February 9, 2020
5th Sunday after Epiphany, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
A beautiful thing happened here at Gloria Dei a couple Christmas Eves ago. It was the 10:30pm candlelight service, and this sanctuary was packed, as it always is on Christmas Eve. Sitting right up close to the front was a man I didn’t recognize, which actually wasn’t that surprising; usually, there are a lot of people I don’t recognize worshiping here on Christmas Eve. But this man sitting up front had come carrying a backpack full of his belongings and looked somewhat disheveled. Needless to say, he stood out in a sea of suits and Christmas sweaters. As worship went on, it became clear that, although he seemed to have some understanding of how worship works and was trying hard to participate, this man was struggling to follow along in the bulletin, find his way around the hymnal, and join in all the congregational responses.
Here’s the part that was so beautiful: A member of Gloria Dei who was sitting nearby saw everything that was going on, and I watched as she turned to help him navigate the bulletin and opened his hymnal to all the right pages. She told me afterward she wasn’t sure if she should get involved, but then she thought, “We always say we’re so welcoming, but how welcoming are we really if I see this man struggling and choose not to help?”
Singing “Silent Night” by candlelight is always a moving experience, but it was even more so that night as I watched this man holding a candle and singing with tears streaming down his face. I wondered when the last time was that he had been invited to join his voice with a few hundred others singing four-part harmony almost as beautifully as one of our renowned Lutheran college choirs, or to hear glorious brass leading the singing of Joy to the World, or even just to exchange greetings of “Merry Christmas” with a crowd full of smiling people. I wondered how often he has the experience of someone telling him, “Welcome! We’re so glad you’re here. May I help you with that?” What I saw that night on Christmas Eve was worship at its very best.
The prophet Isaiah had been observing worship at its worst.
Actually, it sounds like the worship was great. The people apparently loved it, anyway. Isaiah says the people “delight” to know God’s ways, and that they “delight” in drawing near to God. Twice Isaiah says the people “delight” in worship. But Isaiah is not delighted. The people have taken up fasting, a spiritual practice of denying ourselves in order to be drawn closer to God, but they’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. The people are fasting and then turn to God and say, “Hello, God, are you up there? We’re doing it; we’re fasting. Can’t you see it? Are you not paying attention? Why isn’t this working?!” It’s almost like they think that the purpose of fasting is to manipulate God into giving them what they want; like it’s all just a calculated effort to make God do something useful for them. Meanwhile, Isaiah says, these worshippers continue to oppress their workers and quarrel with one another. They don’t even notice that people are struggling around them because they’re too focused on themselves. It seems the more attention they give to their worship and their ostentatious displays of piety, the less focused they are on God’s vision for their life together.
So Isaiah says, enough with your self-centered worship and your false religion. This is the fast God chooses: Loose the bonds of injustice. Set the oppressed free. Share your food with the hungry. House the homeless. And don’t pretend those people don’t exist. Don’t pretend you don’t see them or assume someone else will come to their rescue. Isaiah is telling the people, if you’ve come to enjoy worship but are leaving these things undone, you should have just stayed home.
Pastor Rochelle Stackhouse serves First Church of Christ, better known as Center Church, in Hartford, Connecticut. Center Church is right downtown, near the State Capitol and surrounded by tall skyscrapers and apartment buildings, as well as soup kitchens and homeless shelters. When the church was built in 1806, its steeple was the highest point in the city, but today the steeple of Center Church peeks out between much larger buildings.
Pastor Stackhouse was called to Center Church at a time when that congregation had just launched a $2 million capital campaign to restore the church’s crumbling steeple—a project she was not excited about at all. She says she’s always had a hard time justifying the “tremendous amount of money spent on buildings, money which, [she had] always thought, could do more good elsewhere in ministry.” But this was the call she had accepted and she committed herself to the project.
On Sunday mornings, Center Church throws open its front doors and sets up a table outside with coffee and granola bars for people passing by. One Sunday morning, a man named Joe stopped by the table. Church members recognized him as one of the guests at the congregation’s “no-freeze” homeless shelter the previous winter. He took some coffee and then asked if he could come inside for worship. Of course, they said, everyone is invited to worship. Pastor Stackhouse writes about what happened next: “Joe stayed for worship that day, and he told me afterward that he had not been anywhere so beautiful in a very long time. He didn’t feel welcome in beautiful places. He couldn’t afford concerts, and our choir sang so beautifully he felt like he had been at one. Joe became a worship regular and got to know some of our members well. He brought friends and encouraged others to come in from coffee to worship. Perhaps the building had a purpose I had not seen in our quest to serve those who needed help most in our city.”
After some more reflection, Pastor Stackhouse realized it’s not just people who are hungry or homeless who are served by the church—that, in fact, “sometimes those who need help the most may not be the most obvious candidates for that title.” When the steeple was under construction, the church started getting all sorts of questions on Facebook from people who work in those nearby downtown office buildings and from students at the nearby university. After construction, they wondered, would the clock at the top of the steeple finally work again? Would they also be restoring those old bells? It turns out Center Church’s steeple meant something to this downtown community. “In an age when so many people talk about mindfulness,” Pastor Stackhouse writes, “the steeple and the bell have a role to play in calling people to pause and be mindful…. The invitation comes to stop and listen, to look up and remember that there is something greater than us, longer than now, something beyond endless commerce and meetings, someone to whom, in an older understanding of the universe, that steeple points. In the same way as the call to prayer coming from a minaret five times a day invites Muslims to stop and get some perspective on their lives, so the bell in [Center Church’s] steeple issues the same call to office workers, apartment dwellers, people waiting at the bus stop, and sanitation workers.”
Last week, we launched a capital campaign to raise funds for the renovation of this space—our sanctuary. In his sermon, Pastor Bradley reminded us that this sanctuary has always been meant for the sake of the world, not for our private devotion. If we come to this project hoping that a new organ and a sanctuary renovation will increase our delight in worship, then we are doing it for all the wrong reasons. But if we are looking outward toward those who struggle in our community, toward those who are hungry or homeless or to anyone who feels spiritually empty, chewed up and spit out by the daily grind of life; if we are focused on those who are hurting and broken and believe that what we do together in this space can be a source of healing and transformation—like it was on Christmas Eve for an outsider who found a welcome here and joined our congregation’s song; if that’s what this project means to us, then I do believe our light will rise and this congregation will continue to be a beacon of God’s love and mercy shining brightly in this little corner of St. Paul and beyond.
Carol J. Dempsey, “Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12): Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Andrew Foster Connors, “Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12): Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Rochelle A. Stackhouse, “Learning to Love Our Church’s (Expensive) Steeple,” in The Christian Century, December 5, 2018, accessed February 7, 2019, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/learning-love-our-church-s-expensive-steeple.