The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 9. 2020
Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-10, 2 Corinthians 1-16, Matthew 5:13-20
A popular saying challenges us to “go big or go home.” The Season of Epiphany is for big thinkers and big actors. Going beyond parochialism, Epiphany charts a global faith. The Season of Epiphany calls us to creative transformation and to move from self-interest to world loyalty. 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 is diagnostic as well as inspirational. In recognizing how far we have strayed from God’s vision, we can transform our lives, live by new values, and join God in healing the world. God’s revealing challenges progressives as well as conservatives, socialists as well as capitalists, social activists as well as corporate board members, to be people of light, revealing God’s light in the maelstrom of our cultural and political lives. In light of God’s vision, we recognize our holiness and brokenness alike and discover that there is no “us” versus “them.” It is all “us” – we are all in the same storm and must be in the same boat. 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. We can begin again and take our place as God’s companions in healing the world.
The prophet Isaiah takes no prisoners in his denunciation of religious life, then and now. He calls us to abandon self-interest and become large spirited and empathetic. 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. Apathy deadens us to the voices of the vulnerable and eventually to the voice of God. Religious practices must be mated with care for the Earth’s most vulnerable. Worship without compassion is destructive to our souls and the lives of others. The people protest 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 most likely addressed to the elite of the nation, and while the poor of the earth and the working class are also challenged to follow their better angels, they typically are not the earth and nation destroyers. Large scale destruction is the work of the powerful and privileged, whose misuse of resources and commitment to the status quo destroys the nation and the world.
Religion is profoundly political in the prophetic age, and it still is today. There is no such thing as isolated individualism or faith without works for Isaiah. 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. Adulation of political leaders and Christian exceptionalism alienates us from the earth and those who differ from us. Religion becomes a tool to be manipulated for political and financial gain and to silence those we feel to be moral inferiors. 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 trumpet 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! Moreover such apathetic, unfeeling binary theologies, justify inhumane policies at our borderland and denial of rights to Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and anyone perceived to threaten the Christian way. You can love fetuses all you want but you must love with equal fervor the child of the asylum seeker and the child whose parents receive government aid.
Authentic, holistic faith comes from going beyond binary theologies to world loyalty, evident in our 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. This should not be seen as justification for a rewards-punishments prosperity gospel but an invitation to discover that true happiness is grounded in inner spirituality and empathy with the vulnerable. The happiness the Psalmist is talking about mirrors Jesus’ blessedness described in the Beatitudes. Joy comes from relationship with God not possession.
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. God’s way is always countercultural and critical of our “way 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 and invites us to spiritual maturity and stature embracing the whole earth.
The mind of Christ, Paul yearns for, is “epiphanic” in nature: all things even in their concealing reveal the divine. Inspired by daily epiphanies, those who have the mind of Christ are committed to midwifing holiness and beauty wherever they are.
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 and religious leaders implicitly 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 and corporate 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 Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION, and THE PROPHET AMOS SPEAKS TO AMERICA. His most recent book is TAKING A WALK WITH WHITEHEAD: MEDITATIONS WITH PROCESS-RELATIONAL THEOLOGY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org