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  • Fr. George

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 58:1-9a; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

It is nice to think of ourselves as being the “light of the world,” but it is a tall order. I am constantly pulled back to the story of Paul and his journey. How was he a light of the world? Jesus is easy, in some ways, he was perfect, son of God and Man, he did everything right. Paul started off as a man of violence, vengeance and anger. The Bible is full of flawed characters that God used as instruments of His grace, glory, and blessing. Paul is one of those characters and he uniquely called for us to see the vision of the crucified Jesus as one of power – power coming from Christ’s weakness, Christ’s humility, Christ’s blessings, Christ’s love – and Paul himself once said, in Romans, that “power is fullest in weakness.” When we embrace the idea that we need God more than anything else, we cannot do it all alone, then we are able to break through some of the real holds and obstacles in our lives.

There are really two important takeaways today. First, Isaiah uses God’s words to remind us that we are all part of the human family, all children of God. If we are all to know the blessings of God, we must work toward leaving no child of God behind. We understand “leaving no child behind,” right? Try not to remember the policy and many of its failings of the No Child Left Behind policies of the early 2000’s while identifying with its philosophy, which we can all get behind: no child will be left behind, educationally. It may be even easier to grasp how no soldier/sailor/Marine/Guardsman/Police/Firefighter ever want to leave “one of their own” behind. They will risk their own safety to retrieve an injured brother or sister, even if they know that person is no longer living. Do we or can we know that mentality as followers of Jesus? As disciples? {Isaiah seems to say that until we live into the idea that we are all equal in the eyes of God, needing nurturing and salvation, then we will never see God’s true blessing – or real potential.}

Second, we hear Paul telling the Corinthians that they are to “know the mind of Christ.” We may feel too small, lost, or inadequate to know what Jesus is thinking but, honestly, that is not what Paul means. He comes into a Corinthian community steeped in the Greek world of philosophy; being a great thinker and speaker had long become an idol in the Greek-speaking world. They were so noted for it that the Romans, who loved all things Greek, wanted to emulate them. Paul wrote to the Christian community reminding them that, for him, human wisdom had little promise, actually. He wanted only to know “Christ, and Him crucified.” When we connect the arc of the prophets -through the mind of Christ – to Paul’s writing, we may begin to see the vision of Christ crucified. We are called into sacrificial living that means becoming and being people who see Christ’s redemptive life as one of love and hope that brings us all, as God’s children and Christ’s brothers and sisters, together as One people, One body under Christ.

What can we learn from Isaiah? He was, of course, a prophet. Prophets, lest we forget, were not fortunetellers who looked into their ball of sand (they were in the desert, you know) and forecast the future of Israel. No. They saw the world for what it was and warned the people that they were here and that God wanted them to be over there. Here is how that might happen and then, this might be a consequence of not acting on the voice, the mind of God he was trying to share with them.

The people of Isaiah’s day were living in exile and yet there were still people who believed that right thinking, fasting, etc. was going to get God’s attention. They could sit in ashes and wear sackcloth, repent, etc. until the cows come home, but God tells them that this is not the fast, the life that He chose for them. They would do God’s will and live into God’s blessing when they began freeing the other in their midst, breaking the bonds of oppression – whatever was preventing their fellow humans from living into the promises of God. A yoke is a powerful symbol of slavery that goes far beyond our understanding. Part of freeing their fellow humans was by feeding them, clothing them, and sheltering them, bringing back into relationship those people in their family whom they had written off and were not in relationship with. We break the yoke of another when we help to move an obstacle to them joining the human family.

Jesus says, to the people he is speaking to, “Unless you exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never see the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees, if we look at the arc of the Gospels, were knowledgeable people; people who were in a place of privilege and prestige, invited to all the best parties and given all the perks of power and, for some, wealth, as well. They knew the scriptures but did they live them? Jesus commands us to do better, to live lives filled with the concerns of the other, not just for ourselves, or our group. Firefighters don’t leave a fellow firefighter behind but they don’t leave the victim behind, either; that, in fact, is why they are there.

Reaching beyond our group, our spheres of influence, our “people,” whatever that means for us, is never easy. It is the reason why the prophets were always so unpopular; they asked people in positions of power (kings, nobles, the military sometimes) to advance the concerns of the least fortunate and hopeless. One of the hardest things for us to do is look at what we are doing and asking, “Am I, in my life, work, family, knowing only Christ, and Him crucified.” This is not about social action, politics, or being a liberal or a conservative. We have politicized helping the poor, the oppressed, the homeless, the hungry, into their issue or our issue. Jesus proclaimed us to live a life of righteousness that moved beyond who we are in our silos and cubicles and consider who we might become, in Christ – the one who sacrificed all for us. Who are my brothers and sisters? Who are the oppressed, hungry, homeless … How is God calling me to break a yolk or two, even if we are not particular fond of over-easy eggs (sorry).

“Unless you exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I don’t think Jesus is speaking hyperbole here. Jesus is letting us know that we cannot live into the promises of God in His sacrifice without embracing that life which ended in crucifixion. Christ, and Christ crucified. Not just Christ the teacher, the foil of the religious establishment, the rebel and healer but Christ, the crucified Savior of the world. We sometimes want to look away from suffering, oppression and pain because something is being asked of us. But we cannot exceed the righteousness of those who do nothing and tend to glory and protect their own way of life – know Jesus Christ and Him Crucified – unless we are willing to take a full, scary look at the world and what we can do about oppression, indifference, hunger, poverty, homelessness, imprisonment and all the inequities that feed these challenges. Jesus was not into politics but he did not shy away from commentary and challenge on those who wouldn’t lift a finger to help folks and would do all in their power to keep those in power in their places. Jesus was not a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or conservative but he was very much about sacrificing for all that we be saved. Our response to Christ crucified is to sacrifice, as we must or may. Our response to Christ’s resurrection is thanksgiving.

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