Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Feb 9, 2020
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matt 5:13-20
If we have ever thought that Christianity has superseded Judaism as a superior religion, or that Judaism is based on an Old Testament God of judgement but Christianity is based on a New Testament God of mercy, then today’s lectionary readings should correct this misunderstanding. There are countless passages in the Old Testament that speak of God as full of tenderness and compassion, calling not for sacrifice to appease an angry God but for justice and kindness to flow from a merciful and forgiving God. Last week’s lectionary reading from Micah was one of them and today’s reading from Isaiah is another. They are based on an underlying principle in Judaism called “tikkun olam” meaning mending of the world. So the Jewish story goes, when God gets up in the morning, God calls all the angels together and asks them, “So where does the world need mending today?” They are then sent off on their mission for the day. Tikkun olam—a beautiful Hebrew phrase.
The reading from Isaiah suggests that God isn’t interested in how faithful we are with our prayers and religious observances, such as fasting. God is more concerned about how the rubber hits the road—how our faith is lived out in the world. If we work towards justice in this world for the poor and the vulnerable, then our light shall break forth like the dawn and our healing will be quickened. If we offer food, clothing and housing to those who have little, then our needs will be satisfied; we will be like a watered garden; a spring whose waters never fail.
These were the scripture passages which Jesus loved. And that’s why he said that he did not come to abolish the Jewish law or the teachings of the prophets. Rather, he came to fulfill them. What he taught was directly in line with these passages, not in opposition and not entirely new. His teachings were not as radical as we might think. Rather, they were fully in line with the liberal Hillel School of Jewish thought in his time.
Jesus’ teaching about us being the salt of the earth and the light of the world guides us in how we might live out Isaiah’s teaching about justice. If we simply go through the motions of prayers and church attendance without our heart being in it, we may find our spiritual life becoming a bit bland. We may not feel we have anything to offer the wider community. Our salt has lost its flavour.
Jesus wasn’t saying that prayer didn’t matter. He prayed an awful lot. Rather, he was saying that our religious practices must be accompanied by faithful actions or they are meaningless. Richard Rohr tells a story about St. Francis of Assisi, who was struggling with a divided call. He felt drawn to contemplation and retreat in nature and yet he also felt drawn to ministry amongst the poor. He asked two soul mates to pray for him and guide him. Sister Clare and Brother Sylvester did so over the course of a few weeks. Without speaking to each other, they both arrived at the same advice: Francis should spend time alone in prayerful meditation and time immersed in ministry.
Apparently, Francis jumped up in excitement about this inspired advice. Indeed, he later found that contemplative time sustained his service to others and helped him not become cynical or angry. It helped him find God amidst the pain, confusion and disorder of the world. For Father Rohr, this is the greatest art form—to dance while standing still.
I have found that the opposite of contemplation is not action, but reaction. Contemplation and meditative prayer help me respond instead of react. In the heat of the moment, careful response, rather than kneejerk reaction, is very difficult and yet crucially important. Many of you here are my teachers in this, as I have watched you do this very well. To be the salt of the earth means to offer a prayerful, loving response to difficult situations. It is to put our faith into action.
To be the light of the world is to make our action public. As we are considering becoming an Affirming Ministry, we are learning that it is not enough to simply be affirming. We have to make our Affirming stance public so that others know this is a safe place to be. Since we have begun publicizing our educational events, I have noticed that more LGBT people are beginning to attend. As we let our light of affirmation shine, we will be offering a beacon of hope to those who have been shunned from other churches.
At the very moment when I wrote these words last Monday, an email came in from John Longhurst with the Free Press. He is writing an article about a group called Church Clarity, which helps people know if a church is clear on its website about being welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ+ people and being open to women using their gifts in leadership. Westworth has been publicly evaluated on their website as clear about having an egalitarian policy for women in leadership. However, it is evaluated as unclear in its policy of affirmation for LGBTQ people. That is accurate, because we are going through the Affirming process right now and have not yet made a decision as to whether or not we want to be publicly Affirming. But until we make this decision, we are being publicly evaluated as unclear and therefore unsafe. This email from John Longhurst reminds us that letting an Affirming light shine matters.
Archbishop William Temple wrote “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” We sometimes think that the church is becoming irrelevant in today’s society. But that is not completely true. Many people are still looking at church websites and evaluating the type of ministry the church offers. How many of you who have been here for less than a year checked out our public profile on our website or Facebook page? Our public persona matters.
Our mission, as the hands and feet of Christ, is to take our ministry into the world, where we might be able to reflect the light of Christ into some of the darker places. But our effectiveness as light-bearers is only as effective as our ability to shine Christ’s light into our own areas of darkness. Every one of us has shadows that elude the light of Christ.
That is why contemplative prayer is so important. It gives us the courage to look deep inside ourselves and identify the darkness within us. Parker Palmer calls this process “reading our inner landscapes”. Another writer suggests, “We cannot bring the light of Christ to others if we are unaware of where that light needs to shine in our own hearts.” Once we have the courage to look at those dark places within, we will better understand the darkness around us. We might even become a little less judgemental!
When we look deep within, it will also take courage to identify those internal places of light. Every one of us has sources of light shining from within. Love, concern for others, gifts of service—each of these bears light. Once identified, these sources of light beg us to remove the bushels under which they are hidden. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross writes, “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” We each have this interior light, but some of us keep it so hidden, even from ourselves, that we cannot see our own beauty shining forth.
Marianne Williamson wrote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Lent will be upon us in a couple of weeks. I am hoping that all of us in this congregation will be able to find some contemplative time for yourselves. We are giving up meetings for Lent so that we will have a wee bit more time to indulge in spiritual nurture—whatever that looks like for you. We have workbooks available in the narthex that will take you through the gospel of Matthew, with a short reading for every day during Lent accompanied by questions of reflection. I encourage you to pick one up and try this as a Lenten practice of spiritual nurture. I also encourage you to consider joining a small group for the 5 weeks of March where you can reflect with others. There are a variety of times and days listed in the narthex. Choose one that fits your schedule to meet once a week for 5 weeks. It will help you get to know others in this congregation a bit better and it will allow you to learn from the wisdom of others. We are all on similar and yet different journeys and we have much to learn from one another.
My prayer is that, as we take up the Lenten Challenge of contemplation, we will find a little more pizzaz in our saltiness and a little more brilliance in our shine.
 Charles James Cook, “Pastoral Perspective for Matthew 5:13-20” Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1, p. 336.