Thanks to the scholarship of Karoline Lewis and Bruce Epperly for inspiration and direction in writing this sermon, and to Black Lives Matter – Birmingham Chapter founder Cara McClure for reading it over and loving it.
Closing poem is by Elisabeth Elliot, found here.
Image: 2016 Alabama Poverty Data Sheet, available through Alabama Possible.
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
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? Is 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?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
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. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 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. 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.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
Today, in churches all across the country, in Sunday schools and Bible study groups and sanctuaries of every denomination, individuals and congregations will be struggling with —wrestling with — our Gospel reading. I mean, let’s set aside trying to explain how salt can become not salty, there’s all this stuff about keeping the Law… yeah, the Mosaic Law, which the Apostle Paul, and millenia of Christian theology and doctrine, have taught that we are no longer under! “Whoever breaks… the least of these commandments… will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”
How do we faithfully approach such a Scripture? Do we ignore it, focusing on the safer parts, “salt of the earth,” “light of the world?” Do we construct a to-do list in making sure our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees? Do we skip it and concentrate on the Epistle reading, from First Corinthians? Do we declare that, all this time, we’ve been doing it wrong, and we have to start today keeping every letter of the Mosaic Law, because obviously God must care if we go to church on Saturday and eat bacon and shrimp and wear clothes made from polyester blends?
I don’t think so. I think there’s something deeper at work here, and not just because I like bacon. In fact, I think that the whole idea of simply keeping the letter of the law, even to the degree that the Pharisees strove to be faithful to the finest distinction of the intention of every tenet, is not only the easy way out, it’s the core of the problem.
And it was not a new problem. In our Old Testament reading, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah about the same issue: in short, slavishly following the letter of the law while completely missing its spirit — missing, if you will, the point.
Isaiah was writing to a Jewish people who had returned to a ruined Jerusalem after seventy years of exile in Babylon. Bit by bit, they’d rebuilt — repaired the walls, cleaned the rubble, cobbled together a Temple that was less than a shadow of the glory of Solomon’s Temple. And as they worked, as they scraped together enough food to barely survive day-to-day, they were very careful to follow every letter of the Mosaic Law.
It could be argued that they sacrificed and prayed and fasted for fear that, if they neglected the rituals, God would again send an army to destroy the city, again compel their conqueror (currently the Persian, Cyrus the Great) to exile them — perhaps even erase them from the face of the earth. But there was more: there was an expectation that, if they did everything right, if they prayed and fasted and sacrificed enough, God would make things better: more food, easier access to water, and an end to living under the rule of a foreign oppressor.
But time marched on, and things didn’t get better. Either nothing at all changed, or it got worse, depending on who you asked. Eventually, people began asking, “What’s the point?” “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
And maybe folks in Jesus’ day were asking the same questions. Six hundred years after Isaiah, Caesar had replaced Cyrus, and despite a grand new Temple, despite all the sacrifices and fasting and worship and prayers and rituals, most people toiled endlessly for a enough bread and beans to survive another day, for enough coins to pay the taxes, for enough water to wet their tongue… nothing ever got better, so what’s the point?
It’s a valid question, even today, isn’t it? What is the point?
Oh, I don’t mean that we are in as dire straits as the Jews of Isaiah’s time, or of Jesus’ time. Though Alabama is the fourth poorest state in the nation, though one in four Alabamians lives in poverty, though thirty-one percent of the residents of the city of Birmingham live in poverty, you and I have it all right. There’s food to eat, money to pay the bills, plenty of food on the table and more than enough water to drink at the turn of a tap.
But do we think this comfort, this success, this sufficiency is contingent on going to church?
Why do Christians spend so much time on doctrine — making certain that what we believe is the right thing to believe, making sure that how we worship is the right way to worship, making sure that we Christians are telling others how to live and think and worship and act? What’s the point?
Now, let me be very clear: yes, worship and study and prayer are very important. The focus of our faith journey is a closer relationship, a more consonant identification with our loving Creator and Jesus Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith, through the guidance and fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
But can it be that God has only ever cared about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s? Is the whole point of worship and prayer and theology and doctrine — the whole point of sacrifice and fasting and ritual in Isaiah’s time and in Jesus’ time — to make sure that when God tallies the score, we make the cut? Is that really the point?
That’s the challenge that God, through Isaiah, laid out to the Jewish people: Do you really think the whole point of fasting is to abase yourselves, to prove to Me that you’re humble enough, to impress Me with your piety? Do you think that the whole point is to be more holy than the next guy, more religious than her, more pure than him? Do you really think I care about that? Really???
That’s what Jesus is saying to the people who came up the mountain with him — sure, the Pharisees and Scribes are passionate about the rules. Some of the things they believed and taught were, in fact, not different from Jesus’ beliefs and teachings: quite in contrast to the Temple elite and Sadduccees, they believed that a life of faith was lived apart from the Temple, God was present at all times, and to be worshiped in everyday life. But it wasn’t the number of steps someone could walk on the Sabbath that God cared about. It wasn’t whether or not one performed a hand-washing ritual before a meal, or never dared to step foot on Samaritan soil, or took part in scheduled fasts. That was not the point!
And this is what Jesus says to us today: Do we think that going to church every week, that being a Presbyterian, or a Methodist, or a Lutheran, or Catholic, or Orthodox, is all that God is looking for? Is it really of utmost importance to the Almighty whether we sprinkle or pour or dunk to baptize, or whether we baptize infants or adults? Does God examine us based on whether we see the elements of the Lord’s table through a transubstantialist or consubstantiationalist or virtualist or ordinalist doctrine? Do we lose points on the big scoreboard in the sky if we don’t understand what any of those words even mean? Are we awarded extra brownie points for being Reformed as opposed to Calvinist or Armenian, for preferring a Liberation theology to a systematic one?
Make no mistake, what we believe matters, but what matters more is why we believe it — and what we do with what we believe.
That’s what Isaiah’s telling the Jews, isn’t it? “Hey, the whole idea behind fasting is to make sure everyone has enough to eat. You humble yourself so you can lift up someone else! I don’t care about ritual, I care about injustice and poverty and homelessness, breaking yokes and freeing the oppressed!”
According to what God said through Isaiah, that was the point.
But what about our Gospel reading? Are we committing the sin of isogesis, of reading in to the Scriptures what we want them to say?
If our reading this morning existed in a vacuum, I’d have to say “yes.” But Jesus gives us a thread to pull: “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Scribes and Pharisees appeared pious, appeared holy, but we need look no further than Matthew’s twenty-third chapter to see Jesus comparing that piety to “whitewashed tombs,” or cups that are only washed on the outside. He says, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; [t]hey love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues… to be greeted with respect… to have people call them rabbi…” Jesus says, repeatedly, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,” calls them “blind guides,” out and out calls them hypocrites, accuses them of locking people out of the kingdom of heaven! And the key phrase of it all is the twenty-third verse: “you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
If we believe what we believe so we can not go to Hell, we miss the point. If what we do with our faith is centered only on worship and ritual, and if it is intended to benefit only our selves, we miss the point. And if what we do with what we believe doesn’t involve mercy and justice and faith, we miss the point.
Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth — are, not should be or could be or ought to be, are. Salt serves to improve the quality of life, that is the point of salt: it makes food palatable, sure, but in Jesus’ time it was believed to have medicinal and purifying qualities as well — it was a preservative, newborn babies were rubbed in salt, Roman soldiers were historically paid with salt (that’s where someone being “worth their salt” comes from), so it had an intrinsic value so far as it benefited others, but no further — if it didn’t serve to improve in some way, it was worthless.
Jesus says that we are the light of the world — are, not should be or could be or ought to be, are. Light illuminates, it serves to drive out darkness, to call attention to, to bring comfort from fear, awareness and knowledge and protection. That’s the point of light, to be a benefit to others. Hide it, obscure it in some way, and it becomes worthless.
Humans were meant for more than scraping by, day to day. We were meant for more than just working, paying bills, and dying. Our faith in Christ is meant for more than a personal panacea, a “get-out-of-Hell-free” card.
There are plenty of things to do, countless ways we can act to use our faith in Jesus Christ to make the kingdom of heaven a reality in the lives of others. We can and should feed the hungry, we can and should clothe the naked, we can and should welcome the alien in our midst, we can and should speak the truth to power and defend the powerless and bring the marginalized into the fold…
And no, of course, we can’t do everything. But, as Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred hungry people, feed just one.”
Do it immediately;
Do it with prayer;
Do it reliantly,
casting all care;
Do it with reverence,
Tracing His Hand,
Who placed it before thee with
Stayed on Omnipotence,
Safe ‘neath His wing,
Leave all resultings,
DO THE NEXT THING.
That is the point.