4th before Lent

Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews


Where are you, God? That’s the cry of the religious in our reading from Isaiah. Where are you? We do everything you’ve asked: we make our hair grey with ashes, our bellies faint with hunger. We do obeisance with our heads bowed at exactly the right angle to convey proper reverence and respect. We know our scriptures, we keep your laws. We fast but you don’t see; we humble ourselves but you don’t notice. Where are you?


It’s a cry that echoes down the ages. We come to church. We read our bibles. We sign up for rotas and we say our prayers. We fill in our gift aid envelopes and we even put up with the cold while the boiler is broken. And still some of us will look at our lives and look at our world and wonder, ‘where are you?’


I know, because sometimes the person that wonders that is me. I pray, and sometimes listen only to silence. I read the scriptures, search them, looking for what God says there that might help me make sense of a world I find increasingly frightening and bewildering. I keep the appointed festivals, even when in the C of E they’re demoted or transferred. I try hard to be faithful and good, and when I fail, I seek forgiveness and try again. And still, another episcopal report on sexuality, another grief or sadness hitting one of you, another executive order stoking fear and division and I join with those Israelites. I do all this, and you don’t notice. I work hard for you, and you don’t see. Where are you?


The people cry out to God in Isaiah because they think he has forsaken them. They are his chosen people: he has promised to be their God. And they in turn promised to keep the covenant, the Law that he gave them. Often, Israel’s problem is faithlessness: they turn aside from the covenant and follow other gods. Here, it’s the opposite: they are meticulous in keeping the law. They think that their prayers and their fasting and their studying of the scriptures make them pleasing to God; that such actions will reward them with God’s presence. Yet they discern only his absence.


For they have kept the letter of the Law, and not its spirit. They have believed that faith is a private affair, with no bearing on how they conduct themselves in the rest of their lives. Worship is not about trying to secure your own righteousness, but about participating in the life of God. And you cannot worship a just God and go out from the temple or the church and practise oppression. You can’t abase yourself before God in sackcloth and ashes and then refuse forgiveness to those who’ve wronged you. Or you can, but the name we give that is hypocrisy.


When the people cry out in Isaiah, God does answer. And it’s a hard answer for those who congratulate themselves on their religious observance, who think they have God neatly contained: ‘You serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers’, says God. ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?’


Serving God is inseparable from serving his people. That’s God’s response when the people cry ‘where are you?’ He’s out there, with the oppressed workers; with those rifling through supermarket rubbish bins for food; with those illegally detained in US airports; with the confused resident of a nursing home; with the refugees clinging to one another for warmth and security in a cold, inhospitable world.


‘Where are you?’ ask the religious who mistakenly believe God is safely shut up in their sanctuaries, and that religion need not inconvenience them in the rest of their lives. And God says, I don’t see your fasts, because I’m right here with those whose bellies growl with hunger because they have no bread. I don’t notice how low you bow because my people, created in my image and likeness, are crushed low under the weight of oppression.


That’s God’s answer: if you loose the bonds of injustice, and share your bread with the hungry, and do not hide from your kin, ‘then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly… Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am’.


‘Here I am’. This is what God said to the people through Isaiah; it’s what he shows us in Jesus. Where is God? In Jesus he is challenging injustice, sharing bread with the hungry, and extending the bonds of kinship to count people in. And, says Jesus, in doing this he’s not abolishing the law and prophets, but fulfilling it. This is what faithfulness looks like. If worship is about participating in the life of God, then this is what that looks like lived out in the world.


Of course, sometimes human beings choose division: we hide from our kin, or redefine what that means. We’ll be kind to Christians, but not to Muslims. We’ll help the deserving poor, but not the ones we think don’t deserve it. We’ll seek comfort in what’s familiar, and feels safe, and we’ll build walls and write laws that keep us separate from people who are not like us. We’ll hide behind gates and locked doors, and avert our gaze from our brothers and sisters on our screens or on our streets who present us with a reality we find unpalatable.


This is not the politics of God, as revealed in the scriptures and as shown us in the life of Jesus. And even when we know it, when we go on protests against governments and laws that divide us; when we can preach sermons about God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, it’s still hard to live it. Often our lives are structured in such a way that we stay in communities of people like us. I am white, pretty well educated, middle class and Christian. So are most of my friends. Getting out of the silo in which I live might take some effort on my part.


We come to church to worship. There need be no false dichotomy between church and world, between worship and service. The one flows into the other. Here, we are made participants in the life of God, through our sharing in the sacrifice of Christ, who feeds us with his body that we might go out and be his body in the world. That should tell us to expect the life of faith to be political, for Christ and his kingdom challenge the politics of the world. And being Christ’s body in the world will mean being with the sorts of people Jesus mixed with who, it turns out, tended not to be the respectable, religious, middle class people of his day, but the poor and outcast, the foreigners and the ill, the feared and the demonised. And in that mixing, in that sharing of lives, the people who had grown used to being told that God wasn’t with them started to hear him say ‘here I am’.


‘Where are you?’ cried the people in Isaiah. I know that cry. And I know that when my knees are sore from praying and my heart is weary with searching and I get up and go and visit someone lonely and housebound, or ill and scared, I often find that God is there ahead of me, saying ‘here I am’.


Here I am. It turns out we don’t have to look very hard to find God. He’s there, waiting for us to be present to him, to attend to him in the faces and lives of those we meet, and especially in the lives of those who have been made to feel marginal, unwelcome, unwanted or unnecessary.


We’re living through a time where it would be easy to cry to God ‘where are you?’, to reach a state of helpless or cynical despair at what’s going on in the world, and to feel that there is nothing we can do to change it. But there is. It is as simple as being present, saying ‘here I am’ to someone, learning their name and having them learn yours. That’s how we stop hiding from our kin; how we start to work together to loosen the bonds of injustice. Be present to those you meet, and try to meet people who are not like you. If you need to practise, start here: talk to someone at coffee that you don’t know. Or volunteer with the homeless project. Support the foodbank. Get to know your neighbours better. Visit the lonely. I’m going to visit the mosque after coffee, because it’s Visit my Mosque day today: come with me if you want. If you can’t do these things, then support those who can with prayer and encouragement.


We go from here called to love and serve the Lord; to be what we receive. We go as those called to be light and salt, to be the people through whom God is present in the world. But we should not be surprised if, as we join in with his work, we hear an answering voice, as God says to us through those we meet, ‘here I am’.