9 Pentecost: Forget about worship…worry about where your treasure is

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We should feel alarmed and threatened.

Isaiah is telling us,
with the voice of God
on his lips no less,
that formal, public worship
should be eliminated.

Luke is telling us,
on the voice of Jesus no less,
that we should sell everything we have
and give even the proceeds of that sale
to the poor.

Now, I could perform a little dance
around these two voices
and explain away the radicalism
in favor of a more mainstream view,
but it would just be a dance.

So let’s go a little deeper
and see if there is something for us
in these two prophets
that lived more than five hundred years apart

Isaiah is a poet extraordinaire,
a second generation prophet-poets,
with Amos, Hosea and Micah
being among the first.

Isaiah leans on Amos and Hosea,
and Jeremiah leans on Isaiah,
and on and on until we get to Jesus.

Then Jesus leans on Isaiah and Micha
and on and on
until we get to the prophets and martyrs
of our generations.

We must always remember
that Jesus did not just appear out of nowhere,
and teach what he taught
as if it began with him.

Rather, Jesus swims in the river of wisdom
that flows from the earliest
human encounters with the holy,
all the way to you and me
where that wisdom meets up
with the still small voices we hear
within the silences of our own lives.

Basically, Isaiah had the unenviable task
of speaking truth to power
at a time when everything looked pretty good.

The Northern and Southern Kingdoms
we associate with Israel
were getting along for once,
and they were prosperous
with strong armies
and even some newly invented
military technology
that none of their neighbors possessed.

Uzziah had his own stable of in-house prophets –
seers, dream weavers,
and oracles
that mostly told him
what he wanted to hear.
The Temple had a caste of clergy
who regulated a pretty tight ship,
and served the power of the king.

Their attention was on doing ‘good church’
as seminarians would say
about worship.

But the prophets like Isaiah,
did what poets are supposed to do:
they saw.

Not only did they see,
they described what they saw
in powerful language
that was often threatening
to the king and clergy.

It wasn’t all dark and terrible either.
Some of the prophesies
were magnificently hopeful
and encouraging.

But in today’s reading from Isaiah,
what we have
are words that pierced the armor
of prosperity and power.

Basically what Isaiah is saying,
or what God is saying on the lips of Iaiah
if you wish to believe that claim,
is that what really matters
is not religion
but integrity.

What God wants from us,
Isaiah seems to be saying,
is not worship but integrity.

Now, integrity is measured
by the distance between
what we say we believe and value
and how we actually live day to day.

It is a really scary word
when if we think about it that way.

What God really wants from us,
Isaiah says, is our integrity.

Scholars and theologians of good will
argue about whether
Isaiah is suggesting
that all worship
be thrown out with the bathwater, or not.
The Temple,
whether in Isaiah’s day or ours,
has a vested interest
in keeping the Temple
at the center of the religion
and the prophets
often seemed at tension
with the temple, which
they accused of lacking integrity.

But I think it would be a reach for us
and most church-folks today,
to think about eliminating worship
since worship is often
the only element of spiritual practice
that many people engage in.
But we could make a case,
based upon the prophets,
that instead of calling for a new prayer book
or better music,
we should be calling
for the elimination of worship.

That’s right: eliminate worship
in favor of lives of justice and compassion.

When worship gets in the way,
cut it out Jesus might say,
as with the offending eye.

Or as Isaiah wrote:
“…learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Come now,
let us argue it out,
says the Lord…”

But calling for the elimination
of worship
is the same as Jesus’ tough talk
about selling all our possessions
and giving the proceeds to the poor.

Like that is going to happen.

But let’s back up
on this Jesus talk
because there is something
hiding here in plain.

There is no way Jesus
would tell his audience
of highly deprived and impoverished listeners
to sell all they have
and give it to the poor.

They were the poor!

I’ve described the situation before
but it is worth reminding ourselves
when we hear Luke tell a story like this one.
Wealthy Roman citizens
who lived in Italy
and likely didn’t travel far,
engaged in real estate speculation and development
out on the outer margins of their empire.

They would wait until
drought or floods caused real hardship
to peasants farming their little plots,
and then their agents would arrive
offering loans
to help the peasants buy seeds for the next cycle.

Because they were desperate
and had no recourse,
the peasants took the loan
and almost without fail,
would eventually default on it.

Then, all of a sudden,
their land,
which was the one thing
that peasants had to keep them from slavery,
belonged to an absentee landlord.

The peasant then became a tenant farmer
or worse,
was kicked off the land with nothing.

Heck, that is a scenario
that happens in the United States.
In my home state of Indiana
and elsewhere in the breadbasket,
most of the farmland now belongs
to large corporations
who have repeated that same ancient pattern.

The reason I mention this
is because Jesus was talking to the bottom 99.99% —
which in that society
and in that time,
were desperately poor
and without the slightest social safety net.

“Give away your possessions?”
What possessions?

“Give alms?”
With what?

It just doesn’t make sense for Jesus
to say such things to the audience
with whom he was speaking.

BUT…Luke’s audience
would have contained people
who actually had slaves,
and people who worked for people
who had slaves.

Luke did not know Jesus,
but he was speaking to Gentile Romans
in a society removed by time
and geography
from Jesus.

And that is true for all the Gospel editors –
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Luke and the other Gospel editors,
along with Paul,
are speaking to people like us.
That was their mission.
They sought to take
the stories and teachings attributed to Jesus,
and interpret them for the distant,
more affluent
people of the empire…us.

But be that as it may,
there is a gem of a sentence
in today’s reading from Luke,
that has Jesus written all over it.
It is the very prophetic sounding phrase
about the contrast between our heart
and our treasure.

That, by the way,
is a hallmark of an authentic
first century Jewish parable:
a spare, single point of contrast
unfettered by all the fluff
of an allegory.

Luke’s words on the lips of Jesus
boil down to a question of integrity:
“…where our treasure is,
there our heart will be also.”

Where our treasure is,
there our heart will be also.

So simple.
So eloquent.
So exquisitely truthful
in such a poetic way.

Our treasure, our heart.

Where we place our treasure
is where we plant our heart.

We know that is true.
We know it is true
even without having to verify it in a laboratory.
We know it is true
before the words are even spoken.
We know it is true
in the marrow of our bones.

We know where
we want our heart to be,
and we know
what and where
our treasure actually is;
and we wince to acknowledge
the distance between them.

So here is how Isaiah and Jesus come together.

Maybe we won’t have to eliminate worship
if we can manage to create
and sustain
worship traditions and practices
that challenge
and nurture
our integrity.

Maybe worship could be a good thing
instead of a vestige of empty religion
if it led us to examine
and see
the distance between
our values
and our practice.

Maybe worship could be a good thing
if, when we gathered
and did it,
the experience nurtured
and strengthened our integrity.

Let’s work on that, okay?