Epiphany 5A (Feb 9, 2020)

Untying and hiding. The texts this Fifth Sunday after Epiphany put these concepts before us. Isaiah urges us “not to hide ourselves from our own kin.” Kin in Isaiah 58 are the people who live where you live. The text comes from a section most scholars call Third Isaiah. The Exiles have been back from Babylon for quite a while and now Judea hasserious problems. Our text tells of homelessness, nakedness, hunger. We get whispers of indentured service—people selling themselves due to insolvency. There’s a real economic and humanitarian crisis in Judah. Meanwhile, a significant portion of the Judean population is crying out, “Why do we fast, O God, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” The exiles had created fast days in the calendar. Each fast remembered a stage in Babylon’s defeat of Israel. The idea was that Israel must’ve sinned and God must’ve punished the sin with Exile. Fasting was meant as public (and genuine) contrition. We’re sorry. Please give us back our country. Now that they have their country back, they keep up the fasting, only, God does not seem to be fixing their problems.

            In Third Isaiah God says, “I’ve seen your fasts. You don’t do anything about the problems in your world!” Then God demands systemic change, getting at the roots of the problems. Untie the bonds of injustice. Untie the oppressed. Untie the enslaved. Don’t hide yourself from the problems. Do not pretend the system is fine. Do not persuade yourself that someone else will take care of everyone. Do not wish the problems would go away but do nothing about them. Those things are “hiding yourself from your own kin.” Untie, do not hide.

            Jesus comes at hiding and tying a little differently. Our text from the Sermon on the Mount has Jesus say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And, “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments will be called least.” Those words “abolish” and “break”, they translate words that share a root that means “untie.” Jesus says, “I’m not here to untie the Law. Whoever unties the law is least.” You get a sense of how the covenant ties everyone together.

These words can be hard for us Christians today. Two millennia of defining ourselves over against Judaism and the Law have made us think of the Law as bad. The fact that if Christians make the news today talking about God’s law they’re usually bullying someone does not help the Law’s image. For Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, the Law is not the problem. The problem as Jesus sees it is that the people are not keeping the Law. Jesus will say in Matthew 22 that all the Law hangs on two commandments, Love God, Love Neighbor. That is the point of the Law and there is nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong is that people are not applying themselves to that aim. The Law requires untying the oppressed and the enslaved, untying a system that hurts people. The Law requires not hiding from injustice. The Law—Love God, Love Neighbor—requires Love of God and Love of Neighbor. You’re not keeping it, at least not the part that matters. In terms of Third Isaiah, our problems come from not doing what we should’ve been doing all along. We’ve been hiding.

            Why do we hide? We hide because of shame. We hide because of shame. Shame can come from the way society talks about those who we are to love, or it can come from our own sense of failure at meeting expectations. Our society has expectations. You’re supposed to look a certain way (white), have money (but not too much), a respectable job (there’s no formal list, but we will be sure to tell you if your occupation fails to qualify), a nice house that is clean (but not like crazily so), be the proper kind of parent (very involved but not overbearing), and so on. Our culture shames you if you don’t fit. Dark skin? Shamed. Broke? Shamed. Job is not on the list? Shamed. House dirty? Shamed. So, sometimes, we hide from loving our neighbors because they’re on the shamed list. They aren’t normal enough. I think that’s going on in Third Isaiah: homeless, hungry, naked? Weird. Not normal. They probably deserve it. That’s got to be it. Can’t be anything else. Can’t be something that could happen to me.

And that brings us to our own sense of failure. It’s impossible to read the Law and miss all the requirements for caring for your neighbors, being fair, not allowing people to go destitute. Third Isaiah’s audience has got to know they have not done everything. This is not news to them. They have failed to meet God’s expectation of love God, love neighbor. If anyone asks, it may come out that they’re not among the “normal.” Who is Jesus’ audience in Matthew? Lepers, occupying Roman soldiers, sick mothers-in-law, weird guys living in graveyards, tax collectors, sex workers, the disabled, the hungry, and, eventually, everyone. These are not the “normal!” Nobody is. Jesus just kinda walks on the shame. He’s got stuff to do. He’s got no time for shame.

I think of these words in the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of pep talk. Jesus says to the Church: do not hide and do not untie the commandment Love God, Love Neighbor. You are the light of the world. You don’t hide a light under a basket. You can’t hide a city on a hill. Don’t hide yourself from the problems of the world. You are the salt of the earth. (That saying’s come to mean something else, today. Salt was a seasoning, a preservative, and was used in sacrifices to purify them.) Jesus is saying, You, my people, are what seasons the world. You make life on earth bearable. You’re what connects people to God. Own that. Embrace that. If Jesus was addressing Third Isaiah’s audience, he perhaps would say, “You, my people, are what makes life bearable for the hungry, the naked, and the homeless. Or, you’re supposed to be. Get out there and do it. Don’t flop around in sackcloth and ashes asking why your prayers go unanswered. Get up and act like people who God loves. You’ve got God’s Law for crying out loud!”

Again, today, Jesus says to the Church: do not hide and do not untie the commandment Love God, Love Neighbor. We may not think of our congregation as hiding. We’re Reconciling in Christ, we have a history of strong social ministry, we talk about social justice issues, we nag city hall, house those without homes. We don’t think of ourselves as hiding. Then this funny thing happened. We did our strategic planning process last fall. Within our congregation we discovered we’ve got energy but we’re a little anxious about whether we’re doing anything. We’d like to be more forward thinking. The ways we’ve reached out in the past haven’t worked lately, and we may need to recapture those ways or find news ones. Talking to members of the community we discovered that, yeah, we are known (to some) as a place willing to have faithful discussions of important social questions—especially around race, economics, and the LGBT—and we heard that the community needs more, far more than that, more from us.

For me, in terms of the Sermon on the Mount, it was like, we don’t think of ourselves as hiding, but how have we let a bushel basket hide the light of the world? Why isn’t that light on a lampstand? Where is the earth crying out for salt? And why aren’t we there with the salt? It would be really easy to respond with shame. We could feel shame at not having done what we had thought we were. Or we could project that shame onto others. But Jesus won’t allow that. He’s got no time for shame. Instead, he says, Don’t hide and don’t untie the commandment Love God, Love Neighbor. Be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”

I believe that’s what we’re trying to do with the focus our strategic planning team presented at the annual meeting. “Trinity Lutheran Church aims to be a place of God’s healing, for members and for the community. Especially, we aim to offer and facilitate God’s healing around issues of race and the LGBT in Greater Valparaiso. This healing may take place within our walls, or in the community at large.” This is where our community needs the salt and the light we carry. And, this process is just getting going. The congregation accepted the focus statement at the annual meeting just seven days ago. We’ll hear some about Valparaiso’s race story at Community Conversations later this morning. We’re a RIC congregation in a sanctuary denomination in a city that has tough race issues it doesn’t want to deal with. Don’t hide. And don’t try to untie the Law, either. It’s for those who need it, for those who do need untying. Be salt; be light.