LET IT SHINE!
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on February 9, 2014 (Fifth Sunday after Epiphany)
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. 3“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is 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?
6Is 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? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. – Isaiah 58:1-12 (NRSV)
After our worship service this morning we will have a book discussion, to talk about the book “This Odd and Wondrous Calling – The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers,” by Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver. As part of the discussion, folks are going to have some questions about what ministry has been like for me – how I felt called to ministry, and what a pastor’s life is like. One of the questions I was given was how I get the ideas for my sermons. I will answer that right here and now. It depends. Sometimes I have presented a book over the course of several weeks; sometimes I think it is important to talk about particular issues of interest to Christians – such as marriage, or our criminal justice system. This past summer, as part of our 170th anniversary celebration I did a series of sermons on important events in Lyonsville’s history.
This past Friday I spent the whole day baking break for our bake sale yesterday, so I was tempted to do a dramatic reading of my bread recipe for today’s sermon!
But other times, I choose a scripture reading or two, and then try to discover what I think God might be saying to me, and to us, in those readings. Several Christian denominations have worked together over the years to develop a three-year cycle of suggested readings for each Sunday of the church year, known as a lectionary. The idea was to encourage pastors and churches to engage with at least part of all the books of the Bible, rather than always using a few “favorite” scriptures. Each Sunday there are at least four suggested readings: an Old Testament lesson (I call it the Prime Testament), a psalm, a New Testament lesson, and a Gospel lesson. In some church traditions, congregations are required to follow the lectionary and read all the lessons each Sunday (Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc.). We in the United Church of Christ have freedom to choose for ourselves what we will read in worship, so sometimes I follow the lectionary and sometimes I don’t. When I do, I usually don’t use all four readings; instead I will usually use two or three, although portions of the other lessons may appear in our liturgy or prayers.
The lectionary readings for this Sunday are:
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12) Old Testament
Psalm 112:1-9 (10) Psalm
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16) New Testament
Matthew 5:13-20 Gospel
(the verses in parentheses are optional)
As you can see, we read from Isaiah and Matthew this morning. All week I have been reading these two passages myself, doing some research on them (when and why and for whom it is thought they were written), trying to understand what they might have to say to us today. I didn’t choose them because I had a particular point to make, or because I had a clever story to share about them. I tried to let God speak to me through these words. When I do that, there are some weeks when I struggle to figure out what God is trying to say through a particular text. Other weeks, the lessons can hold a powerful message. Perhaps the greatest satisfaction for me as a preacher is when I can find a new insight or perspective on a text.
As much as I love Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the text that most struck me this week is the Isaiah passage. I have read this text before, and preached on it. With its mention of fasting, it is often one of the suggested readings for Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the season of Lent, when for centuries many Christians have practiced some form of fasting – abstaining from some or all foods as a spiritual discipline.
This text was first spoken or written perhaps five centuries before the time of Jesus to the people of Israel. The prophet is directed by God to SHOUT OUT:
HEY! YOU’VE GOT THINGS ALL BACKWARDS!
Sometimes we have to shout to be heard above the noise and distractions. Sometimes it is hard for people whom I care about to get my attention. God wants the prophet to announce loudly and clearly what the people don’t seem to want to hear.
It seems they were going through the rituals and motions of piety and devotion: seeking to draw near to God, praying, asking for God to do what is right for them. They were fasting (imagine that – when was the last time any of us fasted?). They were putting on a good show.
But God was not pleased. God even accused them of rebellion and sin. Why? Because their outward devotion was not producing the fruits that God desired: changed relationships, caring for those in need, liberating those who were oppressed, treating one another with fairness and dignity and respect. In other words, God was accusing the people of being a bunch of hypocrites.
That was then. What about now? I hear these days about folks who have decided they don’t want to go to church because the church is full of hypocrites – people who come together to worship and hear a sermon about loving one another, and then get in fights leaving the parking lot. Is the church full of hypocrites? Of course! We have a long history of hypocrisy!
But what I hear God saying to me and to us today is that people for centuries have had a fundamental misunderstanding of what this whole religion thing is about. They (not me or you, of course) see religious practice as a means of trying to motivate God, or the gods, or the universe, or whatever to give them what they want. They and their desires are the center of the universe; they try to get God to bless them with material success (even if it means suffering for others), with healing and health (even if they live in unhealthy ways), with popularity and affection (even if they are not very lovable), and with all sorts of other things that we humans think will make life better for us. They (not any of us, of course) think that if they just can pray the right prayer, or show God they are willing to sacrifice or suffer a little bit, then God will be impressed and give them what they want.
In other words, some people today (like those ancient people of Israel) think that religion is a way to control God for their own benefit. Fortunately, none of us ever think that way!
But God says — through the words of the prophet Isaiah — that is all backwards. God does not need to be changed; people do. Because God is holy; God is good; God is righteous. But we humans have demonstrated over the course of many centuries, that left to our own devices, we are pretty consistent at making a mess of things, and hurting not only ourselves, but others in the process.
God reminds us that the whole point of being in relationship with this God of Israel and of Jesus is so that God might help us to change. There is some hope that God might help us learn to live together, and have compassion for one another.
One of the current sociological phenomena of 21st century America is the increase in the number of people who claim that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” They have decided that organized religions of almost any kind have only resulted in excluding people and making people feel guilty and even in abuse and violence. And so they have left the church (or synagogue or temple) in order to find God in nature, or physical exercise, or other assorted places and practices where they find peace and renewal and healing. Nice. I must admit there are days when I despair of being a part of a religious tradition that now seems to be known more for the damage it causes than for the good it does. My consolation is in knowing that our United Church of Christ is about as disorganized as any kind of church! It doesn’t really qualify as organized religion.
It is one thing to find practices that bring us peace and comfort and blessings. But where do I go to be changed – to be transformed? Because I don’t know about you, but I need to be changed. And the only one I know who can change me is God. And the only ways I know to be changed are to worship (a regular reminder that God is holy and good, and I am not), to hear God’s word for me – usually in ancient texts that are still relevant today, to see how God was at work in Jesus of Nazareth, to engage in prayer that invites dialogue between me and God, and to be a part of a community of faith that can challenge me to put into practice the things I claim to believe.
And the strange, counter-intuitive thing that God promises through the prophet is that when we allow ourselves to be changed – when we stop trying to get God to fulfill our desires and instead try to be what God desires – that is when we will truly be blessed! When we share with others, we will also receive. When we seek the liberation of others is when we find true freedom. We will be fruitful. All creation will restored and renewed.
One of the ongoing political debates in our country right now is how much help the government should provide to folks who are struggling because of unemployment. A sagging economy left many people — who had once been unemployed – out of work, and in danger of losing their homes and going hungry. Some people in our country think we should continue to provide assistance as they look for work. It wasn’t their fault they lost their jobs, and once people have been unemployed for a while, many employers are reluctant to hire them back. Other people think that providing ongoing assistance causes people to become dependent on government help, and they lose their incentive to find work. Plus, it puts a financial strain on people who are working and on businesses.
It’s a tough decision to make. Perhaps the government is the most ineffective way to meet human needs if they can be met in other ways (but they don’t always get met). It’s easy to assume and argue the motives of people we really don’t know. My guess is that people – being people – are at both ends of the spectrum: some truly need the help and will be very appreciative of any assistance and will work hard to find employment; some will accept it as something due to them.
But the words of that wild-eyed liberal Isaiah to me are pretty compelling: “Loose the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house…” It doesn’t say to only help the people who are deserving, or who will appreciate it. It doesn’t blame them for laziness. Helping them is good for us all.
I was struck by a quote I saw this week from the noted scholar and theologian Dr. Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Jesus once encouraged his disciples – and his words have echoed through the centuries to all who have been baptized in Christ’s name – to be “the salt of the earth”, and “the light of the world.” They were to be distinctive – to be different – to make a real difference in the world for the better. Those who have been a part of the church have not always been distinctive. They have not always brought light into the darkness. How do we make a difference? By being changed. By not trying to use God and others to fulfill our desires, but by being transformed by God’s power and love and grace. When that happens, people can see it. Some will be attracted by it; some will be threatened by it and try to eliminate it. But it will make a difference.
Robert J. von Trebra