We begin today’s readings looking at this passage from Isaiah. God is talking through Isaiah here and being very clear. Following the laws is not enough. Doing the required fasting, worshiping, honoring God with worship is simply not what God is wanting. No, instead, Isaiah tells us, “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?” To quote one of my favorite commentaries, Feasting on the Word, “Acts of religious piety …. are meaningless when they are divorced from acts of justice and righteousness….. Worship style and practice are not what pleases or offends God, according to Isaiah. Worship … and practice are … not the measuring sticks by which the people of God will be judged. They will not restore or preserve a relationship with God in and of themselves.” No, again, instead the people are called to do justice, to live out their faith in concrete ways that go far beyond worship.
Andrew Foster Conners tells this story, “One year during Holy Week, a few Christians from well-endowed congregations in a major metropolitan area spent a night with homeless friends on the street. They were looking for the suffering Christ in the lives of those who spend their days and nights suffering from hunger, disease, and rejection. It was a chilly night, and rain rolled in close to midnight. Looking for shelter, the handful of travelers felt fortunate to come upon a church holding an all-night prayer vigil. The leader of the group was a pastor of one of the most respected churches in the city. As she stepped through the outer doors of the church, a security guard stopped her. She explained that she and the rest of their group were Christians. They had no place to stay and were wet and miserable, and would like to rest and pray. Enticed by the lighted warmth of the sanctuary, she had forgotten that her wet, matted hair and disheveled clothing left her looking like just another homeless person from the street. The security guard was friendly, but explained in brutal honesty, "I was hired to keep homeless people like you out." As the dejected group made their way back into the misery of the night, they knew they had found their suffering Christ, locked out of the church.” (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.)
Then we come to the Corinthians passage. And it tells us that each person’s own spirituality, own relationship with God, own commitment to living out his or her faith and own experience of the divine is what’s important. It isn’t knowledge or education. And while in the Presbyterian Church we put educated (way too educated in some cases) clergy up here so that we are teaching “correct theology” this is counter to this passage in 1st Corinthians, which emphasizes that what is important is how your faith affects your LIVING. What do you experience from the spirit? How do you live out that experience of being touched by that spirit?
And finally we have the Matthean passage, which must be read in its context. Jesus tells us in this passage that he is here to fulfill the law and that not one stroke of a letter of the law will pass. But it is followed immediately by the passages that we will look at more fully next week…The passage immediately following begins, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart….“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” And "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” So Jesus says he has come to fulfill the law, but then he describes what that means as something far deeper than the simple rules that were written. He describes the law as the enactment, again, beyond any rules, beyond any pietistic commitments to simply follow a set of instructions, of caring for the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed – responding with love even to our enemies, of taking everything a step further from simply following laws into doing everything in our lives with a commitment to love and action.
The words in these three passages are different. Isaiah emphasizes justice over empty worship, Corinthians passage emphasizes experience over wisdom. Matthew emphasizes that Jesus coming is not destroying what faithful people were taught but embodying it in actions of love. The words may all be different, but the message is the same – our faith must be about more than a Sunday morning ritual. It must be about more than just following the laws as they are laid out in scripture. It must even be about more than just going through motions of doing what we believe God lays out for us to do. Our faith must CHANGE us, and change us DAILY. It must be something that we embody, all the time. It must affect, most especially, how we interact with the “least of these” – the poor, the marginalized, the rejected. To quote Connie Schultz, “How we treat those who can’t force us to be kind says everything about who we are as people….How you wear your advantages reveals your character.” It also reveals your faith. Is it something real? Is it something that challenges you, shakes you, makes you better than you were? Do we serve God by coming to church? Or do we serve God by acting with love and justice? Do we live out the commandments of God by sticking to rules? Or do we live out what God calls us to live by doing our best to love, serve, and care for God’s people in every way and at every opportunity that we can?
Again, “It is our choices (our actions!) that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” And in this case, it is the choice to be a Christian – every day, and with all that we are and do, that determines who we are. We sing “they will know we are Christians by our love’ and we are called to be different, to show a different way of being in the world, by that love.
One day a terrible fire broke out in a forest - a huge woodland was suddenly engulfed by a raging wild fire. Frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. As they came to the edge of a stream they stopped to watch the fire and they were feeling very discouraged and powerless. They were all bemoaning the destruction of their homes. Every one of them thought there was nothing they could do about the fire, except for one little hummingbird. This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up some drops of water and went into the forest and put it on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again.
All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, "Don't bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is tiny, it’s only a drop, you can't put out this fire."
And as the animals stood around disparaging the little bird’s efforts, the bird noticed how hopeless and forlorn they looked. Then one of the animals shouted out and challenged the hummingbird in a mocking voice, "What do you think you are doing?" And the hummingbird, without wasting time or losing a beat, looked back and said, "I am doing what I can."
That is what God calls us to do. To let go of the results and to just live the life of love, which fulfills the law by going above and beyond it. We do what we can, we do what is in front of us. We live out of love. Our faith gives us the strength to do that. Our experience of God gives us the joy, gratitude and desire to serve with all that we have and are. Our call to follow Jesus gives us the model. And above all, God’s sustaining love gives us the love to shine and spread and live out in all we do. Amen.