February 5: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for February 05, 2023 was preached in response to Matthew 5:13-20 based on the manuscript below.

We pick up this week
right where we left off last week.
We start in Matthew with a transition
from the Beatitudes,
Jesus’ blessings on
those society systemically casts aside.
Before beginning his ethical, moral teaching
Jesus tells his disciples
those who have already committed to following him
what their role is:
to be salt to the earth
and light to the world.
In our lives, and in Jesus’ teaching,
neither salt nor light exists for itself.
They add something:
some zest, some illumination
some extra goodness
like deglazing a pan
before you make a sauce with the juices.

Jesus’s followers,
his disciples
now the church
are meant to add value to the world.
Throughout our passage from Matthew today
Jesus isn’t talking to individuals
but to the plural you.
Let y’all’s light shine before others,
so that they may see y’all’s good works
and give glory to y’all’s Father in heaven.
Douglas R. A. Hare says,
“The purpose of [Matthew’s Gospel]
is to convince Christians
that a genuine faith in Christ
must be demonstrated in daily obedience
to the way of life he proclaimed.
Faith and ethics, Matthew insists,
are two sides of the same coin,
or the coin is counterfeit.”

Before he even begins moral and ethical teaching,
Jesus tells his disciples just how high the standards are to be
if they want to or claim to follow him.
“Unless y’all’s righteousness
exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,
y’all will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus is an observant Jew
who know just how hard the scribes, Pharisees, Essenes
and other groups
endeavor to keep the law and the prophets.
The righteousness —
justice, what is truly good,
striving for equality and mutual flourishing —
goes beyond cultic practice
and looking good.
This is a righteousness that God expects of all God’s people —
regardless of what religion they are.
This is the righteousness
that Isaiah calls to attention
in our passage this morning

“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?”

While the Pharisees have been oft maligned
throughout Christian history
they are the group who preserved Judaism
occupation and oppression after
occupation and oppression.
They’re presented as foils to Jesus in the gospels,
but they were faithfully following God
as best they understood.
Rather than look to another tradition
we as Christians and we as Anglicans and Episcopalians
can need to get our house in order.
From the smokiest anglo-catholic parish
to the plainest puritan one with clear glass only
it doesn’t matter how pretty, severe, or stark our worship is
if we’re not sharing our bread with the hungry,
bringing the homeless poor into our houses;
and covering the naked
it doesn’t matter.
If we’re avoiding eye contact
or staying in a bubble,
choosing not to learn about systemic racism
or housing policy
or mass incarceration
so that we can loose the bonds of injustice,
undo the thongs of the yoke,
let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke
we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

That’s why I love that this text
comes the week after the annual meeting.
Not that our house is a wreck
but we get to keep asking
how we’re feeding the hungry
and how we’re loosening the bonds of oppression.
The Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew writes about
isn’t some end of time celebratory reward
with pearly gates and streets of gold.
Jesus has proclaimed already in Matthew
that God’s Realm, the kingdom of heaven,
is at hand.
It’s here and now,
breaking in around us.
Those with no place in it
are those who are unmoved
by the needs of the world
and unconcerned by the lives of those
society systemically casts aside.

In this transition passage
from blessing those who are ignored
to seriously upping the ante for his followers
which we’ll start to read next week
Jesus tells his disciples, collectively
that they have to be adding something to the world.
Jesus is telling the church through time
that it does not exist for itself…
and as he calls for righteousness —
justice, what is truly good,
striving for equality and mutual flourishing —
that it does not exist
merely to save souls.

Jesus lays a framework for the impossible:
having more righteousness than the scribes and the Pharisees,
cutting out our right eyes if they cause us to sin.
Jesus, as he lays this framework, though
knows that it’s impossible for us to do on our own.
The passage from Matthew today
isn’t about earning our way into heaven
by being the best behaved
or the most effective, most observant, most active
social justice warrior.
It’s realizing that none of us is righteous.
Despite our best efforts,
only God is righteous.
It’s about realizing that our faith in Christ
is demonstrated by our attempts at righteousness
even when we fail.
Jesus’ teaching today is about doing our best
to loose bonds of oppression,
clothe the naked, feed the hungry,
and house the homeless.
It’s about being salt and light,
following Jesus
and adding something to the world.

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