The Land of Unlikeness: God Crossing Boundaries

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017 by the Rev. Bingham Powell.  Sermon refers to hymns 463 and 464 in the 1982 Hymnal.

I’m going to take a risk this morning. I have a sermon written out, but as I was listening to the reading of the Gospel, another sermon came to my mind. I think after ten years I can try this once. If it’s an absolute failure, then I won’t do it again for another ten years.

Jesus comes from a particular place. He is from Galilee, raised in Nazareth, and eventually moves to Capernaum when he is a little bit older. That place is a marginal place; socio-economically marginal with not much wealth. Jesus is marginal in his teaching and thinking, in that it doesn’t match any strain or denomination of Judaism. It picks up some parts, but he does his own thing, also. Jesus is also marginal in what he chooses to do: he doesn’t continue his life as a carpenter, raise a family, and do all those sorts of good normal things. He travelled around. “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head”. He has no home as he travels.

And he crosses boundaries or borders in what he does. He touches the leper, which is something you wouldn’t have done in that time. He goes to places that are crossing boundaries, from Galilee to Judea; from Galilee to Samaria, which is where we find him in today’s Gospel, crossing a border into enemy territory since the Samaritans and the Jews are enemies. He crosses this boundary into a place where he doesn’t belong, and encounters a Samaritan woman. You can hear in their conversation how odd this is for her. Why are you, a Jew, asking me, a Samaritan, this thing? He’s crossing a border, a boundary, of what is acceptable. He also crosses the boundary from a man to a woman by a well, which means, Biblically, that something is about to happen, usually wedding bells. He goes into that space and engages in conversation about water, about water in a well, and living water. He quickly crosses the boundary from physical need to spiritual need. Jesus is crossing all of these boundaries in the Gospel today, in his ministry, and in his life.

He’s doing that because that’s what God does. God moves from where we expect God to where we don’t expect God. Which is the same thing the Israelites discover in the desert in today’s first reading. In the desert, where there is no water, God is able to bring it out from a rock. In the preceding chapter, when they are in the desert where there is no food, they are able to find manna. God is in the places where we don’t expect God to be.

This past week, we lost three of our parishioners to death. I had to go to the hospital to be with each one of them. And in that place there was God: in the hospital room, in the ICU, there was God, crossing the boundary into the place that makes us uncomfortable; crossing the boundary into the places where we do not want to go. In the desert, in death, in life, there is God offering living water to the people.

We are right now in the season of Lent, moving towards Easter. We think of Easter as the place where God is: in the resurrection. We’re a resurrection people, we’re a resurrection faith. But these forty days in the wilderness remind us that God is not only there in the empty tomb, but God is also there on the cross. And God is also here in the desert wilderness, crossing into this boundary away from the temple in Jerusalem, where we try to put him in a box; here in the church where we try and contain God. But God is breaking out and going to those places of wilderness.

There is a hymn in the hymnal, a W.H. Auden poem, and it begins like this:

“He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.”

“Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness.” This Jesus, who crosses boundaries and crosses borders, has invited us to go with him. So the question I have for all of us together as a community, and for each of us individually, is: What is this Land of Unlikeness that Jesus is taking you into? It’s going to be desert-like, it’s going to be uncomfortable, it’s going to be uncertain, but that’s where Jesus is taking us. For there we “will see rare beasts and have unique adventures”.

Auden goes on to say that there we will find an occasion to dance for joy, if we’re willing to go out in that Land of Unlikeness, into that uncertainty, into that marginal place where Jesus is: away from our comforts, moving through the discomfort of the desert. There we will discover the living water. That living water that is so strong and powerful that we will not thirst again.

We have a choice: it is quite comfortable here in the Willamette Valley. We’ve got plenty of water. But Jesus says we have to keep drinking that water over and over and over again, but he can show us the way of living water. And that living water is only available where we follow Jesus.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, follow Him. We don’t know exactly where it is he is leading us, but follow him wherever he takes you. When you begin to feel that bit of discomfort, I suspect that means you’re on the right path, into the Land of Unlikeness, into the place of living water.


The Wilderness of our Modern Lives

A sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017, by the Rev. Bingham Powell.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. We have begun our forty-day sojourn through the Lenten wilderness. Not a literal wilderness, of course, not here in the rainy and even snowy Willamette Valley, but a metaphorical wilderness, perhaps even a spiritual wilderness. People often enter this period of Lenten wilderness with some sort of spiritual practice of giving up, traditionally understood to be fasting and not eating meat during the season. Although today it’s more commonly fasting from sweets, or coffee, or curse words, or television, or social media.

In the Gospel that we just heard, it says that Jesus was led by the Spirit into that wilderness. I hope that all of us who have taken on a Lenten practice were led by the Spirit in that process. Mark’s Gospel puts it a bit differently. Mark doesn’t say that the Spirit led Jesus, but rather that the Spirit drove Jesus, a bit more intense language. Being led makes it feel like you’ve got a choice in the matter. You can choose not to follow the person trying to lead you, but being driven is something against your will. That’s something in which you have no choice. And that is the reality of the Lenten wilderness for some, and probably for all of us at some point in our lives. We find ourselves in the Lenten wilderness not of our own volition or choice, maybe not even during Lent. The wilderness of unemployment, for example, or inadequate employment; the wilderness of relationships falling apart; the wilderness of families torn apart; the wilderness of grief over recent or upcoming death; the medical wilderness of cancer, or chronic pain, heart disease, HIV, depression, PTSD, and so many more; the wilderness of fear that permeates our lives in the media and our civic life so intensely these days. Some of us may be in that wilderness right now. Maybe we’ve been there for a while. Some of us may not be there right now, but we’ve been there and can remember what it’s like; or maybe we’ll find ourselves in such a wilderness before this season is done.

These two types of wilderness are quite different, of course. The wilderness you choose, versus the wilderness you are driven into are different. And just as training is inadequate in fully preparing us for the real thing, it does give us a sense of what the wilderness is like, and can connect us with Jesus and his own struggles.

Whenever I’ve thought of the desert wilderness experience of Jesus, I’ve tended to focus on the sparseness and heat of the environment. This morning when I saw the snow, I couldn’t help but chuckle about how ironic it was that this was our reading today. I’ve also tended to focus on the hunger and the temptations that the devil offers him. But this past summer I got a new image that has been sitting in my mind. I went to Atlanta, Georgia, for a conference. The conference was held at an Episcopal church that has numerous Tiffany stained glass windows that are all related to the life of Jesus. It starts with the Annunciation, then goes on to Jesus’s birth, Jesus as a child in the temple, his baptism in the River Jordan by John, until you get to the window of the wilderness. All of the other windows have been chock full of images, but the wilderness window is very sparse. It has a rock with Jesus sitting on it with his head down, and a snake down in the corner. Jesus looks lonely in this window. And that was an image of Jesus that I had never thought of before: Jesus, lonely during these forty days. It is an image that I can’t shake, and it has haunted me in my reading of this Gospel story. I’d never thought about his loneliness out there for those forty days, a loneliness that he would again feel when most of the disciples abandon him when he went to his cross.

Out there in the desert, he did, for those forty days, have connection with others. First it was the devil, that old crafty tempter as we heard in the Genesis reading, trying to build a relationship with him by offering Jesus survival and protection and power. In that Tiffany window, the snake is down there to remind us of that visit by the devil. But not all connection is good, of course, for the price to pay for what the devil offers him is much too steep. Jesus rejects this attempted exit from his isolation.

After the devil departs and Jesus is alone again, in comes another connection. This time the angels, the messengers of God, come to care and support and nurture him and end that loneliness that he is experiencing. These two possible relationships that Jesus was offered out there in the desert are quite different. The relationship the devil offers is a transactional relationship of power and greed: worship me and I’ll give you these kingdoms; be in a relationship with me and I will give you stuff--a quid pro quo. But the relationship that the angels offer has no quid pro quo. It is pure, unselfish love and grace.

I am not suggesting that we should all go out and try to be lonely for Lent. That is not the point of this sermon. I’m not advocating that you purposely enter loneliness as your Lenten discipline. Rather what I am wondering more and more is if we are already in the wilderness of loneliness, or at least the wilderness of isolation which will often lead to loneliness as a society. Have we already been driven into that second kind of wilderness, the kind that does not neatly fit into a forty-day liturgical season with a day off each week, a wilderness that manifests itself in isolation and loneliness?

It has been almost two decades since Robert Putnam published the book, “Bowling Alone”, in which he made the case that we are more isolated than we have ever been as a society. And we have seemed to isolate ourselves more and more in the time since. Those community gathering places have continued to decline; I doubt we know our neighbors any better today than we did a couple of decades ago. I read an article a few months ago about the decline in friendships, especially for men, in the 21st century. Technology, which seems like it should help connect us by making connection easier, has been doing the opposite. Kids have school, fortunately, but for adults there are fewer options for us to connect, and fewer of us are taking advantage of those options. Church is one of the last few places where adults go to gather with other adults in a community. Not just as individuals gathering in the same place but disconnected from each other, as when you go to a coffee shop where no one is talking to another, but rather on their phones using the free wifi. There the people are together, but are not in relationship, not in community. But the church is a place where people are truly in relationship with each other, sometimes crossing boundaries of who we would normally interact with, offering dignity and respect to every person.

In many ways this is a sermon that preaches to the choir, as that old expression goes, for you all gathered here today, and you know that community matters. It matters to you; this community matters to you, and that’s one of the reasons you are here. You are the great resistance to the isolating forces of our day. Every time we show up for each other and engage with each other, we are resisting these powerful forces that are driving people into the wilderness of isolation. As folks who know how valuable relationship is; as a people who worship a God who wanted to be in relationship with us so badly that God came down here to be one of us, to live among us and live our life. We know how important this is, and so it is our task to build community, to build relationships, to build bridges and friendships to help move this world through the wilderness of isolation and loneliness, through Lent, through Holy Week, through Good Friday, and into Easter. Because that is the real Lenten task: to move towards Easter.

But we have to go through the desert to get there, and there are no shortcuts if we really want to discover the new life, the transformed life of resurrection. We have to enter into that loneliness, into that desert and start building real, deep, abiding relationships; relationships of support, and nurture, and affection, like the angels offered to Jesus. Not relationships that are transactional, relationships of greed and power like the devil offered. We have to be committed to a different way of life, a life of connection to each other and to this world. Building a relationship and community not only in here, but out there, also. A community grounded in love and grace.


Time: Our Best Friend and Our Worst Enemy

A sermon for the last Sunday after Epiphany, February 26, 2017, by The Rev. Brad Toebben.

No. You are not losing your mind. It has not been a year since you’ve heard today’s Gospel. It’s only been six months, because we celebrate the Feast of Transfiguration in August. But I guess these days, when the months seem to be like years, time may be in a different place.

Time: Our best friend and our worst enemy. It’s either going too slowly, or too quickly; we’re either waiting to get somewhere, or wanting to stay where we are. One indicator of time is given to us over and over in today’s readings: after six days. You heard it in the Exodus story, you just heard it in the Gospel. And you should know, after hearing me repeat myself over and over and over, that this phrase is always an indication of Sabbath. The day that follows is the seventh day, and the seventh day, in our scriptural tradition, is the day of God’s absolute presence. That is the story that runs through all of these lessons. It’s really a story, not about Transfiguration, or being taken up into a cloud, but a story about how it is that we’re to spend our time, and that we’re to understand time by being in covenant—a covenant with God that brings us into the very heart and experience of the being of God.

This is what’s happening in this story of the Exodus. Moses has been given the commandments, and now he is going up to the mountain to receive the tablets from God. He’s going up to enter into the covenant, and what it is those ten commandments are going to mean. If you look at this Exodus account, you’ll know there are far more than ten commandments by the time you get through this whole story. The laws and explanations keep coming. Finally Moses descends the mountain, carrying the tablets. But as he sees the people on his return, and sees that they have not spent their time in covenant with the God that’s being revealed to them, he smashes the tablets. They are not worthy to inherit them. Eventually, the tablets will be restored and given to the people, and the story that follows through the rest of Exodus is the building of the Ark, all of the regulations of worship, and of the people transiting further and further toward the promised land.

It’s a story that is repeated in a very different way in Second Peter. They are a people trying to live in that covenant long after Christ, but awaiting His return. The issue at hand for this community is that people are saying, “He’s not going to return. This is done.” And so, when this letter is written, and what we still hear today, is a reaffirmation that the covenant is real and that Christ will return. The reason is even more explicit: in the first few verses of this letter, the author writes, “Jesus Christ, divine power, has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these he has bestowed on us precious and very great promises so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature.” You may come into this covenant, this very being of God, as Jesus has, as Moses has. And now we await that experience for that community and for our community.

“After six days” we’re taken into this story in today’s Gospel of the Transfiguration. Transfiguration is the word that we use, but I don’t know that it conveys the reality of what’s happening. The Greek word is “transformation”. Jesus is not just lit up so that everyone can see. He is transformed. He is transformed into the very reality of the divine nature. And that creates great fear for the disciples, especially when they hear the voice of God endorsing it. It’s probably the fear that the people in Exodus had, and why they turned back to dancing and things that brought them comfort, because this covenant was a difficult reality to embrace. It’s that same fear that’s guiding and holding together the community of Second Peter, awaiting that return to be filled with that presence again.

In this story of Jesus’s transformation, the image that becomes important is not so much Jesus’s transformation, but the vision that the disciples have of him conversing with Moses and Elijah. These two figures that represent all of the law and all of the prophets are now together in the very presence of God in Jesus. For these communities, the stories around what happened to Moses and Elijah remain shrouded in mystery. What happened when they died? What was that experience? So it’s fitting that in this story they’re conversing with Jesus about that very reality.

We’re a little bit more than halfway through Matthew’s Gospel, where we find this Transfiguration story. And we know that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. During the weeks of Epiphany, we’ve been hearing what that reality of covenant, and what that reality of God’s presence was like for Jesus. For the last few weeks it was around law, not that any of those laws should be taken away, or that “I’ve come to abolish them”, but “I’ve come to show you what they are all about”, and how to authentically live in that presence of God, and how that law is the guide to that kind of fullness of life.

But, just like disciples always do who are afraid, Peter wants to stay in this place of comfort, and build three tents. Time is not going slow enough; we don’t want to move from this spot. But Jesus has come to that place knowing that it’s only the beginning of the entry that he must make, and so he forbids them to tell anyone about this until the Son of Man has been raised. Because the Transformation is not enough: it’s not the end of the story, but only the beginning. It’s only because Jesus is transformed and radiates the absolute reality of God that he can march forward into Jerusalem with conviction, and in the face of death.

That’s what our covenant is really about: it’s holding on to that baptismal covenant in which we enter into that death with Jesus, and we walk through it into the reality of God. In this last Sunday, before we begin our Lenten pilgrimage into God, we’re given this wonderful story that brings us back to center and tells us how we’re going to mark time, now. Through the psalm, and through all the communities that surround these readings, you hear grumbling about how the nations are at odds with this kind of covenant. We know that is a reality that we live in today: the grumbling about security, the grumbling about fear, the grumbling about being right.

This last week, I heard a commentary on politics that was probably the best. And the Transfiguration is a story about politics, the true sense of politics: around which pole is your world going to revolve? Not which party, which pole? What kind of understanding of justice, what kind of understanding of law is going to make God’s reality be present in the world? That’s what politics is about. I think this community knows me well enough to know that I’m not on a party bandwagon, but it happens to be the case that the week before last, I heard an introduction by President Trump to a member of his club in Mar-a-Lago. What was disturbing about it had nothing to do with his presidency or politics, it was a statement he made in reference to a woman whose daughter was being married there. “She’s giving me an awful lot of money”. What is disturbing about that was the reaction of the woman who laughed in acceptance, as if this were something that is a good thing. Not that you’re giving money to Donald Trump or anyone else, but this idea that our status is somehow established by vast amounts of money that can bring us into relationships that we think are important to us. That seems to be the very opposite of what all of these weeks of Jesus’s teaching has been about. It’s equally important in this story today, because this Transfiguration that the disciples witnessed is situated in the middle of them asking exactly those questions to Jesus: who is the most important in the Kingdom? Who will sit at your right, and who will sit at your left? Peter’s disbelief that a Messiah could suffer, and immediately before this story today, being told that he is Satan, and that he has to step out of the way so that Jesus can enter into this covenant.

That is what Lent will call us to consider: how are we going to walk, how are we going to measure time, how are we going to experience God so that we can calm an anxiety in the world that revolves around those images of security?

I suggest this passage, this wonderful phrase “after six days”, can become a spiritual practice for you through Lent. That after six days you’ll come back into this very place, and the week after, and the week after. After those six days of living in the world and listening to different opinions and trying to discern how best the reality of Christ can be known in the world, you’ll be exhausted. You might be afraid, like the disciples. But you will be picked up, and you will be nourished, and you will be sent back for the next six days. Our Lenten journey can be what it is intended to be, and what all of these stories today model: a journey to the place of meeting God in God’s self, and the transformation that will happen as a result. If we go to that place and we know that reality, we won’t want to stay there, but rather return to the world for the next six days. After all of that, maybe we’ll be prepared for what the experience of Easter really is about. After six days, Jesus will take you up the mountain and into the very heart of God.


Love the Law of God and Walk in His Ways

Sermon for 7 Epiphany, Year A

February 19, 2017

We are going to start today with our psalm. I want to read a bit of it, if you want to read along, go ahead.

  33        Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, *

                        and I shall keep it to the end.

 34        Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; *

                        I shall keep it with all my heart.

 35        Make me go in the path of your commandments, *

                        for that is my desire.

 36        Incline my heart to your decrees *

                        and not to unjust gain.

 37        Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; *

                        give me life in your ways.

 Psalm 119, from which we read a small section today, is the longest psalm in the Bible, coming in at 176 verses. It is longer than some entire books in the Bible. It is an epic poem. And it is a love song. A love song, you say? 🤔 Yes, a love song. A song of love to the law. Which may seem like a strange idea to most here, perhaps a few lawyers or judges in the room might instinctively get it, but to most of us, that is an oddity.

 Notice all of the synonyms for the law in this poem: statutes, commandments, decrees, ways, judgments. Now, Hebrew is not a verbose language. It does not have a lot of synonyms like English does. In fact, repetition of the same word is a defining characteristic of Hebrew writing. Most often, when you read synonyms in English translations of Biblical Hebrew, it is the translator trying to make it more interesting for, you, the English reader.

 But here, the poet pulls out all of the stops, finding every word possible to describe the law, and using one of these words in almost every verse of our selection. In fact, almost every verse in the entire psalm uses the word law or a synonym. And then we have that language of love, like heart and desire. Elsewhere in the poem, it is really striking as we hear the kind of language reserved for a beloved.

             "Open my eyes, that I may see the wonders of your law..."

            "With my whole heart I seek you..."

            "With my lips will I recite all the judgments of your mouth..."

            "My delight is in your statutes..."

            "My soul is consumed at all times with longing for your judgments..."

            "The earth, O LORD, is full of your love; instruct me in your statutes..."

            "Oh, how I love your law! All the day long it is in my mind..."

            "How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey in my mouth..."

And that is just a small sample of the loving way that the psalmist, the poet, writes of his beloved: the law. The connection between love and law should not surprise us too much. Jesus, after all, teaches us that all the law has to be understood as an act of love of God or love of neighbor. If we view the law in any way but through the lens of love, we misunderstand it.

 Let me read you part of another poem, a bit more recent than today's psalm, this one only a couple of decades old. It is called "The Law that Marries All Things" by Wendell Berry

 1. The Cloud is free only

to go with the wind.

 The rain is free

only in falling.

 The water is free only

in its gathering together,

 in its downward courses,

in its rising into the air.


2. In law is rest

if you love the law,

if you enter, singing, into it

as water in its descent.

 Another poem of love and the law.

 There are two primary kinds of law: There are the laws that governments make. If you fail to pay the parking meter, you might have to pay some kind of penalty. If you do something a little more serious, you might need a lawyer. And then there are laws of nature. Like the law of gravity. You can try to defy this kind of law, but it is probably going to hurt when you hit the ground. Wendell Berry's poem is about this second kind of law. The law of the the movement of clouds in the wind, the descent of the rain, and the gathering of water. For Berry, as a farmer who is deeply concerned with issues like sustainability, soil erosion, the proper husbandry of animals, et cetera, I suspect he is referring to these sorts of issues. You can over fertilize your soil for a while, if you want to, there isn't a governmental law against that, but the laws of nature will catch up to you and you will find that your soil no longer gives life. But when you love the law - the rhythms of the seasons, the interconnectedness of all living things - when you love this law, when you become one with it, you will ultimately find life-giving rest in it and find yourself able to sing a love song to it. Wendell Berry is referring to this second type of law.

 And though we tend to think of God's law as the first kind of law, it looks like it after all, with all of those should and should nots, it is really more like the second. You can break God's law for a while, but ultimately you find death, not life, in that choice. Leviticus, which is one of the books of the Law, gives us a clue to understanding why this is the case. Before getting into this list of what you should and shouldn't do, God says: "Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them:   You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy."

You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. This is a line, a phrase, that keeps repeating itself throughout Leviticus. You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. Our holiness and God's holiness are intertwined. The laws of God - the laws of which the psalmist sings - are about aligning our lives with God's life. When we find ourselves following these laws, these decrees, these judgments, these statutes, these ways, we find this path life-giving, because we are congruent with the giver of life itself: The Lord our God.

 So, when we hear these words, these laws, to not gather the gleanings of our fields, to not squeeze every ounce of profit out of our harvest for our own gain, but rather to leave some for the poor and for the aliens, the foreigners, among us, which there are and should be, that act is not just about helping others, which, of course, it does, but the act aligns us with the life-giving love and abundance of God. When we hear these words, these laws, about not taking vengeance and not bearing grudges against others,  we have aligned ourselves with God's overwhelming and overflowing mercy and grace.

 Jesus is building on this teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that we hear in the Gospel. These are new teachings, which like Moses receiving the Law on a mountain, Jesus speaks out from a mountain. These new teachings do not abolish the old ones or supplant them, but properly interpret them, give fulfillment to them, so that we can be holy as we fully align our lives with the Holy.

Laws like love of enemy, which Jesus speaks in the Gospel today, which makes abundantly clear the idea we see in Leviticus that we cannot just love our own, but must love others, yes, even unto our enemies, for they, too, are created by God and made in God's image. These laws are the same as the sun rising and the rain falling. We can pretend that they are otherwise, but when we do, we are out of sync with God's truth and holiness and grace and mercy and love. Being out of step with them is something we can do for a while, but like gravity, it is going to hurt when we hit the ground. Our hearts are unsettled as long as we are out of alignment with God, when we have to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to justify ourselves, instead of being at rest in the truth, at rest in the law, at rest in love. Being in step with the law allows us, as the psalmist says, find life in God's ways. So walk in these ways, sing a love song, find rest and life, as you become one with the giver of life. Amen.

A Holy Earworm -- This Little Light of Mine

"Then your light shall break forth like the dawn."
"Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like noonday."
"Light shines forth in the darkness for the upright."
"You are the light of the world... let your light shine before others."

 Do you know what an ear worm is? It's a song that you just can't get out of your head, no matter how hard you try. I have had an ear worm in my mind all week as I have been reflecting on these lessons and preparing this sermon.

 🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶     Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.     🎶

 Over and over and over again. I cannot get it out of my head.

 This trinity, trilogy, trifecta of seasons we are in - Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany - are all about light.

 In Advent, we prepared for the light to come. In Christmas, we welcomed and we celebrated the light born in the manger. In Epiphany, we have been seeing that light go out into the world. And throughout these three seasons of light, we have been hearing a lot from Isaiah as our first reading. Not every week, but the vast majority of them: 9 out of last 11 Sundays have included a reading from Isaiah! And we read from Isaiah, because Isaiah knew a lot about darkness and light. As we talked about back in December, so we won't go over all of it again, just a little refresher, Isaiah was writing in a time of great darkness. The people had been exiled from their homes. Everything they knew, everything they understood about the world, had been uprooted, and the people now suffered greatly under a ruler that they did not want. "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept," the psalmist wrote at this time. This period of time was a time of great, deep darkness. And Isaiah in the midst came to bring hope from God, to bring light in the midst of the darkness.

 In Advent, we expectantly, hopefully heard those words from Isaiah of a future light: "In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall stream to it... come, let us walk in the light of the Lord." In Christmas, we heard of that light now come: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." Notice: have seen, not will see. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined... For a child has been born for us, a son given for us." On Christmas, we now understand those words to be referring for us to the birth of the baby born in a manager, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 This light we waited for in Advent arrived in Christmas, and in Epiphany, that light shined out into the world. "A light to the nations," we heard Isaiah say on both the First and Second Sundays of this season. A light to the nations, a light to the ends of the earth, a light for every dark nook and cranny of this world.

 In our reading from Isaiah today, though, we get a slightly different take on the light. It is not the light that God is shining that Isaiah speaks of today, at least not the light that God is shining directly, but our light. "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn... then your light shall rise in the darkness." And we hear Jesus echoing Isaiah's words in our Gospel reading today: "You are the light of the world... No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light all in the house, in the same way, let your light shine before others."

 Oh, that bushel. Here comes that ear worm again!

🎶        Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine     🎶

🎶        Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine     🎶

🎶        Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine     🎶

🎶     Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.      🎶

That light that we waited for in Advent, and celebrated in Christmas, and watched go forth in Epiphany is now our responsibility to shine.

 We who are the Body of Christ - by virtue of our baptism, we became a part of that body - are now tasked with shining forth the light of Christ. Let your light shine before others, Jesus says.

 🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶       Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.              🎶

 And how do we let our light shine? Isaiah tells us today. It is quite clear. "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... 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."

 We let our light shine through our actions of justice, mercy, grace, truth, peace, and love. We let our light shine when we bring nourishment to places of hunger, and refreshment to places of thirst, and dignity to places of shame, and hope to places of despair. That will let our light shine.

We are trying to do that here as a community, as the people of St. Mary's, through our many ministries of feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless, and welcoming the refugee. We are letting our light shine before others.

 But it is also the task of each one of us as we go out into the world today and every day. In our schools, offices, and homes. To let our light shine in the work that we are doing, in the relationships in which we engage. It means that the doctor lets her light shine by offering dignity to her patients: a kind smile, an extra minute, a sense of compassion for the pain and struggle that the patient is encountering. It means that the teacher lets his light shine by offering respect to his students: remembering that he, too, was once in that seat. It means that the lawyer lets her light shine by caring for the downtrodden and seeking the truth. It means that the husband lets his light shine by loving his spouse and treating his spouse as an equal partner. It means that each and every one of us, in whatever place we find ourselves, begins to recognize the image of God found in those whom we encounter, and we start asking ourselves, how can I honor that image of God in that person? That will shine our light out into the world.

That's not the end of the song though, is it? It isn't just about shining our light, and keeping it out from under that bushel. There is that other verse:

 🎶        Ain't nobody gonna blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine          🎶

🎶        Ain't nobody gonna blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine          🎶

🎶        Ain't nobody gonna blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine          🎶

🎶 Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.  🎶

That is the hardest part, isn't it? In the midst of so much darkness in this world - and there is so much darkness out there - to not get discouraged and disappointed. To not let them blow out your light. When the forces of pain and evil get the upper hand for a while, when it seems like love is losing, it is easy to get discouraged and let that darkness overtake. It is hard to resist the darkness that wants to blow out our lights. And it is hard to resist the flip side: isolating ourselves to avoid the darkness, which in turn will just extinguish our light by suffocation as we hide our light under the bushel, preventing the light from getting needed oxygen.

And so, we have to keep letting this light shine. We have to muster the courage to keep going out into the darkness, and letting our light shine. We have to let our light break forth like the dawn, we have to let it rise in the darkness, and turn our darkest hours into noonday. We have to join Christ in taking this light to the darkest corners of our lives, to the darkest corners of this world. We have to let this song become not only an ear worm, which I hope it will be for you this week, but I hope it is more than that, I hope it is a daily call to engage in justice, peace, mercy, grace, truth, and love.

 That is our task. That is our work. To keep shining the light of Christ. And so, my sisters and brothers in Christ, why don't you join me? Pull out those lights ☝️and join me in singing this song. I know it is a bit silly, a bit childish, I know it is not the reserved Episcopal/Anglican thing to do, but be not afraid, be not ashamed: pull out those lights and let that light shine before others.

 🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶                    Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.                🎶

🎶        Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine     🎶

🎶 🎶 🎶

 🎶        Ain't nobody gonna blow it out, I'm gonna let it shine          🎶

🎶 🎶 🎶

 🎶        This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine            🎶

🎶 🎶 🎶



Sermon for 5 Epiphany, Year A

February 5, 2017

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10

Matthew 5:13-20