Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 5:13-16
There are moments in ministry a pastor doesn’t soon forget: your ordination, your first baptism, your first wedding. Well, I remember the first memorial service I ever officiated. It was a service for a woman I never got the chance to meet, but whose daughter and son-in-law I had come to know well. As I guided the family through the process of planning the service, they kept saying the same thing: “we don’t want this to be a boring, sad service. We want this to be a celebration of her life!”
I understood their request at a theoretical level – we want to celebrate our loved ones: who they were and their legacies that remain with us. We also want to declare to the world that we believe in the great mystery of faith that our faith does not end at our mortal death. But memorial services are still sad – the grief of passing lingers in the air regardless of how many “alleluias” you shout.
The service took place on a crisp November morning. Family arrived and mingled in small groups in the room next to the sanctuary, admiring the picture boards that offered snapshots into the vibrant life of the recently deceased. It was quiet and lots of tissues were being passed around to anyone and everyone. Then a chuckle down the hallway pierced the somber quiet. In walked the daughter proclaiming, “Mom would’ve hated to miss a party!” She is armed with a picture of her mom from a party in which she is wearing goofy fashion sunglasses and a feather boa. Only this picture is not a 4×6, but a life-sized cardboard cutout with a stand. Now, seminary prepares you for a lot of things, but I unfortunately missed the class that covered that moment.
The room erupted in laughter and was filled with stories about their dearly departed mother, aunt, and friend. That cardboard cutout, as wild as it was, broke up the small groups that had formed and bonded everyone together, allowing them to care for and uplift one another at a time when they needed it the most. The family got their celebration of life. Even in the sad whispers of a memorial service, a spark of joy shone in direct opposition to the present gloom.
Our first scripture reading today was the first of four “servant songs” in Isaiah. These poems are scattered throughout the following chapters, from chapter 42 to chapter 53. Biblical scholars continue to debate who the author had in mind as this mysterious “Servant,” but regardless of who the servant is, embedded in these Servant Songs is a call to consider how a person called by God should respond to the challenges of the world.
Isaiah answers the question: “What does God value?” These were written when Israel was exiled to a strange land far away from their home: things were unfamiliar, uncomfortable. Even in the immense trauma the community was going through, Isaiah lit a spark of hope for the Israelite community. He says that the servant of God would hold a bruised reed and refuse to let it be broken. That the servant of God would see a smoldering wick of a candle, cup their hands around that pinprick of an ember, and blow to restore it to its former glory. God had not forsaken them, God valued justice and life, and somewhere within their God-given souls was the eternal hope of community restoration.
The season of Epiphany is one of celebration – Christ is born, God has come, and salvation is at hand! But it can be hard to find the joy when so much despair flashes across the headlines. War tears families apart, natural disasters destroy large swaths of our world and test our resolve as a society to care for one another.
Today especially we hold in our hearts all those hurt by continuing war in Ukraine and the bloodshed in Gaza. Our hearts break as death tolls continue to rise even as people all over the world cry out for a ceasefire. How are we supposed to hope for our global community to be restored when we are being torn apart everywhere we look? How long until a nonviolent servant like Isaiah describes arrives to bring justice to the nations and to protect the bruised reed? How do we as Christians live in a world whose values are contrary to the peace, justice, and love that was promised in the birth of a child in Bethlehem two thousand years ago?
This morning’s Gospel reading immediately follows the famous Beatitudes in which Jesus outlines the traits admirable in the Reign of God: Blessed are those poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who work for peace! God’s blessings are on you.
That teaching speaks exactly to the anxiety of my question: it stands diametrically opposed to everything this world stands for! We are told by the world that people who make peace are just weak compromisers aren’t shrewd enough negotiators to make the best deals! Those who are pure in heart aren’t being selfish enough and will never get ahead! Those who are merciful will just be taken advantage of over and over!
As if he could sense the anxiety of the group, Jesus tells them: you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world, and let your deeds speak for themselves so they will glorify God. Salt, light, and deeds.
At this time, there was a Jewish sect called the Essenes, who in modern days are best known for their writings known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. This group holed themselves up in caves in Qumran, near the coast of the Dead Sea where they lived a life among only themselves and away from influence by the otherwise sinful world.
David Gushee and Glen Stassen argue in their book Kingdom Ethics that Jesus’ description of his followers as the salt of the earth and the light of the world was a direct critique of the Essenes. Jesus calls his followers salty – a little jab at the group that hid themselves away near the salty Dead Sea – but also to say that they are a little different than the world. They imbue a unique flavor into everything they encounter. Just as Isaiah’s servant lives a life filled with love, mercy, justice, and care for all beings, so we are called to do so too. And that spark of the divine that lives within us needs to be shared rather than hidden under a bushel basket (or inside a cave). After all, what is the point of a lamp if no one is around to appreciate the light that it throws? What good is salt if there is no food for it to be sprinkled on to enhance the flavors that are already there?
There is an underlying message of interconnectedness in this passage – it is short-sighted to see oneself as the center of the universe and the only being impacted by one’s actions. Jesus drives this message home by commanding in the same way, to shine your light so that the world may see your good works and might glorify God. The verb here is an imperative verb – a command – to take our faith out into the public square and use ourselves as tools to demonstrate what it means to live out our faith!
The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu exemplified this idea of interconnectedness through his theology of ubuntu. Ubuntu comes from the Nguni languages of the Bantu region of southern Africa which means “humanness,” and his existential idea is best summarized through the maxim, “I am because we are.” As opposed to the traditional Western understanding of existence through Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” ubuntu theology rejects the idea of looking at our lives through an individualistic lens. I think, therefore I am is replaced with I exist only because we are together. Our humanity, our very nature is wholly wrapped up in the beingness of one another.
Jesus says that if we live as a city on a hill rather than hiding in caves, we cannot be hidden. We have heard this “city on a hill” metaphor time and time again outside of church walls as it has become a popular buzzword for politicians in recent years, but this compelling vision for the church has been co-opted to represent the idea that one group should be held in higher regard and imposed on others.
The idea that the eyes of the world look only to our nation to lead the way, or that one nation, one group, or one person should be lauded over another is antithetical to the message of Jesus’ teaching here, because there are no human power structures in the city of God. The city on a hill is not a uniform, single-minded group. It is where people of all backgrounds, all nationalities, all histories come together and live among one another, learn from one another, and serve one another. It is where our “I am because I think” is replaced with “I am because we are.” It is where we can live into our full calling as humans – to care for one another, uplift one another, and support one another. Whenever we let our spark shine before others – when our good works benefit others and bring in those who have been otherwise left out in the cold – we give glory to God.
Ubuntu means “human” in the Bantu languages, and the central idea of Tutu’s ubuntu theology is that our ultimate call is to live in full “human-ness” with one another. It affirms relationships in which everyone’s personhood and dignity is acknowledged and affirmed, and that you are loved. Churches like Westminster are called by God to support, welcome, and love all, and are therefore catalysts to this work.
This morning we give thanks to God for those who serve and have served as Artists in Residence here at Westminster. As we listen for God in the myriad gifts brought forth by these creative folks this morning, we hear again and again the call to remember ourselves as part of an interconnected whole – one single thread in the tapestry, shining brightly on its own but with a higher purpose of contributing to the grand design.
When we live into our calling as the salt of the earth – as a society that values things beyond worldly acclaim like justice, kindness, humility, and community – we advocate for the wholeness of our world. We strive for peaceful ends to conflict, we seek restorative justice over retribution, and we look for the spark of the Divine that exists inside even our toughest enemies. When we live out our calling as the light of the world, we cannot help but share the love, mercy, and grace that overflows from our own cups. We will hold the Christ light for one another in the night of fear. We will weep with those who weep, we will laugh with those who laugh, and we will be servants to all of creation. We will sew threads of ubuntu into everything we do so the world might see our interconnectedness. And in those acts people will see the true goodness of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Interpretation series (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1995), 41.