Feb. 9 sermon of the Rev. E. Bevan Stanley, rector of St. Michael’s Church, Litchfield
Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth . . . you are light of the world.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
Well, that’s a nice thing for Jesus to say about us. Then come the implications. We cannot lose our flavor. We have to shine for the world. He goes on to say that he did not come to abolish the law or the prophets; he came to fulfill them. Fulfilling both the law and the prophets is a tricky thing, for there is a tension between the commandments and the prophets who bring the word of God to the people of God. The passage from Isaiah is a good case in point.
It starts with a word of judgment: Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. The judgment of God is not condemnation so much as it is telling the truth to our faces. If the truth is that we have not been living up to our call to be holy and loving, then God hopes that when we hear the truth, we will be moved to change our behavior. The prophet pictures the people as observing the religious traditions. They complain to God: Why do we fast and you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice? God responds: Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. . . Such fasting as you do today will not make your voce heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sack cloth and ashes? Will you call his a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Do you think that going to church on Sunday or getting ashes on Ash Wednesday impresses God? That’s a rhetorical question.
Then God goes on: 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? Who in our society are afflicted with the bonds of injustice, burdened with a yoke they did not choose? There are many, of course, but this Black History Month, which might suggest one such group. Next Sunday we will show the movie “Traces of the Trade” that points to the complicity that northern traders had in the lucrative trade in slaves. Even today, any black person who is stopped by a policeman is facing a real possibility of being shot. And what about workers who are paid only one three hundredth as much as their bosses? Workers whose real pay adjusted for inflation has not increased in fifty years, while the executives’ pay has skyrocketed? Can you think of other cases in our country where people are oppressed?
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? We do a little better in this regard. Our food pantry is a success. It only operates one day in thirty, but it is a help. Nevertheless, we have the technology and land to feed every person on earth, yet many die of starvation every day. That means that our politics and priorities are at fault. We do not have the will to do what it takes to keep people from dying when we throw away vast amounts of food in this country. But if we did, then our light would break forth like the dawn, and our healing would spring up quickly; our vindicator would go before us, the glory of the LORD would be our rear guard. Then we would call, and the LORD would answer; we would cry for help, and he would say, Here I am. Ah, life in the subjunctive!
In case we didn’t get the point, the Prophet continues: 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.
Then your light shall rise in the darkness. This is how we are to be lights of the world.
It is not enough for each of us to be a good person. The Prophet says we are to be engaged in public life. It is our job as a people, as the people of God working together, to be the light of the world and to confront oppression. We are to take on systemic evil; we are struggle against the principalities and powers of this world. Democrat and Republican don’t matter. What matters is are we going to work for freedom? Will we work to remove the yoke of oppression from those who are oppressed? Nor does it matter if we feel we ourselves are oppressed, or if we find ourselves among the privileged and see that others around us are oppressed (and most of us have a foot in both camps). It’s still our job to end it. And if we say, this is too much, these problems are too great, then we can consider how we find the power in cooperation, in organizing resources, in working together to take on these challenges. Then 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.
As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, is fond of pointing out, Christianity is both counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. While it is inappropriate for the preacher to advocate a particular candidate over another, we are called by our Lord to be active in public life. We are called to engage in politics with a small “p”. How we are to do this is another huge question. What is not in question is that our country and our world have way too much oppression in them. We Christians need to be working to lessen it.
Jesus said, “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.”