5 Epiphany—Year A
February 5, 2017
Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12], Psalm 112:1-9, (10), 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16], Matthew 5:13-20
Melissa Thompson asked me last week if I would be wearing any Falcons gear to the parish breakfast this morning. I said if I had any I’d gladly wear it but I don’t, because the sports religion in my home state are the Georgia Bulldogs, who had 93,000 fans attend their spring practice game last year.
Americans don’t have any trouble letting their light shine when it comes to sports. No one seems to be afraid of intruding on someone’s private space or hurting their delicate feelings if they don’t share the same allegiance.
Yet, when it comes to religion, especially to the mainline Protestant and Catholic Churches, we become super sensitive to the point that many of us would never think of letting someone at work know that we go to church or follow Jesus as Lord, because, we tell ourselves, of our concern for hurting their feelings or intruding into their lives.
I want to suggest there is more going on here than not wanting to offend. Rather, we have been formed by a political culture that has trained us to keep our religion private where it cannot threaten the primacy of the secular, technological, consumerist, industrial complex with the belief that there is a rival God in the world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer who lost his life to the Nazis because he could not keep the light of Christ hidden puts the modern church on notice when he says:
“The followers [of Jesus] are the visible community of faith; their discipleship is a visible act which separates them from the world—or it is not discipleship. And discipleship is as visible as light in the night, as a mountain in the flatland. To flee into invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him. Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, page 113
We’ve justified the hiding of the Light by creating a non-Biblical version of Jesus, a Jesus whose main goal is to be nice, non-offensive, and utterly non-political in this world; a Jesus whose only job is to get us into heaven when we die.
Of course, if this had been the real Jesus he would have lived in Galilee to a ripe old age instead of dying on a Roman cross at the age of 33. Why in the world would Rome and the religious leaders bother with a bland, invisible, harmless Jesus?
But the Powers that Be take notice of Jesus, precisely because he announces in public that the living God has come from heaven to earth as King to bring healing and transformation to the whole cosmos. Then Jesus has the audacity to create a visible community of women and men who are apprentice themselves to Jesus in order to learn how to live like he does in the now of God’s realm in the midst of the old one.
So the question for the church today is not whether to be visible or invisible, but rather what does it mean to let Christ’s light shine.
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Growing up in the south this call to h exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, meant that we had to out Pharisee the Pharisees. We had to be more rigid and more legalistic and more openly pious.
I knew lots of people, and from time to time could see such a one in the mirror every morning, who herniated themselves trying to carry the heavy yoke of creating a pious persona, as proof we were disciples of Jesus. .
And of course this kind of personal religiosity that bends toward hypocrisy helps justify hiding our faith from others.
But this is precisely not the kind of light Jesus is calling his followers to shine. The problem lies in our understanding of the word “righteousness”: it naturally conjures up the image of the so-called self-righteous Puritan who has the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere is having fun. These are some of the dour faces staring back at us from 17th century portraits. This righteousness is based on a contract view of life in which God gives the law of personal holiness and it is our job to obey it or else!
The problem, though, for Jesus is that it is perfectly possible to follow all the laws, and ignore the Lawgiver; to appear holy yet never love.
Saint Paul rightly says in 1 Corinthians 13: “If I show off during worship but have not love; if I have deep knowledge of the Bible, but have not love; If I can perform healings, but have not love; if I make large personal sacrifices for the church, but have not love…I am nothing, just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal calling attention to myself.”
N. T. Wright helpfully translates righteousness as “covenant faithfulness” or “covenant justice”. To be righteous means to live inside God’s covenant of grace which is God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ. You can fulfill the Law without love, but you cannot live inside the covenant without love because God is Love and Jesus is God’s gift of love to us and in us.
This is exactly what Second Isaiah is saying to us this morning: Thus says the LORD:
“Day after day you claim to seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if you were a nation that practiced covenant justice.
“Why do you observe the rules about fasting, but not see how you oppress all your workers.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house….”
The community Jesus forms around himself cannot help but stand out, to be visible, because it is so odd, so counter-cultural:
Consider some of these differences according to Leslie Newbigin:
- The local church is to be a community of praise and gratitude, which is something we don’t see in the world that is anxious to take credit for success and assess blame for failure.
- The local church is to be a community that does not live for itself but is involved with the problems experienced by those living in the neighborhood. We are called to be God’s embassy, an outpost of the gospel.
- The local church needs to be such a place that enables members to learn how to let their light shine in the places they work and live.
As we live inside the covenant faithfulness of Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us, we will live in the world with a grace and compassion that is visible to others.
That’s why Isaiah concludes his call to covenant faithfulness by saying:
“if 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.”
Life in God’s realm begins the moment we confess our failure to be righteous and to surrender ourselves to Jesus Christ and his covenant faithfulness.
As we make public fools of ourselves tonight during the Super Bowl, let’s also consider how God is calling us to be fools for Christ and his covenant faithfulness.