Sunday, February 5, 2017

5 Epiphany

February 5, 2017

Matthew 5.13-20

+ Every so often, you will hear me talk about a saint or a famous person on Sunday mornings. Often times, that person ties in to the saint we commemorate on Wednesday nights.  The reason I put these people forward for you is simple. Sometimes we need to see that we are not alone in our struggles as Christians. And our Christian lives can often feel like a major struggle. And you know what: it should. Nobody promised us an easy romp through sunlit flower gardens as Christians. To be a Christian should be a brave thing. It should be a radical, countercultural thing. It should mean that we live our lives just a bit differently than everyone else. It means that we see life a little bit differently than everyone else.

I know a lot of people these last months have been talking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Certainly, we, here at St. Stephen’s, have been speaking of him as a result of William’s study last fall. And I think he is VERY appropriate for our times.

But, for me, the person I have found myself going to in these last few months is someone I have mentioned before to you. The writer and theologian I have been returning to again and again to help me sort out my feelings about what’s going on in this world is none other than William Stringfellow.

You may remember me talking about him. If not, no worries. I’ll catch you up.

William Stringfellow was an amazing theologian, writer, lawyer, who was active in the mid-to-late twentieth century.  As a lawyer, he defended poor black and Hispanic people in Brooklyn in the 1950s.  In the 1960s he defended such unpopular causes as clergy who marched on Selma, as well as the always enigmatic Bishop James Pike when he was brought up on heresy charges.  In the 1970s, he actually subpoenaed the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, John Allin, regarding women priests presiding in churches (Allin was opposed to women priests). In 1970, he very famously harbored the late, great Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and activist, Father Daniel Berrigan, at his home when the FBI was seeking to arrest Father Berrigan on charges of burning files from a draft board. Stringfellow later  called for the resignation of Richard Nixon’s presidency years before Watergate.

His private life too was very radical for its time.  Stringfellow lived openly and unashamedly from the 1960s through the 1980s with his partner, the poet Anthony Towne.  In 1967, he and Towne moved to Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, where they developed a semi-monastic life together and were eventually wholeheartedly welcomed into the somewhat insular year-round community at Block Island.

But in addition to all of this, Stringfellow was also, brace yourselves, an Evangelical Episcopal Christian.  He was an ardent student of the Bible and wrote extensively on how our lives as Christians must be based fully and completely on the Word of God.  Mind you, he was no fundamentalist.  He was no Bible-thumper.  But he was an evangelical, before that word got hijacked and made into something else. An evangelical in the best sense of the word is someone who looks at life through the lens of scripture.  And that is what Stringellow most certainly did. He was a careful, systematic theologian who simply saw all life through the lens of scripture.

And, very importantly, he was a radical. A true radical Christian.  He was a conduit, at times, through which the Word of God was proclaimed. Stringfellow, who died in March 1985, was and is an important theologian for us right now.

I have asked myself many times what Stringfellow would be thinking of the world in which we now live. And actually, it wouldn’t be that hard to figure out the answer to that question.  Stringfellow was often described as a stranger in a strange land.  I love that description. I certainly have often felt that same way in my own life at times.  Maybe that’s why I like him so much. Because, let’s face it, if we, as Christians, don’t feel like strangers in a strange land in our following of Jesus, we’re not doing it right.

So, why this talk of William Stringfellow?  Well, in our Gospel for today, Jesus talks about salt and light. You are the salt of the earth, Jesus says. But our usefulness as “salt” is only good enough while we still have “taste.” He then goes on to say, “You are the light of the world” but then proceeds to say that the only effective light is one that is uncovered.

In our lives as followers of Jesus, our calling is to be salt with taste and unhindered light. Salt with taste. Unhindered light.  This is what we should be.  Not sweet, nice, polite Christians.  Not Christians who hide behind their Bibles and the status quo. We are to be salty and bright as the dawn.  

Yes, it’s good to be a follower of Jesus. But—and I firmly believe this—to really follow Jesus, to really follow him to the end, we have to do one very important thing:

We need to be radical in our following, radical in being salt with taste, radical in being unhindered light to this world. Radical like Stringfellow. Radical like those first followers. Radical like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Desmond Tutu and all the great followers of Jesus.  

Being radical in all of these ways means being salt with taste and unhindered light. It means stepping out into the unknown and actually doing something about the unfairness and injustice of this world.  And doing that is frightening to most of us. It certainly is to me at times. Or, rather, it might  simply not be practical. We have lives, after all. We have families. We have jobs.

OK. Maybe most of us will never be Desmond Tutu. And I hope no one here this morning will have to make the ultimate sacrifice that Bonhoeffer made with his life.  But we can be William Stringfellow, looking at life and the events of this life through the lens of scripture.  And doing so, trust me, will make one radical in our own lives.

We can—and should—stand up and speak out for Christ and for all of those people Christ commands us to love.  In our own lives, when we hear people being racist or homophobic or sexist or running down Muslims or simply being rude, we can simply say, “No!” “Stop it!” We don’t have to be jerks about it. We don’t have to overturn tables and break things. We don’t need to throw a tantrum.
But we can’t be silent. Silence in the face of injustice is not an option for us who follow Jesus. Our simple “no,” our simple “stop it!” said with conviction and purpose, often carries the greatest weight. Simply refusing to listen to such rhetoric, simply refusing to allow such talk or action in our presence is often a quite radical statement. And do so with our understanding that this is exactly what Jesus is saying we must do to be his followers is the way we can truly embody the Gospel.

When we do so, even in some small way, we are the effective salt of the earth. When we live our radical lives as followers of Jesus, we are a light set on a lampstand.

As I said, none of this is easy. Remaining tasty salt is not easy. Being a light on a lampstand leaves us exposed and open to every wind that blows through.
In our lives as followers of Jesus, there will be moments when it is hard. Hard to be a Christian. Hard to believe as a Christian.  And, often times, hard to live with other Christians. It gets a lot harder when we take our Christian faith that next step and become radical Christians—Christians who, in the holy name of Jesus, stands up and speaks out in love to those forces at work in this world that seek to undermine peace and justice.

But these are just the realities of what it means to be a light on a lampstand. This is what it means to live in community with one another. And the only response we can have to all of that is love.

We must love. Our love must shine brightly. The Holy Spirit, which dwells inside each of us, must be the fuel for the light within us. And loving people who hurt us, or intimidate us, or make us uncomfortable is incredibly hard. Let me tell you! I have been there. I know.

But we don’t have any other options as Christians, as followers of Jesus. We don’t have the option of curling up and shutting down. Silence and inactivity are not options for us who follow Jesus.

The only option we have is the love that was infused in us by the God of love, whom we serve.  And that love is not silent. That love is not sweet and safe. That love is quite loud. There are times when I wish I didn’t have the deal with these things. There are times when I wish everyone just liked me and I liked them. There are times when I really just don’t want to speak out. There are times when I just want to listen to the news and just not be angry or frustrated.  Or better yet, I wish I could just simply ignore the news.  Life would be so much easier.  
But, sadly, that’s not reality. We are here. We share this earth. And what effects one person effects us too. We’re all in this thing together, as a song by Old Crow Medicine Show goes.

No one is expecting us to be perfect Christians. Trust me, we all fail. We all falter.
We all make mistakes. Following Jesus does not mean that we will never trip up or fail. Following him does guarantee that we can pick ourselves up and continue on, broken and wounded as we are sometimes.

I can tell you this: my life as a follower of Jesus has never been easy. Oh, have I fallen more than once on that path. I’ve tripped up majorly at times. There were moments when I wasn’t even certain I wanted to go any further. But I have. We all have. All of us here this morning have pressed on, going forward, striving and failing and striving again. And it’s all good. Even the trip-ups are all right. It’s part of our journey in Christ.

Yes, our Christian life is hard at times. Loving each other is hard at times. Loving ourselves as God loves us is sometimes the hardest of all. Living our lives in Christ is really hard. And living radically in Christ is especially hard.

But when we do this, we truly do become the salt of the earth. We truly do become a light set on a lampstand.  And when we are—when we are a light unhindered, a Christ-infused light shining brightly for all the world to see, sharing the light of Christ with others—we are doing what are meant to do as Christians, as followers of Jesus.

So let us not put our light under a bushel. Let us not grow frustrated. Let us not let the tiredness and fatigue that sometimes comes upon us win out. But let us be infused. Let us be rejuvenated.

And let us shine! Shine brightly! Shine radically!  Shine without apprehension or fear. Let us shine! And when we do, others will, as Jesus tells us, see our good works, and we will truly be giving glory to our God in heaven. Amen.

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