5th Sunday after Epiphany (A): Why Do We Worship?
By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles
Each week, we gather together as congregations to worship God and fellowship with one another. Each of our contexts and congregations are different, but we, in essence, all join together to do the same things. We sing, read scripture, participate in liturgy, hear the word preached, and respond to the word by our offerings, Eucharist, or an invitation to the altar. For some, this weekly ritual is deeply moving and helps them to connect more with the divine and then to share the love and grace of the divine with the world. For others, worship is a time to spend with friends, to sing, or is simply a part of their weekly schedule, but it has no real impact on what happens in their life after noon on Sunday.
In this week’s text, the people have returned to exile and found themselves in the same worship rut they were in decades before. The people appear to be very religious. They seek God’s presence and delight in drawing near to God (v. 2) and they fast often (v. 3). In some ancient religions fasting was done so that the deity would hear the people’s voices, and the Israelites seem to have fallen back into those traditions. They complain because God does not answer their fasting or their sitting in ash and sackcloth. Isaiah, writing in the voice of God, says the fasting they do is not one that God chooses as acceptable. Their fast and worship is self-serving. It does not loose the bonds of injustice (v. 6) or provide for the needs of the hungry, poor, and naked (v. 7). This text shows that what matters most to God, and what God demands, is worship that leads us to acts of justice and liberation. Isaiah says worship should lead the faithful to care for the hurting of the world.
Part of our job as preachers is to invite our congregations into transformative worship, but before worship can be transformative we have to ask why is it we worship anyway. Are we here because it is a habit or because we want to be guided by God to satisfy the needs of the broken (v. 10)? This week, I suggest sharing the struggle of Isaiah’s people. Ask those hard questions Isaiah asks: “Do you fast and still oppress your workers?” or with more modern language: “Do you fast and still support corporations who do not pay a living wage?” “Do you worship and bow down in atonement only to get up and ignore the hungry, homeless, and oppressed?” After all, we are not just preachers who proclaim good news to our congregations, but good news to all of creation, which sometimes feels like bad news to our own people. Isaiah declares that if you worship and inhale love and grace so that you can go forth to exhale God’s love and grace to a broken world, then you will find yourself made whole (v. 11), and you will be called “restorer” (v. 12).
One congregation who encompasses Isaiah’s vision for the worshipping body is St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in New Orleans. It is a fairly small church and more than half of its attendees are experiencing housing and food insecurity. Each week the congregation gathers, some in dress clothes and others in dirty clothes they have been wearing for days, to sing, pray, and be together. It is nearly impossible to attend worship there without feeling transformed, without being led to participate in acts of justice. After worship, the people share a meal together and others experiencing homelessness or addiction are found in the area and invited into share in lunch. Together this congregation is transformed by worship, led to break bonds of injustice, and seeking to let the light of God break forth in dark places (v. 8). May it be so for us all.
The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles earned a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, and a certificate for theology in ministry from Cambridge University. She is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as Associate Pastor at St James Atlanta United Methodist Church. She is passionate about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Church, conservation efforts especially around endangered and at risk animals, and sustainability and creation care at home and in the local church. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, and spending time with her husband Brian Trepanier and their pets Merlin and Arthur.