Tone-Deaf?

Message Manuscript for “Just Do Good” Isaiah 1:1,10-20
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, August 11, 2019

A term I’ve heard a lot in this past week is “tone-deaf.” I’ve heard it in news reports, seen it in tweets and posts, and even used it myself in conversations. The reason it has been so prevalent this past week is the recent instances when well-known people have said or posted things in response to the recent mass killings and the ongoing issues of immigration and racism. What being tone-deaf technically means is not being able to distinguish between two different notes. What it means colloquially, the way I’ve heard it used lately, is not being able to understand one’s context; being unable to have empathy for other people and what they are going through; or, having no self-awareness. What being tone-deaf looks like is what popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted after the mass killings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, “In the past 48 hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings. On average, across any 48 hrs, we also lose . . . 500 to Medical errors, 300 to the Flu, 250 to Suicide, 200 to Car Accidents, 40 to Homicide via Handgun. Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.” You can imagine the responses he received to such tone-deaf remarks as people called him out for his tone-deaf remarks and for what was his apathy or his lack of empathy for real people in grief, not statistics.

ceb7cf83ceb1ce90ceb1cf82-cf80cf81cebfcf86ceaecf84ceb7cf82-prophet-isaiah-d0bfd180d0bed180d0bed0ba-d0b8d181d0b0d0b8d18f-0_1540a7_50ea4c7f_orig-e1525806070463Isaiah, in our first reading this morning, calls out some folks for being tone-deaf. He addresses his own nation of Israel for not being able to distinguish between what really matters to God and what they were actually doing (or not doing). Isaiah, seeking to be God’s mouthpiece, uses strong—no, scathing–and heated language to address how Israel has completely misunderstood God and what God wanted them to be and do in the world. Hear just a few of these words again,

When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.

There’s no question here that these folks were religious; they must have had perfect worship attendance and spared nothing when it came to making their worship services and religious festivals beautiful. They offered the finest of sacrifices, burned the best of incense, and said the most magnificent of prayers. But none of it mattered at all to God. Anathea Portier-Young, in her commentary on this text, states why God wasn’t impressed with it all,

to provide costly resources for the sacrificial cult without correcting systemic injustice means the community cherishes the appearance of righteousness over the reality. Worship has become for them an iterative self-deception that reinforces what the people want to believe and requires no uncomfortable change.FOOTNOTE: Footnote

Israel’s worship, in other words, was tone-deaf. It was all producing a terrible stench in the nostrils of God while the oppressed, orphaned, and widowed in their society were being neglected and marginalized. No wonder God was angry.

fullsizeoutput_46e3With the passing of author Toni Morrison this past week, there has been a lot in the media about her books, with her most memorable writing being quoted and circulated. One quote I saved (source: James Martin Instagram post) is this one: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’” I like that because it is a great description of what religion ought to be—the free and powerful helping the bound and powerless.

Isn’t that what our religion is to look like, doing our “real job?” I’m afraid we haven’t been doing it. And we–the religious of the world–are viewed by many in our world as tone-deaf. So how do we do that? How do we, those who love the beauty and order of the sanctuary so much more than the ugly chaos of the world outside, begin to do our real job? I recommend we keep things simple and summarize our work as “just do good.” There are several things involved in just doing good. First, we must understand where good needs to be done. All we have to do is look around us and we will see where our good needs to go. How about starting with the same groups Isaiah saw–the oppressed, orphaned, and widowed? I’m confident you saw them on tv, on Facebook, or on your way to church. How about the children who went to the first day of school this past week in Forest, MS with a parent only to end the school day as orphans? Or what about the people in El Paso who were targeted by a killer because of the color of their skin and the ongoing oppression this causes for Latino citizens, immigrants, and asylum seekers? And what of the oppression caused by a gunman who walks into a public area in Dayton and begins shooting as many people as he can? Even if you somehow missed all of that horrific activity, there’s plenty of need for good all around us in Shreveport, where people here in our community are oppressed by escalating crime, predatory lending, systemic racism, and unequal opportunities. We can see the children around us who have been orphaned in various ways. We see the widows, many of who struggle to make ends meet. As the school year begins, we can so easily see the teachers and students who are in need, especially the 27,000 or so children in our community who live in poverty.
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A second way to just do good is by doing what we can do and doing so locally. We will be overwhelmed if we try to address the injustice going on in our world, nation, or even just our city. So we should bloom where we are planted and do what we can do right here in our neighborhood. Our Missional Ministry Teams provide us with a way to do this. Getting involved on at least one of them means that you are making a difference in the lives of at-risk children, formerly homeless veterans who continue to fight wars of many kinds, hungry children and adults, children without basic needs and clothing to begin the school year, parents who don’t make enough money to buy diapers for their babies or uniforms for their students, and people who are vulnerable to predatory lending and tax preparation schemes. Serving on one of these teams involves doing justice for others. But there are more ways we need to be helping, more teams we need to create to address things going on locally like gun violence, human trafficking, and drug dealing. Maybe some of you will hear God’s call and, like Isaiah, say “Here am I, send me” to create a new team for justice.

A third way to just do good is by never stopping. Unfortunately, the need for justice continues. And so must the people who seek it. We must be those people and we must never stop seeking it. We must never get to the point where we get so comfortable in our cushioned pews and in our elaborate worship services and ceremonies that we forget what–and who–God really cares about in this world. Never stopping means that we won’t allow the setbacks and disappointments that will inevitably have the final say on what happens in our communities, nation, and world. We never stop because we know that God will never stop until the justice is provided for the most vulnerable people in our world, beginning with where we live and where we worship, until God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven.

Just doing good in those ways will help us from being tone-deaf to the notes being played outside the walls of our church, to the ones God intends us to hear, understand, and respond to with an altogether different tune, one that brings us into harmony with God and with each other in this world.

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