No More Bull!
A sermon on Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20 by Nathan Nettleton, 12 August 2001

Our liturgical expression of faith can nurture but not substitute for putting our faith into action.


Scripture passages like the one we heard read from the prophet Isaiah are a challenge to us because they list various aspects of the ways we worship, and describe them as things that God hates and despises. Such passages are, of course, a favourite of those who advocate a no-frills approach to worship and who would condemn much of the colour and movement of our worship practices. They would tell us that it says, right here, that incense is an abomination to the Lord, and therefore we shouldn’t be using it. Of course they’ll probably overlook the fact that it also says that God has had a gutful of prayers and doesn’t intend to listen to any more of them. Now it would be easy for me to stand up here and trade insults and accusations with those who don’t like what we do, but that won’t help us face the real question: what does God think of the way we worship and how does it relate to the things that are most important to God?

Frederick Buechner has said that there are basically two ways to worship God. One way is to do things for God that God needs to have done — run errands for God, carry messages for God, fight on God’s side, feed God’s lambs, and so on. The other way is to do things for God that you need to do — sing songs for God, create beautiful things for God, give things up for God, tell God what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in God and make a fool of yourself for God the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love. He goes on to say that whether your liturgical style is that of the Quaker Meeting, the Pontifical High Mass, the Family Service, or the Holy Roller Happening — unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful. That is to say, the time would be better spent sticking to the first way of worshipping God - doing things that God needs to have done.

Now I could be wrong about Frederick Buechner here, but I don’t think he’s saying that we should chose between these two ways of worshipping and just specialise in one or the other. What I am quite sure about, on the basis of what we heard from Isaiah, is that God does not think we can specialise in good liturgy and ignore the call to do things that God needs to have done. Isaiah lists some of the things that God needs to have done: bring about justice; prevent the use and abuse of people; stand up for the vulnerable; take sides with the forgotten. These are things that matter a great deal to God, things that God desperately wants to do; but as St Theresa put it, God has no hands and feet in the world to do these things, but ours. God needs us to do these things.

Furthermore, it appears quite clear that what God was objecting too so strongly about the liturgy of Jerusalem was the fact that it was being offered by people who had opted out of doing these other things that God needed to have done. There is nothing to suggest that God was objecting because their liturgy was sub-standard. Rather the objection is that when the faith that is expressed in the liturgy is not being put into practice in the people’s relationships with one another in the rest of their lives, then that liturgy is an act of hypocrisy and hypocrisy makes God sick. God says, “When you stretch out your hands in prayer, all I can see is the blood on your hands, so I turn away in disgust.”

So, what I think we can say for sure, is that it wouldn’t matter how perfect our liturgy was or how perfectly we carried it out each week, it will be a complete waste of time if we are not also doing what our prayers say we will do and that is living lives that are dedicated to the ways of justice and mercy and peace and solidarity with the needy and the powerless. If we were to go in to bat for the mistreated asylum seekers in this country, it would do more to make our liturgy pleasing to God than improving our the harmonies of our singing would. Befriending some of the neglected kids on the estate across the road would do more to make our Sunday Eucharist a welcome gift of love to our God than all our lighting candles and lifting our hands in prayer.

That much seems clear, but there is still another question of whether our liturgies are of any value at all. There are plenty of people who would say that we would be better off getting on with the work of justice and compassion and not bothering about all this word and song stuff. Are they right? Well if it were an either/or, then they probably are; but what if it’s a both/and? If we are doing our best to live out our faith in our relationships with the world around us, is it important to gather together to praise God in song and prayer as well, or is that just hot air?

In the writing I quoted earlier, Frederick Buechner suggested that in our liturgies, as we sing and pray and rejoice and create beauty for God, we are doing things for God that we need to do. He’s not putting it down; he seems to be suggesting that perhaps we were created with the need to do those things for God. But he’s also saying that we might as well be honest about it and admit that our doing of those things is not nearly as important to God as our creation of justice and love. And what he is saying there seems to be very much in synch with what Isaiah was saying, because Isaiah too tells us that God says, “I don’t need your sacrifices; I don’t need your festivals; I don’t need your prayers.”

But if Buechner is right that these are nevertheless things that we have our own need to do, then it is no wonder that elsewhere in the Bible God encourages us to do them. They may not be of such direct benefit to God, but God loves us and wants us to do what we need to do to become the whole people that we were created to be. It is something of a paradox, I know, but perhaps one of the reasons it is still important to engage in this activity is that in doing what we need to do we allow God to progressively transfigure us into what God needs us to be.

This is not that bizarre when you think about it. When my daughter (3 y.o.) spends half an hour making me a strange thing out of cut up bits of paper and masses of sticky tape and brings it to me enthusiastically saying, “Here you are, Daddy, this is for you!”, the importance of that transaction is not that I can’t live another day without one of those things. I don’t need the thing, but she needs to make it for me and give it to me. For her it is an act of love and generosity and doing that is part of how she will learn to be a loving and generous person throughout her life. There may well be days down the track when her ability to be loving and generous will enable her to do things that I very genuinely and even desperately need her to do.

This strange and seemingly wasteful activity of giving up half an hour a day and a couple of hours on Sundays to spend in apparent foolishness may have no obvious or direct benefit to the world. But, if it is not just a smokescreen to hide corrupt lives behind, then perhaps it is related to our ability to become the agents of justice and mercy and love that God needs us to be in exactly the same way as my daughter’s giving of strange paper and tape objects is to her ability to grow into warm-hearted and generous adulthood. And if that is the case, then I suggest that we stand up and do what we need to do with all the uninhibited love and foolishness we can possibly muster!