Stop Doing The Religious Thing – A Sermon On Isaiah 58:1-12

The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A: Matthew 5:13-20; Isaiah 58:1-12

I’m going to ask you to do a couple of things and I hope you will indulge me for a bit. I want you to think of one thing that is going on in the world today that is important and matters to you. Something that you keep up with in the news, that you have opinions and beliefs about, and that maybe you even post about in social media or talk about with those who are like minded. 

There’s not a right or wrong answer here. I’m not concerned with what the topic is or what you believe about it. It could be an international event, a national concern, something local, or even a  personal matter. It could be political, economic, environmental, or social. 

It could be, for example, who you’ll vote for in November, the democratic candidates and their policies, the impeachment and acquittal of President Trump, or congress in general. It might be about climate change and the health of our environment, the Coronavirus, gun violence, racism, discrimination or violence against women, Islam in the world, or Israel and Palestine. It might be about our wars, the direction our county is moving, or the polarization and divisiveness in our world.

It might be about economic policies or health care and insurance. It might be about the poor, welfare recipients, the immigrants and refugees of the world. It might be about a decision you need to make, a relationship, or something concerning your marriage, family, or work.

I suspect the most difficult thing about what I am asking you to do is to pick only one thing when there are, for most of us, so many to choose from. But for today, one will do.

So you got it? You know what it is? Now let me ask you this. Does your worship on Sunday affect how you see and deal with whatever it is you chose? If so, how? If not, why not? 

In what ways do the Sunday prayers, the scriptures, the Body and Blood, inform and guide your thinking? Are they the lens through which you see the world and others, hear the news, and make decisions? Do you carry them with you through the rest of the week or do you leave them at the door as you “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

What I’m really asking is whether Jesus, the gospel, the law and the prophets, have anything to do with our politics, economics, social values, and personal decisions. 

I know I’m getting close to meddling – to stepping on political toes and calling into question personal beliefs and opinions. Maybe I’ve already crossed that line. But when I look at what’s happening in the world today, what we’re doing to each other, the things we’re saying about those who disagree with us, the way we claim God is on our side – I wonder if we are salt that has lost its flavor and light that is hidden under a bushel basket. 

A friend of mine often reminds me that the gospel – the good news of Jesus – is sometimes bad news before it is good news. It asks us to face up to ourselves before we face down another. And facing up to ourselves is rarely fun or easy – whether you’re the preacher or the listener. 

That’s the challenge Isaiah holds before us this morning (Isaiah 58:1-12). “Shout out, do not hold back!” God tells Isaiah. “Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion.”

Their rebellion is that they are fasting – doing the religious thing – for their own interest and at the same time oppressing others. They are fasting – doing the religious thing – but it hasn’t changed their lives. They still quarrel, fight, and strike “with a wicked fist.” Such fasting, God says, will not let their “voice be heard on high.” That is not the fast God chooses.

I don’t know about you but I can’t help but wonder if that is also my rebellion. Do my actions align with and reflect what I claim to believe about God? Is there more congruity or more contradiction in my life? Is the religious thing I am doing for the benefit and welfare of others? Or is it mostly for me so that I can go on with business as usual?

We can gather here each Sunday and say our prayers, nod in agreement with the scriptures, and sing our praises to God but if those things do not govern and guide our actions in this world, if they do not align our interests and concerns with God’s, if they are merely self serving words to make us feel better about ourselves, then they fall deaf on ears. God is not listening.

Will we call that “a [Sunday] acceptable to the Lord?” 

Maybe we should spend less time speaking the truth about God and more time doing the truth of God. What would that look like in your life? What would that mean for the things that are important and matter to you? How might that change your decisions, priorities, or opinions?

Speaking through Isaiah, God says that means untying and freeing another from the bonds of injustice. It means letting the oppressed go free. It means sharing our bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into our house. It means giving clothes to the naked. It means stop pointing the finger and speaking evil of others. It means satisfying the needs of the afflicted.

Injustice, oppression, hunger, homelessness, poverty, nakedness, blame and slander are God’s concerns, things that are important and matter to God. And they are not only physical conditions. They can also be emotional and spiritual. We can hunger for a meal and we can hunger for love. We can be homeless on the streets and we can be homeless within ourselves. Nakedness might mean we have no clothes or that we have no hope.

I wish doing the truth were as easy as writing a check, donating some food or clothes, or building a homeless shelter. But I don’t think it is. I am not against those things and I hope we will always respond with compassion and generosity. Those things need to be done but we need to be careful they don’t become just another day of fasting in which nothing changes. 

Maybe that’s what Archbishop Helder Câmara of Brazil was getting at when he said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

I hear the words of Archbishop Camara, the words of Isaiah, the words of Jesus and I have to ask myself not only how am I responding to those conditions but, also, why those conditions exist, and in what ways are my lifestyle, decisions, opinions, and actions enabling and perpetuating those conditions in the life of another. 

It’s the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night. Maybe it does you too. And maybe it should. Maybe it should keep us all awake at night.


  1. These are good words! Thank you for posting them! I may incorporate some of them, or at least the general direction…but with full attribution, of course. Peace!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your words, and the prayers behind them. I agree it is ‘easy’ to throw money but then change nothing about how you live the Gospel. Prayers with you and your ministry.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My brother and I had an hour+ long phone conversation this last Sunday on the way religion is “used” in life but our faith is not really lived. Thank you for adding your wisdom to my thoughts on this. These are difficult times we live in and difficult times to shout out the truth of God – sometimes within our own churches.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erika, that’s a good and important distinction you make between using and living our faith. I’ve done both. When I use my faith is usually for myself. Living it takes me to uncomfortable places, insights, and callings. I hope you are well.

      God’s peace be with you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Rev Marsh,
    Here we are 3 years later and the prescribed OT reading from Iaiah 58 has come around again.
    I appreciatre the “wisdom” of your thoughts and words.
    I often feel conflicted about certain political and social issues. What is the logical [wirldly] solution vs what is the compassionate view?
    I will pray about it.
    In a commentary on the 1 Corinthians 2 passage, the author, speaking of worldly wisdom vs Godly wisdom, made the point that we must stop following worldly wisdom, and look at the cross and listen to the Holy Spirit.
    I think he meant your point exactly: are we fasting from the worldly, confused, ungodly voices, and listening to God’s voice, Jesus, His Word made flesh?

    Liked by 1 person

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