Ritual or Righteousness

Ritual or Righteousness

Scriptures: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 146:8-10; Luke 10:30-37

Rituals: we all have them, don’t we?

Some are the simple things that we do every day, like

  • Getting up at the same time every morning,
  • Having that first cup of coffee before we make any decisions,
  • Having a favorite newscast to watch,
  • Putting on shoes in the same order,
  • Having a routine for who does what around the house.

Some rituals are a little more complex. Perhaps in no other area of life is there so much attention paid to rituals as there is in the sports world, for example:

  • Michael Jordan always wore his lucky college basketball shorts under his Chicago Bulls basketball shorts,
  • Tiger Woods always wears a red shirt when he plays golf on Sunday – his mother told him that it was his power color.
  • When playing tennis, never step on the lines,
  •  It’s bad luck to change rods when fishing,
  • Hockey players believe that they will win the game if they all tap on the goalie’s shin pads before the game.

All of these rituals, whether silly or important in our lives, really deal with the ordinary events that we face. Most of them we never even think about.

And when we come to look at some of our religious rituals, there is the danger that we will see them also as “ordinary” and not think much about their significance as a way in which we worship. For example:

  • Why do we have an invocation to invite God to be present in our service of worship?
  • Why do we sing praises and hymns to God?
  • Why would there be a Pastoral Prayer?
  • Why, at the close of the service, is there a Hymn of Response?

Each of us will find different kinds of worship, different content of worship, to be meaningful to us. The danger is that we can become very ritualistic in our worship but not very righteous. Our form of worship does not make us righteous. Being righteous as a people requires that we enter into our worship of God with a sense of knowing that we are in God’s presence and being aware of the holiness and the grace which God is. Entering into worship of God also requires that we see ourselves for who we are at that moment, whatever that may be. When the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up above him, he also saw himself for who he was at that moment. That prepared Isaiah for worship and service.

The people to whom Isaiah was speaking in our reading this morning were the people who had returned from captivity in Babylon. Ezra had read the scrolls of the Law to them, and once again they had vowed to be faithful. And so they were for awhile. They began

  • A very visible, public display of ritualistic worship,
  • Daily bowing their heads in humility and prayer before God,
  • Ritually repenting of their sin by lying on sack cloth and putting ashes on their heads,
  • Fasting one day a week.

But, as time passed, when God looked upon all that they were doing; when God looked upon all of their religiosity; when God looked upon all of their public ritual;

God’s response to them was, “You are doing this as if you are a nation (a people) who does what is right.”

The problem with the people about whom we read today was that they had compartmentalized their lives. They acted as though they were very religious when they came together to worship God, but their religious practices had no meaning for their everyday lives.

While they were ritually fasting, they were exacting hard labor from their workers. Instead of fasting to have their voices heard by God, they fasted so that it would cover over their disagreements and contentions with one another. They were pointing the finger at one another like a judge points the finger at someone who is accused of some wrong. They were judging one another. They believed that they could live as they pleased and God would honor the outward appearance of their religiosity.

They actually believed that by their religious observances they were living up to the Covenant and they couldn’t understand why God was not blessing them with all of the good crops and good vineyards and wealth that they expected from God. God is saying to them, “Haven’t you learned anything?” Have I not told you that righteousness requires not just fasting but action?

You have not fed the hungry; you have not provided housing for the homeless; you have not given clothing to those who need it; you have not even taken care of your own families as you should.

Very damning words from God.

God is saying to them, and to us, these things in worship are right and good, but these other things you have left undone. That’s also part of my requirement for you. Action for the welfare of others is part of the Covenant. It is necessary that all of my creation be cared for.

Jesus would sum up all of the Law, all of the Covenant, by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of you heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your might, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

But, we ask, “Who is my neighbor?” It was the same question that the young scribe, the young lawyer from the Temple, asked of Jesus. Jesus was a great story teller. He used stories to make examples that would ring true with the people to whom He was talking.

The Samaritan hero is placed in stark contrast with those who are the very religious of Jesus’ day. The Samaritans were the descendants of those who had not been carried into captivity in Babylon hundreds of years ago. They were the poor people of their day, people who were the farmers, the keepers of the vineyards, people who were not thought able to be helpful to Babylonian society. So they were left behind. They had done the best that they could under the circumstances, but now that the Temple was restored and those who were the descendants of the captives and returned to Judah felt more righteous than the Samaritans. The Samaritans were considered an “unclean” group of people.

Because the Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians, the people of Samaria had set up places of worship in the mountains near them. Now they were not allowed to worship in the Temple.

Anyone who was a ritually clean Jew would not even travel through the area of the land where they lived. For the purpose of Jesus’ story, the Temple official was traveling through the land, but he was making sure that he had no contact with anything or anyone who might ritually defile him as he traveled. So he crosses over to the other side of the road and does not help another Jew who is bloodied and probably dying if he does not get help.

Enter the Samaritan who, if we consider how he had probably been treated by the people of Jerusalem, could have excused himself and also passed on by without stopping. Not so. He stops, gives the needed aid, takes the man to an inn, pays for his lodging, and promises to check on him the next day.

Jesus asks the question, “Who do you think was the neighbor to this man?”

The answer of course is obvious and the young scribe has entrapped himself.

Jesus leaves no room for compartmentalization in our lives. We are to love God and love others as much as we love ourselves. And we are to treat others as we would treat ourselves.

James, the brother of Jesus, got more specific in his writing. James teaches us that the faith that we say we have is genuine only if it produces good works.

James writes:

  • If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace, be warmed and be filled, and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?
  • If you give honor to the rich person who is well dressed (I think it would not violate the Scripture to also say “the person who has great influence and power”) and you dishonor the poor person who has dirty clothes, you have demonstrated evil motives by your behavior.

This congregation is blessed because of its generosity to those in need. Do you know; do you remember that over a year’s time you give money and time and talent toward

  • The Allegany-Cattaraugus-Chautauqua Fund for Women
  • The Senior Foundation
  • The Food Pantry
  • Christmas Boxes
  • Hart Comfort House for hospice care
  • The Equal Justice Initiative
  • Habitat for Humanity
  • The Haiti Project
  • Humanitarian Aid in China
  • Journey’s End Refugee Assistance
  • Wellsville Community Kitchen
  • Cameron Community Ministries that collects coats, mittens, boots, winter wear, and blankets
  • AND
  • This year we gave to One Great Hour of Sharing for relief in Ukraine (so far a total of $2960). If you have not given and plan to give, a check will be sent this week, so let Larry know before you leave today.

And yet, we live in a world of great need, famine and disease and physical destruction and war. Some of the strongest words of Jesus speak against the practice of compartmentalization. In speaking to the religious leaders of the day, Jesus commended them for their giving to the Temple, but condemned them because they neglected the issues of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Each one of us has unique opportunities to do justice, love mercy, and walk in faithfulness with our God. Most of the time it isn’t the things that we do that will make headlines or the evening news. Most of the time our opportunities to do these things are in the day-by-day interactions that we have with others.

May the Lord increase our awareness of, and our courage to act, upon such opportunities for ministry in the lives of others.
Amen.