Sermon: Sunday, February 6, 2011: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Texts:  Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)  •   Psalm 112:1-9 (10)  •   1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)  •   Matthew 5:13-20


Sometimes the scriptures hand you the perfect sermon or children’s sermon illustration, and those are the weeks as a preacher that you’re so happy, because it means less work looking for a fresh, new angle into the texts. And so it was this week. Those of you who remember Henry, Kenneth and Orla belting out the tune to “This Little Light of Mine” just a few Sundays ago will recall the gusto they brought to their performance. So, given Jesus’ words in today’s gospel, “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,” how could we not sing the second verse of that song: “Hide it under a bushel – NO! I’m gonna let it shine…”

You know the hand gestures that go with this verse, don’t you? The cupped hand closes over the pointy finger like a bushel basket trying foolishly to hide a candle flame, and then it goes flying off as we shout, “No!” The pointy finger reminding me that just last week we baptized our little sister, Rebecca Joy Abbo, and we handed her godfather a candle lit off the paschal candle next to the font and continued with Jesus’ words from this morning’s gospel, “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, in its simplest terms, what we mean when we talk about our baptismal vocation. That in baptism we are given a job to do in the body of Christ, we are to let the light God has lit in each of us shine so brightly that all the world could see it, and in seeing our light they might be emboldened to show forth the spark of the divine resting in them as well.

This recalls the famous quote by Marianne Williamson who writes,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Or, to put it more simply once again, “hide it under a bushel – No! I’m gonna let it shine…”

So I’ve been thinking about Rebecca’s baptismal candle all week, and about Williamson’s words, “we are all meant to shine, as children do,” and I’ve been looking for the light of other baptized Christians thrown out against the darkness of bushels trying to conceal it, and I think I’ve found an example.

Coptic Christians protect Muslim neighbors during prayerHave you seen the story and the pictures of the young, Coptic Christians in Egypt who have been forming protective human chains around their Muslim neighbors in the heart of Tahrir Square, the heart of the uprising, so that they can pray in safety. The picture I’ve seen online comes from The Daily Mail, a British newspaper, and it makes me wish we had projection screens in the sanctuary so I could show you what I’m talking about.

In the photo you can see hundreds of Muslims kneeling in rows on the streets of Cairo in the traditional posture of prayer, and around these worshipping Muslims there is a chain of young people, holding hands, facing out and forming a protective wall to make sure that the pro-government forces that have been violently assaulting the protesters for the last two weeks cannot disturb their worship.

This, in and of itself, is an amazing testament to faith, recalling Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 15, “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” but it becomes even more significant in light of recent events. Coptic Christians, who make up just ten percent of Egypt’s 80 million person population, were the targets of a bombing at a church in Alexandria that went off on New Year’s Day this year, killing 23 Christians. The bomb is thought to have been set by a militant group called the “Army of Islam,” and after it went off many Egyptians – both Christian and Muslim – protested the negligence of the Egyptian government in the streets as a precursor to the uprising that is currently underway.

The witness of these Christians then, who have offered their own bodies as a living barrier against violence to their Muslim neighbors so that they might pray in peace, even as they grieve the death of sisters and brothers who died during their own worship, shows us what Jesus had in mind when he preached, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” They are showing us an alternative to the dominant culture of this world that answers violence with violence.

And that alternative is at the heart of Jesus’ message this morning. As we continue to read through the Sermon on the Mount, transitioning out of the ideals of the Beatitudes and into a longer section on what it means to live as a disciple in a community that anticipates the inbreaking reign of God, Jesus says to those who follow him, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”

Salt, as we all know, is an essential ingredient in almost all of our cooking. It heightens flavor, it provides bite to bland dishes, it is an ancient preservative used to keep meat from going bad, and it generates thirst. Jesus uses salt as a metaphor for how those who follow him are called to be in the world – engaged, mixed up in the life of the larger society, calling forth the best from others, preserving the whole against rot and decay, and driving people toward the waters that can relieve their thirst.

But after calling his followers salt and light, Jesus goes on to say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” This is a really good reminder for those of us who have grown up in traditions that dismiss the Old Testament as irrelevant in light of Jesus’ life and teaching. Jesus himself tells his followers, “don’t you dismiss the teaching of the prophets or the wisdom of Israel – I have come not to abolish the teaching and wisdom of our past, but to fulfill it, to show what it looks like here and now, under these conditions.”

The conditions in which Jesus fulfilled the law are not so different from the conditions faced by Egyptians today. You already know that Israel in the first cent
ury was occupied by the Roman Empire, and that Jews had been living under foreign occupation off and on for centuries. As a people who thought of themselves as God’s chosen people, the ongoing and oppressive presence of powerful foreign nations, who could impose their will with state-sanctioned violence and crucifixions, created a problem for their faith.

Was this a test of their faith that called on them to rise up and revolt against the Roman Empire, as the Zealots did? Were they called to preserve their lineage and assimilate into the Roman culture and society as the Sadducees had? Or would they follow the example of the Pharisees, who found a new way to practice the faith, by withdrawing from Roman society as much as possible and creating small, self-contained enclaves where the people could keep the law of Moses as the world around them continued to live by the laws of empire?

That is the conflict that was brewing throughout Jewish households and synagogues as Jesus wandered the countryside and preached his sermon on the mount. People wanted to know what path he favored. He gave them a new way.

Speaking against the violence of the Zealot faction, Jesus taught “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” This is not weak idealism on Jesus’ part, but an honest analysis of the cycle of violence that ruled his context, and still rules the world today. Violence begets violence, and the children of war grow up learning that might makes right. Jesus teaches us here what the poet and activist Audre Lorde has taught us again in the last century when she wrote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Violence will not change the script, it only changes who is playing each role in the drama.

Speaking against the assimilation of the Sadducees and Pharisees Jesus calls those who follow him to be salt and to be light. Salt does not assimilate into that which it seasons, it transforms it. Light does not hide from the evils of the world, it exposes them.

Against forms of faith that call for believers to retreat from the world, to retreat from those who are different from us, Jesus commands us to be out in the world, to make our faith known not simply by the words we say, but with actions that proclaim God’s concern for the poor and the mourners, the meek and the hungry.

For the last thirty years, since the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the rise to power of current President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has lived in a state of perpetual emergency law. Under emergency law the people’s constitutional rights have been suspended and the power of the police has been expanded. Police brutality and corruption are the standard, and have been for three decades.

The present uprising, which began almost two weeks ago with fifteen thousand protestors filling Tahrir Square and have continued each day since, swelling to two million Egyptians this past Friday who came out for the day of prayer, at which the Coptic Christians made their peaceful witness. Just hours ago, as the sun rose in Cairo, these Christians returned to Tahrir Square to hold mass, and to counter the claims being made by the Egyptian government that these protests are the work of militant Islamic extremists. They want the world to know that they too, though they are a minority, share the concerns of their Muslim neighbors, that they too want and end to the unjust rule of the present government. They are bringing their light and their salt to the conversation.

President Obama and other world leaders have rightly said that the uprising in Egypt is not a situation that the United States can control. No amount of foreign aid or diplomatic intervention will alter the swelling will of the people of Egypt, who desire reform. Likewise, this sermon is not a call to action for us on behalf of the people of Egypt, if anything it is a call for us to learn from the example of our Coptic Christians sisters and brothers there. We can do for them what they have done for each other, stand next to their neighbors and work for peace with justice.

But this is a call to action in the same way that every Sunday is a call to action. As you pass by these baptismal waters on your way to the Lord’s Supper, remember that you too were once baptized, and that you have been called to be salt and light. Your faith is not an assimilationist faith, indistinguishable from the world around you, and your faith is not a private matter, to be practiced in the home or the sanctuary and hidden away from the rest of the world. In baptism you were given a vocation, a calling, to be in the world as a missionary for God’s politics, which focus on the poor and the mourners, the meek and the hungry; that call us to be merciful, honest, peaceful and courageous.

Hide it under a bushel? No! We’re gonna let it shine! Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!


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