Epiphany 5, Year A
Readings: Isaiah 58:1–12; Psalm 112:1–9; (1 Corinthians 2:1–16); Matthew 5:13–20
Is love, especially the big kind, the love of God, conditional? Listen to this part of our Isaiah reading:
“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.”
Not only that: “God will guide you…, satisfy your needs in parched places…, make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden…, a spring of water… Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt…,” et cetera, et cetera.
If. If you do this, then… It certainly sounds like a tough bargain is being driven here. Let’s go a little deeper, see what we find.
We look to prophets such as Isaiah for a strong call to ethical living. The need for a strong call to ethical living has not gone away over the centuries, sadly. Our treatment of one another these days is sinful. All the things Isaiah complains about still happen: self-interest at the cost of society and creation, oppression of workers, the keeping of bread from the hungry, the shocking lack of decent, affordable housing. Our expectations of ethical behaviour have gone up, though. Our focus is wider now. If Isaiah were preaching today, we would be hearing denunciations of sexism and homophobia, racism and ageism, environmental criminality and abuse.
The pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil that Isaiah complains about over two thousand years ago, are still common. We have a mayor in this town quick to complain about workers, the media, anybody at all who disagrees with him, and terribly slow to take real responsibility for his shameful leadership, leadership that includes his recent announcement that he will stay away from World Pride, and even opposes flying a rainbow flag at City Hall during the Olympics. We have governments around the world passing and enforcing laws that oppress women or homosexuals, or both.
As a country, we face a shifting world beset by economic inequality and climate catastrophes in various parts of the world. We have now decided that the way to deal with it is to pull up the drawbridge against new immigrants, turn the clock back to the bad old days of colonialism, racism, sexism and fear of the other, turn the powers of the state over to multi-nationals. We learn that our communications security agency feels free to gather information on us, possibly breaking the law, and that it doesn’t report to Parliament. Corporations that sell us food, dig up commodities, transport those commodities send changes in legislation they would like over to the government and they get turned into law.
Some politicians want to roll back rights workers have fought and shed blood for generations to get. Regulations are softened, standards are lowered, our rights as citizens go out the window. We are not surprised by a backward slide. Money always speaks very loudly. It finds a way to get its way. We should be surprised that we had a several generations of gaining human rights, growing a more fair society, making the economy serve people rather than the other way around.
Still, we get angry when we hear how well the one percent are doing compared to the rest of us. We bristle when we see the police who are supposed to serve all of us protect the powerful and take away the liberties of people on our streets. We fume when we hear of our government tacking provisions onto budget bills that strip environmental protections or the ability of scientists employed by government to tell us of their findings. We explode when we hear that government agents snoop on activists meeting in church basements as they work out how to resist big oil, then feed that information to big oil.
But it’s hard to stay angry. There are so many issues to keep track of at once. It’s exhausting. Our saltiness gets watered down, washed away. Our bright flame of indignation falters and gutters. Will the force of love, the spirit we call God give up on us? If we can’t seem to get our act together as a species, are we doomed to be abandoned by that Spirit, left alone as the planet heats up and we fall to fighting among ourselves?
There is another way to look at things. It could be that God just sulks unless we do what God wants. Not a pretty picture. Or it could be much simpler than that. No divine temper tantrums, no threats, deals or ultimatums. Instead, look at it this way: the prophets had the wisdom, the genius, the spiritual maturity to see that only ethical relations between people are sustainable. We don’t need a grumpy God to make us do the right thing. We need to wake up and realize that the other ways of going about things just don’t work. Good behaviour, ethical behaviour isn’t just nice, it is the only way to “satisfy your needs in parched places,” and “raise up the foundations of many generations,” as the prophet puts it. The psalmist puts it a little differently: those who are “gracious, merciful and righteous…who conduct their affairs with justice…will never by moved.”
What does this mean for you and me? We need to dwell on this, celebrate this, as part of our faith lives. Jesus would say we need to stay salty. Not in our language, maybe, but our determination to resist other kinds of values that seem not to care about the poor or the planet or the public good. We need to let the Christ light in us out.
There is much talk these days about spirituality. People don’t want to be part of any organized religion, but they want to be spiritual. This is the fastest growing group, by the way, when Canadians are asked about their religion—spiritual but not religious. The term spiritual seems vague, and that is probably part of its appeal. No rigid definition that might limit a person, no camps of spirituality that might divide. I’m sure I have much to learn about this, but the spirituality I hear about doesn’t seem to include prophetic anger about injustice. It doesn’t seem to inspire people to work together to change anything, but rather, to get better at accepting things the way they are. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I don’t see evidence of it.
On the other hand, maybe none of this matters. Maybe we don’t have any responsibility to one another, to future generations, or to other species. Maybe it’s everybody for themselves, winner take all, look out for number one. But we wouldn’t be here if we believed that. We wouldn’t join together to worship. Especially to worship Jesus as Christ. He poured out his life for others, for ideals of compassion and justice. He was willing to very far for this vision of what real human life is for, and what it’s like. In fact, he was willing to go all the way.
And us. What about us? Our faith is not a job, a task. It is a joyous way of being in the world. It doesn’t take much salt to flavour a whole dish. It doesn’t take much light to expose what’s in the shadows, what shadowy people would rather stay hidden. And it’s not a case of bringing a shiny apple to the teacher in the hopes of getting a good mark. That’s not what the ‘If’ is about here.
If you do these things, you nations, if you live like this, you people, it will go well with you, and your spirits. You will live long and prosper, as the catch phrase from an old TV show puts it, and not just you, but others, human and non-human. And the love in you are made, in which you have your being is with you always, no matter what.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the realm of heaven,” Jesus told them. His version of the ‘If.’ Luckily, that’s not difficult. Well, it is and it isn’t. As Jesus experienced them, the scribes and Pharisees followed all the rules, but didn’t really get the spirit of them. If we finally realize that we’re all in this together, that if I win at your expense I really lose, it will be well with us. And everyone, no matter where they live. And with burrowing owls, and coral reefs, and monarch butterflies.
We have this vision. Or more accurately, we inherit this vision from others. We will not win our struggle for a world of ethical behaviour, of course. Not in our lifetimes. That’s not the point. The point is be in the struggle, to remain salty, a bit of a light. Others will taste the good flavour, see a light, and gain hope. When we finally sleep in the Spirit, it will be with the hunger for God’s dream still strong within us, and the satisfaction that we have carried the torch in our time and passed it to others.