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What's the Point of Worship?

The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

Scripture: Isaiah 1:1, 10 – 20


I love the worship at St. Luke’s. I love the feeling of it. I love looking out at all of you and seeing your eyes lifted up. I love our reaction when we’re listening to the readings and one of the scriptures is, well, problematic. I love the sound of our voices in song together. I love our music. I love how vulnerable this community is in sharing our joys and sorrows, and I love praying with you as we all pray for each other. I love getting to look in each of your eyes when we’re sharing the Body of Christ at communion. I love being here with all of you on Sundays.


But why? Why do we come here? We could be sleeping in. Or drinking coffee and reading. Or hiking. Or going to brunch with friends. But we set our alarms, we get ready, and we drive to this place to be with these people. We take the time to be here. Why?


I think it’s hard for some of us to imagine now, but in the past and up until very recently, church wasn’t really optional the way it is today. Being a Christian in especially European civilization, and eventually the places Europeans colonized, was not a choice. You farmed or plied your trade, you raised your family, and you went to church. For most of this history, school and baths, they were sometimes hard to come by. But church—that’s something you didn’t miss.


I’m not saying this was better. Many people during all those centuries approached worship like they approached any other task that they didn’t particularly love but had to do. Like the laundry. Even priests! They stood at the altar (with their back facing the people), chanted in monotone the same words week after week—sometimes in a language only they understood. They baptized babies with little fanfare. They were just getting the job done.


Some traditions, while not boring, prided themselves on how severe their worship and beliefs were. And certainly worship was not an option for them.


This is all sweeping generalization, obviously. Obviously, there were many faithful people who found deep meaning in their worship and shared it with others, thank God.


But when society mandates a certain behavior, when we’re doing something because we’re expected to and not because we choose to, when we’re going through motions without wondering why, it all kind of becomes, well, meaningless.


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Isaiah, we’re told in chapter one, verse one, was a prophet to the people of Judah—the Southern Kingdom of the descendants of the Israelites whose capital was Jerusalem. Israel was the Northern Kingdom. Isaiah was advisor to the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.


These kings were on the cusp of history. They didn’t know it, but in the century after their rule, Babylon would conquer Judah, pillage Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and exile its people. It was brutal, devastating. It was a turning point for the Jewish people and their identity. The whole book of Isaiah deals with this exile and the eventual return of the people to Jerusalem.


Most scholars believe that Isaiah was written and reworked by several authors over the course of this critical time in history. This first chapter was likely written by the prophet who served those kings—and was most likely edited by those who came after—by people who already knew the whole story of defeat, exile, and restoration. So this reading we heard today might, in some ways, be a retrospective. Looking back and trying to make sense of all that went wrong.


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.


What does Isaiah say went wrong? The people’s worship. However rigorous, however consistent—it was meaningless because it did not change the way they lived their everyday lives.


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This month, the Episcopal Church is commemorating 400 years since the first slave ship landed on American shores. In Virginia, actually. Do you know what church was the state church of the Virginia colony at that time? The Church of England. The mother church of our own Episcopal Church. Literally. The Church of England is where we came from as a community. Well, with a little help from the Scots, but that’s a different story.


Our religious ancestors, and for some of us, our blood ancestors, owned slaves, were complicit in the slave trade, or at the very least, did not oppose it. Our church supported it.


On Sundays, those colonial churches prayed many of the same prayers we still pray today. They sang some of the same hymns we still sing today. They listened to the same scriptures we hear today.


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.


They heard these scriptures. They heard that in Christ there is no slave nor free. They heard that God is love. But stealing people from their homeland, separating families, and forcing them to work in often brutal conditions—it didn’t occur to them that this may not be in line with the teachings of their faith.


But they were Christians. They were Anglicans. Like us. Christians fought in the Civil War to preserve slavery. Christians founded the Ku Klux Klan. And today, Christians are defending immigration policies that, once again, dehumanize brown people. That separate families.

Today, Christians bear witness to an epidemic of mass shootings and defend guns rather than humans.


I sometimes wonder if, like those those kings in Isaiah, we’re on the cusp of history. If people will look back and ask, “Why didn’t they do something? How can they go to church on Sunday and let these things happen the rest of the week?”


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So I ask again, why are we here today? What do we get out of worship? What’s the point?


Today’s reading from Isaiah is basically about pointless worship. It’s calling out the people of Judah for going through the motions of burnt sacrifice, incense, and prayers without ever really seeing God.


Because isn’t that the point of worship? We sing, we pray, we kneel, we look into each other’s eyes, because it helps us to see God, to feel Christ in our presence.


Worship is just practice, though. When you’re learning to play the piano, you play scales over and over, so that when you want to actually play a song, your fingers just know where to go. Worship is playing scales.


Seeing Christ here in and among each other is easy because we sing together, we pray together, we hold each other’s joys and sorrows. When we take the bread and drink the cup, we are and we become the Body of Christ—again and again.


It’s all practice for seeing Christ when we leave this place. Seeing Christ at the grocery store. Seeing Christ at work. Seeing Christ in immigrants, in politicians, in other Christians with whom we may not agree. Seeing Christ in those who are afraid, who are suffering.


Worship is practice. It’s bread for our journey.


May seeing Christ here help us to see Christ everywhere. To stir us to love, to action, to change when we leave this place.

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