a sermon on who we are

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12 | Matthew 5:13-20

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The words of the prophet Isaiah read to me this morning like I imagine the trickle of a stream of water might sound to someone who has been thirsty for a long, long time.

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 you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.

How sweet it would be in this moment to hear God say, “Here I am.”

In our private pain and shame, in the brokenness of our loved ones, in our public fear and despair, how sweet for God to make Godself present, for God’s justice to be seen and heard and felt.

We have a lot in common with the community Isaiah is writing to. Like them, many of us know some things about God. We know that God calls creation good, that God makes humans to belong to each other. We know that God frees the people from slavery, and walks with them in the desert. We know that God promises to bring us to a better land. Like Isaiah’s community, we know all these things. But knowing them doesn’t seem to be helping a lot right now.

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Refugees cross the Mediterranean on an overcrowded boat.

There is so much suffering, and even though the people are praying and fasting, doing everything they know how to do so that God will listen, still nothing seems to be getting better. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” 

And the people hear God say,

Don’t you remember what kind of God I am, and what kind of people you are? This thing between y’all and I, this isn’t about transaction – it’s not ‘you fast, I fix stuff.’ You and I, we’re about relationship. You should know that I’m not about empty ritual and feeling sorry for yourselves. I’m working on this project of creating justice and peace, and I’m inviting you to work with me.

My guess is that these words wouldn’t sound like a new idea to Isaiah’s people – they probably felt more like a difficult reminder. After all, God has reminded the people all along – as far back as Abraham – that they are not God’s chosen ones so that life can be easier for them, but so that they might bear the blessings of God to all the earth.

How difficult it is, and yet how sweet, to be reminded who we are. Difficult and sweet. Like at Christmastime at my aunt’s house when I hear old stories of my childhood – now become family legend – that remind me that, like it or not, I’m not my own person. I belong to them, to the whole lot of them that helped raise me since birth.

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Spending time with cousins circa 2003. From left to right: Kellie, Adrienne, me, Colleen, Katie.

Or like the time when I really messed up and hurt someone, and disappointed myself, and a friend let me cry, and said, “It’s okay. You messed up. You are still good. I still love you.”

Or like when I despair at the world around me and at the immense and impossible task of working to make it better, and my community reminds me, “You are Erin: your life is meant to make a difference. And we are with you.”

Or like when the voice of Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

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Don’t mishear Jesus’s words as a command; they didn’t say, “Be the salt of the earth,” or “Be the light of the world.”

“You are.”

You already are. Salt couldn’t be more salty if it tried. And light couldn’t be more shiny, or less shiny. This isn’t about being anything other than the person God created you to be. But it is about believing that it’s you. About not hiding under lampstands, or behind well-crafted excuses, or under our fears of failure or rejection. About having the courage to act like salt even if it means someone might call you salty. About facing the fact that “letting your light shine” might mean illuminating a thing that’s hard to look at.

I want to tell you a story about someone salty in my life. I remember the first time I met Sarah. I was at a retreat with a lot of people I didn’t know very well, and I was feeling like I typically feel in those settings: a little vulnerable, guarded, anxious. But Sarah was none of those things. She was loud, and she made her presence known in the room… and she sang and laughed and danced at moments that I thought were completely inappropriate. I imagined that she might be one of those people who others talk about when they say “Her joy was contagious.” But it wasn’t contagious to me; in fact, it made me super uncomfortable. Something about her freedom, her willingness to let the whole room see her and hear her, and her not seeming to care if others thought she looked stupid… These things terrified me. They terrified me because they threatened to cut through the nonsense that I usually use to keep myself safe from judgement. Her courage to be unapologetically who she was stung like salt in a wound I had forgotten I had.

I’ve known Sarah for several years now, and over time, my relationship with her has become more like a pinch of salt in the recipe of my life. She brings out my natural flavors and helps me notice things about myself that were just under the surface. When I’m with her, I feel closer to the person God made me to be.

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I want to tell you another story about light. On Sunday mornings like this morning, I usually get up very, very early and my husband Josh is still sleeping as I get ready to come to church. I tiptoe around the room and nearly trip on my cats, and use the light on my phone to find my clothes and my purse because I know that if I turned on the light, Josh would groan like, “Ughhhhhhh” and squint his eyes and roll over all grumpy. I don’t want to turn on the light because no one wants to be that person, who makes the other person go “Ughhhhhh.” It can hurt to turn on the light, and it can be uncomfortable to be the person to do it!

There are lots of things we’ve learned about how we’re supposed to function in the world that will keep us from being salty and shiny. A lot of things that stop us from being the people God made us to be. We are afraid that people won’t like us. We are afraid to be vulnerable with one another. We are afraid to mess up. We are afraid of so many things. Even after an hearing an excellent sermon like Jesus’s one on the mountain, it is totally impossible to decide to just stop being afraid. We are incapable of doing it alone. The good news is that God promises to help us, and the way God promises to help us is by entrusting us to one another. We are salt together, or we aren’t salt at all.

And the better news is that together, our saltiness can do even more than add flavor to individual lives. Together, we can cultivate the courage to bring forward the mercy and justice that God is stirring into the world. We gather here every week to tell stories that are difficult and sweet reminders of who we are – and this is not for our own sake, and it’s not just because we like telling stories (although we do). We do this because the world needs us. The world needs people who know who we are, who know who God is, and who practice together not being afraid. The world needs ones who learn to work with God to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every. thing. that keeps us captive. Salt doesn’t make sense without food. And the work that God is up to, here on Sunday, in this room, doesn’t make sense unless it makes a difference out there.

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Jesus’s difficult and sweet reminder, “You all are the salt of the earth,” carries a clear emphasis in the original Greek. It should really read, “YOU all are the salt of the earth.” As in, it’s YOU! It’s not someone else. You Josh, you Sarena, you Laura, you Jaey, you people of St. Luke’s. Don’t sit back and wait! Don’t think it’s someone else’s job, or that you’re not good enough, or that you don’t know enough. God has made you.

Here in this place, God gathers you together, reminds you who you are, and feeds you. You are enough. Now, just be. who. you. are. Boldly, together, be who you are. For the sake of the world.

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