Updated: Feb 10
Isaiah 58:1-9a; Ps 112:1-9; 1 Cor. 2:1-12; Mt 5:13-20
The Rev. Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain
February 5, 2023
Good morning St. Aidan’s.
Last Sunday I preached at Holy Innocents about Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount – arguably the greatest sermon of all time – covering the well-known and oft-sited Beatitudes. I had the opportunity to read Elaina’s sermon preached to all of you on that same Sunday, and I noted that Elaina stressed that the Beatitudes are instructions, directions, for how we are called to live our lives. Elaina noted that this is a countercultural message compelling us to action. I mentioned many of the same themes in my sermon last week, and I shared a writing from Karoline Lewis about the Beatitudes and what we can learn from them. She wrote:
“The Beatitudes are a call to action to be church, a call to action to make Jesus present
and visible and manifest when the world tries desperately to silence those who speak the
truth. The Beatitudes are a call to action for the sake of creating the world God
imagines. And these days, we need this reminder – when our imagination may be
limited. When our hope for the future might have been dimmed. When we think what
we do and what we say and what we believe does not matter.”
I mention all of this as background to today’s Gospel text, because I think what we’re hearing about today is additional teaching from Jesus about how, if you will, to “operationalize” the call to action that the Beatitudes represent. How to make Jesus present and visible and manifest, to use Karoline Lewis’ words. How to believe and hold onto to the conviction that what we do, as people of faith, matters.
So what does Jesus have to say to us about that?
First of all, he reminds us of our potential and how important that is. “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” With the simple and elegant reminder that we would never light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket, Jesus says “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works…” This is encouragement to follow our hearts and our convictions and to not hold back. It’s a reminder that we can indeed reach out in love to one another, and that this is what we are expected to do. We have everything we need. We are enough.
Woven through our texts today are also many examples of what this reaching out in love looks like. From Isaiah we have loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless inside, and clothing the naked. Psalm 112 writes of being generous in lending and managing our affairs with justice, also being merciful and full of compassion. It’s pretty clear what Jesus is expecting from us. There is no mincing words here. There are plenty of starting points, and lots of actions – large and small and in between – that we can engage to building up the beloved community bit by bit.
At the same time – it’s hard to remember these starting points and it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the world’s needs. Sometimes we get stuck in thinking that we need to find the perfect solution, the very most impactful ministry and the most efficient way of doing things - as we reach out to others. The problems of our world are huge, and so “loosing the bonds of injustice” or “letting the oppressed go free” seem like daunting objectives. And it’s true - they are. But I see us sharing bread with the hungry each week, in our food pantry. Nelson Barry, our neighbor who founded Urban Angels, has told me he considers St. Aidan’s his partner in collecting clothing for the unhoused people he serves. We’ve donated hundreds of books to prison libraries that have no funding. I hear us often pushing ourselves to think about what else we can be doing, even as we acknowledge that it is impossible to do everything.
The intention underlying what we do is the most important thing. Our intention is all about using our time and talent and treasure in support of God’s vision for the world. It’s about, as Paul wrote, “speaking God’s wisdom” and having a faith that rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God. It’s hard work to develop a way of life that follows God’s teachings, and it’s not what our culture rewards or honors or even talks very much about. How many of us, in describing a ministry or a bit of outreach to someone in need, have had someone ask “Why do you want to spend your time that way?” or “Doesn’t visiting lonely people depress you?” or “Isn’t it just too hard to see so many people in need?” Our commitment is not always understood, or valued. Society often does not share our intention.
But the good news, friends, is that we have God to lean on as we journey onward. As the words of Isaiah put it, “Then you shall call, and God will answer, you shall cry for help, and God will say, here I am. God will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong, and you shall be like a watered garden like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” That’s powerful guidance and it never goes away.
And also - we have one another. We are in this work together. One of my favorite writings about this, which I’ve probably shared before, is by Randall Balmer and goes like this, “What sustains me is a sense, or at least the hope….that I am not alone on this pilgrimage, but I am in the company of friends who will pick me up from time to time, dust me off, and point me in the right direction….What sustains me is the conviction that the journey brings its own reward, regardless of the destination, that holiness is somehow imbedded in the process itself.”
These texts have caused me to reflect on a relatively new ministry we’ve engaged at St. Aidan’s over the last year – the ministry of working with Habitat for Humanity on Amber Drive. We’ve volunteered 5 times since the project started in March 2022 – about every two or three months. The themes I’ve mentioned so far – our potential as people of faith, the fact that there is always a place to start in ministry, the importance of our intention in what we do, and our guidance from God – are all over the place for me as I think about our Habitat work. We’ve helped to build a fence at the site, as well as wooden stairs enabling volunteers to climb from floor to floor. We built and painted tables for volunteers to use at lunchtime. We cut back bushes. We built walls. There’s been a lot of moving lumber from one part of the site to another and then back again. On one memorable day, Gilbert and I sorted pails and pails full of all kinds of different nails. I have to admit that my least favorite day was spent taking apart framing that had been incorrectly done by another group. That was discouraging.
But here’s the thing – we have been contributing – in a small way – to creating 8 new affordable housing units in a city that has priced its working poor out of their homes and communities. We have been a little part of social and economic change in our neighborhood. We’ve committed our time and our intention to an issue that we know would break Jesus’ heart – the issue of housing inequality and insecurity. We may not have thought we could do much – but we took a deep breath and climbed tall ladders and tried our hand at nail guns and drills. We were there because we care about justice. We were doing what we could. And that is what we’ll keep doing. Living into the vision that Jesus intends for us –the vision of being the light of the world and letting our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our God in heaven.
What could be more important?
I’d like to close today with a prayer of thanks to Jesus, the great teacher who shares with us so much wisdom and helps us find our way. It’s from a book called Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community. It goes like this:
You praised work more than words,
Foundations more than fashion.
May we find our foundation
In the work of love;
True and human and holy.
Because love is the only foundation
Worth building on.