Text: Isaiah 1:10-18
Karla, my wife, tells the story of her first trip to Disney World when she was four and a half years old. As a little girl, Karla lived in the country. Her family was rich in many ways, but modest in financial means. The house had several important, well-worn sets of books – the World Books Encyclopedia, often used to settle factual disputes. A massive dictionary/thesaurus that her dad had been given at high school graduation. And a set of Disney storybooks that had illustrations of all the great Disney movies – Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Cinderella, to name a few. These stories were all read over and over, but one image really took hold for Karla, partly because she also saw it every Sunday night when the Disney show came on – that of Cinderella’s castle in Disney World. She could only imagine what might be inside such a castle (Karla had and has quite the imagination). She was sure it would have magic. And dresses. And animals that talked. It was the place she most wanted to visit. But on a tobacco farm, vacations are not so frequent. Karla knew that the castle was beyond her reach.
And then the unbelievable happened. A large swath of the extended Oakley family (which included 13 children, and almost 50 grandchildren), decided to pool their resources and go to Disney World! The family drove down on a borrowed old school bus, and, as Karla tells the story, the children slept part of that exciting night on the luggage racks above the seats. Though sleep, she admits, is an exaggeration of any resting that went on.
It is hard to convey the expectations of a four and a half year old. The world hadn’t yet really congealed for Karla into reality and non-reality. And as a rural child, she would be surprised over and over again at reality. So it really was difficult to tell where the line might be. And with such a bright imagination, it made the anticipation that much more difficult.
But finally, the family stood within sight of the castle! Karla pulled excitedly at her mother’s hand. “There it is! Can we go there now? Can we go inside?” Karla pleaded. Over what seemed like days and weeks (but must have been 15 minutes) the family wound its way to the looming castle until finally, they stood directly underneath the rounded walkway. Karla’s mother had some conversation with one of the beautiful ladies dressed in a pink princess dress, while Karla tried hard not to interrupt. (A few years later, Karla would receive the lowest grade of her school career, “Unsatisfactory” in “Shows Growth in Self Control,” so this was not easy.)
Karla recalls the next moment: The lady in the dress moved on, and her mother turned to her to explain that the castle was closed. In fact, it wasn’t really a castle inside, but just made to look like one on the outside. Karla doesn’t actually remember anything else from Disney. Just the crushing disappointment of learning that the most special place on earth didn’t actually exist. There are pictures of her standing by Mickey Mouse, sitting by the fancy pool, and rocking her polyester shorts and crop top. But in all of those pictures, the smile gives it away – this place is a lie! It’s a fake. There’s nothing to it.
I looked up Cinderella’s Castle to learn that, indeed, it is nothing more than a shell of a building. The builders used what is called a set-building trick known as forced perspective that makes the castle appear larger than it actually is. At higher elevations, its proportions to full scale are reduced for elements such as stones, windows, and doors. There is no inside. No magic mirrors. No enchanting rooms. No awe-inspiring staircases. No wardrobes that held those bird-sown dresses. No substance beyond the outside façade.
Karla’s castle experience reminded me of the substance over form concept used in accounting. “Substance over form is an accounting principle used ‘to ensure that financial statements give a complete, relevant, and accurate picture of transactions and events.’ If an entity practices the ‘substance over form’ concept, then the financial statements will show the overall financial reality of the entity (economic substance), rather than the legal from of transactions (form). In accounting for business transactions and other events, the measurement and reporting is for the economic impact of an event, instead of its legal form. Substance over form is critical for reliable financial reporting. It is particularly relevant in cases of revenue recognition, sale and purchase agreements. The key point of the concept is that a transaction should not be recorded in such a manner as to hide the true intent of the transaction, which would mislead the readers of a company’s financial statements.” (Wikipedia)
When I read our lectionary text from Isaiah, I thought of Karla’s experience with Cinderella’s Castle and the substance over form principle. Let me explain.
“Throughout Isaiah 1:11–15, God emphatically rejects the people’s worship. According to v. 11, God has ‘had enough’ of their animal sacrifices; the verb might better be translated ‘gorged out.’ Similarly, the phrase translated ‘my soul hates’ in v. 14 could be an idiom for nausea. God even threatens not to look at worshipers in v. 15. This [extreme] language may surprise readers who expect the Bible to conform to popular standards of decorum, but it is typical of prophetic literature. As depicted by Isaiah, God is passionate and emotionally demonstrative, rather than detached and reserved… God does not need human worship and cannot be manipulated through it.
In Isaiah’s time the claim that God rejects these acts of worship would have been scandalous. They are all sanctioned or even commanded in the Torah… So, it is unlikely that Isaiah intended to discredit the practices themselves. Instead, the poem makes shocking, even absurd claims as a rhetorical strategy to capture the audience’s attention. The actual objects of critique are the people’s excessive religiosity and ethical failures…Verses 16-17 emphasize that God’s demands are not limited to worship but also entail specific social expectations. This perspective may seem counter-cultural for some contemporary readers, who view religion as a private matter separate from other parts of life. [But that is the point of Isaiah’s words and other texts from the prophets like Amos and Jeremiah]… Along with its well-known worship regulations, the Torah [is clear in that it] includes commands to protect vulnerable classes of people”—the widow, the orphan, the oppressed (Blake Couey, Associate Professor of Religion, Gustvus Adolphus College)
Before we judge too harshly the Hebrew people, we must understand that they were a people serious about not letting cultural or historical amnesia happen to them. To remember who they are—their history, their heritage—is of critical importance. Their worship rituals and traditions were an important aspect of their common life, especially their religious life. And besides, every other God required similar rituals. For certain, they didn’t want to short-change their God in ritualistic devotion in their worship practices. They, too, wanted to honor their God in the same ways. But the prophets came along and said this is not our God. All of these burnt offering and animal sacrifices; and all of these new moon festivals and convocations and assemblies—that is not what our God wants. God doesn’t care about your forms of worship. Our God wants substance. Our God wants what is on the inside—your heart and soul. Our God wants you to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and your neighbor as yourself. Our God wants you to do good—to seek justice, to rescue the oppressed, the defend the orphan, and plead for the widow. Our God wants substance over form.
Indeed, today, our God wants our worship to move us from the pew to the round table in Finlator Hall where we meet Emma, a homeschooled fifth grader who comes with her mother on Tuesday and Thursday’s for a meal because the paperwork for her family’s food stamps is caught in government red tape. Our God wants our worship to move us from the safety of this sanctuary and to the corner of Bragg Street where several months ago Akiel Denkins, an unarmed young black man, was shot and killed by police. It is there where our offering of prayers is needed. Our God wants our worship to move us from a warm hello to pleas of justice for the welfare of Barbara, Melinda, and Phoebe who gather under the shelter of our Cox Avenue building for safety. Our God wants substance over form. Form lumps everyone together under titles like “mentally ill” or “those people.” Substance has names—Michael, Linda, Susan, James. Form sees problems. Substance knows the stories behind the faces. God doesn’t want form. God wants substance. God wants to know our intent. God wants from us what is authentic.
Maybe sometimes you are like me and you think if you do the form, God may not realize you don’t have the substance. But God is all too familiar with our efforts to put lipstick on a pig—to pretty things up on the outside with little to no care about what’s on the inside. We’ve all done it. And by naming it I am not trying to make myself or anyone else feel bad. But I am trying to remind us that when we get caught up on how something looks or doing something the “right” way or simply just going through the motions or doing what everybody else is doing because it seems like the socially acceptable thing to do—God offers another path. It is the path of authenticity. It is the path of justice-love. It is the path of freedom. It is the path and gift of being real.
Beth Barnwell said something in lectionary this week that has stayed with me. She said, and I am paraphrasing: God doesn’t want our Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations where we feed poor people turkey for a day. There is nothing wrong with feeding those who are hungry turkey on Thanksgiving Day but God wants substance from us. God wants us to care for the hungry and homeless and poor 365 days of the year. Beth’s words rang true. There is nothing wrong with our Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions with family and friends. Those are important. But God wants substance from us. God wants us to share our blessings of gratitude every day by giving back to those in need every day. God wants us to be mindful every single day that God chose to be born in the flesh—to dwell with us and within us here on this earth—and that should make a difference in how we treat our neighbor and welcome the stranger.
Isaiah’s words come to us at a time when the message of form over substance rather than substance over form permeates our lives and culture. These are good days to be reminded that what God wants from us is substance over form. God wants the true intent of our hearts. God desires that we live our lives with authenticity. The “Cinderella’s Castles” are always alluring. But faraway castles will always disappoint us. The real magic we seek is already within us if only we can act out of the courage to show up to be exactly, precisely, unflinchingly who God made us to be.