I always look forward to the summer months and the promise of a slower schedule, time with family at the pool, and the ability to travel a little more. June is the quietist month in the church as we recharge our batteries after a long school year. There are still plenty of activities, but the heavy lifting of long-range planning can wait several weeks as we catch our breath. Summer vacation ends sometime in mid-July with the speed of a child racing from one end of the building to the other during Vacation Bible School. The ABC Sale follows close on its heels with a small army of faithful volunteers gathering, sorting, pricing, and selling secondhand treasures. The halls are empty in early August as the church exhales after a three-week sprint. Doing the good work of loving kids and raising money for mission partners is tiring, but the rewards are innumerable.
You might think the lectionary would give us a little breather after so much hard work, but we get no reprieve from the Minor Prophets. God sent Amos and Hosea to Israel to express God’s displeasure with the political leaders, the religious elite, and the wealthy in the land. The prophetic language makes us squeamish, but the message puts a pit squarely in the pit of our stomach. Israel’s well-to-do types might wonder what the problem is and why the prophets are upsetting the peace. The borders are secure, the unemployment is low, and the standard of living is at an all-time high (at least for those who are already wealthy.) The church pews are full, and everyone turns out for the religious festivities.
What’s the problem, God?
The powerful are oppressing the poor and pushing the weak further into the margins. God is tired of the show. There’s plenty of worship and prayer on the holy days, but the religious folk are harming the destitute the rest of the week. There is even bloodshed in the streets. Something has to give.
After two scorching weeks in both Amos and Hosea, we might think it’s time for a cool spell. Instead, the lectionary calendar turns to Isaiah, and this “major” prophet double downs on God’s displeasure.
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation-I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 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: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 1:11-20, NRSV.)
It is summertime, but the lectionary living is anything but easy. Isaiah announces God is not impressed with our worship, our offering, or our perfect attendance at Sunday school. All of it is a futile abomination in God’s sight if we are not working for good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow. Simply put, God is not interested in a show if we are not willing to do the hard work for justice.
We might wonder what this has to do with any of us. We do not openly oppress others, steal from the least of these, or physically harm our neighbors. Our hands are clean, right!?!
I’m sure there were plenty of everyday people in Israel who did not assault the poor or rip-off the disadvantaged. They kept their heads down, did their jobs, provided for their families, and unconsciously benefited from the systems of injustice. They didn’t harm anyone directly, but there was still blood on their hands. Individually, they might be fine, but collectively they were all guilty.
I am still struggling to comprehend the recent mass shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio. I did not manufacture the weapons or pull the triggers, but my hands are not clean. I am part of a society that allows these horrific events to continue. My hands are dirty.
It is time for all of us to examine what we can do individually and collectively to work for peace. Worship on Sunday will always be important, but Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah forcefully remind us that it is not enough. This is not someone else’s problem or somebody else’s sin. It belongs to all of us. The only question is what we will do next as Followers of Christ.
In Hope and Confidence,