Below is an audio link and text for the sermon by The Rev. Posey Krakowsky on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany .
5th Epiphany Year A
Isaiah 58: 1-9a (9b-12)
Psalm 112: 1-9 (10)
I Corinthians 2: 1-12 (13-16)
Matthew 5: 13-20
As a person who was born in the deep South in the early 60s, and one who came of age in the late 70s, I vividly remember thinking, right about when I was in 4th grade, “Wow, man, I missed it. I was too late to go to Selma, I was too late to be part of the Civil Rights movement. All of the exciting stuff happened before I was old enough to take part.”
And yes, I can see some of you who are older than I am chuckling — only a very idealistic 4th grader could come up with that kind of logic, right?
But I can’t help wondering if kids who are born in the years of this administration will be thinking the same thing when they are a little bit older. Please God, may things be less fraught and uncertain by the time they are in 4th grade, or 8th grade, or high school. Because those of us who are living in it right now sure don’t find it fun. Or glamorous. In fact, it wears on the soul. Which is why we need to hear about what it truly means to be the light of the world right now.
Where are you finding light in these troubling times?
My exegesis professor at Union taught us to read over our texts a few weeks before preaching, and to write down our first thoughts immediately after doing so, just to have a record so we could compare them after doing our research. Gut impressions are telling, he said. They speak to where you are coming from when you approach the text. So here are some notes I wrote down when I first read the gospel passage today.
Verse 20: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees — you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” — Ack! Red alert! SUPERSESSIONISM possibilities! Use extreme caution.
Verse 14: “Light of the world” and “city on a hill” — references used in a sermon by Puritan John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 — his use of it was then taken out of context in the 20th century and deployed as an anchor for the concept of American Exceptionalism.
So, just in this short gospel text today, two verses that are really good examples of how scripture can be used for the wrong ends, sometimes on purpose, sometimes even inadvertently. Let’s look at each of them in turn.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees — you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Christian Supersessionism, or replacement theology, is a false Christian doctrine which asserts that the New Covenant through Jesus Christ supersedes the Old Covenant, which was made exclusively with the Jewish people. As we all know, Matthew’s gospel was written at a particularly dark time and place in Jewish history, not long after the destruction of the 2nd temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Jewish people, of which Matthew was one, were picking up the pieces and finding their way. The result was competing narratives of what it meant to be Jewish. Matthew was writing at a time when those who were Jesus followers were being criticized for deviation from established norms. It was a story of family friction, and we all know that friction within families can be some of the most angry kinds of fighting. We hear echoes of that friction throughout Matthew’s gospel. Once Christianity became the religion of Empire, those echoes became rallying cries that led to centuries of persecution of Jewish people. As we see the rise of antisemitic incidents around our country, we cannot let problematic passages like this go unacknowledged.
But it’s good to also notice that this same passage holds a key to how we can hear this gospel message in a more fruitful way. Listen to verse 18:“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.” What if we hear this passage as yet another chapter in the ongoing mutual human work of describing humanity’s relationship with God? What if, instead of speaking of the gospels as the replacement of Jewish experience with a “better” version of it, we instead speak of them as the expression of our own unique Christian experience of trust in God’s faithfulness — an experience that is only one faith story out of countless others in the world? Those of us who are alive on earth today all know how incomplete and broken this world still is — how the kindom of God is not yet fully realized in 2020 CE. Shall we not join hands with our Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Indigenous, Taoist, atheist, and Buddhist brothers and sisters and work together with them, no one being “better,” but each bringing different but complementary insights from our own experiences of the sacred? We can each still claim our particularity without insisting that ours is the ONLY way. That kind of cooperation — of experiencing and valuing mutuality as well as difference is a profound source of light for me. I hope that it is for you as well.
Today we will welcome two new members into our particular faith community, and we will share in renewing our baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being. May we, here at Ascension, set an example for Ila and Mais of what that covenant truly means.
Verse 14: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”
Well we sure have heard a lot lately about our particular “city on a hill” and by that I mean the story of what it means to be an American — or, as some name it, “American Exceptionalism.” From both sides of the political divide, I might add. The idea of American Exceptionalism is being sorely tested right now. Are we truly “the example for the world?”
I personally believe that we, as Americans, have to make the choice in every generation to decide to try to live into that promise — and to make it available as best we can to as many of our fellows as we can. And that choice on our part involves work and struggle and frustration and persistence, and yes, that most precious of commodities — hope.
It also involves the humility to step back and actually listen when someone tells us that we are not holding up our end. Or that we have been asleep at the wheel, and it’s time to wake up.
Can any single one of us “fix it all?” Of course not. But we can each pitch in, do our share, and find ways to make things better, one small step at a time. We do so by using the time and talent and treasure that God has given us — and sharing those things with the others around us, person by person, moment by moment, day by day. All of this sounds an awful lot like our baptismal covenant, doesn’t it: our promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves?
Interestingly, in researching Winthrop’s sermon, I learned that he meant it to be about exactly that kind of hope — the hope we can find in wrestling with what it means to be living in intentional community, again, as our baptismal covenant says, striving for justice and peace among all people.
Princeton historian Daniel Rodgers tells us that in 1630, when Winthrop wrote his sermon, “It was a radical exhortation to love and fellow-feeling, a plea to lay aside self-interest when the social good demanded it. (…) Winthrop even called for the very radical step of founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony an economy that was NOT based on capitalism. And while that did not happen, it is clear that his vision was very different from how we hear it characterized today. Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was not a site of radiance but a place of exposure, open to the sight of critics (…). In Winthrop’s words of 1630, scrutiny and transparency were the conditions of living in a city on a hill.
Rodgers continues: “… not until the Cold War did any prominent political figure apply the phrase to the United States. (… and) while (it has since been) used by writers and politicians of all persuasions, this resurrected city on a hill was not Winthrop’s. Gone were the doubts, the fears of the world’s scrutiny if the “city” erred, that had marked Winthrop’s actual speech.”
To echo Winthrop’s original intent: Our words matter, and so do our actions. So does our willingness to enter the struggle — to recognize that we are never really acting alone and that all that we do is dependent on and has an effect on others — all of that also matters.
Perhaps some of you have read Jedediah Purdy’s book: For Common Things. If you haven’t, please do. I’d like to quote one of the most soaring passages from that book to you now.
“….our local webs of dependence on family and friends are only the beginning. They implicate us in broader schemes of mutual reliance — not always directly, but not only notionally either. For it is not too much to say that there is no good, or beautiful, or healthy thing in the world that does not depend for its origin and continued existence on the well-being of a host of other such things. (…) In all of this there lurks an idea of responsibility. In valuing any good things, we also, if we are consistent, value the many good things on which it relies. If we value something in honesty, we recognize a certain responsibility for it beyond our pleasure in its momentary availability. Just by living in the world, just by taking care for things, we take on a responsibility for the world’s well being. This is not meant to be an elusive philosopher’s goal, the irresistible argument for moral behavior. I mean simply that the ironic reluctance to rest much hope in people, relationships, or institutions may be founded on a mistaken idea: that it is possible to decide whether or not to place such hope. In fact, so far as we care for anything at all, we must hope for a great deal from a great number of people, institutions, and relationships in which whatever we immediately care for is caught up. So the question is not whether to hope, but whether to acknowledge our hope, to make it our own. And hope and responsibility are the same here. In both, we tie our success or failure to the state of something outside of us, which we cannot entirely control. We can refuse responsibility, but we cannot decide against its existence.” Page 92
“So the question is not whether to hope, but whether to acknowledge our hope, to make it our own.”
As people of faith, isn’t that exactly our calling, to acknowledge our hope? As Christians in particular, isn’t that our Easter insight — our witness to resurrection, over and over again? And isn’t that exactly what proclaiming the Good News means? Are we not we asked to tell by words and deeds of the hope that dwells within us:
A hope that springs from something that we cannot even prove, and yet it persists.
A hope that speaks with humility but also with conviction.
A hope that speaks of this world’s beauty.
A hope that reminds us that we matter, that what we do matters, that how we act matters — not to satisfy some cosmic checklist that we have to fill out in order to “win” — but instead to remember that our sense of the possibility of renewal is precisely what God’s faithful love for us engenders, it is how we are held together, how we recognize that we are, indeed, in a web of mutual interdependence.
That love — God’s love — teaches us, as Ubuntu wisdom says, “I am, because we are.”
I am, because we are never alone.
Good Friday reminds us that God does not promise us safety.
And Easter assures us that there is renewal from within that very tomb.
There is a balm in Gilead.
God’s promise to us is that, no matter what, we belong to God.
We are known. We are held. We are seen. We are loved.
Living into that hope is what it really means to be the light of the world — to hold onto that hope, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that asks us to despair. It is not a foolish errand, not at all. As this gospel passage remind us, it is the essence of what it means to be truly alive. Being alive is being responsible. Being alive is to testify to our hope.
Because love must act — as light must shine — and fire must burn.
May the same light of hope continue to shine for Mais and Ila, all the days of their lives.
Before I leave the pulpit, I ask you to rise and to pray with me the Prayers of Thanksgivings for National life — they are found on page 838 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Almighty God, giver of all good things:
We thank you for the natural majesty and beauty of this land. They restore us, though we often destroy them.
We thank you for the great resources of this nation. They make us rich, though we often exploit them.
People: Forgive us.
We thank you for the men and women who have made this country strong. They are models for us, though we often fall short of them.
We thank you for the torch of liberty which has been lit in this land. It has drawn people from every nation, though we have often hidden from its light.
We thank you for the faith we have inherited in all its rich variety. It sustains our life, though we have been faithless again and again.
Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun. Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice, and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when all our people, with many voices in one united chorus, will glorify your holy Name. Amen.