Going through the Motions 

Scripture Amos 5:21-24, Isaiah 58:5-6, Matthew 23:23, 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, Micah 6:6-8

(Preached 11/6/2016) 

Amos: I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream

Isaiah: Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Matthew: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

1 Corinthians: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Micah: “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Read it again… 

Those are a lot of verses and different Scriptures, but I am trying to make something plain, brothers and sisters…

Rituals are an occasion that allow spirits to show up. Rituals are powerful because they provide a space for the appearance and in-dwelling of spirit. And every spirit is not loving, righteous, or merciful. Some spirits are fearful, wicked, and apathetic. For Christians, the true test of a ritual is its ability undergird and deepen a spirit of love, justice, and mercy. A ritual is only worthwhile if it flows out of a spirit actively seeking right relationship with God and others.

A wedding is a ritual that opens up a space for the spirit of love, commitment, and unity. However, weddings don’t always go that way. Often, we find that weddings, family reunions, Thanksgiving dinners—these rituals can also bring spirits of discontent, regret, aggression, and downright mean-spiritedness. Rituals are powerful, yet they ultimately depend on the spirit and disposition we bring to them. Amos, Isaiah, Matthew, Paul, and Micah are all telling us the same thing today… And as God spoke through them, God is speaking to us as well. Rituals without love, justice, and mercy are just us going through the motions. In all areas of life, rituals without love justice and mercy are clanging cymbals, they are despised by God; they make a mockery of the actual purpose of a ritual, and at their worse, rituals can enshrine death and fear as life and love. 

And if you fall asleep now, let me tell you the gist of this sermon. Love mercy and justice are more important than rituals; but when love, mercy, and justice meets a ritual, a ritual becomes a life changing and life affirming occasion. Rituals without love is just us going through the motions.

1. Interpersonally

Going through the motions. We talk on the phone but we ain’t talking about nothing. Going through the motions. We give our loved ones a Valentine’s Day gift out of guilt and social pressure, not out of love. Going through the motions. We say “I love you” sometimes and forget feelings attached to the words. If we are honest, We’ve all been on the receiving and giving end of going through the motions in our interpersonal relationships. Whether it’s our significant others, that one friend you just let talk and talk but are doing something else while they talk– we just give them a random “mmm-hmmm,” or “really?” or “yeah” while they talk… Whether it is a sibling or a child or my students or at the job or when we are in line at the DMV… sometimes we fall into motions… Can I get a witness somebody…?

But it’s deeper than that.

I didn’t grow up eating a lot of fast food. But once a week, every Thursday, my mom used to bring home Chick-fil-A after she got off work. That was the routine. That was the ritual. Now my mama used to eat my Waffle Fries on the way home even though I would ask her to just get some for herself. I remember one Thursday she came home without my Chick-fil-A and I was hot. My self-important teenaged self. How could she forget? Didn’t she know about our routine? This was a ritual.

But what I failed to see was that my single-parent mom had had a hard day at work and was just tired and forgot. I was an empty gong. I was a hypocrite. I was one who fasted but oppressed my workers. I forgot about mercy and love. I placed the ritual above my mom, and as a result, I missed the truth of the ritual. My mom got me that food every Thursday because she loved me, she didn’t love me because she got the food. My mom understood the ritual; I didn’t.

I was going though the motions on Thursdays as if my mom was going through the motions too. But she wasn’t. Every time she went to that fast food joint on the corner of Wynn and University Dr, every time she was eating my waffle fries—she was doing so out of love and remembrance of me. But every time I ate my Chick-fil-A sandwich with extra pickles and hot sauce, the remainder of my waffle fries—every time I slurped down my sweet tea, I thought about how much I loved Chick-fil-A and not my mom. I thought about how much I loved this ritual, but not my mom. I thought about what I could get out of it, but not what my mom was putting into it, and so this ritual became an occasion for the spirit self-centeredness. The ritual was no longer about the right relationship of love between my mother and I. It became a moment that allowed me to actually forget about my mother’s love and focus only on my love of Chick-fil-A.

And that’s how it happens. It’s not about my mother; it’s not about God anymore; it’s not about love, mercy, and justice. It’s all about me. It’s all about the ritual and not what the ritual is supposed to point to.

Amos lamented the fact that people could sing songs and yet rob their brothers and sisters everyday. Isaiah lamented the fact that people could fast, which actually made them experience hunger, but their experience of hunger didn’t make them think about those who grow hungry everyday. In Matthew, Jesus was upset at a religious elite that placed ritual ahead of the daily practice of justice, mercy, and faith. In 1st Corinthians, Paul was exasperated by a church that cared more about speaking in tongues and doing deeds of power than loving one another. And Micah hits the nail on the head. We are to love justice, live mercifully and walk with a God of love–but we often think a ritual that sacrifices our children is what actually takes care of our problems. We’d rather go to war than commit to peace. 

And without love, without mercy, without justice, we are just going through the motions. We are empty gongs, spoiled 16 year olds who think the world revolves around them; we are those who get upset when we are not recognized on special occasions, but neglect when people show us love daily…

2. Socially

Voting doesn’t make us human or loving, rather, loving ourselves and others leads us to vote humanely.

While voting is important, it is a ritual that soon becomes toothless, without the daily pursuit of justice, mercy, and love. Have we turned our social engagement into a 2 or 4 year ritual, as if that is all that it takes to be a participant in the fabric of our nation? Is that all we are required to do as citizens? My ancestors did not simply vote because it was a ritual. They saw the vote as tied to the daily practice of pursuing justice, mercy, and love. We have to be careful how we narrate our history. Voting is not important simply because we are citizens and because our forefathers and mothers sacrificed so that we could vote today. They were not pursuing the vote just because they wanted to be treated as citizens. Beyond citizenship, they saw themselves as human and children of God, worthy of respect and love, whether or not there was an America. What had to come first was not the vote, but the awareness that God’s justice, mercy, and love demands that we treat one another the way we want to be treated. What came first was not the vote, but the declaration, “I am somebody.” The right to vote didn’t make them human. Their humanity demanded the right to vote.

Voting doesn’t make us human or loving, rather, loving ourselves and others leads us to vote humanely. I think we miss that today. Our rituals work best when they are undergirded by love. That’s what Isaiah was saying. Fasting isn’t fasting unless you are sharing your bread with the hungry. That’s what Paul was saying. We can speak in tongues but without love, it means nothing. We can vote in elections, but without love… We can vote for anything. We can vote to go to war. A board of directors can vote to lay off workers while increasing the pay of those at the top. We can vote with a spirit of fear, retribution, and bigotry. Micah reminds us that we would rather sacrifice our children and our future, than to pursue justice, mercy, and walking humbly and wisely with a God of love.

God has made this clear to us. Rituals without love, Justice, and mercy is just us going through the motions with God and each other.

Too many of us have mistakenly believed that voting is the EXACT same as letting justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…

I’m not saying that voting is unimportant. I hope everyone in this sanctuary who is able to vote will vote. VOTE! But I am saying, that voting, detached from the practices of justice, mercy, and love is an empty gong and a clanging cymbal. Many are dissatisfied with our political options, and I am not here to espouse one candidate over another—and neither am I here to support our two major political parties. But I do ask, as a citizen of this country, and as a child of God, how is it possible that a country of over 300 million only have 2 major parties? The ritual of voting is supposed to point to democracy, but do we truly live in a democracy in society where only 2 major political parties reign. In a nation where the NFL has 32 teams, the NBA has 29 teams, MLB has 30 teams… how is it possible that 315 million people can be represented by 2 major parties and 2 major candidates unless there is major injustice in the midst? We don’t settle for our sports leagues to only have 2 teams, but we settle for 2 major parties speaking for 315 million. The Bay Area won’t settle for one football team. It’s the Raiders and the Niners. But we have two parties? This can only mean that other political options have been trampled upon and other voices have been silenced. When we vote are we remembering the principles of democracy; is our vote tied to our daily actions of love, mercy, and justice? When we vote do we remember each other, our collective humanity; do we remember that even before a vote, we are all children of God?

Before every sports game, we sing a national anthem. But where is the justice, mercy and love? What does it mean to go through these social and civic rituals when we are going through the motions? Is this why we often hold our nose when we vote? Why we often feel like we are voting for the lesser of two evils? Is this why so many are unenthused when it comes to voting? Because they have mistakenly believed that voting is the same as letting justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream? Is that why some people are mad when Kaepernick takes a knee during the anthem, but not when a person of color is killed by the state? We are a nation that has put rituals before life.

Rituals are everywhere. We slide cards everywhere to pay for things but we forget to ask if what we are paying for is built upon the backs of injustice, fear, and harm. We pump our gas ritually, but do we ask if our dependency on gas is causing our planet ruin and devastation. Rituals without love mercy and justice, is like faith without works… dead.

Every 2 years we go to the polls. Though the system is flawed, voting is not inconsequential. Voting is one major part of the political process. But if we are dissatisfied with the political process then lets’s ask ourselves, are we only dissatisfied during election years? The issues that affect us are year round… So yes, Go VOTE, then let us go advocate, then go have compassion, then go hope, then find some folks and work with them… Repeat ad infinitum. 

Can I talk about it this morning? Our brothers and sisters in North Dakota are having to deal with an age-old American Ritual. The US Government breaking a treaty with out Native American sisters and brothers. I was so heartened to see a few of my colleagues in the ministry whom I know personally, go out to Standing Rock and stand with their indigenous brothers and sisters and protest the pipeline being constructed there. In that space, we have two very different rituals going on, both as old as this country. One is the breaking of treaties for the sake of material gain; the other is the protest, rooted in love, mercy, and justice. Both are rituals and both invite spirits into their midsts. I pray that all of us can see that this morning and that we stand with those at Standing Rock.

I’m not giving you all a sermon on civics or trying to put forth a conservative or progressive agenda. What I am saying is that we live in a world of rituals. Political rituals. Familial and interpersonal rituals and religious and spiritual rituals. And the question is, are we aware of and have we been pursuing justice, mercy, and love before we enact these rituals?

3. Spiritually

We are about to share a sacred meal that Christians have shared for nearly 2000 years. The Lord’s Supper is one of the church’s greatest and most established rituals, along with baptism… But this ritual is empty and can become empty if we don’t remember. That’s what Jesus said. Do this in remembrance of me, not by rote. Remember, as you take this cup and bread, remember that I love you. Remember. Remember that I discarded divinity and became like you. Remember, I am a God that loves you enough to live like you, to cry like you, to hurt like you, to die like you, to die for you, and to live again for you.

Remember me! This is not just a ritual. This is an invitation.

God in Christ didn’t go through the motions and play human or play dead. To partake in this sacrament is to remember that God doesn’t ask us to do something that God will not and has not already done. In Christ, God pursued justice, mercy, and love… not simply sacrifice. To turn this meal into a ritual of sacrifice is to do what all our readings warned against. This meal is supposed to show us that sacrifice is meaningless without justice, mercy and love. 

Otherwise, we might forget, Jesus didn’t die; Jesus was killed. Like so many, pursuing love justice and mercy in a world where fear, injustice, and enmity reign will often lead to harm and conflict. 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: “It’s more than a meal.” Let’s not go through the motions as we partake in this Communion. Let us think about that word communion—co-mingling, being with, unity. Let us think about a grace that is not cheap but requires us to risk ourselves and our positions for love, salvation, and reconciliation. Let us not go through the motions when we take up this cup and bread. Let us ask ourselves… am I an empty gong…

And as we rise from this table, let us look again at all our rituals and ask the same question… Are we loving justice, and practicing mercy… are we loving love…?

Faith hope and love….

© 2016 M. J. Sales


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