When she considered what prevented her from seeing Christ in people who were homeless, Phyllis realized it was personal experience…or lack of it. Living comfortably with her college professor husband and healthy teenage son in the suburbs, she was far removed from the streets of downtown Columbus, Ohio. As she reflected on and prayed about the wall that existed between her and people who were homeless, Phyllis felt a call—she felt called to live on the streets.
When she shared the call with her friend James, he was intrigued…and asked if he might join her. They decided to live on the streets from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday 1999. Have you ever thought of giving up your home for Lent?
Why did Phyllis and James undertake such an experience? In the book that chronicles their time on the streets, The Emptiness of Our Hands, they write this: “We went out for one primary reason: to be as present as possible to everyone we met—homeless person, volunteer, university president, cop. In other words, we set out, in our own way, to love our neighbor as ourselves, with eyes open, minds open, hearts open, hands open as wide as they could be, not ignoring potential risks but not looking for trouble either. **Doing so, we were reminded just how difficult the practice of compassion can be, not only because of external obstacles and distractions, or physical hardships, but even more because of our own judgments, assumptions, fears and desires, all of which harden our regard for and behavior toward other people” (xv).
In today’s Scripture lesson, we eavesdrop on a spat between God and God’s people. God is put out with the people. They’ve grown lazy in living their faith. They’ve come to focus so much on their worship practices, they’ve lost touch with the purpose of those practices. God is so put out with the people, in fact, God takes them to court. Can you imagine? Sued by God!
“Hear what God says,” the prophet writes. This is like that person who stands outside the People’s Court and introduces the case. “Rise, plead your case before the mountains: For God has a controversy with the people.”
First, God offers testimony: “’O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” The evidence continues with more stories of God’s faithfulness to the people.
Then it’s time for the people’s defense. “’With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?” This refers to their worship practices. We’re coming to worship! We’re offering sacrifices! “Will God be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?” Absurd exaggeration to make a point….like this next one: “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’”
Let’s see….how to contemporize this? “With what shall I come before the Lord? Shall I come with multiple pledge cards and frequent worship attendance, like, once a month, or something? Will God be pleased with service on many committees and presence at several church-wide workdays? Shall we give up our Super Bowl celebrations to atone for all the church we’ve missed to attend other games?”
Whether addressed to ancient Israelites or to 21st century disciples, God’s closing argument is the same: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good: What does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?”
Okay. So when the people ask why God isn’t pleased with their worship offerings, why does God start talking about justice, love, and humility? Is God saying that worship isn’t important, that they should be focusing instead on social justice and missions work? Is God asking the people to ditch their liturgy?
Or is God trying to help them to understand their liturgy in a new light? Maybe it’s not an either/or kind of thing—either worship God (like the people were doing) OR serve others (like God is saying). Maybe God is inviting the people to look at their worship practices through the lens of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
What would that do? What happens to worship practices when we look at them through the lens of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God?
When you look closely at doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God, you see that all three of those actions begin and end with one thing: the full human dignity of every person. Working for justice requires us to see all people as fully human. And acting someone into well-being with loving kindness doesn’t happen if that person’s human dignity isn’t valued. And when we live authentically, we grant ourselves full human worth.
So, maybe God is inviting the faithful to reflect on their worship practices in light of human dignity. Maybe the people had gotten off track. Maybe they’d lost sight of what worship is really for—contributing to the human flourishing of every person. Maybe when God responds to the people’s question “With what shall I come before the Lord?” by telling them to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, God isn’t asking them to stop worshiping. Maybe instead God is inviting them to start looking at worship as a means to an end—the end of contributing to the full human dignity of every person.
Maybe God isn’t asking the people to ditch their liturgy; maybe instead God is asking them to live it.
Living your liturgy….
Do you live your liturgy? Every week in worship we hear: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome.” In your everyday life—outside this place–is everyone welcome? Every week we hear: “One fact remains that does not change: God has loved you, loves you now, and will always love you.” Do you live as if God has, does, and will always love you? Every week, we ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Do you work Monday through Saturday to make God’s hopes real in the world? Every week we join hands and sing, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” Do you? Do you live that part of our liturgy?
Every Sunday during their time on the streets, Phyllis and James attended a Christian worship service. And every day at noon, they visited a statue titled “Peace” for prayer and meditation. These times of worship were meant to ground their experience of homelessness in the context of their faith lives. It reminded them that liturgy isn’t just something you do once a week or once a day. It’s something you live every minute of every day no matter where you are. And the point of living it is to look at every person as a beloved child of God, to see Christ in them, and to join God in hoping for their wholeness.
One of the most painful experiences for James and Phyllis during their time on the streets was becoming invisible. In multiple layers of shabby clothing, with dark circles under their eyes and acrid scents emanating from their unwashed bodies… in line to receive food at a soup kitchen, carefully counting out dimes for a bus ride, sitting in the library to get warm and maybe a little sleep…wherever they went, whatever they did, very few people saw Phyllis and James. When they became homeless, they became invisible. And when they did become visible to others—especially if they were in close proximity—it wasn’t with an eye that saw them as beloved children of God. It usually was an eye that exuded scorn….like the man sitting in the pew in front of them at worship one Sunday who frowned and turned away when James extended his hand to pass the peace.
What we do in this place matters. It matters a lot….but not just for what happens between these four walls. Our liturgy might be beautiful, thought-provoking, even stimulating on occasion –in fact, I hope it is, since that’s my job. But…If what we do here doesn’t connect with what we do outside these walls…If the words we say in this space, the prayers we pray, the songs we sing, the grace we experience….If what happens in here doesn’t translate out there into working for equality for all people, acting people into well-being, living our lives in complete authenticity and honoring the dignity of every person…. If we don’t live our liturgy, then our liturgy is dead. It has no meaning. We’re doing nothing more than going through the motions.
So, in this moment of worship, I prayerfully offer these words: “God has told us what is good: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” If we respond to these words, then—and only then—for us, they have become the word of the living God. Thanks be to God.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2014