard to put together during the week, so that at the start of this one hour on Sunday we would get it in our hands as we walk in the door.

And then there’s Toni, doing her terrific ministry with the Choir, who are themselves terrific, and they’ve been working hard during the week, practicing the songs we sing today.

And then there’s Lauri, God bless her for her work with the kids, Lauri who has missed most of Sarah’s sermons so that we could be here instead, while our kids learn wonderful things about God because of Lauri’s ministry.

And then there’s Mary and her amazing ministry. Any of us here ever had a toddler in church who started crying? I can’t imagine anyone wanting that to happen, but Mary actually CHOOSES to be in a small room with crying toddlers during service so that we can worship here instead.

Mary, Lauri, Toni, Delores. Wow. They deserve some extra hugs and thanks today from us, by the way, don’t you think? Be sure to do so when you see them after service.

And this doesn’t even take into account all the folks who volunteer each Sunday to make this happen. The Deacons, the greeters, the Sunday School teachers (a shout out to my wife Alexis who’s back there now), and Tom Giles out there opening the door and greeting people even on cold winter days. And Elliott over there doing digital magic so that folks in the Valley and beyond can watch a recording of the service.

And then there are the folks who take care of this building during the week, like Brian back there, and the good people of the Properties Committee. Not to mention all the other ministries and Committees and task forces and meetings: the Take and Eat ministry, the Finance Committee, the Missions Committee, the Christian Education board, the Church Council, and so on and so forth.

That’s a lot of people.

That’s a lot of time and money and work and love and effort and care and pride.

All so that for one hour once a week we can gather and have what we call a “worship service.”

And then we run into a piece of Scripture where God says, effectively, “You call this worship? Here’s what I want for worship: feed the hungry, care for the poor, love the stranger, clothe the naked, free the imprisoned, welcome the homeless into your own homes.”

Yikes!

See? I told you it wasn’t gonna be smooth.

I’m sure Sarah would have eased us into that transition much more gently and lovingly. Scott would have led up to it with grace and humor.

I tell ya, I don’t know how they do it.

So, alright, you know how Sarah would sometimes say “Beep, beep, back up the truck?” Well it feels like I just got us run over by one, so let’s back away a bit and check it out.

This passage we read from Isaiah, it turns out, is a fairly common message that the people of Israel heard from their prophets. All the time. The people of Israel kept setting up systems of religious practices, to show to God and to each other how holy they were, and the prophets kept telling them, “No, you’re doing it wrong, you’re missing the point, it’s about love, it’s about justice.” The people of Israel kept forgetting who God is: God on the move; God of the desert; God who cannot be confined in a cage, a building, or a garden; God who meets us where we are.

In this particular passage, Isaiah is rebuking the people of Israel for how they practiced fasting on specific ‘fast days’, how they would show off by bowing their heads and putting on long mournful faces and wearing sackcloth and ashes and stuff. And, of course, not eating, but that was often done symbolically. Isaiah is taking them to task for putting so much into a display of ‘fasting’ and missing the point about the kind of fasting God really wants from them.

So when we come to such a passage, now, thousands of years later, we can breathe a sigh of relief, right? That was back then! That was about something different! Whew, it’s not about us, here in Hadley, right?

Similarly, when we read in Matthew what Jesus is saying to his disciples, and he says stuff about how feeding the hungry and caring for the sick is like feeding him and caring for him, we can breathe another sigh of relief, right? We have our Take and Eat ministry, we have a Crisis fund, a Missions Committee, right?

So we could simply say, cool, these are just warning passages, but we get it, good thing we’re not like those clueless people! Move on, hari. Wrap it up will ya?

There’s something more here. Why does this message keep coming up in the Bible, over and over again, to so many different groups of people? Surely they couldn’t ALL have been so clueless, would they?

Theologian Ted Jennings says this about the Bible and the Church:

“From beginning to end the Biblical word is the relentless critique of the people who think they are God’s people. And the word of God is the word that tells the people of God, that God has had it with them.

Your sacrifices make me want to throw up, your temple is a hangout for bandits, your piety is filthy hypocrisy. Give me justice.”

See, the thing is, every group in the Bible who received this message thought they were the people of God. They thought they were doing it right, they thought they got it, they thought the way they did worship was good, holy, pleasing to God. After all, they thought, wasn’t this always the way we worshipped? Aren’t these our traditional ways?

So if we took the Bible seriously and took another look at what we think is worship, we might see a few unsettling things.

Take, for example, even the ways we sit. These pews we sit in become somewhat odd when you start looking at them sideways. I’ll tell ya, from up here, y’all are in, like, little stalls with doors. I mean, I’ve got myself quite literally a captive audience!

Well it turns out pews were a modern invention in European and then American churches in the late 18th century. They were a way to squeeze more people in and generate more money for churches. In fact, in many churches at the time, especially in America, it was common for churches to charge people rent for pews. If you attended church, you had to pay.

We did that even here in Hadley, apparently. Take a look back there. You see those cabinets along the wall? They have various historical artifacts like the old Communion cups and flasks people donated to the church from back in the 1840s and such. But see that picture frame up there on the left? It’s got a seating chart in it, from 1841. And there are names and dollar amounts listed in each pew. The highest amount is $26.40, paid by one Thomas F. West for what looks like the pew in the very back. In today’s money that’s roughly $800. You can also see some other names on that chart: a few Hopkins, some Barstows, several Smiths, and a few others.

I don’t know if that was the monthly rent or the yearly rent or just a one-time payment. I do know that in many churches the most expensive pews were in the back, and the ones in the front were the cheapo seats. I’m not sure if that’s how Hadley did it, but can you imagine?

Regardless of what the intent might have been, can you imagine being one of the people up in these front seats?

We might imagine walking into this sanctuary, walking past all the pews with people who are wealthier than us, walking all the way up here. We might imagine sitting down, and feeling both the intense stare from the minister, up here, talking down to us, AND the stares and glances from the people behind us, the richer ones.

We might pluck nervously at our threadbare clothes, our messy hair, our grimy children. We might hear a few sniffs and whispers. In those moments this place might feel the furthest from being a “sanctuary.”

“You call this worship?”

“Give me justice.”

But surely, we can say that that’s in the past, right? I mean, we put that seating chart up there only as a historical artifact, right? Just to remember our church tradition, right?

Well, what happens is, these things become embedded into how we think we ought to do things. They become sacred in and of themselves.

I’ve only been here a little over a year, but I hear stories all the time about how, a few years or maybe a few decades ago, there was some kind of major debate in this church about how to make the sanctuary more accessible to folks in wheelchairs or mobility devices. I wasn’t here, so all I have are stories, and it’s entirely likely that this is all gossip, but it’s easy to imagine, isn’t it? Maybe it didn’t happen here, but it’s easy to imagine how maybe in some other church the controversy would be over how to rearrange these sacred historic pews, where to make space, etc.

I also hear, and again, no idea if this is true, but I love this part of the story, that one anonymous person got so fed up with this that one moonless and stormy night, they snuck into the sanctuary and brought their power tools and basically sawed off one row of pews.

And nothing more was ever said about the matter since.

And so now we have a space here for Dawn, and for Heidi Allen when she is able to visit, and for any visitors who might come into this place in a wheelchair.

Look, I don’t know if it was night or stormy or whatever when that happened, but hey, since I’m telling this story, I might as well make it dramatic, so I like to imagine lightning flashing out those windows while in here there’s the noise of wood splintering and power tools buzzing.

Music to my ears.

If it weren’t for that anonymous soul, we might not have gotten to know the wonderful life and ministry that Dawn brings to us.

So, you know, it’s a good thing I’m not a minister.

I would burn the pews.

And then the Properties Committee would likely add me to the burning pile too.

We might continue in this way to look at other aspects of our “worship” service. Like our hymnals, which feature several ‘classic’ hymns but also feature hymns that, clearly, the people who wrote the hymnal didn’t quite know what to do with.

Take, for example, hymn 179, which we are about to sing in a few minutes. Would you turn to it with me?

See, this hymn is a classic Good Friday hymn, to be sung in memory of the crucifixion of Christ. But at the time this hymnal was written, segregation was standard in America and so it was perfectly acceptable at the time for the publishers to describe this as a “Negro Spiritural.”  Wording that makes us cringe today.

But see, it’s not just about politically correct wording. Take a look at how the hymnal struggles to figure out how to describe this hymn. If this is a “Negro Spiritual”, what race is associated with the hymn on the right?

Take a look at the melody description: the melody for this hymn gets dismissed as being “Irregular” but the one on the right apparently fits some kind of standard system of syllables and notes and whatever.

Imagine if we were someone coming from the long tradition of the hymn on the left. A tradition marked by oppression and dehumanization through slavery. A tradition that witnessed innocent men and women, brothers and sisters, being lynched on trees, and in that moment connected with the crucifixion of Christ to produce this powerful song.

And we walk in here, into this sanctuary, and we see that tradition get dismissed as Irregular.

No wonder that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Sunday worship service the most segregated hour in America.

“You call this worship?”

“Give me justice.”

So, again, good thing I’m not a minister.

I would burn the hymnals.

Alright, at this point you’re probably saying, geez, sure seems like hari is some kind of pyromaniac who doesn’t like church very much.

And, well, yeah. True.

But you see, there’s a twist.

This is about more than making ourselves feel bad.

You see, those passages from Isaiah and Matthew have often been used to scold churches.

The basic sermon outline goes like this: “If you feel like God isn’t listening to your prayers, do more good! Be a better person! Then God will hear you!”

But there’s a deeper twist.

It turns out that’s not quite what God is saying. That’s not what Jesus is saying.

Turn with me again to that core passage from Isaiah, which goes something like “Do good stuff, feed the hungry, yada yada yada” and then it says:

“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

Here I am.

That’s the core promise, isn’t it?

That’s always been the core promise of God.

That God is a God of relationship.

That God is the God who said to Moses, when he asked ‘Who shall I say is calling?’ and God says to Moses to tell the people, “I AM THAT I AM, AND I WILL BE THAT I WILL BE.”

That God, the great I AM, will be there, in the midst of our greatest trouble.

Isn’t that at the core of our own longing too?

That in our deepest loneliness, in our worst trouble, that we would feel God saying “Here. I am.”

Isn’t that why the last words Jesus spoke before he died are so painful to hear?

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Haven’t we all felt that way? Maybe feel that way still?

But what God is saying here is even bigger.

It’s not BECAUSE we do good things that God will hear our prayers.

It’s IN doing justice that we experience God’s presence.

It’s IN feeding the hungry, housing the homeless in our own homes, that we walk hand in hand with God, who guides us, who will go before us, who will be our rear guard.

I like to think of that phrase “Here I am” with a comma in it, after the word “Here”, so it becomes “Here, I am.”

In being with the homeless, being with the poor, we encounter God who’s “here” with them.

So no wonder, then, if we are surrounded by God’s presence in doing justice, we can hear God say, when we call out for help, “Here. I am.”

Jesus takes this many steps further, as he always does.

You see, for Jesus, it’s way more than just helping those other people out there.

For Jesus, it’s about seeing “those people” as if they were actually Jesus himself.

It’s about approaching “those people” as folks we can learn from, folks who can love us, folks whom WE need, not the other way around.

That’s why, for Jesus, along with God saying “Here. I am.” is us being THERE, with God, in the midst of another person’s pain and suffering.

It’s about US also saying “Here. I am.”

And saying so not just to God, but to other people, to each other.

And that’s an awkward thing to do.

How awkward? Well, let’s try it shall we?

Let’s try turning to our neighbor, right now, and just say to them: “Here. I am.”

Go ahead, it’s awkward, I’m going to do it too.

<PAUSE >

Whew. Awkward.

Unsettling, right?

That’s not how we do things around here!

Again, good thing I’m not a minister.

Or at least a paid minister.

Because, see, that’s what these passages are about, they’re about encountering a God who is unsettling to experience. Walter Brueggemann has a wonderful book titled “An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible,” in which he describes how everytime we encounter God we are shaken, changed, challenged, moved to live out God’s love and justice in the world.

These passages are  about realizing that WE are called to minister to one another, not just to hire a paid professional Christian to do the job for us.

Here’s how Ted Jennings describes it:

“The church must be delivered from its captivity to religion. The movement of the Galilean that rejected every form of religious observance has fallen captive to the religious trade. Instead of the priesthood of all believers we insist on the priesthood of managerial and professional elites. We must learn again that the only ministry there can be in the community of Jesus is a ministry of the people, a participation of ALL the people in the mission and ministry of Jesus. … We will have to learn that the only worship acceptable to God is the shape of our life in the world.”

I love that last part: “The only worship … is the shape of our life in the world.”

Friends, I don’t mean to say we don’t need ministers like Sarah or Scott. We do. They have tremendous gifts and we need to be pastored well by folks like them who challenge us to always seek after God. And we should look earnestly for our next settled pastor.

But we are indeed at a key turning point for our church.

We need to ask ourselves, who are we as a church? What does it mean for us to worship?

Is worship just a show we stage for one hour once a week?

Or is worship “the shape of our life in the world?” And if so, what kind of shape do we want that to be?

Do we always look to a professional Christian to do the job of worship for us? To minister TO us on demand, because we pay their salary?

Or are we going to minister to one another, as ministers together? And not just to one another but to the world outside these old walls?

Are we going to seek God’s presence, to be with Jesus, to hear God say “Here, I am.” If so, then we need to be prepared to go THERE, to BE THERE, with God.

Amen?

Amen.