Tom's Sermon: February 6, 2011

Isaiah 58:1–12
False and True Worship

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 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?
7 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?
8 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 rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 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.
11 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.
12 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.

Psalm 112 VU Page 834
Matthew 5:13–20

Salt and Light
13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The Law and the Prophets

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Not to Abolish, But to Fulfill
We were on a walking tour of Bath, England, soaking up the local history, when our volunteer guide pointed out the number of bricked-up windows. Evidently in the past, officials decided that windows were a luxury item so property taxes were influenced by the number of windows one had. People quickly reduced taxes by bricking in their windows. In a similar way, some friends who had been visiting in Mexico recently had observed the number of buildings that seemed to be unfinished, with rebar sticking up on top, and other signs of incompletion. Upon inquiring, they learned that property taxes were not imposed until development was complete.
When there are rules, people will often abuse the spirit of the rules while literally obeying them. That is the problem that is facing God in dealing with us. Our Isaiah reading talks about the people following the rituals of worship but not living as God would have them live. Such worship, Isaiah proclaimed, is worthless. People have to put away blaming others for their problems and get on with what God wants us to do:
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.
Isaiah 58:9b-10

When moving into a congregation that has had problems, one thing that has to be removed is – in the words of Isaiah – the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil. Nobody is ever completely at fault and nobody is ever completely innocent when there are disputes. Instead of concentrating on hurts and faults, we have to concentrate on what we are being called to do as the people of God and what gifts each brings before God in the carrying out of our high calling as Disciples of Christ.

Unlike today when doctors recommend salt reduced diets to keep blood pressure down, salt was used as a preservative for thousands of years before refrigeration. I can remember seeing pork bellies piled up awaiting curing, completely covered in salt like a child’s wagon covered in snow after being left out in a blizzard. In a similar way Newfoundland cod was dressed down in salt to keep it from going rancid on the along sail across the Atlantic.

Jesus, 2,000 years ago was thinking of the preservative power of salt when he said:
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
Matthew 5:13

We are called to have the purifying power of salt in our world. If we have no impact on our community and on our world, it does not matter how beautiful our worship, we have lost our saltiness.

Then comes Jesus’ reference to the Law (Torah) and the Prophets. Most people thought it was impossible to live according to all the restrictions of Torah, but here Jesus is saying he came to not abolish, but to fulfil. This seems rather ironic, in that the Church, under the urging of St. Paul, decided that new converts to the faith did not have to follow Torah. Both Jesus and Paul taught the importance of living according to the Spirit of Torah, not the specific rules of Torah.
In the Spring of 1970, the leaders of the Catholic Youth Group, and I as the leader of the Hi-C group, thought we would do something different. We would hold a joint weekend camp. This was a time that I had one family refuse to go to their daughter’s wedding if she married her fiancé in the Catholic Church. Because it was something new, and because we had no common experience of working together, the we leaders developed a whole set of rules that were well understood ahead of time. We held the camp, with the normal testing of limits, but it was such a success that the next fall we formed a joint group that we labelled the UCY, which was a conscious pun meaning two things: United Catholic Youth, and the statement You See Why we are meeting together in Christ’s name.

As we approached the next spring, it was assumed that we would have another camp, but the camp ground we used the previous year had been sold to the YMCA and was no longer available. After some research we leaders chose what was then known as the Juniper Lodge, near Lacombe. It has a small lake, a swimming pool, meeting rooms and we could book a block of six rooms, three on each floor right above and below each other so we could have late night discussion in the middle rooms with only our own empty rooms on either side, thus leaving other guests undisturbed. The kids were shocked, initially, at a church group booking into a motel for a weekend, because that had a different connotation for them, but they got over that. On the last meeting before our camp, remembering the long list of rules we had be previous year, one of the youths asked about rules for this year, when we had teen aged drivers, and were booked into a motel. Our response was that we had been meeting together for a year and everyone knew the expectations, so we did not feel it was necessary to make a bunch of rules. I think a couple of them felt almost disappointed because it was impossible to test the limits of the leaders when the limits were in their hearts. We had a terrific weekend, with no problems.

That is something like it is with God. While the people of God were learning what it meant to follow God, there were lots of rules. However, with Jesus, people came to know God’s powerful love in such a way that they wanted to live as God would have them live. That is why Torah was set aside and a living relationship with God, as revealed in Jesus took its place. It was predicted by Jermiah:
31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Jeremiah 31:31-33

As we break bread and dip in the wine, may God’s rules be written on our hearts that we may live them as we go about our daily routines so we may be known as “salty Christians”, who fulfil our calling as God’s people in God’s world.