Sunday, February 5, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 24:59; sermon starts around 33:58)
When you grow up as the oldest kid in a single parent family – like I did – you tend to end up taking on a little more responsibility than the average kid does, earlier in life. You have to learn how to do certain things around the house in order to help out. In our house, one of the things that I learned to help out with was cooking. I wasn’t always very good at it though. I don’t know if you know this, but it turns out that food actually tastes a lot better when you follow the directions! Who knew?
Thankfully, I usually wasn’t in charge of making the whole meal – just helping. Usually what would happen was that Dad would call home from work after my siblings and I got home from school and he’d give us instructions for getting supper started before he came home. It was usually simple stuff, like buttering bread for garlic bread or chopping vegetables for a stir fry, or sticking a pan of lasagna in the oven – nothing terribly complicated.
One day when I was in maybe late elementary school or so, Dad called home and asked me to put a pot of water on to boil for spaghetti – a very simple request. So I dug the great big pot out of the cupboard and I filled it with water in the sink and I set it on the stove and cranked up the knob to high heat. And that was it. It was sort of anticlimactic. Even as a kid, I really liked helping, so I wanted to do more than just stick some water on to boil. So I got out the dishes and set the table. And I went up in the cupboard and got the big cannister of spaghetti noodles and set it on the counter next to the stove so that they’d be right there, ready to go, whenever Dad got home.
But as I stood there, watching that pot (which hadn’t boiled yet), and looking at those noodles, I started to think, “Well, this is silly. Why would Dad only have me boil the water? Surely if he trusts me to heat up water to boiling hot, trusting me to stick some noodles in a pot should be no big deal, right? So without consulting Dad – or the instructions on the packet of spaghetti itself – I did what my heart told me to do and dumped an entire fistful of spaghetti noodles into that pot of lukewarm water…
Have any of you ever had spaghetti that got added to the water before it boils? I can’t recommend the experience. The spaghetti kind of goes a bit wavy and super mushy like ramen noodles that have been nuked into oblivion. It gets so soft and gross that it’s hard to even strain the water out of it. And that was what we had for supper that night: tomato flavored spaghetti mush – and thankfully also some garlic bread that I managed not to ruin, haha.
What can I say? I’m only human – and I was a small human at that – and humans aren’t always the best about following directions. We’re not always that vigilant or excited about following the rules, because, let’s be honest, most of us don’t like it when other people try to tell us what to do – even when “people” is God.
We recognize the value and purpose of rules and laws, of course; it’s not that we’re all secretly anarchists or anything like that. Following the rules is like eating your vegetables or going to the dentist. It’s not really fun, but you do it because that’s what you’re supposed to do as a good adult. And as a kid, you do it because your parents said so – and you want to make your parents happy (or at least happy enough not to ground you). Likewise, when it comes to God, we try to do our best to live in the ways that God has taught and commanded us to live because, of course, we also want to make God happy with us. We don’t want to make God have to eat mush for supper.
But our readings for this morning actually challenge this thinking a little bit – they invite us to think a bit differently about the laws and commands we receive from God.
In our first reading, from Isaiah, God is speaking and acting out this little conversation with the people, and in God’s voice, we hear the people complaining, “Why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?” In other words: ‘Look how good we’re being, God, when do we get our gold star?’ And in exasperation, God replies, “Look. You serve your own interest on your fast day.” You have managed to make this rule-following all about you. This is not “the fast that I choose.” The fast that I choose is this:
“to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house, to cover the naked when you see them, and to show up and be present for the people who need you most.”Isaiah 58:6-7
These are the teachings and expectations that I have for you. And, if you do these things,
“then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly… you shall call, and the Lord will answer… 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 as bright as the noonday.”Isaiah 58:8-10
God is telling the people: “This isn’t about trying to score some kind of holiness points with me. If you do what I ask – as the prophet Micah phrases it – to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly – then you yourself will flourish. This law is for you. It’s not about you. But it’s for you.”
This sentiment is resoundingly echoed in our psalm, where the psalmist writes:
Happy are they who fear the LordPsalm 112:1b, 3-6a
and have great delight in God’s commandments!
Wealth and riches will be in their house,
and their righteousness will last forever.
Light shines in the darkness for the upright;
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.
It is good for them to be generous in lending
and to manage their affairs with justice.
For they will never be shaken.
Following God’s law – living as God has taught us how to live – isn’t about keeping God happy. It’s for our benefit – it’s what enables us to truly flourish. Central to the law are the commandments to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves – so the law is constantly directing our attention outward, away from ourselves and toward those around us. The law continually calls us to examine how well we are living out our call to love others as God has loved us. And, counterintuitively, it is exactly this attitude of looking outward toward others that enables us to grow most fully into our whole selves – into being the people God calls us to be. The law is for us – it’s not about us, but it’s for us.
So knowing this, it makes all kinds of sense in our gospel reading when we read verses 16 and 17 back to back, where Jesus says: “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 not come to abolish them, but to fulfill.” In other words, I have come to help you live into the way that you have been called – because God hasn’t given up on you.
And I love the metaphor of salt that Jesus uses here. He says to us, “You are the salt of the earth.” The properties of salt are unique and valuable – especially in the ancient world – nothing else on earth is salty like salt. If something is salty, it’s only because it has salt in it! Salt preserves food like magic, and it brings out a world of taste in every flavor that it touches. Salt shines simply for being what it was meant to be.
Likewise for us, when we live as we are meant to be, we shine. When we live as God has called and commanded us, it means we live a life that is full of flavor and light. It is an intentional kind of living that gives to us and to others a foretaste of the feast to come – a taste of something much more than a bowl of tomato-flavored spaghetti mush.
We are each called to live this way. And, crucially, we are also all called to follow this way together, as one body. One nuance of this text that we lose in the English translation is that all of the “you”s in this gospel reading are actually plural. Jesus says: “Y’all are the salt of the earth” – and “Y’all are the light of the world.” He is speaking to us as the church, calling us to let our collective light shine, to be an entire shaker of salt for the earth. Jesus calls us together as church to be agents of peace and justice and love in the world. He calls us to live fully into who we are by giving ourselves away as bread for others – so that, together, full of salt and light, we may become a feast: the body of Christ poured out for the feeding and healing of the world.
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