Sunday, February 09, 2014

Salt and Light

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
February 9, 2014

Year A: The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 112:1-10
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Mathew 5:13-20
Salt and Light
            I know it feels like Christmas just ended – like we just took down the tree and put away the decorations until next year.
            But, in fact, the holy season of Lent is just a few weeks away.
            Lent, those forty days of preparation for Easter, starts, of course, on Ash Wednesday, which this year is March 5. We’ll have three services here in church and I’m going out to McGinley Square at both rush hours to offer “Ashes to Go” to people who can’t or won’t come to church. Hopefully some of you will join me.
            Whether here in church or out on the street, the imposition of ashes with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” is powerful. It’s a powerful ritual that reminds us that we don’t have all the time in the world – reminds us that we are completely dependent on God who created us from dust and will not let go of us even when our bodies return to the earth.
            And then, throughout Lent we’re going to offer other services and practices designed to  help us have a better Lent – to make us more mindful of the ways we’ve let down God, let down each other and let down ourselves –and  to open our heats to repent, to ask forgiveness, and to be transformed.
            The services on Sunday will be different, with the confession right up front, some different prayers and more somber music.
            Of course, we’ll put away the word “Alleluia” until Easter.
            A friend has created Stations of the Cross for us, which will be displayed in church during Lent. And on Wednesday evenings we’ll walk those stations, reflecting on the rejection of God’s Son and the great sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.
            And, we’ll also be reading a powerful little book called Speaking of Sin.
            So, during Lent there will be a lot going on here.
            And, maybe, on top of all that, at least some of us will take on our own special spiritual practices during Lent. And what’s the most common practice during Lent?
            “Giving something up.” Fasting!
            Maybe that means giving up something extra like chocolate or wine. Some people try to quit smoking. I know some people who give up computer games or (can you imagine?) facebook!
            Why do we do this? Why do we sacrifice? Why do we fast?
            Well, like the ashes, fasting reminds us of our total dependence on God. Fasting reminds us of our many blessings. Fasting helps us experience in a very small way what life’s like for those who are forced to fast every day. Fasting cuts away some of the extras, some of the distractions, that weaken our focus on loving and serving God.
            So, these Lenten practices, especially fasting, are all good. And I hope that each in our own way, we’ll try to give up something, sacrifice a little, during Lent.
            But, it’s not enough.
            All our religious practices – our fasting, our walking the Stations of the Cross, our confessions – are worthless if they have no effect on how we live our lives when we’re out there in the world.
            If we give up chocolate and then go out into the world and live pretty much like everybody else, then God is displeased.
            It would be much better just to eat the chocolate.
            Today’s long reading from the Prophet Isaiah comes from what should have been a wonderful and joyous time in the history of the people of Israel. Many of them have returned home from exile in Babylon.
            Homecomings are usually times of great excitement and celebration.
            Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case here.
            The people seem to be doing everything right. They follow their religious obligations. The follow the rules. They fast.
            But, despite following all the religious rules, despite fasting, their country is still a broken mess.
            So, in confusion, they cry out to God,
            “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?”
            And God, speaking through the Prophet Isaiah, tells them why their practices, their fasting, have made no difference. God says,
            “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.”
            In other words, the people gave up whatever they gave up, they fasted, but those practices made no difference on how they lived their lives. Out in the world they lived pretty much like everybody else. And God is displeased.
            It would be much better just to eat the chocolate.
            And then, in one of the greatest passages of all of Scripture, God, speaking through Isaiah, describes the kinds of sacrifice God really wants.
            God calls on the people – God calls on us – to loose the bonds of injustice and to let the oppressed go free.
            God calls on the people – God calls on us – to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our home, to clothe the naked, to not hide from those in need.
            Or, as Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel lesson, God calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
            It’s hard to know exactly what Jesus meant by salt. In the ancient world, like today, salt was used for many things. It was used to season and preserve food. It was used in religious ceremonies. And, salt was also a symbol of purity and wisdom – which I’d guess is what Jesus is pointing us to.
            Light is easier to understand. Jesus is the light of the world. And we, his followers, are called to be the light – to let our light shine - in what’s an often dark and shadowy world.
            We are called to be salt in a world filled with suffering – filled with suffering people like the great actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who died last week enslaved by addiction.
            We are called to be light in a world filled with suffering – filled with suffering people who don’t know where they’ll stay tonight, filled with people right now, today, who don’t know how they’ll feed themselves or their families.
            Fortunately, just like we have ritual opportunities to pray and to fast, we have other opportunities to serve, to be salt and light in the world.
            First, every time we come into church the first thing we see are the bins waiting for food donations to hungry neighbors. We’ve been doing OK, but the truth is that a lot of us still come to church empty handed. The truth is, a lot of us go to the market and don’t pick up an item for the poor. The truth is we can do better. Let’s all be part of this work. Let’s all be salt and light for our poorest neighbors.
            Second, as I’ve mentioned before, faith leaders and others in Hudson County have begun the work of starting a shelter for homeless families. Right now, there is no shelter in our heavily populated county for families. If they enter a shelter they need to split up.
            Our second meeting is this Tuesday at 7:00pm at Grace Van Vorst. Come to the meeting if you can. Whether you can be there or not, let’s all be part of this work. Let’s all be salt and light right here in Hudson County.
            Finally, this Thursday, we have our first “Stone Soup” supper. We’re throwing open our doors to absolutely everybody – rich and poor and everybody in between is welcome. We need your help. We need food for the meal and help with the preparation. We need you to be here to welcome our guests. Let’s all be part of this work. Let’s all be salt and light right here at St. Paul’s.
            So, even if your Christmas decorations are still up, it’s just a few weeks until Lent.
            Here in church we’ll be offering all sorts of opportunities to pray and reflect.
            Some of us will give up something for Lent. We’ll fast.
            That’s all good.
            But, our prayer and fasting are worthless and displeasing to God if they aren’t matched by how we live our lives, if we don’t also strive to the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
            If we live like everybody else, it would be better just to eat the chocolate.