A Reading from the Book of Isaiah (58:1-12)
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. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “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. 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. 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? 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. 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. 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.
Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!
2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; *
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
3 Wealth and riches will be in their house, *
and their righteousness will last for ever.
4 Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.
5 It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.
6 For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.
7 They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; *
their heart is right; they put their trust in the Lord.
8 Their heart is established and will not shrink,*
until they see their desire upon their enemies.
9 They have given freely to the poor, *
and their righteousness stands fast for ever;
they will hold up their head with honor.
A Reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians (2:1-12)
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (5:13-20)
Jesus 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. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In 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. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For 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. Therefore, 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
There is an anonymous poem that goes:
There was a very cautious man
Who never laughed or played
He never risked, he never tried,
He never sang or prayed.
And when he one day passed away,
His insurance was denied,
For since he never really lived,
They claimed he never really died.
People love clear-cut contrasts: light against darkness, good against evil, absolute truth against absolute falsehood. They love to identify with fictional heroes battling a malicious enemy: Luke Skywalker vs. the Sith, Harry Potter vs. Voldemort, Katniss Everdeen vs. the rulers of Panem. Even in their religious life, they love to sing songs about battling the forces of darkness, clinging to the cross as they pour out their all. They like to imagine the church and themselves within the church as warriors in some great, cosmic struggle.
But that image is just as fictional as those fictional book and movie characters. Have they ever looked at the real church as it exists in its many forms and in its countless local congregations? Except maybe in parts of the world where being a Christian involves literally risking your life, the greatest enemy of the church and of churches is not some overwhelming force of evil. The greatest enemy of the church and of churches is blandness.
For more than half a century, churches in general have been going through a time of significant transition. As they have, they have come to ask themselves some very basic questions. One of them that comes up often asks: “If your church were to close its doors today and go out of existence, what difference would it make to the community around you?” Other than another “For Sale” sign in the neighborhood, would anybody even notice?
That’s a sad thought. But even sadder is the answer that many churches would have to give to it. Many churches in different denominations, including our own, make little or no difference in their community and in the world beyond it. Their attention is consistently directed inward: focusing on programs and events for the sake of their members, ensuring that those who come there each week have a nice, enjoyable, comfortable experience. If they ever do anything for the people outside their church, they look on it as a nice add-on, laudable but not necessary.
That approach to being a church contrasts sharply with Jesus’ description of our responsibilities as they are reflected in today’s gospel reading, part of the great Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus insists: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”
Salt makes a difference. In one form, it is an essential part of our diets. In another, we need it to melt the ice on our steps and walkways and roads. If you ever have a small cut or crack in your skin and it comes into contact with salt, you know it – it never goes unnoticed. Salt makes a difference.
The same is true with Jesus’ other image: light. Light is essential in many ways. When we find ourselves in the dark or even in a place where there is not sufficient natural light, we immediately reach for a light switch or grab a flashlight. Light makes a difference.
Salt and light make a difference; but do we, and do our churches?
I believe that this church does. You, the members of St. Mark’s, make a difference. You have a positive impact on people’s lives in this community and beyond. Not only do you support and participate in church-sponsored ministries, but many of you have found other ways to live your faith throughout the week, offering your time and talents and efforts in touching people’s lives, in making the world a better place, or – to use gospel language – in building up the kingdom of God.
Certainly it’s important for us to nurture the bonds that join us together with one another in this faith community. Certainly we need to continue to pray, work and play together. But if we stop there, we are ignoring our call to be salt and light, we are ignoring the mission that God has entrusted to us, we are ignoring the very purpose for which we exist.
We want our light to shine, but we cannot do that by keeping to ourselves, as comfortable and comforting as that might be. Instead, as our reading from the book of Isaiah (58:1-12) describes our call from God, “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.”
A church that is living the gospel is a church that is salt and light: a church that is making a difference. That is what the world needs, not just another nice, social group that is closed in on itself.
And that is what many younger adults are looking for. In talking with those younger adults who have come to be part of St. Mark’s over the past few years, I have found that one of the main reasons that they have come here, along with the warm welcome that they have received, is the focus of this church on going out and serving the community. They want a church that makes a difference and in which they can make a difference.
And there are many other people, young and old, out in our community, who just might want a faith community like that as well. But we can’t just sit back and hope that they find their way to us. We have to find ways to reach out to them and invite them. And by “we,” I don’t mean just the rector and the vestry; I mean all of us.
Jesus, in our gospel reading, reminds us that we do not exist for ourselves alone. We do not come together as a church just because it provides flavor and light to our lives. Instead, he insists, “You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world.” It is for the sake of that world that we have been called. It is for the sake of that world that we have been sent: to make a difference, to be the world’s salt and light.