What if God quit coming to church?

Preached on 30 October 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26 Year C

What if God quit coming to church?  If you came, but God didn’t show up; if God quit listening to our prayers?  If God said,
“Enough already!  I don’t care about your rituals and sacraments; I care about how you treat each other.  Your worship is meaningless when you continue to do evil; to ignore people’s suffering; suffering you could actually do something about.”

Pretty harsh, isn’t it?  That’s what we hear the prophet tell the people of Judah in our reading from Isaiah today.  The book of Isaiah is a book of prophesies about the Babylonian exile.  It begins, as we heard today with warnings to the people of Judah to change their ways or God will hand them over to their enemies.  They have already seen the fall of the northern kingdom, Israel, so they know this is real.

Well, Babylon invades and takes the leaders and many of the people to Babylon where they live in slavery.  The book of Isaiah continues with prophesies made to the people while they’re in exile.  And finally, there are the prophesies of consolation, comfort, and hope.  God forgives the people and promises to bring them back to their home, to Jerusalem, to the land of promise.  All of this is over the course of decades, generations.

It’s important to look at the whole arc of the story before focusing on any one part of it.  We see God so fed up with the people that God is ready to be done with them, followed by a time of judgement and note that God is still with them even while they are in exile, and finally forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.

Today, I want to draw your attention to two aspects of the story and how they relate to our gospel story about Zacchaeus as well as to our own lives.

Let’s talk about the purpose of worship.  In Isaiah, God has had enough with their worship.  The people are missing the point.  God doesn’t care about their offerings and incense and prayers while they are not also seeking justice in the world and doing everything they can to alleviate suffering.

They seem to think that the point of worship is the worship itself.  Does that sound familiar? Sometimes we think that the point of worship is to offer God constant praise and adoration; that that’s what God desires and even demands.  But you know, God is not that needy.

The purpose of worship (and I believe this is God’s purpose) is transformation of lives.  We gather together in hope to reconnect with God.  We open our minds and our hearts as we listen to the Word; we hear the stories reminding us who we are and why we are.  We allow our hearts to be broken as we pray for the needs of the world and we listen to God’s call to us.  We are nourished at the Lord’s table with the very being of Christ.  And then we go out into the world, a people renewed, transformed, and ready to do the work God gives us to do.

That’s why we worship – not for God’s benefit but for our own.  We worship in order to be transformed.

I want to talk about God relentlessly seeking us out.   In Isaiah, we see God essentially washing God’s hands of the whole people of Judah.  God turns away from their worship, ignores their prayers and sacrifices.  And yet, as the book continues, God is with them even in Babylon.  By the end God and the people of Judah are reconciled.  God forgives them and restores them to their homeland.  God is relentless in seeking relationship.

We see it again in the gospel.  Of course, we see this in Jesus himself.  That God would come to us as one of us to seek us out, to reconcile the world to God’s self.  But more particularly we see it in the story of Zacchaeus.

Now we don’t know whether Zacchaeus wants to see what all the fuss is about as the crowds are gathering around or if he has heard about Jesus and wants to see him.  But here he is, a chief tax collector, someone with power and position and status climbing a tree! To get a look at what’s going on, to get a glimpse of Jesus.  Not very dignified, is it?

And then Jesus seeks him out and stands under the tree and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner.  Then we hear the people grumbling – because that’s what people do – that Jesus has chosen poorly, shall we say.  In his own defense, Zacchaeus tells Jesus that he gives to the poor – and not just a token, but half his possessions – that if he defrauds someone, he pays them back fourfold.  The NRSV translates it as future tense, as a statement of what he will do in the future, but it’s actually present tense.  This is what he does or is doing.

Either way, though, Zacchaeus gets it.  He understands what God wants of him – to seek justice and to care for those in need.

“Today, salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says, “because he is a Son of Abraham.” Jesus names him as one of God’s people.  You can be sure that Zacchaeus’ life is transformed that day and forever.  Salvation has come to him.  But not only that, he is also the source of salvation for others.  Salvation has many forms and we are called to in turn, extend salvation to others.

And so, we have come full circle.  We seek God in worship and are transformed. God relentlessly seeks us out to transform us and so to transform the world.

Thanks be to God.