The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 5, 2017
Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 122:1-10, 2 Corinthians 1-13, Matthew 5:13-20
The Season of Epiphany is no ordinary time. It is the time of God’s revealing – the revealing of God’s vision, the unveiling of hidden truths in unexpected places, and the illuminating of how far we have strayed from God’s vision of Shalom, of the peaceable realm joining humankind and the non-human world. God’s revealing challenges progressives as well as conservatives, socialists as well as capitalists, social activists as well as corporate board members. There is no “us” versus “them” in Epiphany. It is all “us” – we have all fallen short and most of us who are reading this are benefiting from a system that places the Earth and its peoples in jeopardy. We are all, as Thomas Merton notes, “guilty bystanders,” regardless of our level of activism. And yet are all, despite our dim spirits, illuminated deep down by the light of God.
The prophet Isaiah has harsh words for Israel and for us. Our institutional and religious generosity can’t save us – our spiritual practices can’t save us – if we immunize ourselves to the cries of the poor and the pain of creation. Religious practices must be mated with care for the Earth’s most vulnerable. Enlightenment without compassion is destructive to our souls and the lives of others. The people protest against God’s judgment, “We are going to Temple, we are fasting and celebrating the holy days, why don’t you listen to us?” To which the Holy One responds, “Spirituality is both/and, not either/or. You need to be both heavenly minded and earthly good. Prayers must be joined with protest. Fasting must be complemented by fairness. Otherwise, your spiritual practices and institutional support are in vain.”
It is important to note that these words are addressed to the elite of the nation. Religion is profoundly political in the prophetic age, and it still is today. Our religion can heal or harm, restore or destroy. Heaven-oriented religion – and the quest to chart the Second Coming of Jesus – draws us away from the pain of the Earth. What happens to Right Whales, endangered by human artifices, off Cape Cod and the state of polar ice caps is of no consequence if heaven is our destination or at the last trump God will return in destructive force. Yet, though such religious viewpoints scorn conservation and Earth care, they seem to revel in drilling and dumping and money making. In Isaiah’s time and ours the words of prophets are drowned out by the call for profits, even among those who claim to be most pious!
Authentic, holistic faith comes from world loyalty, from caring for the vulnerable, and insuring that every child has a home and every parent an income. God’s guidance comes through the voices of the vulnerable, not in isolation from them. Peace, as Alfred North Whitehead notes, comes from an expansion of self-interest to include the well-being of others, the identification of our self with the Self of the Universe, our good with the good of creation.
The words of Psalm 112 connect happiness – or better yet, blessedness – with generosity and fairness. Our wealth and prosperity are for the well-being of others as well as ourselves. True and lasting prosperity emerges when we are generous in our time and in terms of future generations, who will benefit from our wise stewardship.
Paul’s words to the Christians at Corinth contrast divine and human wisdom. Divine wisdom is foolishness to those for whom profit, power, and consumption are the final ends of life. Those who “have it all” scoff at sacrificial living and downward mobility, and at a politics of compassion. “More” is their mantra – more things, more power, more success, and more notoriety. Winning and bullying – silencing the voices of opponents and the vulnerable – is their way. In contrast, the way of Christ, the mind of Christ, is more like the Tao, flowing through all things, moving in all things, gently providing, flourishing by sacrificing. The mind of Christ, noted by Paul, is the “fat soul,” described by Patricia Adams Farmer, the soul large enough to embrace the pain and joy of others and look beyond immediate gratification to the well-being of generations to come. Sacrificial living expands rather than contracts the soul. The cross looks like the way of death to the powerful for whom any sacrifice or word of confession is a form of weakness, but the cross of sacrificial love is the way of life for us and future generations of human and non-human companions. On the cross, Jesus forgives the foolishness of the powerful, and identifies with the suffering of the vulnerable and tears of the forgotten. The cross is the symbol of stature, of the largeness of spirit that seeks healing for the whole as much as self-interest. The cross-shaped mind of Christ embraces pain and sees beauty in simplicity.
Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount are both affirmative and challenging. “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world…let your light shine.” Don’t play small; you are about God’s business. Don’t minimize your impact; one act of love can change the world. Your deepest nature is enlightenment, the revealing light of God. We can let our light shine not out of ego or the quest for notoriety but to give light and direction to the world and to proclaim God’s glory.
Jesus challenges his listeners to take the moral high ground, and to exceed the religious teachers in their righteousness and morality. These days the bar is set low in the body politic. Major religious leaders bow down before the capitalist, earth-destroying agenda of politicians. They overlook personal and institutional greed and immorality to further their quest for a “Christian” America. In a time in which environmental law and human rights may be at risk, in which politicians advocate racist policies, we need to set our own moral compasses in alignment with God’s vision of Shalom. We need to be the change we want to see in the world as we chart ways to live more simply, to exceed the Paris Accords in our lifestyles, to reach out to persons of different religions, and to provide hospitality to the forgotten and traumatized, and sanctuary to those who are at risk. The lack of moral compass in our national leaders is reason to be anxious, but we need to go from anxiety to affirmation and find our true path as God’s light and salt in the world.
Today’s words are political, spiritual, and trans-partisan. They challenge us to listen for God’s voice in a challenging time. They challenge us to be light-bearers for just such a time as this, recognizing our complicity in social and economic injustice and ecological destruction, and then setting our feet on a higher and healthier path for the planet and its diverse and wondrous communities.
Bruce G. Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA. He is the author of forty books including The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh, A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-care, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, and Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org