SERMON: 5 Epiphany A 2 9 20
The other day I was at the gym and speaking with a friend I'd met there. She uses the elliptical machines and I use a treadmill, so we're often in adjacent rows of equipment. She said she'd driven by the church this week and enjoyed the message on our sign on the corner of Mansion and Hamilton. The message came straight from our Gospel today: Let your light shine to glorify God.
Many times since we came to Poughkeepsie I've been surprised -- and always delighted -- by people mentioning our sign on the corner. I must admit that I was taken aback when I came here, though: I thought it was pretty "in your face" for an Episcopal Church, to have such a bold statement on the corner. But I have come to appreciate the sign and I enjoy putting faith messages on it.
The friend who mentioned it said she liked the message. "We really enjoy the increasing light this time of year," she observed. We had a little chat about the increased light lifting our spirits. It happens that this friend is Jewish. She and a couple of other people who have become friends at the gym practice that faith to different degrees but all three identify as Jewish. And they are the ones who ask me what I'm talking about on Sunday, who marvel that we use the Hebrew Bible, who talk about issues of faith and morality with me at the gym.
I think they are letting their light shine, each of them. They're interested in spiritual things and morality in general. At the gym! And we have great conversations, however brief they may be.
When we discussed the sign and the Gospel message and the light reference I mentioned that our readings include light references in the psalm and the Isaiah reading, both Hebrew Bible texts. I really don't know, only because I haven't asked, how Jews feel about the appropriation of Hebrew texts and Jewish traditions in Christianity. But I think when they learn that we use them and we credit them they are gratified. Credit given where credit is due.
It seems to me their light has been shone to the world longer than ours has.
This thought caused me to reflect on when I was doing chaplain training at the Veterans Administration hospital in New York City. To be very blunt about it, the Jewish patients were always more ready to talk, to discuss their fears, to consider counsel from a Protestant chaplain, than any of the other patients. The Protestants wanted one of their own stripe and the Catholics would just be civil.
And that's just fine except that it makes my point a little stronger: Jews have more experience with this light business in faith than we do. Their interest in engagement, in opening up the subjects of faith and looking at them squarely is a delight. And that brings to mind another parallel.
Do you remember at the Annual General Meeting late last month when I announced my retirement? I mentioned that Nora Smith, the diocesan canon for transitions, had remarked that St. Paul's is a church that has its act together, pretty much. And that a church that wants to call a bright-eyed priest needs to be bright eyed itself. By implication she was saying we are such a church. Bright eyed. And what is it that makes eyes bright? That would be light.
The three readings today that mention light take it in different directions. I love the way Isaiah said it. Isaiah hears God telling him to name the failings of the people and let them know God is not pleased. God observes that the Israelites delight to know God's ways, then adds almost sarcastically, "as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God."
The reading continues with a few more examples of the failures of the people, then tells it like it really is:"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?"
In light of this summary of God's will for us our own devices and desires seem feeble at best. Of course those are the things God wants us to do. What were we thinking?
When we do what God has in mind wondrous things happen. And what's the first thing? The reading continues, "Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, 'Here I am'."
God is communicating with Isaiah with such clarity that we are provided a second rendition of the prescription: "If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord 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. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in."
Our light shall rise in the darkness. Does that make you think of anything, anything like the early signs that, once again, the sun rises? And this time of year it rises earlier each day, noticeable each week. We are told we will have our light shining forth like the dawn, shining in the darkness, our gloom being like the noonday. And with that light God will guide us.
And what means for us is that we do not need to be afraid of living into our faith fully, naming it and proclaiming it and sharing it where we can. And we do that, according to Isaiah, by loving our neighbor in the ways Isaiah described.
The image of light is picked up in our psalm as well. It declares in verse 4 that "Light shines in the darkness for the upright; the righteous are merciful and full of compassion. It is good for them to be generous in lending and to manage their affairs with justice."
The psalm continues describing the faithful: "For they will never be shaken; the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance. They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; their heart is right; they put their trust in the Lord." Then we are given clues on the disposition of the faithful, characteristics we might try to emulate.
In the Gospel Jesus talks about light, as well as salt. His light discourse is very persuasive; how many of us have kept our light under a bushel? How many of us have passed up an opportunity to shine in faith? I dare say all of us.
Jesus tells us "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. He goes on to declare that the Ten Commandments still apply and we should follow them. We should use the light we generate in faith to read and remember them and to set an example for faithful people everywhere.
How we generate that light and what we do to enlighten our surroundings and the people within them is very personal. Just as I said I thought the sign on the corner was a little "in your face" when I arrived in Poughkeepsie, so now I realize that the times have changed and people have expectations of more visible signs, literally and figuratively. Perhaps that gives us a little license to consider and plan how better to let our respective lights and our collective one shine. Canon Jeanne Person, the Bishop's Canon for Pastoral Care, came to see us a couple of years ago was very positive about the sign. She declared it street corner evangelizing, and I took that very much to heart. It reminds faithful people what we're about here at St. Paul's. It reminds them, too, that we do this to glorify God, not ourselves or our church. And it lets others know that we are here for them if they would like to learn and experience the special joys of faith. Amen
A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY Feb. 9, 2020,
by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector