Sermon/The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (A)/February 5, 2017/The Rev. Randall Hehr
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the
liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us
in your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with
you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The Book of Common Prayer, p. 216 (The Episcopal Church)
The family met to plan the funeral service for their mother. It was a difficult process, but the fact that she had filled out the church forms in advance of her death made it easier for her adult children to find their way. Now they faced emptying her house, making decisions about all her belongings and meeting with the lawyer. They faced all the steps that families must engage at the time of the death of a loved one. Conflict emerged between them as they tried to sort through her possessions. Some family members stopped talking to others. By the time of the funeral, an outright battle was being waged. One daughter talked with me trying to make sense of what was happening. She asked, “Does this happen in other families? Right when we need to pull together, we find everything in the world to fight about?” As I tried to help her work through her feelings, I thought of the words of a wise priest named Herbert O’Driscoll, who described times like these when anxiety can go sky high. He wrote, “In any situation of limited time and real threat, we all tend to reveal our true selves.” (Prayers for the Breaking of Bread, p. 36) In other words, we are human beings, subject to anxiety, fear, loss, pain and anger. Often when we experience crisis, we succumb to the powerful emotions swirling within us. We lash out at each other and blame each other.
The Collect for today (see text above) speaks both about bondage to sin and abundant life. It is important for us to hold these two side by side. In the midst of crisis, we may be tempted to pull apart, to attack each other and to be divided. But it is precisely at times like this that we can raise our eyes to behold our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He came to bring us the liberty – the freedom – of abundant life.
Jesus speaks about this in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) It is important to see that our Lord is sharing these words in the midst of his own crisis. Immediately after saying these words, he talks about the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. And in Chapter eleven, the Gospel describes Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, the single act that stirs the anger and ire of the Jewish authorities to arrest him. Jesus speaks about bringing us abundant life as the darkness closes in and the forces of the world seek to end his life. Jesus shares his vision for abundant life as he approaches persecution, imprisonment and death.
He is giving himself for us. That is the way of the cross. He shows us how to live in the midst of turmoil and trial, giving ourselves for other’s sake. This is the way we discover abundant life.
In the midst of a chaotic, divided world today, let us remember to pray: “O Lord, in the trying times in which we live, set us free from all kinds of bondage within us. Help us to claim the pathway you show us. Help us give of ourselves for others’ sake. Show us the pathway to the liberty of abundant life.”
This week as I reflected on the liberty of abundant life, I was captivated by the words from the Gospel according to Matthew: “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” Of course we see Jesus as the salt that infused the culture with love and healing. We see Jesus as the light of the world, shining brightly in dark times. But he says so clearly, too: YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world.
Salt had great value in the ancient world. It had many uses in the household, to flavor and to preserve foods. My research led me to discover it was also valuable as a fertilizer, especially in arid climates where it helped the soil to retain moisture. We are salt when we are effective in the world. We are salt when we change the bitterness around us. And we are light when we listen to others. Instead of reacting, attacking, or condemning, we stop and we listen. We allow light to shine by honoring others, especially those who are different from ourselves.
Friday I returned to a place in the wider Clearwater community that has great personal meaning to me. One year ago we began a dialogue with the Muslim community and the good people of the Islamic Society of Pinellas County. On Friday at noon, I was with them at the mosque for prayers. I was deeply moved as my brothers and sisters of the Islamic faith embraced me and welcomed me. On this occasion, by dear friend Sheikh Saad, Imam of the mosque, preached about supplication. Supplication is a humble prayer to God. Sheikh Saad said that if a follower of God has one ounce of arrogance, his supplication is empty. Sheikh Saad spoke about Abraham, Moses, Noah, Jonah and Jesus who show us how to live a life of supplication. And he spoke poignantly to his congregation about the times in which we live. He spoke about the potential for hostility and bitterness, prejudice and hatred. He invited his congregation to be patient in these trying times and to live with forgiveness. As I embraced our Islamic friends, I told them that we, their Christian brothers and sisters, stand with them in a broken world. Together, we share our witness of the power of One God, the God of peace and love.
As I left the mosque, I thought about the division and hatred, arrogance and prejudice we witness in the world today. I thought of being salt and light. I remembered the writing of Scott Peck in his book, A World Waiting to be Born: Civility Rediscovered. I came home and found the book, and turned to a section where he writes about disease. (p. 10) He says that health is not so much the absence of disease as it is the presence of an optimal healing process. He is writing about the immune system and the body’s capacity to send healthy cells. These cells scan for the presence of malignant cells, locate them and destroy them before they form a tumor. I thought of all of us, children of God, being salt and light and agents of healing in the world today.
We live in trying times. In the midst of division, we are the salt of the earth, bringing healing and hope to a broken world. We are the light of the world, listening carefully and treating others with respect and dignity. Set us free, O Lord, from the bondage of our sins. Set us free from hatred and prejudice, that we may know and share the liberty of that abundant life which we find in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.