The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 6, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 58:1-12Psalm 112:1-101 Corinthians 2:1-16Matthew 5:13-20

By Bruce G. Epperly

Today’s lectionary passages join contemplation and action. Encountering God emerges in healthy relationships, in doing justice and letting our light shine, as well as through prayer and worship. Faithfulness is always, to some extent, countercultural, inspired by a vision of reality and ethical practices that are typically marginalized and de-emphasized in the larger social context.

The prophet Isaiah’s words indict believers both then and now for our failure to hear God’s presence in the cries of the poor. Worship and acts of piety will actually take us further from God if they are not rooted in sensitivity to the needs of the vulnerable and to a commitment to social justice. In words obviously addressed to the “haves” and to the powerful, Isaiah asserts that religious life must include both social justice and personal generosity. Injustice in the social order is rebellion against God. Faithfulness involves our time, talents, and treasure, but it also involves the polling place. We can’t spiritualize phrases like “loose the bonds of injustice” or “let the oppressed go free” or “break every yoke.” These are clearly the prerogatives of governments and businesses, not merely a matter of individual behavior. They call us to seek the “peaceable kingdom” in the affairs of commerce and state, local, national, and global. Contrary to certain TV personalities, this passage affirms that the “social gospel” is essential to faithfulness and spiritual growth. From Isaiah’s perspective, anything less than governmental justice-seeking is “rebellion” against God.

Those who do justice will experience God’s light breaking forth in their lives. They will find healing and wholeness. Openness the pain of others and participating in the well-being of others opens us to new and life-transforming possibilities. When we go beyond self-interest, God is able to bring greater light into our lives. A larger self is more open to divine wisdom, energy, and power. In contrast, self-interest without care for others may lead to a famine on hearing the word of God, even in our houses of worship.

Psalm 112 continues the theme of the interdependence of justice and spirituality. Those who are just will have greater strength of character, confidence, steadiness of purpose, and courage. Their justice-seeking and commitment to acts of kindness and generosity deepens their spirits and roots them in God’s protective care.

I Corinthians 2 contrasts worldly wisdom and spiritual wisdom. God’s power is known through the cross not erudite language, cleverness, wealth, or coercive power. The cross points out that salvation comes through divine suffering and intimacy with the human condition, not coercion. In the same sense, the Spirit is not coercive but moves gently through the world and our lives, guiding, protecting, and nurturing, and giving us a vision of God far different from that of the Caesars and their followers, then and now.

Those who follow the Spirit – who open to God’s presence in the margins of life and with humility – intuit the mind of Christ. They receive the guidance they need to face conflict and persecution with God’s wisdom. They speak words of Spirit rather than self-interest or violence.

Yet, how do we open to the Spirit? There is no one path, but surely this involves a moment by moment intentionality to step aside from self-interest, egotism, and high control: such behavior lets the whispers of the Spirit come to consciousness. This is not a matter of passivity, although it may involve waiting; but active openness to let God’s voice speak through our experiences. It is attentiveness to the Holy, constantly asking for spiritual awareness in every situation and then aligning our spirit with God’s Spirit. We do this in many ways – prayer, meditation, hospitality, and acts of service in which the distinction between self and other, helper and helped is overcome, and we discover that we are all one within the many-faceted body of Christ.

Those who open to the Spirit become both salt and light. This is a matter of intention as well as grace and gift. One of the great affirmations of faith is “you are the light of the world,” the same words used to describe Christ and that Jesus uses to describe himself in John’s Gospel. God’s light is constantly shining through the prism of our experiences; God is touching us with wisdom and healing in every moment and encounter. Divine wisdom touches us with moment by moment possibilities for faithfulness.

The light of God is for our warmth and illumination, but also for the well-being of the world. Like the sun, our identity is our mission; there is no distinction between who we are and what we do; our shining blesses us and the world. We experience God’s illumination, rejoice and enjoy its presence, and then let it flow through us, giving light and guidance, healing and salvation to others. God’s deep presence and our self-creation are joined, as we become lights to the world, answers to the prayers of others, and God’s agents in healing the world.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.