Light-Bearers

(sermon 2/9/20)

 

Isaiah 58:1-12

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. 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.

“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. 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. 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? 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? 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?

Then 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. 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, 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. 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. 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.

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Just last week, we heard that well-known passage from Micah, with its memorable final summary sentence – what does God require of us, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. It’s a beautiful example of an Old Testament declaration of what’s at the core of the gospel, that the transcendent, eternal God of the universe knows us, and loves us, and wants love for all of us.

But it doesn’t take more than a few seconds after we hear Micah’s beautiful words before we start wondering what it really means. I mean, they’re really pretty vague. What do those words look like in the real world, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?

Today’s text from Isaiah is a tailor-made answer to that question. Here, the prophet lays out a detailed shopping list of things that God considers pleasing – the truest “fast,” as it’s put here, and the truest kind of worship: undoing injustices. Freeing the oppressed. Feeding the hungry. Sheltering the homeless; helping the afflicted.

It would be easy at this point to make this another sermon banging the drum to do more, more, more to help others, and it can become frustrating, and frankly annoying, to get a message that no matter what we do, apparently it doesn’t seem to ever be enough, because here’s this preacher beating us over the head, telling us again that we still need to do more, and making us feel guilty  because we aren’t.

Well, there no doubt are times for a sermon that calls us to consider our lives of faith, and ask ourselves whether we’re doing all we should, in terms of that list of things that Isaiah lays out. Maybe that’s another sermon for another day; maybe next month, or the month after that; I don’t know. But today, I want to go in another direction, because just as there are times to wonder about doing more, there are also times to recognize the good that we are accomplishing in Christ’s name. It’s important to do that, we have to do that, because even though we are doing many good things, and we are really trying to do them with all the sincerity of our hearts, some days, some weeks, months, it just doesn’t seem to make any difference. The injustice, the oppression, the selfishness and lies, the abuses – the darkness – just keeps coming and what we’re doing doesn’t seem to make a dent in the seeming black hole of evil that fills parts of our world. It can feel like we’re banging our heads against a wall, that it’s all a big exercise in futility, and we’re tempted to just throw up our hands and say forget it, I’m not even trying anymore; I quit.

To be sure, and just as with the Micah passage from last week, this passage from Isaiah begins with God criticizing the people for not doing these things. But both that passage and this one concludes  with hope, and this one goes even farther and offers a promise –  and it’s that promise that I want to focus on today.

In the second half of today’s passage, God tells the people that if they did those things, if they lived that way and worked toward those things, their “light shall break forth like the dawn.” Their work isn’t ever in vain, no matter how futile it might seem in the moment. That God would satisfy them in the “parched places” of their lives, and they would be like a “watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”

Have you ever been swimming somewhere on a hot day – maybe you had a favorite swimming hole when you were younger, or maybe even now; maybe some pond nestled in the woods? Maybe the pond where a little waterfall that pours down into it, and you can get under the waterfall and just let the water flow, just cascade down all over you? Even if you never have, you can probably imagine how refreshing it would be; how in that moment, all your cares washed away and you felt renewed in your very soul. That’s the kind of feeling that God is describing here, promising that our efforts to do those things  would not be in vain. God would notice, and the good that we’d sought – our light – would radiate outward from us and would bring light into the world, into places and people we might never know.

So let’s do that today. Yes, we know that there’s plenty wrong with our world. And yes, we know that we need to continue to work to right injustices, and end oppression, to feed and shelter the needy, to end affliction. But right now, let’s just consider what good we actually are accomplishing. I’d like you to take a moment now. Relax; get comfortable in your seats. Close your eyes, or at least bow your heads; don’t look at me. Take a few deep breaths. … Now I want you to think about the good that you are doing as an expression of your faith in God, your devotion to Christ. Think about the things that you do personally…. or your family does… or that we do as a congregation… … Think about the refugees and immigrants that have been helped… think about the homes that have been built…. think about the at-risk children whose needs have been met, the Christmas presents received…. the food that has been put on countless unknown tables….  the people who have been warmed by clothing and blankets…. the grieving who have been comforted…. the sick who have received medical help…. Realize, and accept, that it isn’t an exaggeration to say that because of you, actual lives have been saved…. ……

…. Now as you think of those things, let yourself feel God’s compassion …. feel God’s love flowing down over you like the waterfall flowing into the pond and bathing you, cleansing you, renewing you…. know that what you’re doing, what we’re doing, is making a difference in ways seen and unseen…. know that God knows, and is pleased with those efforts….. your work is not in vain…. you, and the love that you show, are precious in God’s sight…. feel that this morning…… Let yourself accept the love that God is surrounding you with…. let yourself accept that your light is breaking forth…

OK, you can open your eyes. Of course, nothing’s changed since you closed them. There are still a lot of things wrong in the world, still lots of work to do. But there’s also a lot that has been accomplished in Christ’s name, too. Christ’s light is breaking into the world in countless ways and to countless people – and you are a part of that. You are light-bearers – and God calls that very good.

Thanks be to God.

 

Salt and Light

(Sermon 2/5/17 – Youth Sunday)

saltlight2

“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. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 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. 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.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

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Last week, we heard the Beatitudes as our gospel text, that very familiar part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. What we heard today was the part that immediately follows that one, and it’s probably pretty familiar, too. Jesus tells his followers that they’re supposed to be like light and salt to the world.

Whenever this passage comes around in the Lectionary, preachers pretty much know, and listeners pretty much know, where the sermon is likely to go: since we’re followers of Jesus, and we know God’s good news for all people, we’re supposed to be a very visible, positive model for others to see. We’re supposed to let our light shine, for others to be attracted to like a moth to a porchlight, and to draw others to become followers of Jesus, too. We’re the knowers and keepers of what’s good and right and true, that others are supposed to look toward and be inspired by.

That’s where most of these sermons go. That’s what most people are expecting to hear. That’s where many of my sermons on this passage have gone. And generally speaking, depending on how it’s presented, that’s a good message to get out of this. Jesus’ own words certainly bear out that message. But I think there’s more to it than that, and I think that Jesus’ own words indicate that there’s another way to think about this too.

When I was a kid, I remember helping my Dad as he was doing various things. Dad worked long hours, six days a week, and when he’d get home he’d have a to-do list that would often take him late into the evening to get done. And for a lot of those things, whether it was repairing a leaky pipe in the crawl space, or spending time under the hood trying to keep the aging family car running just a little bit longer, I’d be there beside him, passing him tools back and forth, and most importantly, often holding the big sealed-beam flashlight steady on his hands – so he could see what he was doing, but also, so I could see, because as he worked, he kept up a dialogue with me, explaining just what it was that was wrong, and how it had to be fixed, and what he was doing at each step of the way and why. During those sessions I learned all about the mysteries of the lead-to-tin ratio of solder, or how a distributor or carburetor worked, all periodically seasoned with a mild profanity or two when some all-important screw fell into an inaccessible crack, or he’d skin his knuckles when his wrench slipped. It’s funny how back then, half the time I hated getting dragged away from what I was doing to help him. But now, as I think back on it all, I’m surprised at just how much I learned almost in spite of myself, and how much I value those times with him now.

My point here is that in those times, I was in a literal sense, his light. But it wasn’t light to draw attention to me; rather, it was to focus on, and highlight, and learn from, something else. It wasn’t me, the light, who was teaching anything. I was the one learning something from him, because I was shining a light on what he was doing.

That, I think, is the other part of Jesus’ message in what we heard today. When Jesus calls us the light of the world, it isn’t so much to always call attention to ourselves, or how good or smart or wonderful we might be, or at least think we might be. Often, our job as the light is to focus it, to hold it steady on someone or something else – calling attention to it, not us.

I think this is the point Jesus is making when he calls us the salt of the earth – or, I suppose if you’re on a salt-restricted diet, you could say that we’re the Mrs. Dash of the earth. Think about it: what does salt – or Mrs. Dash – do? It enhances, it draws out, the flavor that’s already in whatever it’s added to. Its whole purpose is to call attention to the other thing, not itself. It isn’t about the salt; it’s about the other thing.

So whether it’s salt or light, an important part of Jesus’ calling us these things is our being those things in order to lift up someone or something else; to make it more visible or noticed.  We’re supposed to use our light to shine it on the good that we see, and to enhance it and learn from it. We use our light so we can see and learn from positive things that people are doing that are making this world a bit more like the Kingdom of God. People who are working to increase educational opportunities where it’s needed, or working to build character or reduce bullying. Or we can shine the light on our youth, so we can see them as the important part of us that they are, and so they can teach us something about faith and worship, instead of always assuming it’s the other way around. We’re also called to shine our light on things that are bad, things that are wrong, too, for people to be aware of it. Shining it on those in our society who endure injustice and discrimination, so we can see what’s really going on, as we listen to them teaching us about its reality and learning from them how to fix it.

There are certainly times when it’s right to think of ourselves as the bright thing, the thing that others are supposed to look to and be drawn to. But there are those other times – personally, I think it’s the majority of times – when the light that Jesus says we’re supposed to be is meant to be focused outward, on someone or something other than ourselves. Using the light to lift up and learn from the good, and to spotlight and help fix the bad, wherever we find it. And really, if we’re that kind of light – humbly turning it outward instead of just using to light ourselves – won’t that actually make others more intrigued and inspired by who and what we are? In the end, won’t that actually make us more the kind of light that Jesus says people will see and be drawn to?

Thanks be to God.