The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 5, 2023
Letting our light shine
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450
This portion of Matthew picks up immediately after the Beatitudes and is part of what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. In this part of his gospel we have the longest set of teachings from Jesus. Scholars believe that Matthew has woven together several teaching events into this one big statement of the essential theology of Matthew’s community as they received it from Jesus and the apostles.
The statement “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven,” often catches people up short. That does seem like a pretty high bar doesn’t it? Well maybe not. The Message translation reads “Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.” The Pharisees were focused on following the letter of the law and I remind you of Jesus’ answer to the question what is the greatest commandment? To love your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. On these hangs all the law and the prophets. Jesus has a different idea about being righteous.
Now I want to pause for a moment and take a slight diversion from the central theme of this sermon which is about bearing the light of Christ into the world. I take this diversion because of a source of division that is raising its ugly head in our world. I want to focus for a moment on Jesus’ statement that I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law. Over the past months and actually years we have seen a rise in antisemitism. This is a particularly dangerous schism in society ad it is on the rise here and in Europe. We have seen this in the news recently. This is just one of many types of hate that seem to be on the rise in our country. Some doing it in the name of Jesus and I am sure these types of hate make Christ, God and the Holy Spirit weep for humanity.
This passage is one very potent antidote to the problem. Many who feel negatively against our Jewish friends think that Jesus came to overturn Judaism. I’ve had people say to me, “We don’t need the Old Testament. We have Jesus and the New Testament. That’s all we need.” But that is not true. You cannot read the New Testament without understanding the Hebrew Scriptures. Please remember Jesus was Jewish for his entire earthly life. He was trying to push them in a different direction but he never condemned Judaism. The practices of the temple came in for criticism but not the faith. Jesus was building on what had come before, not condemning it or overturning it. This passage teaches us that very clearly. Love is what Jesus is teaching in this passage.
Jesus wants more than legalism. Jesus wants a law of love. The Pharisees were all focused on personal piety and ritual. Jesus was focused on what we did in relation to others. Pope Francis said “You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian. You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25,” which is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger.” This goes well beyond personal piety and demands that we love our neighbor as well as God. This is how we make the kingdom come right here right now.
This my friends is the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy and a very important lesson. Orthodoxy is what the pharisees were focused on. Orthodoxy means the correct belief, following doctrines, rules and regulations. Thinking in the approved way. Orthopraxy is right actions. To be righteous in that world meant to be in right relationship with God and Jesus is saying that this means acting with the love that Jesus shared and showed people. In the gospel of John in the final discourse after the foot washing he tells the disciples that people will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.
I learned about the concept of orthopraxy from Fr. Richard Rohr. He speaks of the Franciscan alternate orthodoxy. Francis taught people that God cares more about what we do than what we believe. Salvation came to the world not through the cross but through Jesus’ incarnation. This is a different way of defining salvation than the standard teaching of the church but is accepted as an alternate way of looking at salvation and one that I believe has much to offer for us.
St. Francis is reported to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times, use words only when necessary.” Francis meant that our actions speak louder than our words and Jesus in just a few verses later in Matthew will tell his audience not to be like the Pharisees who do not do what they demand everyone else does. Our baptismal promises remind us that this is fundamental to our call as Christians. One of the question is: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of Christ?
Now with all that in mind let me read the central portion of our gospel in the Message translation:
Message 14-16 Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. 15 If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. 16 Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.
If we are light-bearers Jesus isn’t going to hide our lights but put it out there for all the world to see. I’m reminded of Presiding Bishop Curry’s famous line, “God didn’t put you on this earth just to breath in oxygen!” Well Jesus doesn’t make us light-bearers to hide inside our building. He sends us out to do the hard work of spreading the gospel, by being the gospel. My final blessing each week is a reminder of this and is known as the Franciscan Blessing. It’s all about sharing the light of the gospel with a world that needs it.
Pastor Steve Garness-Holmes wrote this reflection on the light passage earlier this week.
Einstein told us:
matter is just energy holding still.
Light is the energy of God,
which is love moving.
“Let there be light,” God said,
and you were conceived.
You are love made matter,
Word made flesh,
the light of God, the light of Being,
momentarily here in this form,
shining, radiating God.
You don’t need to produce it
or generate it. It’s who you are.
When you are truly yourself
The world sparkles
with people walking around gleaming.
Even on our deathbeds, we glow.
Trust your light. Give thanks.
Open the shutters of your lantern.
What Pastor Steve is saying is that not only do we have a light to shine but we are light. We are called to share that light. I know people who don’t think they have a light to share and they put a basket over it. Yet their light does shine out through the weavings of the basket. You really can’t keep it in. Open the shutters on your light and let that God given light shine brightly in the darkness or our world.
We are called individually and as a congregation to be a light, a beacon standing on a hill calling all people who desire to know the love of God, even if they do not know that they are looking for it. Even if they do not believe that God loves them no matter what. But that light only really shines when we walk out the door each Sunday and take it out into the world. That is our mission that is why we really exist. To spread the light not put a basket on it.
Is what I’m asking seem risky, well it is. Jesus warned the disciples that they would face rejection, but to shake the dust off and move on. So take this little light of yours and our combined big light in the world where so many sit in darkness. That is our mission, that is our call.