Sunday, February 16, 2020

Life Abundant Through Grace: Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, year A


In the movie Groundhog Day, the main character is Phil, an unpleasant, egotistical, cynical weatherman in Pittsburgh who is forced to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in the hamlet of Punxsutawney. Together with a cameraman and his cheerful, charming new (female) producer named Rita, he travels to the home of the Groundhog festival and does his report, with a big helping of sarcasm to his coworkers.

Forced by a winter storm to spend another night in a place he dislikes, he wakes up to find that he is reliving the same day-- Groundhog Day-- over and over. Every day the same wake-up music and deejays on his alarm clock radio, every day people dancing to same strange polka at the village square, called, strangely, Gobbler's Knob, every day having to report about what the groundhog (a critter who is also named Phil) supposedly does, and every day unable to leave town and go home. 


At one point, after he has already relived the same day multiple times without finding a way to escape, he glares into the camera and says, "You want a prediction about the weather, you're asking the wrong Phil. I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life." Which pretty much describes Midwestern winter thus far, as we are on the 352nd day of February.

Yet as he relives this same day, over and over, Phil discovers that he DOES have some choice in each day. At first, he uses his time for mischief—messing with people’s heads, observing a security truck so he can steal money from it and buy a Mercedes—and remember, everything resets the next morning, so there are no lasting consequences. The problem is, the more he does things to waste time or to reinforce his own flaws, the more he focuses on his own misery while ignoring what’s going on in the lives of those around him, the unhappier he gets. 

The change comes when he starts focusing, however imperfectly, on someone other than himself. He gets to know Rita, his producer, and finds himself attracted to her, and in order to win her over, he begins remaking himself. He learns French, because she studied French poetry in college. He learns how to play the piano, because that’s one of the things she is looking for in a mate. He learns her likes and dislikes (1).

But it is only when he stops doing these things for his OWN selfishness, and starts trying to make himself a better person in order to be worthy of her, his attitude toward these endless repeated Groundhog Days begins to change. Eventually, the final thing that sets him free is when he seeks to become a better person for the sake of everyone around him—when he uses the days he has to let go of all that has made him a bitter, self-centered person and to learn to live as a compassionate, outwardly focused human being—that Phil is truly transformed.

Once Phil stops seeing himself as a hostage on the wheel of life and embraces his own agency for kindness and generosity, he is completely changed and redeemed. 

In other words, Phil is transformed once he sees grace everywhere in that everyday town among those everyday people at whom he used to sneer. He sees this replaying of the same day as a gift rather than a curse. Phil comes to realize he has the ability to either waste his time or use it to see his connection with others, and to try to make life better for those around him. Once Phil realizes that, instead of shutting people out, the truly full life is one that invites people in, he is transformed. Once Phil stops trying to erect barriers to deny other people’s claims upon his compassion and generosity, he truly comes to life. 

And that’s a message we find in the gospels as well—perhaps even THE message as we seek to determine how to live a truly good life—a truly reverent and abundant life. In our gospel, Jesus likewise is trying to teach us how to transform our own lives by living into the spirit of the covenant we live by in our lives as disciples of Jesus. This is week three of a four week course in Matthew’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount. Last week we heard comparisons between ourselves and salt and light. We are reminded that Jesus is acting as the new Moses, teaching from a mountain just as Moses did, not CHANGING the commandments handed down on Sinai but expanding and clarifying them. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill,” Jesus reminded us last week. That’s why the teaching we receive from Jesus in today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount uses a repeated pattern: “You have heard it said x, but I tell you x-plus.”

At the root, these teachings in our gospel today—about anger, adultery, divorce and upholding your oaths-- are all about relationships, either relationships with God or with each other (just as the Ten Commandments were). Most of the oaths we make—for it is THAT kind of swearing that Jesus is speaking about, not the cussing kind of swearing—are about regulating relationships and expectations. They are also about intentions, not merely the actions themselves, but what we are trying to accomplish by our actions. That emphasis is carried over from last week’s readings.

Jesus’s teaching regarding anger is a word that speaks especially to us today. We live in a world that is awash with anger and contempt, especially toward people we regard as the “other,” as “them,” as people different from us. It’s one thing to recognize our differences—but it’s holy to celebrate those differences while maintaining the form conviction that ALL people are reflections of Jesus’s incarnation, which is itself a reminder that we are all created in God’s image, without exceptions. The anger that Jesus is talking about here is the anger that treats others as enemies, as less-than, as not fully human and worthy of respect. 

And it’s here that a distinction needs to be made before going forward. We all get angry—especially when we have been hurt by someone—and often that anger gets multiplied the more intimately connected the one who hurts us is to us. And there are certainly people who may have hurt us before and who may hurt us again—and we are not being asked to keep opening the door to more abuse by someone who cannot be trusted with our hearts. But we can still love them—even if that means we love them from waaaaaaaaay over there while we stay over here. That’s perfectly fine. 

That’s not wrong—it’s giving ourselves the gift of freedom. It’s giving ourselves the gift of not allowing those who have personally sought our harm to live in our heads and our hearts rent-free. But you can’t overcome your enemies by imitating them. That’s just self-destructive—and worse, it lets them win in tearing you down. 

Allowing ourselves to come to the other side of anger is a gift God calls us to embrace. Coming to the other side of anger is also about coming to the compassionate understanding that people who act out of malice, out of selfishness, out of fear and anger as a way of life have themselves been hurt in some way. As the saying goes, most people we encounter are carrying burdens about which we have no idea. We have the power to choose to step out of that cycle of suffering and free ourselves from it, or we can perpetuate it. But all people-- even people who are angry, hateful, lost-- are nonetheless as much God’s beloveds as we are. And through Jesus’s words about anger, God honors us by making us partners in attempting the reconciliation of the whole world that is the foundation of the kingdom of heaven. 

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose birth we celebrate on February 4 in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints wrote one of his greatest works on Matthew’s sermon on the Mount. In Chapters 9-11 of The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer addresses the gospel portion we read this week (remembering that Bonhoeffer consistently uses masculine language as a default, which I will be adapting as necessary, lest anyone think his points only apply to males. Regarding Jesus’s point concerning anger, Bonhoeffer says this: 


For the Christian, worship cannot be divorced from the service of all of humanity as our kin, as it is with the rabbis. If we despise our brothers and sisters our worship is unreal, and it forfeits every divine promise. When we come before God with hearts full of contempt and unreconciled with our neighbors, we are, both individually and as a congregation, worshiping an idol. So long as we refused to love and serve our brothers and sisters and make them an object of contempt and let them harbor a grudge against me or the congregation, our worship and sacrifice will be acceptable to God. Not just the fact that I am angry, but the fact that there is somebody who is been hurt, damage and disgraced by me, who ‘has a cause against me’, erects a barrier between me and God. Let us therefore as a Church examine ourselves, and see whether we have not often enough wronged our  neighbors. Let us see whether we have tried to win popularity by falling in with the world’s hatred, its contempt and its [insulting treatment]. For if we do that we are murderers. Let the fellowship of Christ so examine itself today and ask whether, at the hour of prayer and worship, any accusing voices intervene and make its prayer vain. Let the fellowship of Christ examine itself and see whether it has given any token of the love of Christ to the victims of the world’s insulting treatment and contempt, any token of the love of Christ which seeks to preserve, support and protect life. Otherwise however liturgically correct our services are, and however devout our prayer, however brave our testimony, they will profit us nothing, nay rather, they must needs to testify against us that we have as a Church ceased to follow our Lord (2).

Bearing contempt for others cannot be made right just by offering a gift at the altar. No, that’s too easy, and avoids the very real work of reconciliation. The entire point of covenants and commandments is that we live in RELATIONSHIP with God and with each other. Relationships are holy things but also sacramental—for they help us evaluated how strong our commitment to living as God’s children really is. We show our commitment to God by how we treat others—even those to whom we are strangers, or those who are difficult to love. God knows sometimes WE can be difficult to love—but God loves us anyway. That's called "grace," and like the song says, it's amazing.


It can never be repeated enough: one of the greatest blessings of Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian theology is our repeated emphasis on the importance of the concept of the incarnation—of how, in Jesus, God comes to take on our human nature and live as one of us, thereby hallowing our frail flesh and giving us the example of a truly enlightened, joy-filled, purposeful life. 

Our incarnational theology, proclaimed, embraced, and celebrated in our weekly observance of the Eucharist, reinforces the sacredness of the image of God that resides within all humanity, and indeed is shot throughout all of creation (3)That’s why anger, fear, jealousy, or prejudice that leads us to discount anyone’s life—no matter how much we may disagree with them or their actions—as less sacred and worthy of protection than our own lives or the lives of our family and friends is equivalent to the breaking of our covenant with God, as discussed in our reading from Deuteronomy discusses. 

When we choose contempt rather than seeing the holiness and sacredness of any of our kindred people, we are choosing to let death and destruction reign in our hearts, rather than choosing life and love. God calls us step back from hurting other people through our own anger—even those who have hurt us. Whether they are worthy or not is not our concern.

And that’s hard. But all real transformation—the choice of life over death—is of course not going to be easy. It WILL be worthwhile, and will bless US as much as it blesses those around us.

We can choose to do the same thing over and over again even if it makes us or those around us miserable, and try to fool ourselves that the collateral damage doesn’t matter—but it doesn’t really work, does it? Jesus came to reorient us away from surrendering to the death-dealing precepts of this world—so that WE could not only have life, but so that we could work for the liberation and flourishing and healing of the entire world from the ways of suffering, anxiety, and death. Jesus calls us to embrace abundant life given to us through God’s grace.

Jesus offers us the gift of freedom—and to lift up those we see along the way, especially those who may be hurting. That’s why the Great Commandment is this: to love God with that you have and all that you are, and to love your neighbor—no matter how distant—as much if they were a part of your very own body. Because they are. Let us seek the way of generosity, the way of reconciliation—for our life and the life of the world.

Amen.

Preached at the 505 on February 15, 2020, and at 8:00 and 10:30 am on February 16 at St. Martin'sEpiscopal Church, Ellisville.

Readings:
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37


Citations and Sources:
1) Groundhog Day, written by Danny Ruin and Harold Ramos, 1993.
2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, chapter 9 (“The Brother”), pp. 144-145
3) Ibid., p. 145.

Prayer 2575: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, year A


Creator God,
Ruler of Our Hearts,
we gather around your altar
knit together as one body, one heart,
proclaiming your steadfast love and faithfulness.

Lord Jesus Christ,
through your incarnation,
you hallowed and sanctified our frail flesh,
and exemplified the fully enlightened, purpose-driven life:
lead us into deeper relationship and devotion to you
and to fulfilling your faith in us
to share in the reconciliation of the whole world.

Expand our understanding of your commandments
that our worship and witness 
lifts up and sustains every aspect of our lives, 
that we may reflect your light with joy, O Most High. 

Teach us to love You and each other fully,
remembering that each person we meet bears your image.

By the power of the Holy Spirit,
make us steadfastly joyful in our witness and service to You,
O Most Merciful One,
and press the kiss of your blessing upon all those for whom we pray.

Amen.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Prayer, day 2574


In the name of the Merciful One,
Love drapes over us like a silken garment
trusting in us to wear her proudly
even when raindrops threaten;
so too boldly may we enflesh our faith
to bear healing into the hurting places of the world.

Arise, O Wisdom, and lead us,
that we may embrace new hope
and claim our place as your disciples,
devoted to the light you kindle within us 
that we may shine with joy
and banish the shadows that linger.

Let us take the hand of the fearful
and comfort the aching hearts among us,
as our Savior Christ teaches us,
that we may wear his name with justice.

Almighty Creator, bend near;
hear the whispered prayers of your people,
and enfold those for whom we pray
within your steadfast embrace.

Amen.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Prayer 2573: For Valetine's Day


Almighty God,
Lover of Our Souls,
we lift our hearts to you in trust and faithfulness,
singing out our praise for your tender care of us.
May we extol the power of love in every action we take, 
-- love that gives itself for others
with no agenda but kindness
and the well-being and flourishing of all living things.
May we walk in love,
unified by your gospel, O Christ,
witnessing to the reconciling power of your wisdom
that binds us in empathy
as companions and soul-friends.
Holy Spirit, descend upon us
and lift us higher
that we may dedicate ourselves to God
and be guided by the lamp of mercy and justice.
Press the kiss of your blessing, 
Beloved Jesus,
upon all whose hope is in you, as we pray.

Amen.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Prayer 2572: On the Feast of the Rev. Absalom Jones


O Lord, Our God,
who blesses us with breath and determination,
we lift our prayers to You,
and still ourselves to hear your voice:
Speak, O God, for your servants are listening.

Our hope and our trust is in You,
O Holy One, Creator of All That Is,
who adorns creation with beauty
and blesses the human heart
with the capacity for love and justice.

May we walk in the pathways of equity and right,
casting away prejudice to discern what is holy-- 
for we are called to kinship with all
just as You, O God, created us all in your image.

Let us work for the building of your kingdom,Beloved Savior,
and enshrine your gospel precepts within us
that we may be witnesses and exemplars of your truth.

Spread the tent of your mercy over us,
O Great Redeemer and Spirit of Wisdom, 
and gather us all into one flock,
for though we are prone to wander,
yet You are ever by our sides.

Grant your mercy and grace to all
whose needs we raise before You,
as we humbly pray.

Amen.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Prayer 2571: Inspired by Deuteronomy 30:15-20


God of Life and Light, 
Source and Fountain of All Our Joys, 
we open our hearts to you, 
emptied of all pride and recalcitrance,
that we may instead be filled with your wisdom.

Fill our hearts with compassion, empathy, and integrity,
that we may witness to your glorious path of life.
Walking in the path our God sets before us,
may we renounce and resist 
the thrones of death and suffering 
upon which rest the tyrants and the oppressors; 
may we never bow to the gods of greed, cruelty, and contempt.

Rather may we stand on the side of the righteous
and take our place alongside those
who fight for the common good and the dignity of all,
and work to free those held captive
by fear, want, or hopelessness.

Shine the light of your countenance upon us,
O God Our Shepherd,
and grant us strength and purity of heart,
and gather within your mercy and care
all those for whom we pray.

Amen.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Prayer, day 2570


Gather us within your embrace,
O Wisdom from on high,
who is creating the heavens and the earth:
may we hear your call and seek your light.

May we turn away from our foolish ways
and delight in your law of love, O God,
seeking your face in the stranger and the orphan,
the refugee and the destitute,
loving each other as you love us.

Mighty Counselor, Wondrous Savior,
preserve our hearts in faithfulness and charity
that we may go forth into the world rejoicing,
testifying to the beauty of your grace and peace.

Consecrate us for your service, Lord Christ,
and spread the awning of your mercy 
over those for whom we pray.

Amen.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Prayer, day 2569


Most Merciful God, 
with grateful hearts we bow before You 
and breathe in your grace. 

Have mercy upon us for our sins, 

and help us shed the counterfeit faith we cling to 
for one of restoration, justice, and shalom. 
Awaken our courage to confront evil and fear, 

and by your help, Lord,
unite us to each other in love and brotherhood. 
Stiffen our resolve 

to proclaim Jesus's message 
of mutual care and compassion 
as witnesses to God's peace and abundance. 

By the power of the Holy Spirit, 

enflame our desire to serve your kingdom, O God, 
and offer all that we are to your service. 

You know our hopes and our cares, Lord Jesus:

draw within your embrace 
all who seek You 
or a deeper knowledge of You. 
Place the mantle of comfort and healing 

over those whose needs we remember before You, 
O Holy One.

Amen.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Being Fearless, Being Light: Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, year A



This week by a fluke I discovered a wonderful little book, called The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy. It’s a simple book, hand illustrated and written in brush strokes, so you might think it is for children—and it is. But it is also for adults, too—and it’s categorized as ethics. I want to share part of it with you.

The book starts off with a boy, who meets a mole. 
“Hello,” the boy says, and the boy and the mole look at each other. 
“I’m so small,” said the mole.
“Yes,” said the boy, picking up the mole. “But you make a huge difference.”
The boy then places the mole on a low-hanging branch on as tree, and climbs up to join the mole. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” asked the mole. 
“Kind,” replied the boy, and he is shown holding an umbrella over the mile as it rains in the tree. 
“What do you think success is?” asked the boy
 “To love,” said the mole. 

**** 



The mole is then shown looking at a beautiful three-tiered cake. “Well hello,” the mole murmurs to the cake. 

The boy and the mole are then shown walking and talking. 
“Do you have a favourite saying?” asked the boy. 
“Yes,” said the mole. “If at first you don’t succeed, have some cake.” 
“I see. Does it work?" asks the boy. 
“Every time,” the mole replied. 

****


The mole is then shown carrying a cake, setting it down and looking at it. “Just a tiny taste,” the mole says to himself, and in a series of images, we see the cake disappearing and the mole getting rounder. 

The boy and mole are walking and talking together again.
“I got you a delicious cake,” said the mole. 
“Did you?” 
 “Yes.” 
“Where is it?” 
“I ate it,” said the mole. 
“Oh.”
“But I got you another.”
“Did you? Where is that one?”
“The same thing seems to have happened,” the mole observes.

****


The boy and the mole are back sitting on the branch in the tree, facing each other. The boy speaks: “What do you think is the biggest waste of time?”
“Comparing yourself to others,” said the mole. 
“I wonder if there is a school of unlearning."
We see a picture of a mole with glasses and a cane. The mole continues, “Most of the old moles I know wish they had listened less to their fears and more to their dreams.” 

****


The boy and the mole are shown sitting on a rock, looking out at a field or moor. 
“What is that over there?” asks the boy. 
“It’s the wild,” said the mole. “Don’t fear it.” 
The two friends begin walking in the moor alongside a stream, and the mole remarks, “Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid.” (1)

****


“Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid.”

What an amazing observation. It’s actually what the gospel is all about, too. And I was thinking about this observation in light of the fact that today is also Scouting Sunday, and so, although I don’t want to put our Scouts on the spot, I was wondering if you would care to share the Scout Oath with us?


On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.  


I am struck by the similarity of the principles of Scouting and the principles of being a faithful person. Scouts are also called to be dedicated, brave, loyal, and engaged with the community around them. You don’t become a Scout just for yourself, or just to collect merit badges. You also don’t just become a Scout for a season of your life. Scouting and groups like it are a lifelong community of people dedicated to working for the good of the greater community. It’s a life dedicated to sacrifice, in the best sense. Just like in our religious lives, being committed to a cause greater than yourself and selfish concerns makes a Scout brave, as well as reverent.

“Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid."

Our reading from Mr. Mackesy’s book and the principles of Scouting support the point of our readings today. As an observer of human nature and child of the Bible Belt, I learned early on that a lot of times people engaged in religious behavior when they are afraid—I noticed this when I was a little kid. When the tornado flew over our house when I was ten, and landed the next block over, as we huddled under the mattresses—except for my dad, who was keeping company with some guy named Jack Daniels, some guy named Marlboro, and our collie dog out in the garage—we certainly engaged in some prayer. Probably even my dad with that Jack guy and Marlboro guy.

Then as I grew older, I realized that some people were going to church out of fear. My Catholic friend told me about Holy Days of Obligation, and Confession, and dying in a state of mortal sin—and it scared me, and I was just a little towheaded Protestant. The preachers in some of the churches my mother took us to did an awful lot of describing of the Devil, and the fires of Hell, and being tossed into a lake of fire.

And I knew people who didn’t worship God so much as fear Him—and yes they always called God “Him” with a catch of fear in their voice. And it made me sad—the majority of Jesus’s words to us are meant to allay our fears, because a heart filled with fear has no room in it for love. 

Jesus spends a huge amount of his time reminding us of God’s abundance, of God’s generous love and gift of grace, probably because we live most of our lives being told to see everyone around us as competition for scarce resources, and see strangers as potential “takers of our stuff.”

In religious practice, this fear and hardheartedness often leads people to constantly try to find some magic formula that will keep God from smiting us, some calculated exchange where we try to find the least we can give so that we can still maintain the illusion that we are in control of our lives. And so they check off boxes like going to church—without ever moving to BEING the church out in the world. And it all starts out of hard-heartedness—which is almost always rooted in anger and fear.

Our readings today address those kinds of issues too. Our reading from Isaiah deals with how we can offer a sacrifice to God—what Isaiah calls a “fast”-- that would truly be holy and pleasing. At the root of Isaiah’s call to renewal is this question: How important is it to put your heart into what you do? Or is it more important to simply follow the rules and checklists of our “to-do” lists?

Fasts, especially in our world of cheap fast food, certainly are not a common practice—unless you are a religious person. Many of us have at least encountered religious people who fast at some point in the religious year. But the reading here questions empty observance of ritual without allowing true repentance to take root in our hearts. We are coming up on the season of fasting, and so it’s a good time to ask ourselves what purpose fasting serves.

It’s important to note that fasting isn’t just a Christian religious practice. Jews observe a ta’anit, or fast, on Yom Kippur and on Tisha B’Av, a day in July or August that mourns the two terrible destructions of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and then the Romans. Muslims fast as part of the Five Pillars of Islam during the daylight hours in Ramadan, unless they are sick, pregnant, or traveling. Many Buddhists fast from meat and animal products by observing a strict diet of vegetarianism. 

Isaiah admonishes those who are using their fast to try to manipulate God without allowing God to transform them and their actions and values. This passage addresses the problem of empty worship—worship that makes the worshiper appear to be righteous, but instead is just camouflage, ultimately an empty gesture because it does not lead to a conversion of the heart and the soul.

It’s a trap that hangs there in front of all of us in this time, too. It’s easy to claim to be a Christian, or a Scout, or as a member of any other voluntary association, especially if that label gives you access to power and influence. It’s easy to claim that label but also resist or actually refuse being changed by the ideals the group stands for, such as following those commandments Christ gives, like loving your neighbor and praying for your enemies. 

I mean, who here has had a neighbor who was really hard to love? We did—Mrs. Mayes, who would call the cops on us when we flew our kites in front of her house. I kid you not. Who does that?? So loving your neighbor and praying for your enemies--THOSE are real sacrifices, too. But in Isaiah, God points out that the people are not truly engaging in sacrifice but merely participating in that same kind of magical thinking that pretends that by doing X, we can make God do Y.

Dear ones, God is NOT a puppet dancing on our strings. But the good news is, we aren’t supposed to be puppets, either. God doesn’t want empty shows of deprivation. God wants all of us—heart and soul, because God adores us that much. 

There certainly are times when our actions seem outwardly correct, but lack a conviction of the heart. This is also a common theme in scripture. Thus Isaiah reorients the term “fast” here in an unusual way—turning the concept of sacrifice on its head. Basically God is saying this: Don’t fast to me out of fear—offer your best to me and those around you out of love. Be fearless in giving to others. Be fearless in fighting wrong, even if it costs you. Don’t make a show of doing without if, after you end your fast, you continue to engage in activities that ignore the plight of the suffering, or even adds to that suffering.


Do you want to make a sacrifice that pleases me? God asks. Fight injustice and oppression. Feed the hungry and bring the poor into your home just as eagerly as you would an honored guest—which was a very serious obligation in the Mediterranean culture of that time. Clothe those who are naked. Help your family members rather than try to hide from those who need help. And do it all not out of fear, but out of love. Be fearless in living out of love, and your light will shine out for all to see. 

Through Isaiah’s words, God continues offering practical advice for those who want to LIVE as children of God in word, name, and example: Stop gossiping about others or pointing the finger of blame or shame at others. Satisfy the needs of the afflicted—those who lack safety, who are fleeing from slavery, oppression, warfare, lawlessness, racial or religious oppression, or violence. 

God makes it clear that the observation of religious ritual is empty if it does not bring about changes in one’s daily life, such as in how one treats others, as this reading points out. Ultimately God further clarifies the point of sacrifices: they are meant to give us the blessing of being holy, of being part of something larger than ourselves. Sacrifices are meant to give us the blessing of living without fear. 

And what is the result of following these kinds of sacrifices—the kind that make the person doing these kinds of sacrifices holy, blameless, and even blessed in the sight of God? Isaiah tells us that by being generous and openhearted in our own lives, God will pour out abundance within our hearts, making us joyful and even fearless in all we do in the name of God. Isaiah also promises that by offering our true fast to God, “Our lights will shine out for all to see.” Just as Jesus assures his followers in our gospel today. 


In our gospel, Jesus has just giving the Sermon on the Mount, and we hear the words right after the Beatitudes. Notice that Jesus also pointedly compares his disciples to light, just as the Isaiah reading did. Light helps us to see, and in seeing, gain knowledge and wisdom. Light is directly associated with wisdom in the word “enlightenment”—which is why we talk about “our eyes being opened” whenever we come to a new understanding, or epiphany. 

The point of enlightenment is not selfish—it’s not a “get out of hell free” card, although some people would lead you to believe so. No, truly enlightened discipleship doesn’t mean staying cloistered amongst true believers, who already live in light. Rather, Christian enlightenment calls us to go out where people dwell in darkness, and to work for their enlightenment, which in turn will build our own.


Letting your light be seen can mean not hiding your talents or beliefs, but also being authentic in your actions as well as words, and living with integrity, as Isaiah described in that first reading. 

Jesus constantly asks us to imagine how we would be if we were less afraid. Jesus’s message throughout Matthew is that kingdom of heaven is already upon us—not just somewhere off in the future. Our time to truly live as disciples is NOW, and Jesus seeks our response if we are to truly follow him and obey God’s commandments to love fearlessly and give fearlessly in heart as well as action. 

 Just like in that little book of ethical teachings about the Boy and the Mole, Jesus himself offers us a school of unlearning, as we heard in our story. Jesus challenges us to attend his school of unlearning—to unlearn the belief that we are awash in darkness, and that there is no way out. The belief that it is better to grab all you can than share what you have. The fear that there is never enough. 

Jesus calls us to turn our lives around first by denying the sway that common contempt and cruelty has in the world—and instead calling us to grow up to be kind. And then keep going in being more deeply transformed by Jesus’s radical gospel of love the more we practice true worship of God outside these doors and out in our everyday lives.

Be fearless. Be the light. Living as lights to the world is a call to be fearless in allowing Jesus’s gospel of love to transform us inwardly, and then to let that light shine through our care of each other and even people we’ve never met. It means saying yes to Jesus’s invitation to let go of fear and anxiety, to actually believe his promises of transformation, and then act of that ongoing transformation with the least of those around us.

Be fearless. Be the light.

Amen.

Preached at the 505 on February 8, and at the 8:00 and 10:30 Eucharists at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.


Readings:
Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]
Psalm 112:1-9, (10) 
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]
Matthew 5:13-20


Citations:
1) Charlie Mackesy, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse, 2019. You can buy a copy of this amazing, beautiful book here.

Prayer day 2568: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany


Holy One,
Light of Lights,
rise within our hearts
and fill us with your light,
that we may be people of hope.

Help us to lift up those
who are in anxiety, grief, or trouble,
by loving each other
through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Grant us strength for today's labors,
compassion for today's encounters,
and rest within You, O God, at day's end.

Ground us in your mercy, Lord Christ,
and root us in your love,
that we may grow deep in faith and justice.

Gathered in your name, O Savior,
we ask you grant your peace and comfort
to those we remember before You.

Amen.