The Gospel stories we tell during the season of Epiphany are often about some visible manifestation God’s presence as Immanuel, God-with-us. The Magi following the star find the child revealed as King; at the baptism of Jesus the Holy Spirit descends as a dove; Jesus performs his first miracle by changing water into wine at the Wedding at Cana; and the season after Epiphany always ends with the Transfiguration of Jesus upon the mountain, flanked by Moses and Elijah. Each of these stories is almost sacramental in the way that we teach how sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” There is some outward visible thing that is the manifestation of God’s presence and grace.
We call our parish newsletter The Manifest not because it’s a list of cargo or a list of stuff to do, but because it’s an obvious sign of God’s presence. The reflections and ministry contained in The Manifest are reminders and signs of how God works in the world. I even looked up the English word "manifest" this week to discover that it comes from Latin manifestus which means to be caught in the act. Epiphany is about Jesus getting caught-in-the-act of being divine.
In this week’s gospel, that is less evident—it’s the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. At first the focus isn’t even on Jesus, it’s on us: we are the salt of the earth; we are the light of the world. In what follows, Jesus is speaking again not about himself, but about the Law, the Torah. Jesus is saying (contrary to Paul--if you were hearing this and thinking that this sounds different from what you're used to hearing in church, you're right!) that he has come to fulfill the law and that his followers still have to follow the law; in fact, even just following the law isn’t enough, because—as we will hear next week in the Gospel—it’s not just what you do, it’s what’s in your mind and heart; it’s about your intentions as you follow the law.
To understand this better, turn to the passage from Isaiah. Here we have the voice of God speaking about God’s disappointment in how the people are following the letter of the law but not the spirit. They are fasting outwardly; but not for the benefit of the whole people. This is where we get God’s definition of what God wants us to accomplish in our fasting, in our observance of the law:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?”
The purpose of following the law is justice. Which is very true in Torah—these laws have acts of compassion written into them: care for the orphan and widow wasn’t something to do in excess of the law, but actually written into the code itself.
So what if we saw justice as sacramental; justice as the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace? Then justice becomes the manifest sign of God’s presence in the Gospel today: when wrongs are righted, God is there. When the poor are lifted up, God is there. When the oppressed are freed, God is there.
So how is God manifestly present here at Epiphany? What is the sacrament of justice that we send forth into the world? The quick answer in many of your minds is probably the Wednesday Dinner Program, where we feed over 100 hungry people a meal every week. I’d answer that yes and no… and hear me out as to why…
Feeding someone a meal is not justice. It’s charity—it’s love. And that is not bad. In my Manifest article last week, I wrote about the virtues listed on the floor of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the General Theological seminary: caritas, or charity/love, is the central virtue from which all the others spring. But justice is something different than love. Justice is changing the way a system works—it’s breaking the yoke of oppression or ignorance or discrimination. I would say that our Wednesday Dinner Program is primarily a work of charity. We feed people. We respond with compassion to the sea of need we witness. And it is part of the Isaiah passage about what life will look like if the people truly follow the law: “If you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.” Justice is what builds upon that foundation of loving, compassionate response.
We have a social worker here now on Wednesdays to help connect our guests to some services, which is the beginning of justice, but the only way that our dinner program can really move from being just a ministry of charity and into a ministry of justice is to have every person here—and every volunteer—start asking themselves, “Why do the people who come here need a meal?” And that question—and the answers—move it from being a loving and compassionate response to need to being a just response.
Because once you start asking the question, “Why do the people who come here need a meal?” it reveals injustice. It reveals a system with a lack of mental health services; a system with a lack of quality childhood education; a system of poor parenting and broken families that doom kids to an adulthood of poverty and low wage jobs; a system of racial discrimination; a system that sends soldiers off to war and doesn’t adequately care for them when they return; and on and on. It’s in answering those questions that justice takes root.
And this takes us to a tension between Isaiah and the Gospel today. Isaiah is focused on following the law in a way that does not draw attention to itself—because he is responding to what he perceives as people following the law not out of the love of the Lord but out of the desire to look important in the eyes of their neighbors. The Gospel writes about not hiding your light under a bushel basket. Which is it—are we supposed to do justice quietly in secret, or celebrate it and put it out for the world to see?
We sing “This little light of mine” at the Day School chapel services this year, and “Put it under a bushel, NO!” is always the most enthusiastic verse. Because it is in doing the work of love publicly that justice becomes possible. Justice requires conversion, and conversion requires inspiration. One form of inspiration—not the only one—is seeing someone get caught in the act of being Christly.
Christians get caught in the act of being un-Christly all the time. Far, far better to be caught in the act of being the hands and feet of our Lord. As we do every Wednesday evening. And those acts of love have to be the beacon that inspires justice—both in our own conversations and in our conversations with those outside the church.
All the while, though, we should be cognizant that this Gospel passage is also the basis of John Winthrop’s 1630 “city on a hill” sermon where he created the image of the new World as the shining City on a Hill by which all the rest of civilization would be measured; there is something very good about the ambition of the American Exceptionalism that he set on its course; that this would be the land of justice and freedom that would be an example for centuries to come. If you read Winthrop’s whole sermon, there is actually quite a lot to disagree with—he completely objects to the idea of equality, for instance—but the confidence with which we are called to act boldly in service of justice and liberty is sound. So long as it doesn’t then take us back to Isaiah, where the people have become complacent and arrogant and do the letter of the law—say they are fasting for liberty and justice—when in truth they are doing the opposite. Being the shining city on the hill (or, I might add, living in the glow of the Olympic torch) isn’t about covering up the injustice and oppression in our midst; it is about bringing it to light, and by illuminating it compelling the community to break out of the yoke of “it has to be this way” and discover the liberty of faith: faith that when God is manifestly, sacramentally present, all those questions about why our guests on Wednesdays need a meal are actually answerable. I want our dinner program to be an act of love AND a step towards justice.
So go out this week nourished by two sacraments: the sacrament of the Eucharist where Jesus is manifestly present in bread and wine, giving us strength and fortitude that as we are loved by him we can love others; and by the sacrament of justice. Go out and get caught in the act of love; let your light shine; and let the light inspire the questions—even the uncomfortable ones—that that can guide us from charity to justice. Amen.