Sermon by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
February 5, 2016; Epiph5A: Isaiah 58:1-12; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20
In some traditions preachers get to choose the texts they speak about on Sunday mornings. This allows for sermon series on various topics, step by step walks through different books of the bible, consistent use of favorite passages or themes… and the easy production of books based on this work. In our tradition and that of many mainline churches, the texts for Sundays are assigned in what is called the “lectionary,” a cycle of Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel readings that cover most of the Bible in three years. The lectionary is good in that it forces us to hear and reflect on passages we might not otherwise consider. Sometimes the choices for readings feel a bit clunky. Sometimes, however, they fit perfectly with issues of the day – something that seems to have happened every Sunday since the election, was very evident over the past few Sundays, and is particularly clear today.
The great German theologian Karl Barth taught that a preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, the idea being to help people apply the readings of the day to their own lives and the world they live and in doing so to share the good news of Jesus Christ. If you combine this with the old adage that the task of the preacher is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” then the goal of preaching is not just to apply the readings to people’s lives and their world but to have them change their lives and their world as a result. I took a preaching class from Jim Forbes, the venerable African American pastor emeritus of Riverside Church in New York City, who asked all of us to sum up our sermons using the sentence: Today, I want to say this, so that the people will do this. He was used to doing that in sermons that were 45 minutes to an hour long. With readings like the ones we just heard, he wouldn’t have had to say very much at all. In fact, he could just let the scriptures speak for themselves
Isaiah was writing to a people and a nation who were proud of their religiosity and their closeness to God and who spoke as if they practiced righteousness, but completely missed the point of what their religion and their God were all about. For Isaiah, fasting was a synonym or metaphor for worship. With words as meaningful today as they were more than 2500 years ago, he says, “Is not this the fast that I choose (is this not the way to worship God): 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?”Isaiah goes on to tell the people the positive outcomes of doing these things. “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.”
Isn’t that what we are looking for? Isn’t that the goal? As Paul writes the Corinthians, none of the rulers of the day understand these things. They see all this as foolishness – but we know they represent the wisdom and very mind of Christ. In today’s gospel Jesus says “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 underfoot.” We are the salt of the earth but are in danger of losing our saltiness. Today’s scriptures tell us what to do. Things are so serious that it’s time for even introverts to stand up and share their story, to explain the faith that drives them, and to live that out that faith in a way that is contagious, compelling, and creates ripples of hope that spread out in all directions. As you may remember from high school physics, light is both a wave and a particle. Every second enough of those tiny mass-less particles hit the earth and give it all the energy it will ever need. Individuals matter. Individual actions make a difference. Jesus said, “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 lamp stand, 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.” This is not so much about marching as it is about matching our values with our lives, holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. It is not about telling people what to think but telling them to think, and to do so using the mind of Christ (see Philippians chapter 2). It is a call to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It is about doing the work and walking the talk. It is about being repairers of the breach, and offering hope. It is about doing what Jesus would do, doing what Jesus did, and being his hands and feet in our world today. It is about letting our light shine.