5th Sunday after Epiphany

February 6, 2005
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
Reading 2: 
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
Reading 4: 
Matthew 5:13-20
By Tari Lennon

And so we come to the end of Epiphany. This is my favorite liturgical season of the church year. "Matthew’s" wandering astrologers, captivated by the night sky, and lured to new places by unusual light, set the tone and direction of the season for me long before I knew very much about the New Testament from a critical point of view. Emerging from the hype of Christmas and flowing into the quiet of Lent, Epiphany represented a time for translating new beginnings into new ways of understanding and doing my life and my faith.

To travel with the three "wise men" was to see that God was up to something new and different again, and that that "something new and different" required joining God in taking risks and being willing to look at my life in various, even unusual ways. Epiphany was, then, a time for reflection and deliberation; a time for looking at my life and my faith in a little different way. That looking and reflecting inevitably led to a perceived need to develop new strategies for living a life of faith. Developing those strategies would become the work of Lent. Of course, back in those days, I didn’t think in terms of "strategies" and processes. I simply thought in terms of doing or not doing certain things that would make me a better person, which meant Christian.

Not in my lifetime have I witnessed a time in our country (and the world) when people of faith need to reflect on the meaning of their faith and to develop new strategies for translating that faith into life, and the world, more than at this exact moment. People of religious sensibilities on both the right and the left are heartsick at the way religion has been and continues to be co-opted and misused for political gain.

In our reflections and deliberations we need to make clear distinctions between the rhetoric and rituals of religion uttered and practiced by preachers of discord (and not just the ordained kind), and the challenge and insights of biblical faith disclosed and made available to anyone who cares about justice and continues to hope for the future. Nowhere in the Bible will we find a passion for justice yoked with hope for the future more clearly on display than in the work of the prophet Isaiah. In today’s lesson, which comes from III Isaiah, (520-515 BCE) people have returned from exile in Babylon , are once again living in Judah , and are beginning to rebuild the Temple . It would seem that the glorious predictions of II Isaiah (597-539 BCE) are coming to pass.

To the contrary, the returnees find life painful and difficult. Work is hard to come by. Food is in short supply. Housing is uncertain. Instead of being welcomed home with celebrations they are oppressed by their own people through whom life is made worse. In circumstances such as that the "quick fix" and popular religions of the day become attractive, and the demanding religion of tradition rejectionable.

The prophet has something to say to everyone. The prophet insists that God bears special concerns for the oppressed. The prophet further maintains that there can be no legitimate religion where the weak are mistreated and/or ignored. No amount of religious ritual or practice will vindicate or save people who do not respond to human need. For the prophet, performance and appearance are irrelevant and relationship is central to what it means to be a member of God’s community.

Yet further, in the world of human affairs, there are no magic wands, quick fixes, or easy solutions and any religion promising such is also oppressive. Slick religion distracts people from the work at hand and dupes them into believing that salvation can come to them from something (or someone) outside of them. The people themselves must free the oppressed, share their bread with the hungry, invite the homeless into their homes, clothe the naked, salve the wounded, stop quarreling, learn humility, and thank God for life. When the people do all of that they themselves will become Lights that the entire world will see, and through their light they will come to see that God is right there in the midst of them. Then will everything promised them, then, will it all come to pass.

And only when we as a people and a nation are participant in undertakings such as those named by the prophet can we truly claim the mantle of religion.

[Lector’s Note: Jim Wallis’ new book God’s Politics, Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, would make a timely and helpful Lenten study. He devotes an entire chapter to Isaiah and the necessity of translating Isaiah (Amos and Micah, as well) into our national/global life. ]

Psalm 112 stands in marked contrast to our economic practices today. For the Psalmist the point of wealth and riches is to be generous and magnanimous. To be successful in the world is to engender a kind of humility that illuminates virtue and sheds light on life lived in grateful service. There is no greater reward for those blessed with worldly gains than to be able to put those gains to work for the betterment of the community and the building up of its members. The psalm assumes a close relationship with God. It also assumes that every person makes a choice as to how he or she will live in the world and how he or she will use worldly blessings. (Note: If you know Hebrew, your appreciation of the psalm will  increase with the recognition of the fact that it is an acrostic, each verse beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet--22 letters--adding to its imaginative character).

Most painters are intrigued with light. Some are preoccupied with it. But few painters have gone to the lengths to understand light as did the great impressionist Claude Monet. He lived and worked in many different locales--all chosen for the variations of light and how changes in the light altered what the viewer would see of his chosen subject matter. In his famous series of haystacks everything in the paintings remains the same except for the light. In that series he explored what happened to his subject when the direction and intensity of the light changed, and what faded into the background or fell into shadows when light dimmed or disappeared. That is exactly what Matthew is trying to get at when he has Jesus tell his disciples that they are the light of the world.

Matthew understands Jesus to be an illuminator. Because of Jesus’ novel way of relating to God and God’s obvious enjoyment of Jesus, Matthew’s Jesus is an agent of seeing in a whole new way--the way God sees. To look at life through Jesus’ eyes is to see things one has never seen before, and things seen hundreds of times are now seen in a new way. Jesus’ instructions to his friends do not require that they believe in him but rather invite them to share with him and his vision. That invitation assures them that if they allow themselves to see what he sees they, too, will become illuminators, agents through whom others will come to see, as well.

Jesus’ vision magnifies everything. Ordinary things like salt are given a bigger meaning. Extraordinary things like the Law and the Prophets are given new significance. It is not that the Law and the Prophets predict Jesus, it is that because of Jesus’ way of seeing, the Law and the Prophets must be (seen) read and understood in new ways. Because of Jesus’ intensity and the intensity of experience he created around him he not only raised consciousness and altered awareness but also empowered others to do the same. Jesus was not calling for  bigger religion. He was asking for greater participation in the world. The Gospel of John has Jesus say, "I am the Light of the world. ” He was not claiming to be the sun. He was asking his followers and friends to see through his eyes and then to engage with what they saw--the world--and become lights for the world.

Since I spent considerable time on the Corinthian passage for last week, and this week’s lection is a continuation of the same themes, I want to close by observing that many credit Paul with being the founder of the Christian religion (at least one brand of it). Yet to read the entire Corinthian correspondence is to see Paul frequently ill, weak, irritating, not much to look at, and not particularly inspiring as a preacher. That information alone should be a source of great encouragement to us all. May your Lenten journey take you around darkened corners to enlightened hope. It has been a joy to share these five weeks with you.

The Rev. Dr. Tari Lennon is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and holds degrees in theology, ministry and psychology. She retired from parish ministry after 43 years and now convenes Open Gatherings which draws people together from all faiths and nonfaiths to explore topics of spirituality, relationships, and personal ethics.