Today, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Laurelhurst. Here is the sermon I shared.
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Isaiah 58:1-9a (“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice”)
Psalm 112:1-9 (“They have given freely to the poor”)
I Corinthians 2:1-12 (“we speak God’s wisdom”)
Matthew 5:13-22 (“You are the salt of the Earth” and “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.”)
There are many ways of being good, of being righteous. There is visible good and invisible good. The first, the visible good, includes things we do for others in the public eye: philanthropy, piety, going to church, public service. The invisible good Includes things we do in private: anonymous gifts, daily prayers, living simply so that we have more for charity. Jesus makes fun of the Pharisees for practicing their piety in public, for doing good works so that they will get credit from others. We must do visible good somestimes, of course. How else can we set a good example? Most of our life is lived in public, after all. And yet, Jesus tells us this kind of good is already rewarded – Just about half a page after today’s gospel line: “let your light shine before others.” It’s a little confusing, a little contradictory, but I think the message is clear. We must do good for the sake of doing good, without thinking too much about what it does to our image, or even thinking about what it will do for spiritual health. One benefit of Christianity is that, at its best, it frees us from thinking about ourselves at all. We do what must be done. Raise your hand if you’ve heard this sermon before. Excellent. It’s a good sermon and worthy of repetition, but today I want to use it as a jumping off point. I want to remind you that it is difficult sometimes to figure out the good. Even Jesus gives us measured words for a balanced approach to the good. Doing good takes work, first to find the good: praying, reading scripture, talking with others, and, of course, paying attention to whether the good we want is the good we accomplish. When you have the time, I encourage you to sit down with the Sermon on the Mount. Read chapters 5-7 of Matthew in one go. We can only read so much in church, and it’s easy to view it as a collection of little advice, one anecdote or parable or rule after another. If you sit down with the ten commandments, and read it beginning to end, you will see a pattern. Jesus is giving us commentary on what it means to fulfill the law. The law says: don’t commit murder. Jesus says: love one another and avoid anger (5:21-26) The law says: don’t commit adultery. Jesus says: respect one another; do not treat people as disposable objects. (5:27-31) The law says: don’t swear falsely. Jesus says: only speak the truth. (5:33-37) The law says: don’t steal. Jesus says: do not stop others from stealing from you. (5:38-42) I promise you that’s in there. We don’t talk about it much because it’s rather uncomfortable. Jesus goes on to say: don’t even bother owning things in the first place. (6:19-34) Yup. That’s in there, too. Just as with the visible and the invisible good, most Christians recognize a need for balance. Jesus tells us to use our talents wisely “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (25:14-30) To be honest, I think our society has strayed a long way toward personal ownership, and we need more common goods to balance that out. Still, I am not going to sell you on radical poverty or pure socialism. Neither one seems to work quite as well in practice as they do in theory. Doing good can be a challenge. So, we think about it, both alone and together, and try to work things out. The balance of the day relates to what I’ll call “the grand good” and “the modest good.” The grand good is a societal or long-lasting good. We want to eliminate poverty, create just governments, use clean, renewable energy, and end war and slavery. More concretely, we want to reduce unemployment, get health care for everyone, pollute less, reverse climate change, and get out of the conflicts, we’re already in. Grand goods are noble and worth fighting for, but we can only make very small, incremental change. Because they are so big and so important, we cannot achieve them alone, or quickly. The modest good is the little good we do day to day. We feed the hungry, visit the sick and lonely, speak kindly and positively, tell the truth, and treat all property our own, others, or no-one’s with the respect due to God’s creation. When Jesus calls you salt and light, he means that it is in your very nature to do these things, to do the modest good. We are most fully human, when we act, daily for the daily betterment of all. We do not blame Jesus for failing to bring down the Roman Empire (though many of his contemporaries did). We do not blame Paul for failing to condemn slavery (though some theologians do). We recognize the balance of striving for the greater goods, while actively and continuously doing the modest goods. This is key to Christianity. You are not responsible for the world. God is. We give thanks for the light that came into the world, for the gradual working out of truth, peace, and justice. And, whatever you may think of the overall historical trend, we have much to be thankful for just now. Historically, war is at an all-time low, and appears to be declining decade by decade for at least a century. Worldwide, illiteracy has dropped from 85% to 15% since 1800 and continues to decline. Poverty is much harder to define and measure, but estimates of people barely making it, look similar, dropping from 40% to near 10% just in the last 20 years. In the US, despite the media frenzy, violent crime has been declining rapidly for 25 years. Rape, gun violence, and police shootings all show consistent improvement. To trust in God does not mean we stop fighting for these things, but it does mean we can live with the struggle, leaving the results up to God. Jesus was obedient unto death, not because death was good, but because God asked. Jesus gave himself into human hands to achieve a reconciliation between God and humanity. And God made that reconciliation happen, though not in a way anyone would have imagined. So, we give thanks for grand goods, we work for grand goods, and we accept that, in the long run, they are God’s to achieve Meanwhile, we are responsible for the modest goods. We are responsible for the homeless man on our stoop, while we fight to end homelessness everywhere. We are responsible for having honest, open, caring conversations with people whose positions we detest, while we fight for a more civil society. We are responsible for voting, persuading, and speaking out while we fight for a government that represents us – and represents our values. I know I am not alone at being frustrated by American politics. It is always hard when the country is divided. It is hard for any group, struggling to come to a common idea of who they are. It is hard for people who feel unrepresented, and for leaders who do not know how to best represent the people. It is always disappointing when the powers of the world seem to align so poorly with the Spirit of Christ. But this is the time when Christianity is most important. I know that Danae has mentioned the feast of Candlemas, or the Presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple. On February 2nd, we remember a young Jesus being brought before the community and offered to God according to tradition. We remember Simeon, an old man who was inspired with these words: “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” Simeon gave thanks that he had lived long enough to see the promise of a savior fulfilled. I think we, too, can give thanks, if we remember three rules: First, give thanks for good in the world, above all for Jesus Christ, whose life and message is slowly working out God’s plan for us. Give thanks for the obviously good, but also for the confusing, challenging, and frustrating. Saint Augustine has this to say. “Faith tells us only that God is. Love tells us that God is good. But hope tells us that God will work God’s will. And hope has two lovely daughters: anger and courage. Anger so that what cannot be, may not be. And courage, so that what must be, will be.” We can give thanks for anger and courage, even when we are sad they must be used. Second, work for the grand good whenever you can. Keep your eyes open for the Savior, and what God is calling you to do for the whole world. Fight as though the world depended on it. The world depends on your fighting. It does not depend on your succeeding. That’s God’s job. And God will make of your fighting a more amazing future than you imagined. We must have patience, creativity and humor to live in that tension. Third, work small works of modest good here and now, today, tomorrow, and the next day. Act quietly, patiently, invisibly, and diligently for justice. Love one another. That love does not change the world. It is the world. The Spirit of God is that very life and light that moves between us when we love one another. We are the Kingdom of God, here and now. Jesus brought that into the world, and I am thoroughly grateful. “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.”