Our Old Testament reading is the beginning of a major theological shift on God’s part, or, in the “taking the Bible seriously but not literally” sense, a change in the way people reacted to God. It says in the words of Isaiah that God is tired of being given sacrifices, literally watching the blood of the animals run down (I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats), and gives a speech to God’s people that is worthy of committing to memory:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard God say anything more loving and giving of equality than “come now, let us argue it out.” There are other parts of the Bible in which God gives up his omniscience/omnipotence, but not in these exact words. We are given an invitation not only to plead our case, but to get angry. To be sad. To confide all our shortcomings and iniquities in hopes of a better tomorrow than the today we’ve barely managed. To be able to stop trying to please God and to have a deeper relationship and understanding of it. For people-pleasers (and I include myself in that group), this verse is a Godsend (see what I did there?)
In short, God is inviting us to put down the mask of perfect and pick up the mantle of human… because the mask of perfect is to hide the sins for which we are ashamed and bring God only the most pleasing aspects of ourselves, without really taking it in that God can see past it in a second. Because what God is offering is not God’s inability to see our innermost selves, but to be allowed to express it on our own without input, like a therapist who sits in his chair and doesn’t say anything for the whole hour. Just takes in our pain and our confusion and at the end, doesn’t offer any suggestions, because the point of the session is not to offer counsel, but to sit with someone as they use you as their sounding board, letting the healing come from inside themselves.
The hard part is doing what is required of us to be better people. God knows that what we’re wrestling with God over is not what to do to please God, but what to do to please ourselves, and that God will listen as we go through the ups and downs of falling into depths unknown and digging ourselves out. In short, “don’t try to be me. Be you.”
When my ex-wife, Dana, and I first moved to Houston, I talked in this blog about being embarrassed to come out in certain situations, that if people called Dana my “friend,” thee were times I wouldn’t correct them because I had to know my audience to feel safe. It was also a public Facebook comment, and my friend Erin changed my life. She talked about how, as a new mother, breast-feeding was very much a coming out issue, because she looked around to see who was watching before she sat to feed her child, or would make sure that her breast and her baby had blankets over them. She reminisced that she wished she had just been stronger, because feeding her child should have been her first priority and not the potential embarrassment. Then she said the words that made me bawl in the middle of a Whataburger… “just be you. Without a cover.” I started a journal not long after that, a hand-written one in my favorite medium, plain white notebook paper with water-blue lines, and wrote that quote on the back of the front cover so that I looked at it every day before I began to write.
I thought that making other people more comfortable was more important than being the affectionate mushball I am fully capable of being, because growing up in Texas had only reinforced my internalized homophobia and I was overly aware of where I was at all times. Erin freed me from my fear in most situations, because of course, there are rare instances when fears are completely “cured.”
It is the same when we are arguing with God. We try to cover up the things that we think will make God uncomfortable, not because God won’t talk about it, but because we won’t. If we made the commitment to talk about all of the things in this world that made us uncomfortable, we could be us… without a cover.
The biggest thing to remember in the words of Isaiah are the steps God wants us to take to be able to stop hiding. Instead of offering sacrifices to a higher being, God wants us to lead from the back.
Rescue the oppressed.
Defend the orphan.
Arguing it out is going from the God-pleasing phase to the us-pleasing phase, because when we are constantly surrounded by people who need us and respond, that in and of itself is pleasing to God, because it is we as a people changing ourselves from the inside out, even when we do not see immediate results. Sometimes you’ll find yourself helping a little old lady across the street who doesn’t want to go, not realizing that you have “helped her to death.” But then you’ll meet that person in the street who’s lost the light in their eyes, and you see it, and you stop to talk because it has become a mind worm that you cannot ignore… “what can I do to help? What can I do to become the person that God wants me to be?” Because helping that person is helping God.
It is something that Jesus was sent to reinforce.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I am not a huge fan of the “Daddy in the sky” argument, because I lean much more toward God being in us and around us, the chord that connects one being to another. However, I cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater, either. Jesus is saying quite clearly that it is not the giving of sacrifices and the ever-present drive to please God that will get you any favors. It is looking around your world and truly seeing it. How often do we walk past the homeless and think, “someone else will take care of them,” or worse, “if I give them money, they’ll just spend it on alcohol?” Seeing the world around you does not include sitting in righteous judgment.
I was reminded of this last week when my dad and I were driving around DC, and a homeless man scared the life out of me by knocking on the passenger window in the pouring rain. I jumped out of my skin, and my dad rolled down his window. The man walked around to the other side of the car, and my dad pulled out a couple of ones and handed them over. He remembered another great “Tiffany Talk,” where Dr. Anthony said that she didn’t want to reach the end of her life and say that she had money, but she hadn’t given it away. Her exact words, if I remember right, were, “I have two dollars.” I am not sure where “the great physician” falls on the spectrum of Christianity, but what I do know is that is the most Christ-like thing I’ve ever heard anyone say.
As someone who genuinely believes that it takes a lot of mental illness to be homeless in the first place (because regardless of housing prices, the longer you live on the street, the easier it is to succumb to the madness of your own mind), I have no right to judge how that person ended up in the rain asking me for money. I have never given anyone money on the street, but I have bought plenty of McDonald’s for the homeless downtown. But in terms of money, I’ve changed my mind.
I have two dollars.
Today’s Epistle comes from Hebrews, another piece of social justice writing that stands out as part of our journey toward wholeness… “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”
It may not seem like social justice at face-value, but let me make my case. I have no idea what happened with that two dollars in the rain. Perhaps it went to a PBR tallboy, but perhaps it went towards a package of diapers or a can of formula. If I constantly believe the worst in people, I am less likely to give over my hard-earned money. However, if I let go of my preconceived notions, I am able to help bring the kindom to fruition without being able to see it happening, just knowing that it is possible. We walk by faith and not by sight, because those two dollars may not change the person on the street, but the point is how much it changes me to give it. I don’t have to control the two dollars once it’s out of my hands, but I have the power to take it out of my pocket.
It is a sacrifice pleasing in God’s sight, leading by serving… changing ourselves so that we see past me, myself, and I. In this world, it is seemingly becoming more and more impossible. We’re busy, first of all. We walk with our heads down, staring at our phones for another. We are rarely other-aware and not for malice… just plain ignorance.
In both our Old and New Testament readings, the invitation is to LOOK UP. LOOK OUT. Because when we do, we have the ability to be the most Christ-like, because it’s hard to walk by racism, oppression, homelessness, tragedy in all things. God does not want your expensive sacrifices, but the ones that cost the least financially and the most emotionally.
When we are ready and willing to walk by faith and not by sight, we are trusting that God has the ability to bless us the way we are blessing others, without keeping score.