"Be the Light"

Isaiah 58:1-9a

Matthew 5:13-20

You shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry for help and God will say, “Here I am.”

This good news comes with some conditions, however, that we should listen to in these days.

And these days are tumultuous!

What a week.

Ours is a faith that calls us to be involved in the world, to lift up our voices, to be involved in the common political life of our city, state, and nation as a way of seeking the good. Our civic involvement is one way that many of us live out our religious commitments.

So the intrepid among us Iowans began the week by heading out to the caucuses on Monday night.

I’ve talked with some of you about your experiences that evening, and in general they seem similar to my own. I was over at the West High gym along with several other Congregational UCC members and an additional—what, 560? —caucus-goers. We could sit on the bleachers, which was much better than having to stand for hours in the multipurpose room at Weber Elementary School.

I left West High sometime after 9:00 on Monday and went home to await the results.

I waited and I waited.

And waited.

We learned in the coming days that the problems were caused not only by a defective app but also by Trump supporters and internet trolls who inundated the phone line to keep results from being reported.

The media were upset because they didn’t get their story right away—so they talked instead about “chaos” in Iowa.

The Democratic candidates and other Democrats were upset and began calls for an end to the Iowa Caucuses.

Senators Grassley and Ernst disagreed, as did the President.

While quick to tweet that Monday was “an unmitigated disaster.” Always ready to point the finger of blame, he also tweeted: “It is not the fault of Iowa, it is the Do Nothing Democrats fault. As long as I am President, Iowa will stay where it is. Important tradition!”

It is reassuring to know that “Iowa will stay where it is.” I didn’t know that we had plans to move anywhere else—although if the hometown of the Kansas City Chiefs can become a part of Kansas, as the President also said, well who knows what is possible.

I think he was saying we’d still have the first-in-the-nation caucus.

Monday evening’s “unmitigated disaster” was followed by Tuesday evening’s “unmitigated disaster”—and while Speaker Pelosi didn’t use those words, her tearing up a copy of the State of the Union address immediately upon its completion certainly indicated her opinion of it. She called it a “manifesto of mistruths” and fact checkers pointed that it was filled with “stretched facts and dubious figures.”

This ongoing shredding of the truth and the tearing at the fabric of democracy should be of concern to everyone. We as a nation have grown weary of being lied to many times each day. We have come to expect it and we have grown numb. Jesus calls those who follow him the light of the world. And if we are serious about following him we will continue to let our light shine in the public square and in the halls of power.

Let your light shine so that the truth might become apparent even when shadowed by lies.

On Wednesday—well, on Wednesday, we knew what was coming, didn’t we? We knew that the President would be acquitted in his impeachment trial. We knew this when the Senate refused to call witnesses who could shine the light of truth on the events in question.

Then as the votes were being cast, as our own senators mildly criticized the president while voting for acquittal, Mitt Romney stood as a lone Republican, in a moving speech telling the nation:

“I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential…. I’m aware that...I will be vehemently denounced. I’m sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters. Does anyone seriously believe that I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?

He then concluded, noting our human finitude: “We are all footnotes at best in the annals of history, but in the most powerful nation on Earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that distinction is enough for any citizen.”

Romney was, of course, quick to hear, as he put it, “abuse from the president and his supporters.”

As Thursday morning dawned, the President took to the National Prayer Breakfast—a questionable event at best, anyway, but that’s another sermon—the President took to the National Prayer Breakfast, with its theme this year of Jesus’ commandment to love your enemies. Making it pretty clear that he had some questions about love and a clear sense of enemies, he both gloated over his acquittal and questioned the faith of Mitt Romney and Nancy Pelosi.

I liked the way Christianity Today reported on this: “‘I don’t like people who use faith for justification for doing what they know is wrong, nor do I like people who say “I pray for you” when they know that is not so,’ said Trump,” concluding, “who identifies as Presbyterian,” entrusting him, I think, to our sisters and brothers on Rochester Ave. and Camp Cardinal Blvd.

It was shocking, but not surprising.

It was out of line but not out of character.

Michael Gerson said: “At the prayer breakfast, some cheered and whistled for Trump’s bitterness and vindictiveness. Many evangelical Christians seem attracted to the least Christian elements of his appeal — his anger and his cruelty. They are encouraging the president to fight an enemy they have ceased to love.”

When we remember the connection of fasting and prayer, do not the words of the prophet come with the grace-filled judgment of God?

You serve your own interest on your fast day…

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to strike with a wicked fist?

Is such the fast that I choose,

a day to humble oneself?

Representative John Lewis was tasked with providing a benediction for all of this, which he did by video, as he is battling cancer. He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “I have decided to stick with love, for hate is too heavy a burden to bear.” Asking God to bring the country together, he concluded: “We must believe in one another. We must never give up on our fellow human beings.”

Hard and challenging and encouraging words in a tumultuous week.

Of course, you did not come here today simply to hear a report on the events of the past week.

You came to hear the good news so that you might live fully and faithfully in the week ahead.

So hear again those words of the prophet:

You shall call, and the Lord will answer;

you shall cry for help and God will say, “Here I am.”

As I said, this good news comes with some conditions.

The prophet calls the people to set aside their traditionally religious activities—prayer, fasting, and sacrifice—and seek the common welfare:

loose the bonds of injustice,

let the oppressed go free,

feed the hungry,                         

shelter the homeless

The prophet is speaking—as Jesus is—about righteousness, that is about doing those things that make for right relationships between people.

And, yes, we are well aware that our own righteousness has not exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees. It often seems that our righteousness doesn’t exceed even that of the Lutherans and Presbyterians. Our goodness is often far less than that of people who never darken the doors of a church.

Left to ourselves we would certainly be called least in the realm of heaven that Jesus announces.

But we have not been left on our own. 

The One who holds out a greater righteousness as our calling also offers the mercy and forgiveness of God. The One who tells us that the law of love is binding for us is also the One who has fulfilled that law.

Let’s be honest: when it comes to righteousness, all we have—and all we can offer to others—is the assurance that God still loves us and still makes it possible for us to love others.

So we take heart when Jesus tells his followers: “You—we—are the salt of the earth.”

We are called to be salt: to live out of the wisdom that life is both good and possible because it is a gift from God; to live out of the wisdom that there is no wound so deep in any person or in the world that it cannot be healed by the God who gives life; to live out of the wisdom that there is nothing you have done—or failed to do—that God cannot forgive.

Salt that has lost its taste was a figure of speech for being foolish. But Jesus speaks the good news that we are truly wise in a foolish and dangerous world—the salt of the earth. Our wisdom—our only wisdom—is Christ crucified and risen.

To know Christ crucified is to confess that God is present in the depths of human suffering. It is to find that God is made known to us in weakness, anguish, and despair that we often feel in these tumultuous day as much as—if not more than—in certainty and strength. It is to have a confident faith—or a doubting, struggling faith—that God is making something new even in the midst of great suffering and chaos.

To know Christ risen is to sense that we are a part of God’s new creation. And because we are part of God’s new creation, the work that we do continues to matter. In the resurrection we come to see that, as it has been said, the arc of the universe is long but that it moves toward justice, even though this world can at times seem so obviously filled with such evil and injustice. We trust that the ultimate direction of creation is toward God’s good purposes for all of life.

We know Christ risen when we see by faith that even at the moment of great suffering and death, God was at work bringing life—and by that same faith claiming that God continues to do so today.

Without the wisdom of Christ crucified and resurrected—the only wisdom we have—the church is no longer good for anything. If our message is something other than the healing forgiveness and new creation of God then we are no longer salt.

We are descendants of the great Protestant reformers who challenged empires and reordered societies. Our tradition has continually fostered important innovations in meeting social needs. Our tradition has produced powerful voices of prophetic judgment and has frequently given birth to great movements of moral protest and social change. We are the ones who addressed such issues as racism and civil rights, welfare for children and families, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the protection of the environment, reproductive rights and choice, hunger and homelessness and poverty in America, and the fundamental rights of LGBTQ people.

This is our tradition. Let us embrace its way of seeking righteousness.

Then, we are told, your light shall break forth like the dawn.

Then, we are told, you shall call, and the LORD will answer.

The prophet tells us, it is as we relate to the poor and the hungry, as we work toward peace, as we recognize the judgment of God on all of our actions that our light will break forth and healing shall come.

Be the light.