Preached on Feb. 5, 2017 at Bethany Lutheran Church, Cherry Hills Village, CO
Isaiah 58:1-12New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
False and True Worship
58 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. 2 Yet 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. 4 Look, 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. 5 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? 6 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? 7 Is 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? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator[a] shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then 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, 10 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. 11 The 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. 12 Your 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.
Matthew 5:13-20New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Salt and Light
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
The Law and the Prophets
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks[b] one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Sometimes things are HARD. You know, just plain ugh. School, work, relationships, raising kids, caring for aging parents, eating kale, exercising, not eating the whole pan of delicious gluten free brownies, writing a sermon instead of watching Netflix, the list goes on and on. I don’t like it when things are hard and I’ve done some hard things in my life and my guess is that you have too. We don’t like it when things are hard, we want things to be simple, easy, enjoyable, you know focused on whatever makes us happy right here right now. Whenever possible we try and make things easy on ourselves usually with some justification of we deserve it, we couldn’t possibly do all those hard things anyway and so why try? No one will know or care if we make our lives a teeny bit easier by avoiding some hard stuff every now and again. It won’t affect anyone else.
Somethings are simply HARD. As I was preparing for the sermon today, one of the commentaries I read stated on verses 17-20: that this is the most difficult passage to be found anywhere in this Gospel. Well….Super. These verses are indeed challenging for many reasons and I considered not focusing on them for that reason, but they kept calling to me. Sometimes we have to wrestle with what is hard. It seems in verses 13-20 that the poet Jesus that Dr. Skinner introduced us to last week with the beatitudes is gone and has been replace by Jesus who has a couple of things to tell us. Jesus starts this long sermon on the mount that we will be exploring for the next couple of weeks, with words that would comfort those people for whom life was hard. Jesus eloquently pulls us in to their hard lives and then moves to make us partners with them in what is hard.
Today’s passage begins with the declaration and promise that we are salt and light, ok, that seems fine, and we hear the words that we use in our baptismal liturgy: “Let you light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Very nice indeed. And then Jesus drops the other shoe. He spells out that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and that one who breaks commandments will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven and one who does the law and teaches it will be called great and that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees or you’re not going to get in the kingdom. Anyone else feel like curling up in the fetal position and throwing in the towel at this point? What??!!! Jesus, you’re supposed to tell us again how we’re tasty salt and gentle and glorious light! Tell us how you’re with us even until the end of the age and how much you love us. Laws, righteousness and commandments? This is too hard Jesus, make it easier!
But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook about the law. Why? Because it’s not about us at all. That might be the hardest point to hear about the gospel. All the pronouns in the beatitudes and in today’s passage are plural, not singular. It’s “you all” and not “you” individually. Jesus is reminding the disciples and us that the law is all about how we live together as the people of God-all of us. It’s all about relationship, which is Jesus’ parting words in verse 20 to us today. Be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes and the Pharisees knew every little nuance of ritual and had impeccable theology. But they didn’t want anything to do with people not in their privileged clique. Jesus isn’t concerned with right rituals and right theology: Jesus is harkening to the Hebrew understanding of righteousness. Righteousness is right relationship with God-how we live in the life of God and so by extension, with our neighbor. And this is HARD because this kind of life, being in right relationship, being oriented to God and not the world, is not about us and whatever makes us happy and gives us an easy life. Jesus doesn’t care if rituals are done correctly, the correct songs are sung, and the correct prayers are said. No, Jesus is wanting us to know that our relationship with God and one another is primary.
The Israelites in Isaiah 58 were also wrestling with this hard reality. They were returning from exile and beginning a new life in Jerusalem. Many were resuming the old rituals as prescribed in the Torah. They were fasting and were annoyed that God didn’t seem to notice them and how well they were performing the ritual. But God saw through the outward act and knew that the fast was all about them. God calls them out and reminds them of the real reason for ritual-to reorient them into right relationship with God. Why? Because their actions as God’s people mattered. Fasting only to follow the rules for the sake of the rules isn’t the point. You fast so that you can share the bread that you were going to eat with the hungry. You fast from isolationism and share your home with the homeless. You fast from materialism and share clothing with the naked. Your actions matter, but your actions are not about you or your salvation, they are about your neighbor in need. When your actions come from a place of serving God, no matter how hard it is, this is when your light shines the brightest and overcomes the darkness that is in the world.
Jesus calls us to do hard things: the life of following Jesus isn’t promised to be easy, without obstacles, without pain, without sacrifice. Jesus calls us to set ourselves, our own wants, our own perspectives, our own comforts aside for the sake of our neighbor. It’s hard, as when we follow the call of Christ out into the world we do so with the needs, dignity, and humanity of our neighbor first and foremost in our minds, hearts and spirits. This is the way of love.
Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t leave us alone in these hard things and simply says, “good luck!” No, the promise is that Jesus walks with us. The promise is found in our Bible Verse of the Month from Is. 58: 9a “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” Here I am with you, because your actions matter-not for your salvation-for we know the promise is that nothing will separate us from the love of God. God desires nothing more than relationship with us-all of us, even if it’s hard. Your actions matter so that this promise of God’s love and care is experienced by all people through the people of God. Jesus declares that we are beloved children of God and are already salt-we add God’s zest for abundant life to the world and we are already light-we reflect the light from Christ into the world. It means that we go to lifeless and dark places where we might not want to go but are sent, because it’s not about us but the need for our neighbor to taste, see, hear, and experience the love of Christ in a concrete way-from us. When we truly live in this promise of deep relationship with God and neighbor it will indeed exceed the scribes and the Pharisees who were more concerned about their own rituals and their own wants, than their neighbor. Our light shines because in baptism we die to our old selves and rise through the water, as Emerson will this morning, as a new creation clothed in the promises of Christ.
Jesus proclaims to us over and over again to remember that the heart of the law is love: love that flows from God and moves us in thought, word and deed to do hard things. As a disciple of Christ, I want to learn to love so deeply that these things that we are called to do don’t seem hard but are a joy. I want to learn to love so deeply that when I see people who are different, I only see Christ in my brothers and sisters no matter where they are from. I want to love so deeply that I quit worrying about how my actions may look to others or what other people may think about me. I want to learn to love so deeply that my actions are from a place of love from Christ and focus solely on my neighbor. I want to love like it matters.
Paul reminds us in Philippians 2 that we can do these hard things because God is at work in us, through us and with us. And in Phil. 4:13 he declares “I can do all things through him, Christ, who strengthens me.”
We know that it will sometimes be hard. It is a life long journey to learn to love in this way-to love how Jesus loves. Love that matters, love that feeds the hungry, love that clothes the naked, love that houses homeless, love that welcomes the stranger, love that changes lives, hearts and the world. Love that shines not so that people see us, but see God. I want to love this way, even if it’s hard. Amen!