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Epiphany 5, February 6, 2011

Epiphany 5 RCL Year A February 6, 2011

Isaiah 58:1-9a(9b-12)
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
1 Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20

Our first reading this morning is from the prophet and poet we call the Third Isaiah. His or her ministry took place in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, between 538 and 515 B.C.E. During this time, some of the exiles had returned from Babylon, and others were in the process of returning. Those who had been home for a while, at least some of them, had achieved some level of stability and security in their lives. Others were poor, did not have adequate food or shelter, and were suffering. Scholars tell us that things were in chaos. The temple had not been rebuilt, there was violence in the streets and quarreling going on, and people did not reach out and help those in need.

Yes, there were fasts and prayer going on all the time. The peace and harmony the people had looked forward to when they first returned home under the reign of King Cyrus of Persia, had not happened. Now there was a new king and things looked bleak indeed. The people were saying, We are fasting and praying. Why is God not noticing us? Why aren’t things getting better?

Isaiah tells the people and us that our worship must create transformation in our lives and that true worship changes us: true worship causes us to “loose the bonds of injustice.” To “let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry and let the homeless poor into our house.” Isaiah tells us that, when our lives are congruent with our worship, that is when the light breaks forth like a new dawn. That is God’s shalom. That is the time when we know that God is very near.

Isaiah also says that when the people live lives of compassion, when they feed the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then their light will rise in the darkness, the Lord will guide them and make their bones strong, and they will be like a watered garden and like a spring of water that never dries up. Isaiah also says that their ancient ruins will be rebuilt, they will be called the repairers of the breach and the restorers of streets to live in. Isaiah is saying that the depth and quality of the people’s spiritual life is related to their material life, specifically, their ability to rebuild the temple.

There is so much in our lesson from Paul this morning. If we try to reduce it to its essence, he is telling his brothers and sisters in Corinth that conveying the message about Christ does not depend on intellect; it does not depend on exercising the intricacies of logic or the rules of rhetoric. The way he tries to convey the message is to live it, and that’s the way we are called to do it. Paul is not denying the value of intellectual activity or logic or rhetoric. He is saying that, as a preacher, he tries to stick to substance, not gimmicks. Fred Borsch, retired Bishop of Los Angeles, writes of this passage, “I remember being surprised in my seminary preaching class to learn that some of the great preachers of my Anglican tradition (for example, Philips Brooks), were not that gifted by our contemporary standards when it came to public speaking styles. It was substance and perhaps above all, who they were as believing Christians that allowed the Spirit to speak through them.” (Borsch, Proclamation 4, Series A, 1989, pp. 39-40.) This takes us back to that old saying, that we may be the only Bible someone reads.

The gospel is again speaking to this whole matter of living our faith. Jesus is not saying , “Try to be the light of the world, Try to be the salt of the earth. “ He is saying that’s what we are. Salt gives zest; in those days it was an essential preservative. Food would spoil without salt. Light is to be shown, not hidden.

What are these lessons saying to us? One thing, I think, is that how we live our lives, individually and together, is crucial. If I were going to try to sum it up in one question that we could ask ourselves, it would be: are we people of compassion?

There’s a lovely old hymn and prayer which was given new life in Godspell. It came to me as I was praying through these lessons. It goes like this: “Day by day, dear Lord, of thee three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

Amen

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