A LECTIONARY SERMON FOR EPIPHANY FIVE
I've been thinking a lot lately about time…and about analogies of the sort we just heard from Jesus in today's Gospel. You know, salt, candles, and cities on a hill.
The time part is easy. It's that time of year. The time between football and baseball, between the end and the return of daylight savings time – the "dark ages" of winter - is fast drawing to a close. This week, pitchers and catchers return to spring training camp and this Yankee fan will have to start learning Japanese. The sun has begun its northern migration and the days are growing longer.
And, for me, they seem to be going by a little more quickly. With a trip to the summer heat of Buenos Aires tomorrow, my 74th winter is about to end. Upon returning, I can begin my 75th spring, my search for a new dog, and dreams of future adventures.
But age and the passing seasons also bring thoughts of mortality and that most precious of commodities - time. They were thoughts driven home Sunday before last by an article in the New York Times by Paul Kalanithi, a Stanford brain surgeon just diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. He asked his oncologist "How long have I got left?" She replied "I can't tell you a time. You've got to find out what matters most to you." More on that later.
But what about those analogies. We were offered a slew of them today by Jesus – some better than others, all doubled-edged.
Take salt. We all knows what it means to be "the salt of the earth"…to add flavor to the community, zing to what we do together, zest to life. And we hardly need Jesus' warning about the down side. I think we know what it feels like to lose our saltiness, our taste, our value as flavoring. But there is an even deeper danger involved in being "thrown out and trampled under foot." For grinding salt into the soil is the kiss of death for the earth. Want to see what that looks like? Visit Bad Water in Death Valley or the southern shores of the aptly named Dead Sea.
Then there's the candle – the light we're called to shine into a dark world, the light we mustn't hide under a basket. And, while Jesus doesn't mention it, there's an added downside to placing a basket over a candle. Not only is the world outside deprived of its light, but the candle itself is extinguished, deprived of life-giving oxygen. Isn't that what we're doing to the world around us every day now, polluting the atmosphere with our oxygen-absorbing carbon emissions? Isn't that what happens to communities – to churches and nations – that build walls, exclude others, and hide in fear and darkness. They flicker and fade. And the light goes out.
And how about that city on a hill? True enough, "A city built on a hill cannot be hid." But the question remains: For better or for worse? Jesus' meaning is clear. The light is better seen from a hilltop, an icon, a beacon of hope to all around. And I'm sure that's how Ronald Reagan meant it, when he spoke of the United States as a "gleaming city on a hill," the torch of its ideals held high beside a golden door, open to all those "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." But such a city – by its very visibility – can become a torment when its inhabitants succumb to hubris and lord it over those in the valleys below. Witness the gleaming white settlements atop every hilltop in the West Bank, their inhabitants depriving the villagers below of their land and water, their livelihoods, their very dignity. Witness an America, grown both fearful and triumphalist, valuing not so much its ideals as its military might, overthrowing the governments of others and killing from a distance with its drones. Are not the dangers manifest?
But let's talk about other analogies that speak not about death, but about life and about how we are to live.
Writing for Sojourners, Joe Kay uses the analogy of a chick in an egg:
The chick has spent its entire life in its protective shell. But now, the nourishment of the yolk is all used up. The chick no longer fits comfortably inside the oval confine. It has no clue what lies outside the shell, but it knows instinctively that it has to break out or it will die.
Is that a good analogy for what we experience in our lives? Do we often find ourselves breaking out of shells?
Take religion, for example.
Many of us are born into some sort of religion. Maybe our particular religion is big enough that it gives us encouragement and space to grow. Hooray! Or maybe our particular religion turns out to be very confining — limited to only those who see things a certain way — and it becomes like a hardened shell, something that leaves us living in a small, dark space. Eventually we realize that God isn't confined to our shell, but lives outside of it. And we start to peck away….
When a chick finally spills out of its shell, it's haggard and exhausted. It rests for a while, trying to recover and take it all in. Soon, it gets up and starts learning to walk. It joins the other birds. Some day, it will fly.
One time, I asked the 4-H egg monitor whether she was tempted to help the chick escape from its shell — maybe crack it open a little bit. She said no, that the struggle is an important part of the breaking-out process. It makes the chick strong enough to deal with what comes next.
Without the struggle, the chick wouldn't survive outside the shell. The struggle makes the chick strong, keeps it alive, and gets it ready to fly one day. It's part of what some refer to as the amazing and mysterious process of life.
Something that others might also call grace.Consider also the ungainly caterpillar in a cocoon, breaking free as a beautiful, liberated butterfly, giving physical witness to a grateful world of the grace and glory of God.
Consider yet another analogy…suggested by this morning's reading from Isaiah, who speaks quite explicitly about what God requires of us:
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? 7Is 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?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly….
There's a common theme running through this. These are all actions - physical actions - that require us to use our hands…to loose the bonds, to break the yoke, to share our bread, to bring in the homeless, to cover the naked.
And that brings me to the analogy…conjured up by a statue of Jesus… actually several of them. There's one in Mainz, Germany and another in Canterbury, damaged by bombs. There's one in Soweto toppled in a police raid. There's yet another in San Diego damaged by vandals…perhaps a deacon in need of a good story. Again, there's common theme here. All these statues, you see, are missing their hands. They've been left that way and decorated with signs that allude to the obvious analogy…signs that read: "You are my hands."
As we will affirm in a moment in the Creed, Christ will come again – physically - at the end of time. Until then, however, Christ - God - is with us and in us, in the Holy Spirit and acts through us in the world. We must, therefore, be not only the hands, but the feet and heart and mind of Christ. We must use our hearts and minds to discern what Christ and the Spirit would have us do in today's world with our hands and feet and, yes, our mouths, to loose the bonds of injustice, to break the yoke of oppression, to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked.
We must also discern how the Spirit would have us translate these words of Isaiah - and of Jesus in the Beatitudes and Matthew 25 - into physical action in the twenty-first century world in which we find ourselves.
As you know, I have become a big fan of Pope Francis – the first pope to grace the cover of Rolling Stone. In his words – not in Rolling Stone, but in his pre-Christmas exhortation The Joy of the Gospel – I hear the strong, clear voice of the Spirit. It is a voice that shouts "NO!' to spirit of the time – "No" to an economy of exclusion; "No" to the new idolatry of money; "No" to a financial system that rules rather than serves; "No" to the inequality that spawns violence! It is a voice, like Christ's this morning, that calls us to observe and teach the commandments and apply them to the culture of the time. It is a voice that, in the clarity of its indictments, demands our attention.
"How can it be," Francis asks, "that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?" How, he asks, "can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?" How can we accept a financial system pervaded by the "rejection of ethics and a rejection of God….a system which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits?" "The worship of the ancient golden calf," he warns, "has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose."
It is an idolatry that has infected his own church…and, sad to say, even ours. I would, for example, prefer to quote at length similarly clear statements by Episcopal or Anglican bishops…if I could put my hands on one. They are, however few and far between. Why? Because the pushback is strong and the default position of "establishment church" all too alluring.
Talk about pushback? Francis' American bishops and the professional "apologists" on Catholic radio are in full denial mode, explaining away and "putting in context" what the pope "really" meant to say. His archbishop in New York, whose main occupation these days seems to be soliciting funds for the renovation of his cathedral, throws his arms around Home Depot's Ken Langone and Fox News' Roger Ailes, his main contributors, deflecting the pope's words and declaring that God loves rich people too.
Perhaps anticipating such pushback, Francis writes in Joy of the Gospel, that he indeed "loves everyone, rich and poor alike," but is "obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect, and promote the poor." He cites, in this regard, the words of St. John Chrysostom: "Not to share one's wealth with the poor is to steal from them and take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs." And, to those "haves" who would cry "Class warfare!" - while very successfully waging class warfare on the "have-nots" - he says:
Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national, or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility.
Is there anything inevitable about the exclusion, inequality, and violence that confronts us? Must we continue to live in such insecurity? Must we accept such a dystopian future?
Of course not! Not if we heed the words of Jesus and shine the light of love on a hurting world. Not if we heed the words of Isaiah and loose the bonds of injustice thus revealed. Not if we respond to the challenge of Dr. Kalanithi's oncologist: "You've got to find out what matters most to you."
All of which brings me back to the question of time. Mother Susan's reflection in last week's E-news is very apropos. "How," she asked, is "God calling me to use my time?" And what, she asked, does it "mean to follow Jesus and live as one of his disciples?" Asking us – as I do now - to reflect on those questions, she offered us the thoughts of Grace Duddy, the Lutheran Church Stewardship Officer. Ms. Duddy asked, in turn, "how [is] God is calling me to use my time to share God's grace and love with the world?" And she resolved "to listen closely to the ways that God is teaching me how to be a better steward of all my time and helps me living into my Christian calling at all hours of the week, not just Sundays."
As I said at the outset, I find that those hours seem to be moving more swiftly these days and there remain for me probably fewer than for most of you. I've done my reflecting and made my choice – to be a troublemaker, to follow a Jesus who raged at injustice, kicked over the tables of the moneychangers, challenged the powers-that-be, and got himself arrested. As I said in a little book, "At my age, what is there to fear?"
But, I had to confess, "Age brings also a sense of that 'fierce urgency of now.' My time to effect change is increasingly limited and I feel a pressing need to recruit new troublemakers."
So, in closing, let me ask you – let me beg you with all the urgency of age: Be the hands of Christ in the world, not just on Sunday, but every day. Use those hands to loose the bonds of injustice, to break the yoke of oppression, to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked. And, yes, to pray.