Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany, Year A

February 5, 2023

Isaiah 58:1-12                     Psalm 112:1-10                     1 Corinthians 2:1-12                        Matthew 5:13-20

          Last Sunday it was the prophet Micah who challenged the people of Israel “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  Today it is Isaiah whom God directs to “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.”  He accuses them of serving their own interest and fasting for their own gain, then asks them a series of questions:

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?

Much of what the prophets write can be viewed as a court trial. 

The prophet serves as the prosecutor presenting the charges against the people of Israel who have violated their covenant with God.  Their covenant with God is later summarized in the Bible by Jesus when he declares the two great commandments: “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.  And the second it like onto it, thy shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets.” 

I use the King James version here because we say it at the beginning of our Rite I services each Sunday.  It is an apt reminder of what God expects of each of us – and of what most of us fail to do from time to time.  Isaiah again asks questions, these questions flesh out what “loving our neighbor” is to look like:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to lose 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?

In short, caring for others who are less fortunate than us is how we glorify God, how we love God.  If we choose to respond to God’s call, Isaiah then says:

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.

Isaiah, being the prosecutor, offers them a deal.  Repent and care for others, truly care for them, and the charges will be dropped.  There is hope for the accused.  Their sins will be forgiven and punishment averted if they change their ways. They will be able to call upon the Lord, and the Lord will answer, “Here I am.”

          For me, this passage from Isaiah cuts deeply.  Reading the paper this past week I read about Memphis and people’s cries for justice, I read about the war in Ukraine.  I read reports of women in Afghanistan being banded from attending universities.  The number of mass shootings in our nation and the violence in Palestine and Israel have become so common place that I could preach on injustice every Sunday.  Yet, I honestly don’t know what I can do or say that will make a difference.

But then I read about “The Van,” a ministry to the homeless in Little Rock.       What I read prompted me to go to their website.  Here’s an excerpt from their “what we do” page:

We visit current homeless camps, search for new camps, comb alleyways, check under bridges, and seek out people deep in the woods, etc. We take supplies such as food, water, clothing, and hygiene products to people where they are. The One, Inc. seeks to build relationships with members of the homeless community so that we may then identify barriers to obtaining income and housing, and help our friends move beyond their homelessness. We are dedicated to be relational, as opposed to programmatic.

In addition to a van stocked with supplies that includes sleeping bags and tents, The Van now operates a farm which helps fund its organization, feed people, and offers work.  They operate emergency shelters during extreme cold weather by renting spaces for people to sleep inside, albeit on the floor, it shelters them from the cold.

The words of the prophets are often ignored, still they continue to call upon the people and us to heed their warnings and change our ways – to notice and care for those who are suffering.  It is easy to overlook what is happening elsewhere, and it is easy to overlook what is happening right here in Batesville. 

          Over the past year I’ve learned a great deal about the people who come to our community meals by sitting with them and sharing the meal that has been prepared by our teams.  What we offer may not be anywhere close to what The Van offers, but I do believe it is making a difference for those who come.  Can we do more?  Maybe.  I do know that when we started offering warm clothing, those who came were quick to take some home.  One cold night a lady arrived using a house robe as her coat.  It was nice to be able to offer her a coat. A couple who comes on Wednesday nights announced they are expecting a baby. They live in a storage shed – and he has a job. 

          In the midst of all the injustice and suffering in the world – our community meal is one way I know to respond.  I don’t have the answers for what happened in Memphis and for all the shooting in California.  I do not have answers for the middle east and eastern Europe.   I can; however, continue to get to know the people who come to us on Wednesday nights and to provide some assistance to those who come to our church seeking help.  Of course, what I can do depends on you – on what you give to my discretionary fund each month.  I can try, too, not to look away when I see someone in need.  I can try to respond to those in need with compassion and to support the programs that I believe are making a difference. 

I invite you, too, to think of ways St. Paul’s can make a difference in the lives of people in our community who are in need and to think of programs we can support.  Getting involved enables us to shine the light that Isaiah says will heal us from the sin of indifference.  Isaiah says, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.

In Matthew, Jesus calls us to shine the light of love to others.  After saying “Blessed are those who show mercy . . . those who are persecuted for righteous sake,” and those suffer on his account, Jesus says, “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.” 

So, how might we be the “light” in this part of the world?  How might our good works give glory to our Father in heaven?  First the prophets challenge us, and now Jesus is challenging us to seek answers to these questions. 

Let us pray.

          O Lord, our creator, help us, we pray to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly that we might shine the light of your love in our community.  We offer these, our prayers, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.