“Rise To The Level Of Love”

[Our guest preacher was Mr. Christopher Dwyer. Christopher is a chorister, co-chair of our Outreach Group, and a seminarian. The picture at left is at the 10:30am service.]

February 5, 2017: I speak to you in the name of God who creates us, God who liberates us, and God who sustains us.


So I’m a big fan of social media. Not Facebook so much, but if your family’s spread out, you sort of have to use that. But I love Twitter. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an application with which people write tiny messages and share them with other people who “follow” them. Now, people being people, circles of folks who have interests in common sprout up, and there will be smaller networks of a few thousand that will mostly follow each other, and these are affectionately known as “Twitters.” Occasionally all of the Twitters will start discussing the same topic, and that topic will be visible on a list of “Trending Topics.”

So, imagine my surprise when I heard the other day that “Episcopalian” was trending. Surely the Presiding Bishop made some bold public statement about the bigotry and oppression being fomented in our country. Or perhaps an entire diocese declared itself a “Sanctuary Diocese,” and made the news as a shining example of our Baptismal Covenant in action.

Alas, it was neither of these. No, someone on some news outlet made the sweeping proclamation that the reason the recent bans on the entry of some foreign nationals into our country seem to target Muslims is that “we’re not being attacked by a bunch of Episcopalians.” Now, we can tell by context that by “We” he meant “The United States” and by “attacked” he meant mass violence perpetrated on civilians, but let’s think about this for a moment.

The gentleman who made this comment is officially a “conservative pundit” for his network, which in this day and age means that it’s his role to defend the administration during debate segments. And this person, whose job is defending the administration, when trying to think of an innocuous Christian group off the top of his head settled on “Episcopalians.”

My brothers and sisters, if we are who the State thinks of as safe, we’re not doing our job.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls we who are his disciples two things: Salt and Light. Notice that he doesn’t say we should be salt and light, but rather that we are salt and light – two things that are essential to life.

Salt and light are also great revealers. Salt, as the great food educator and TV host Alton Brown once said “can make anything taste better, by making it taste more like itself.[i]” Put salt on a tomato, and it tastes more tomato-y. Salted caramel tastes more caramel-y. Salt brings out the nature of the food you put it on, and you’re able to taste it more clearly. Forgetting to season components of a dish can result in hours of preparation wasted by bland, flat-tasting food.

Light, of course, does the same thing. We turn on the lights in a room to see what’s there. We take a flashlight with us in the woods to make sure we don’t trip over any branches. Museums spend hours arranging lights just-so to best display art works. In hospitals, X-rays are shot through people to see inside them, hoping to see the cause of a problem. But if your bulb is the wrong wattage, or flickering out, or covered, you won’t be able to see much of anything.

Jesus tells us that we are salt and light. We’re not really given a choice in the matter – that’s what we are. And as salt and light the world needs us so very much right now. As the light of the world, we need to shine brightly and clearly. We need to shine on all of the dark corners that the forces of Empire would rather keep hidden. We need to not just illumine the evils of the present – which, to be fair, are pretty easy to see – but to bring out the evils inherent in the structures that have allowed our current situation to occur. Yes, let’s shine our light brightly on the border wall, the scapegoating of Muslims, the Dakota pipeline, the attacks on the rights of women and the rights of LGBT people, the impunity with which the State discounts the value of black lives, and the fact that the people of Flint, Michigan still to this day don’t have clean water. Let’s shine the light that we are on all of that. But this world also needs us as disciples of Christ to salt these evils so we can taste the underlying institutions that have brought us here. We need to highlight the flavors of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism that make up those evils, and show their foundations in centuries of racism, classism, and patriarchy. We need to find these sour flavors, name them, and show them.

We’re going to need a lot of light and salt to start prophesying at this level. That stuff’s buried deep in the very foundations of who we are as a people, especially here in the United States. The good news is that our reading from Isaiah is all about how one’s light can shine brightly, and I mean, if you want to know how to prophesy, you ask a prophet, right?

Isaiah’s first lesson on prophesying here is pretty intuitive. “Shout out!” he says. “Do not hold back!” Now if that sounds kinda scary, that’s because it is kinda scary. St. Paul understands that. St. Paul, one of our first missionaries, the man who took the leap of faith to bring the Good News of God in Christ to the Gentiles did so “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” “Not with plausible words of wisdom,” as he says, “but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that [their] faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

For me, that makes it a little less scary. I don’t have to be out here talking about anything other than Jesus and how to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world He tells me I am.

So what do we “Shout out,” then? How do we prophesy the presence of God in the world? Well, it’s certainly not by lamenting our situation, hiding our light in the always-popular sackcloth and ashes ensemble, getting all hangry and taking it out on people. Then we’re back to the bushel Jesus just warned us about. No, what God wants for us is

  • to loose the bonds of injustice,
  • to let the oppressed go free,
  • to break every yoke
  • to share your bread with the hungry,
  • To bring the homeless poor into your house,
  • when you see the naked, to cover them,
  • and not to hide yourself from your own kin

Then – THEN your light will break forth like the dawn.

The light that you are.

Now, if all of that seems familiar to us as Christians, it should. Later on in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, we hear about just that: when you saw me hungry, when you saw me sick – we know these verses, right? And if not, if you’ve seen any of the pictures of any of the protests that have gone on over the last two weeks, you certainly recognize them, because Christians everywhere (and some non-Christians, I might add) have been particularly highlighting that call to ministry from Christ. And that’s exactly it. That person right there, holding that sign is shining the light that she is on the world, calling us to love our neighbor.

That’s some radical stuff, isn’t it? I mean, to this point in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has pretty much called out everybody. One would be excused for thinking that Jesus came to overthrow everything, to start anew, to remake the law entirely. But in the very next verse, he tells us that that’s not it at all. He hasn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. And not just some of the law, either. Not just the nice bits. But all of it. Every letter, every dot, every dash. And he expects us to follow that law. Follow and teach it.

And not only does he want us to follow the law and teach the law. He wants us to do it better than the Scribes and Pharisees.

Now if you’d’ve asked me when I was a little kid growing up at General Seminary, I’d’ve told you that there were four orders of Jewish religious officials in 1st Century Palestine: the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Hypocrites. To my little-kid mind, it just seemed as though any time Jesus was calling out Scribes and Pharisees, he was calling out hypocrites. And, to be fair, the good name of the Pharisees has not held up well over the millennia, at least among Christians. But that’s kind of sad. Because if you were a Jew living in Palestine during the Roman Empire, and you wanted to hold onto your Jewishness, the Pharisees were the good guys. After centuries of your people being tossed around from one invading empire to the next, not knowing if you’re Babylonian, or Greek, or Roman or what you are, the Pharisees are the ones to stand up and say “We are Jews. We follow the Law of Moses.” They stood straight up to those who would allow Judaism to be co-opted by the dominant Greek culture and said “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one.” I’m a little afraid of comparing them to politicians, but think of a Pharisee as that politician who you really admire. The one who really knows what he or she is doing; who’s got your best interests at heart. The one who speaks and votes a pure socialism, neo-liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, or whatever your favorite “-ism” is.

Now do their job better than them. Follow the law better than them. Because that’s what Jesus is asking of us.

We’re lucky. We can read ahead. Because a few chapters later, someone asks Jesus what he thinks about this law – this law that he says he fulfills. Jesus said that there were two great commandments: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. “On these two commandments,” Jesus says, “hang all the law and the prophets.” All the law. Every letter, every dot, every dash.

Love God. Love your neighbor. Let your light break forth like the dawn.

You see, love scares the heck out of Empire. Because, as Dr. Martin Luther King once said:

In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all (men). It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system[ii].

So Empire ought to be afraid of Love. Empire tells us that that person over there making $10 an hour is the reason so much of the $30 an hour you make goes to taxes to take care of her family’s needs. Because if we believe that, then we’re too busy trying to keep that person over there down to look at the thousands of tax-free dollars an hour Empire’s making off of the sweat of both our brows. But if we love each other instead, Empire cannot divide us.

Empire tells us that if people of color move into white neighborhoods, that those white people’s housing values will go down, so they ought to move before that happens. Because if we believe that, we’ll never be able to work together as neighbors to fight for the common good, and Empire will keep being able to manipulate us and the housing market. But if we love each other instead, Empire cannot divide us.

Empire tells us that while, sure, we all get a voice, only some voices are really worth listening to. And if we believe that, Empire can control the message. But if we love each other, we make space for each other’s voices to be heard, and Empire cannot divide us.

Empire tells us that if we are good stewards of God’s creation that jobs will be lost and economies will suffer. Empire has the gall to tell us that God alone has ordained who should and should not own the resources of this beautiful continent. But if we love God, and love each other, we know this isn’t true, and we will stand up and fight for creation and for each other because the forces of Empire will not divide us.

You see, we are the salt of the earth. And as salt, we can bring out the flavors of the lies that the rich and powerful will tell us to keep themselves rich and powerful, and to keep us barely scraping by. And if we start calling out those lies, we have the rich and powerful shaking with fear at the sight of us. So let it be from here on out that when the rich and powerful think of Episcopalians, they know that we are a people of Christ who see their game, and that they cannot feel safe around us any longer.

But you know what the worst lie that Empire tells us is? Empire tells us that we’re naive, we’re too idealistic. And that if we stick our necks out there, we’ll be the only ones.

In my bio in the Sunday Paper, you’ll see that I work for the Federal Government. That administration I spoke of earlier? They sign my paycheck. Now, as of yet, nothing major has come down from this new administration about how my department goes about our business. But it’s always in the back of my mind, you know? I’m just one bureaucrat in one cubicle in lower Manhattan. If something were to come down, what could I do? Is it worth it for me to make some starry-eyed charge for truth and justice, only to be brushed aside, unemployed and forgotten? Would my sacrifice matter?

About two weeks ago, the National Park Service and the rest of the Department of the Interior was advised that they were no longer able to use Twitter to talk about science, unless that science was approved by the administration. So a few NPS employees started their own accounts. Rogue Badlands NP. Alt Hawaii Volcanoes NP. Alt Yellowstone. And then it spread. Rogue NASA. Rogue OPM. Now there are close to 100 such accounts. And it was all started by a handful of Federal employees who saw the lies they were being fed for what they were, and who shined their light on them for everyone to see. Including this Federal employee in a different department in a cubicle thousands of miles away, who saw those accounts start to show up on his own Twitter feed. Now, I still don’t know exactly what I’ll do if I find myself given immoral, illegal, or just plain wrong direction, but because of some park rangers, I know I won’t be alone.

We are the salt of the earth in a time when the difference between truth and falsehood is determined by the one with the loudest voice, and we are the light of the world in a time when we are purposefully kept apart, alone, and blind to what’s going on around us.

May God in God’s mercy keep the salt that we are pure, and the light that we are shining forth like the dawn. Amen.

For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:

[i] “Eat This Rock.” Good Eats. Food Network. Transcript. Accessed from www.goodeatsfanpage.com/season7/salt/salt.htm on 30 January 2017

[ii] King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon delivered 17 November 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. Accessed from kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_loving_your_enemies/ on 4 February 2017