“Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, . . . give us that liberty of abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. . .”
Freedom, liberty, abundant life – all mentioned in the Collect for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, with which we began our worship today. Freedom, liberty, abundant life. Sounds much like the words that frame the purposes of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, the two founding documents of our democratic republic.
They are the ideals that are woven through the history of our nation, ideals that have not always been upheld or implemented without flaws. But from one generation to the next, we keep trying, we press on as imperfect people striving always to do better the next time as we face the challenges that inevitably will arise, either from our own actions or inaction, or the actions of others towards us.
Perhaps it might be stated that what we most hope for is the unity of our people. Our unity, however, whether it actually was ever a reality or just a myth we’d like to believe, is presently being strained. There are strong disagreements among our citizens over issues of immigration, healthcare, economic policy, race relations, gender equality, environmental protections, education . . . well, just about everything it seems.
The disagreements have flared up between neighbors, and friends, and family members – in face-to-face conversation, letters to newspapers, and on the Internet. No segment of society has been immune to the arguments, not even the church. Well, well, what a surprise! Well — not really. All of us will never think totally alike, see the world in exactly same way, or react to events around us in a completely identical manner.
And yet, the call of our faith as disciples of Jesus is to always seek unity among ourselves and God’s people throughout the world; with Jews, and Buddhists, and Christians, and Muslims, and Hindu, and those who profess no faith at all; a unity that can flourish and endure as we seek not to win arguments or score political points, but to orient our lives towards the higher purposes of God. While we sometimes disagree as to how that is to be lived out, there is no denying that the People of God have always been called to care for others, especially the poor and the marginalized, the outsider and the refugee.
Among several statements of Jesus that the Gospel passage for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany (Matthew 5:13-20) places before us is Jesus’ appeal to the eternal nature of God’s commandments. Jesus said to his disciple, “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.” It is a prophetic call to fulfill what God requires of God’s people. We hear it in today’s reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 58:1-12). The people were living in a time of extreme unrest as they struggled to rebuild the religious institutions and monarchy that had been wiped out by a foreign enemy. They were dutifully observing the religious rituals, but God was not pleased. God was not pleased for their faith was devoid of social justice, of any real action or affect. Their rituals, their faith, were empty shells – nice looking on the outside but devoid of any substance inside. There were cracks not only in the walls of the temple, but in the foundations of society.
Those who had adequate resources to live on were caring for no interests but their own. Workers were being exploited; injustice was rampant; food and clothing were withheld from the poor. Through the prophet Isaiah, God reminds the people that faith is not what we think or how often or in what manner we worship. Faith is how we actually view and treat others as brothers and sisters – brothers and sisters worthy of respect as children of God. If we act on the commandment to love God and to love others, then we “shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” Our crumbling foundations shall be rebuilt and we “shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Building up, not breaking down, is what people of faith are called to do.
Quite simply, true disciples make a difference in the world. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus declares. Salt is necessary for life itself, for without it our bodies cannot sustain themselves. For thousands of years of human history, salt was necessary to preserve foods that could be stored and eaten when scarcity arose. It also enhances the flavor or palatability of foods, bringing both enjoyment and necessary nutrition. Jesus’ disciples are to preserve and protect those things that are life giving, and also to season life with wonder and enjoyment and what is necessary for a healthy life.
And what else does Jesus declare? “You are the light of the world.” It is light that brings forth new growth. Light that exposes what is hiding in the shadows and which is opposed to the goodness of life. Fear and anxiety often result from that which is unknown and unseen. The light of truth must shine brightly in order to drive away ignorance and misunderstanding.
And so disciples, Jesus says, are to be both salt and light of the world. If salt loses its saltiness, however; or if light is kept so hidden that it fails to shine outward, then we are of no value or consequence to the world. It is a true saying that Christ is counting on us, and despite any political or social differences among us, we have to be able to count on each other. Let us remember that Jesus never sent his disciples out alone, but sent them in pairs, sent them with companions with whom they could learn together, pray together, and break bread together.
Did they always agree on everything? No. Look no further than Saints Peter and Paul, whose disagreements and sniping at each other are recorded in the writings of the New Testament. What ultimately became important were not their own viewpoints. What became their source of unity was the freedom they both found as sinners – sinners for whom Jesus was willing to be crucified so that they might receive the divine forgiveness God. What sealed their partnership as disciples of the Gospel was the abundant life they received when God liberated them from thinking that they had to have all the answers to life’s troubles.
Is there anything that miraculously will make all the differences among us disappear? Of course not, but will our need for one another, and God’s call for us to work together, ever end? Never!
I am not saying that we should forever put all politics aside. What I am saying is that we strive to put the Gospel first, and in all else to have the humility to see in one another the fullness of the image of God.
“Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, . . . and give us that liberty of abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. . .”