The Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
5th February 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
This season of Epiphany has treated us to a host of powerful readings.
Although the lectionary—the set of readings that we hear each Sunday during our worship services—is picked years in advance, it often seems like they were specially selected for just this moment in time.
Perhaps we might attribute that to the Holy Spirit, or just pure coincidence—regardless today’s readings are asking us to do one of the hardest, and yet most important things in the move from faith initiation to Christian maturity.
Transition from knowing to doing.
Take steps to put faith and belief into action, rather than hiding within the safety of a nominal affiliation.
From the prophet Isaiah, to Paul, to Jesus’ memorable Sermon on the Mount words in Matthew’s Gospel, the theme of faith’s purpose is front and center.
Paul urges the Corinthians, a group fractured by petty and personal disagreements and distractions, to remember that the living God has assembled them for a purpose—to proclaim Christ crucified…a proclamation that the world views as weak, but which Paul and generations of the faithful know to be the only source of true fulfillment.
Paul makes a strong case that this alternative, yet all-surpassing wisdom, does not arise from words alone, but primarily through actions.
“My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” Paul pleads with the Corinthians, a 1st Century echo of the contemporary saying “Actions speak louder than words.”
Paul will spend the rest of the Letter trying to highlight aspects of the Corinthians’ common life that reveal that they have not entirely bought into this concept …they claim belief in Christ, and yet they still maintain worldly social divisions at the Eucharist instead of sharing the gifts of God as one body.
The leaders lord their position over others rather than using their station to promote Christ’s example of servanthood, and though the Corinthian community has been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, its members are living as though very little has changed.
The new creation has not become real to them.
Isaiah uses even stronger language to call the people of Israel to task for a similar flaw.
Facing the Assyrian army’s invasion, and with the people wondering about why God seems to have forsaken them, Isaiah claims that the emptiness of their religious observance is a large part of the problem.
The outward form of fasting is there, but it is revealed to be superficial action designed to promote their own interests, rather than sacrificial, committed action that lives into the justice that God demands.
After listing the pious practices that many people think are what pleases God—the outward showiness of faith meant not to glorify God but convince another human that you are “in fact a religious person”—Isaiah speaks boldly of the necessary connection between authentic piety and liberating action.
“Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 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? 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.”
Isaiah is clear that empty words or observances do nothing to please the Creator and are met with divine silence from a God that has been pushed further and further away from our collective and individual hearts.
The only remedy is to “repair the breach,” to be done with false religion whose ineffective spiritual proclamations bear no fruit, and to forsake the “pointing of the finger, and speaking of evil’ within the community in favor of concrete actions to relieve the suffering of the world.
To borrow Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, “to be salt and light”— that doesn’t exist for itself alone, but has a purpose that benefits others.
To bring the greatest flavor into the world by interacting with all creation.
To shine in order to cast out darkness, rather than being content to simply protect and shield the flame of life we have been given.
The great mystery is that at first, living like this—living authentically—is harder than relying on the exterior forms of piety that communicate to others that we are “God’s people.”
Even though remembering when to bow and cross ourselves can seem like a challenge, or the rigors of a physical fast grueling, it is infinitely harder to surrender ourselves to the perpetual interior bowing of the heart and the never-ending fast from division and injustice.
Like the recently freed Israelites longed for the fleshpots of Egypt, we too often wish to flee the freedom and responsibility of the wilderness for the safety and simplicity of our previous slavery.
It is only partly my goal today to convince you that this is indeed the truth of things—Even though it is, and I know it to be so in the very foundations of my being.
In all honesty, it makes little difference if you or I know this.
It matters whether we LIVE it.
It matters whether being a part of this body changes the way we act, and it matters whether or not we are willing to risk being ridiculed, rejected, and in some cases, destroyed because of our commitment to living this truth out.
As much as my ego, or the church’s sense of its place in society always needs more people in the pews, the only reason this Body exists is to change the world into a place more like it was created to be, and more like the new creation that we have experienced through the grace of Jesus Christ.
And that mission requires thoughtful reflection, prayer, and wisdom…but these reflection, prayer, and wisdom put into action, and informed by it, not divorced from it.
Perhaps you are timid about putting your faith into action.
I know that one of the biggest deterrents for me to make the leap from religion of the head to religion of the heart and hands is the fact that I am always acutely aware of how imperfect my actions are.
I may care for this person, I may march in this struggle for justice, or love and forgive this enemy, but I know too well that so many aspects of my life fall short of fully integrating this principle.
And if I allow myself to dwell on that incompleteness—or worse, let it debilitate me to the point of not taking a step forward—then it becomes easier to “turn back to Egypt” and forsake the path that leads to freedom for a more manageable one that brings no life to others, and eventually no life to myself as well.
One of the most beautiful gifts of this journey of salvation in Christ is that our weaknesses…our debilities…do not prevent us from reaching the point where God is, unless we allow them to be the final word that keeps us from moving forward.
“God chose what is weak in the world to shame the wise” and Paul came to the Corinthians in “weakness and in fear and in much trembling.”
We have the grace of forgiveness and reconciliation when we fall short, and if Paul’s own life story of turning from active enemy of Christ to one of his most ardent supporters doesn’t convince you of this, look no further than the disciples who abandoned Jesus in his Passion later being employed to spread the good news throughout the entire earth.
God can use a willing worker, despite the deficiencies we may perceive within or the ones that make a life of faithful action seem daunting.
But our God has little use for empty piety or any kind of display of faith that does not lead to kingdom justice and life in abundance for this world God loves so much.
Spend some serious time today and this week reflecting on how you are called to act as a member of this new creation, and maybe more than simply reflecting, DO three things that may seem risky in order to put your faith into action.
I don’t want to say specifically what you should do, because God has gifted us all uniquely, and part of the joy of this transformation is about discerning our special gift and putting it into service for God’s kingdom.
But my experience is that our gifts are revealed most clearly through the doing, or at least in the interaction between faithful action and prayerful reflection.
And they become apparent especially when our actions are joined communally…when we “put away the wagging of the finger” and start recognizing and celebrating the giftedness in each other that we’ve witnessed in action.
So, dear people of God, have done with inaction and timidity…put your faith into action this week and join your actions with your fellow sisters and brothers.
If you do:
“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.”