by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“Do not bring your useless offerings. / It is futile; / their incense is an abomination to me / and fills me with loathing. / New moon and Sabbath / and convocations, assemblies— / I cannot endure another solemn festival / filled with iniquity, injustice.” — Isaiah 1:13.
I have a number of times referred in my comments to the fact that I am a baseball fan. Hence, I am overjoyed that Chicago, who has not won a World Series since 1908 and Cleveland, who has not won a World Series since 1948— the two longest streaks of not winning the Series in the Major Leagues— are in the Fall Classic.
Now, I think one reason the game has constantly fascinated me is I have been always been intrigued by the questions, “How does this work?” “What are the nuts and bolts which makes this happen?”
And baseball is a game that’s fairly easy to follow on those counts, once you know what’s going on, once you know how the game is supposed to be played. So, I’d like to tell a story from baseball fan’s point of view which, I hope, illustrates that fascination.
On Friday evening last Bonnie and I were watching the first World Series Game to be played in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field since 1945. Early in the game, the count on one Cleveland batter went to no balls and two strikes. As if they were one, the home town crowd in Chicago leaped to their feet and started to cheer in expectation of a third strike.
Bonnie, realizing nothing particularly special had happened— it was merely a two strike count— asked, “Why are they cheering?” I said, “They are cheering because they want the next pitch to be a third strike.”
“But these are people who had the money to buy tickets to a World Series game,” I continued. “They are not real baseball fans. Real baseball fans know nine times out of ten, perhaps ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the next pitch will be what people who really know the game refer to as a waste pitch.”
“The next pitch will be a ball and the count will go to one ball and two strikes. So, there is no reason to cheer just yet.”
And that’s exactly what happened. The next pitch was a ball, high and above the strike zone. I then continued my commentary. I am not sure Bonnie was pleased by my continued commentary but I kept going anyway. “The so called waste pitch,” I said, “is not at all a wasted pitch. It has a clear and definitive purpose.”
“The purpose is to change the eye level of the batter. The first two pitches, both strikes, were pitches low but in the strike zone. This last one, the ‘waste pitch,’ was up, too high to be a strike and probably not a pitch that could even be hit. The next one will be back down but probably below the strike zone.”
“What the pitcher is trying to do with the waste pitch is to change the eye level of the batter, to get the batter to misjudge how low the next pitch is, swing and probably miss because of the changed eye level. And yes, the change in location from the first two pitches— both of which were low in the strike zone— is small. But because of the high pitch in between— the waste pitch— the change in eye level is just enough to make the batter miss.”
I don’t have to tell you what happened next, do I? The pitch after the waste pitch was low, out of the strike zone and the batter swung… and missed— strike three— you’re out. (Slight pause.)
Like I said, what interests me is “How does this work?” “What are the nuts and bolts which makes this happen?” (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah: “Do not bring your useless offerings. / It is futile; / their incense is an abomination to me / and fills me with loathing. / New moon and Sabbath / and convocations, assemblies— / I cannot endure another solemn festival / filled with iniquity, injustice.” (Slight pause.)
Let me say a word about a phrase you hear in this passage: burnt offerings. Burnt offerings— that is something for us which is archaic. In the modern vernacular you can say what burnt offerings really means is to give a meaningless gift. Indeed, in this translation a burnt offering is referred to as useless.
So, burnt offerings and special high holy days, this passage states, mean nothing unless the worshiper lives a life of goodness and justice. Worship is an idle exercise unless it brings about a change in heart within the worshiper.
But what is less than clear is the basic attitude of the prophet toward worship. It is one thing to say worship finds its ultimate meaning in the changed lives of the worshipers. It is quite another to say that worship, instead of offering a life-changing experience, actually acts as an impediment.
Yet one can read this text from Isaiah, as well as similar texts from Amos and Hosea, in such a manner. Worship as an impediment is precisely what they seem to say.
Thus, it may be instead of calling for a renewed worship, worship that brings about reoriented hearts, at least some of the prophets call for an abolition of worship altogether. Their reason: formal worship prevents the people of God from achieving their true calling— lives of justice and compassion.
There is, hence, an obvious question posed by this passage. Is this a denial of worship or an affirmation of worship? Here’s the short answer: because worship can lead people to lives characterized by faith inspired action these words are, indeed, an affirmation of worship. Which is to say these words are an affirmation of worship if people know what they are doing, if people know what the nuts and bolts of worship are about. (Slight pause.)
Now, you may think this is strange but that brings me back to baseball and a two strike count. As I indicated, on Friday night there was a two strike count on a Cleveland batter. As if they were one, the home town Chicago crowd leaped to their feet and started to cheer in expectation of that third strike.
But the question that poses is ‘why?’ Why did they leap to their feet in expectation of a third strike when, most of the time, that’s not how it works, as I explained earlier. The nuts and bolts of this, the real way to get a batter out, is to throw a ‘waste pitch.’ (Slight pause.)
In their defense, I want to suggest there is only one reason the crowd cheers for a third strike at that point. Within the context of a home town, Chicago crowd— and I am sure this happened in Cleveland also— in the context of a home town crowd to cheer for a third strike on a two strike count is a cultural norm— a cultural norm.
Cheering at that point is what the local, ingrained culture wants, expects and demands. Any deviation from that norm would bring scorn and ridicule, even though the way to really get the batter out in that situation is to throw that aforementioned waste pitch. (Slight pause.)
What I hope is clear in this passage is burnt offerings— meaningless gifts— represent a cultural norm. Burnt offerings— meaningless gifts— is what people do, what people are expected to do. If burnt offerings were not presented it’s likely the culture which surrounded them, the culture in which they live, would scorn them, ridicule them.
But in nearly every way, the passage asks this question: ‘What does God want?’ What is the cultural norm for God? And the answer is contained right in this passage.
God wants us to make ourselves clean, to remove our evil doings. God wants us to banish injustice, to cease doing evil. God wants us to learn to do good, to search for and to seek justice, to rescue, to help the oppressed, to defend and to protect those who are orphaned, to plead the case of those who are widowed. (Slight pause.)
So, how does this God centered cultural norm work? What are the nuts and bolts which makes this God centered cultural norm happen? (Slight pause.) At the risk of repeating myself from last week, let me say something about the nuts and bolts of what God expects of us, what God expects from us.
What God expects is action— positive action. Therefore, what God expects us to do is to work toward freedom, to work toward peace. What God expects us to do is to be filled with joy in that work.
What God expects us to do is to work toward equity and to embody love. What God expects us to do is to be examples of hope and to understand that hope is real and tangible and present. (Slight pause.)
What is our life with God about? What makes up the nuts and bolts of living within the grace of God and walking in ways of God? The nuts and bolts of life with God are the actions known as freedom, peace, joy, equity, love and hope.
These are not burnt offerings, meaningless gifts. These are the actions which take us on a path filled with justice. And that’s not merely any justice. That is justice as God sees justice— communal justice.
And the justice God would have is not our cultural norm nor does it represent any cultural norm in the modern world. Indeed, the justice of God is described by freedom, peace, joy, equity, love and hope. These are not common cultural norms. But these are the cultural norm of God. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “In talking about baseball I earlier said baseball is a game that’s fairly easy to follow once you know what’s going on, once you know how the game is supposed to be played. As I also said, the justice of God is described by freedom, peace, joy, equity, love and hope. Freedom, peace, joy, equity, love and hope is how the game is supposed to be played. It’s the cultural norm of God.”
BENEDICTION: O God, You have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our striving for justice and truth, to confront one another in love, and to work together with mutual patience, acceptance and respect. Send us out, sure in Your grace and Your peace which surpasses understanding, to live faithfully. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.