Preached at St. Thomas à Becket Episcopal Church on August 11, 2019.
Proper 14: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20.
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “thoughts and prayers,” particularly when used in response to a tragedy?
On one hand, we Christians believe in the power of prayer, and it is good to pray for one another and the needs of the world.
On the other, these words have recently come to stand for something specific and troubling: the pairing of empty rhetoric with a lack of action where it could make a difference.
This second understanding in public circles goes back to Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, who responded to the use of this expression after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting by saying “It’s time to go beyond thoughts and prayers.” This was followed in 2015 after another college shooting in Oregon by the president saying “thoughts and prayers [do] not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel, and it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted some place else in America next week or a couple months from now.”
This has become an expected exchange, as the high school students in Florida after the 2018 shooting began responding to “thoughts and prayers” with “policy and change.”
But here’s the thing: none of this is new!
One of reasons I love the Scriptures so much is how they show us, in the memorable words of Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” It can be frustrating and depressing to know we’re stuck in a cycle; yet it can also give us comfort to know that the people of God have been through this before and the Words we’re given continue to be relevant.
Let’s turn back to the words of the prophet Isaiah. In the late 8th century BCE—that is, nearly 3,000 years ago!—this man lived, worked, and spoke in the city of Jerusalem. At the time, contemporary with prophets Amos and Micah, his nation was in a precarious situation. Massive empires had been threatening from both north and south for the last century, but Judea was experiencing a brief period of relief and wealth as they had turned away to other fronts for a time. By this point, the magnificent temple of Jerusalem had been in place for two centuries, and there was a well-established priestly class offering sacrifices and celebrating holy days.
You’d think Isaiah would be happy—there was peace, and there was worship, what more could one want? But he’s not, and here’s why: during this time of peace there was also a lot of suffering. The great wealth gains were concentrated in a few hands as small landholdings were merged until there were vast estates of the rich feasting on the profit generated by the poor working their fields.
If you’re not sure how Isaiah felt about this, note how he begins this section of his speech right at the start of his book:
Hear the word of the LORD,
You chieftains of Sodom;
Give ear to our God’s instruction,
You folk of Gomorrah!
Whoa, he’s calling his own people the reincarnation of their ancient evil scapegoats: Sodom and Gomorrah! What were those two cities known for? As Ezekiel tells us, it was “she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
Isaiah goes on, speaking in the voice of the LORD God:
“What need have I
of all your sacrifices?"
Wait, what? Does God not need the worship the priests are offering?
“That you come to appear before Me
—Who asked that of you?”
Here’s God questioning the justification offered by the priests for the entire religious system! He continues, ranting against bringing oblations, burning incense, celebrating religious feasts: they…
“Fill Me with loathing;
They are become a burden to Me,
I cannot endure them.”
Well, what about prayers?
“And when you lift up your hands,
I will turn My eyes away from you;
“Though you pray at length,
I will not listen.“
Why? Why is God so against everything he seemingly asked for and established, as the Scriptures so clearly attest in other places?
Here is where He gives the explanation, and the instructions:
“Your hands are stained with crime
— Wash yourselves clean;
Put your evil doings
Away from My sight.
Cease to do evil;
Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice;
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow.
In the words of James, in the New Testament:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
Who are the orphans and widows in the ancient world? They are the poor and marginalized of society, those who are legally or innately barred from work and a legitimate place in the societal structure.
But Isaiah doesn’t leave it there, he continues:
“Come, let us reach an understanding,
Be your sins like crimson,
They can turn snow-white;
Be they red as dyed wool,
They can become like fleece.”
This decree is not given without hope—we can change! We can repent! The world is not locked into violence and oppression. But it is up to us, it’s not going to be fixed from the outside.
If, then, you agree and give heed,
You will eat the good things of the earth;
But if you refuse and disobey,
You will be devoured [by] the sword.—
And there are consequences. Those who live by the sword, who oppress the people, who live high on the sufferings of the poor, they will face ruin in the end. This is what Isaiah promises. This is what the author of our NT book Revelation also insists, in the face of the mighty Roman Empire which seems to have rolled over Jesus and his little band of followers without a flinch: this can’t last; the equilibrium built into the foundations of this Creation by the Divine will rebalance in the end.
We’ve seen this pattern repeat over and over throughout history, from the collapse of Rome to the French and Russian Revolutions. As I said in the beginning, this can be depressing: nothing changes, we never learn our lesson. However, I also find this uplifting: we’re not alone! Other humans have been here many times before us; they’ve face the same struggles, they’ve heard those empty words “thoughts and prayers” and then done something to make real change.
I hope you take both some challenge and comfort in this today. We are not alone. Whether we American Christians are those who must repent and lay down our arms and release others from economic oppression, or if we are those who are begging for this to happen—or both at the same time, the world is not so neat and tidy as that—the saints have been there before us, and they remain with us today. Thanks be to God.
Image by Lorie Shaull.