A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – Feb. 9, 2014

“Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures— either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete.”

Sometimes Christianity can be a bit of an airy fairy business. Other times it’s more like a two by four to the head – a good hard body check to the soul. This morning we’re in for the later. “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures— either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete.” And what did those prophets have to say about God’s Law? Well Isaiah is pretty clear: This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. This Isaiah preached that message of social justice to the winners of Israel. The cream of the crop who’d made it back home to Jerusalem after the exile in Babylon. They’d come home to Jerusalem to be met by the offspring of the losers who the Babylonians knew they could leave behind because they’d never amount to anything. These were the folks that the children of Israel were called to share their food with, invite into their homes, and clothe. And we think we have it hard!

Prophets are always asking us to do things we don’t want to do. Routinely the great prophets of Israel offered a different perspective of what Israel and her leaders should be paying attention to. Always talking politics down at the Church – always the politics of feeding the hungry, caring for orphans, widows and strangers; always reminding Israel that this was their calling “because you were once slaves in Egypt.” Out of that horribly dehumanizing experience in Egypt, the people of Israel received a particular vocation to remember and respond to others caught in similar circumstances. Israel might be a chosen people, but that choosing is for the greater life of others – and we by virtue of being grafted onto the tree that is Israel by Jesus – are the inheritors of that same calling – to remember and respond.

The Primates of the Anglican Communion in North American are in the habit of meeting frequently. A couple of years ago they met over a weekend and the Sunday preacher was Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church. She spoke of the hopes and dreams we invest in our leaders. She reflected on the hope America invested in President Obama, and the reality that no human being can fulfill the hope that was placed on his shoulders. She reminded her fellow Bishops that we already have a saviour.

Yes, Jesus is our saviour. So we ought to be more realistic about what our politicians can do for us – they in turn could promise less and do more. To quote Bishop Jefferts Schori: “Be gentle with your political leaders – but not too gentle. If we’re going to cooperate with God’s ancient vision for a healed and reconciled world we have to have a sense of urgency. People are dying, including too many newborn children, because we haven’t been urgent enough. Lives are lost through sickness, war, neglect, and crime because we avoid the hard realities. Thirty thousand children die of preventable illness every day. Those deaths wouldn’t happen if there were clean water, effective health care, adequate food and vaccinations – and another child dies every 3 seconds because we haven’t worked hard enough to prevent it.

We already have a cosmic saviour, yet those who share God’s dream are all partners in healing the world. God can’t – won’t – do it without us. As Desmond Tutu is fond of saying, when God said feed the hungry, he didn’t mean to stand around and wait for pizzas to fall from heaven.

I imagine you aware the increase in minimum wages in Ontario. We’ve been asked by our Bishop to pass a resolution at our vestry meeting in favour of further increase. Hear what Archbishop Colin Johnson has written in the latest communication from the Diocese on this issue:

We appreciate the fact that the government has taken this initial step,” says Archbishop Colin Johnson. “Any increase to help the poorest-paid workers in Ontario is welcome. However, this increase falls well short of what is needed. It still leaves hard-working Ontarians well below the poverty line. It’s not consistent with a Gospel vision of dignity for all.”

The $11.00 rate helps workers regain purchasing power lost since 2010, when the minimum wage was frozen at $10.25 per hour. However, a previous Ontario government made significant advances for working people when, as part of a determined war on poverty, it began increasing minimum wage 2.5 times faster than the rate of inflation. Thus it raised the minimum wage by 50 percent between 2004 when it was $6.85 an hour, and 2010, when it reached $10.25.

If the current government had followed that formula, it would have raised the rate to $11.65 – almost exactly the $11.50 per hour rate that Anglicans have been proposing, as the first phase of an increase to $14.50 The $14.50 rate would lift a low-wage single worker about 10 percent above the poverty line.

“All faith traditions call on us to care for our neighbour,” says the Rev. Maggie Helwig, Chair of the diocesan Social Justice and Advocacy Committee. “This isn’t meant to be the grudging kind of care which measures out the precise minimum we are obligated to give, but the generous love which wants each individual to be able to live a full, decent and healthy life.

So we have to wonder this morning ;do we have a calling as members of this parish to respond, to phone or write our MPP’s and speak in favour of a further increase in the minimum wage? More than many we have the credibility to speak, because as we all know this parish serves the gospel well every time we gather on a Monday, Tuesday Morning or Friday and feed people, house people, and treat people with the God given dignity they deserve!

To return to the American Primate for a minute listen to what she had to say this past Wednesday to her church. “The Episcopal Church as a whole is growing into a new way of seeing our place in the wider world. We continue to move from a utilitarian or objectified understanding of mission to a more organic one. Those may seem like harsh and overly critical words for past behavior that was often done in entirely good faith, yet there is always an element of human self-centered sinfulness in the ways we engage others, especially those who are seen as the other. Missionaries who engage others as objects of pity or as beneficiaries or subjects for transformation are treating those others as things, rather than incarnate reflections of the creative spirit of God. It is an eternal exercise of turning around (i.e. repentance) to allow ourselves to be sent into the world to discover what God is up to, and to expect that we will be the ones transformed. It’s a way of engaging God’s creation as part of the community rather than its ruler, as a member rather than the head, as a friend or sibling rather than an all-knowing parent. Sometimes we’ve used the shorthand of moving from colonial missionary work to post-colonial mission efforts. We will never do it perfectly, but we continue to seek ways to be eager and expectant recipients of God’s abundant grace rather than its providers – and to understand that as the only way we and the whole of creation will ever find wholeness, salvation, healing, and shalom. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s words are a challenge to us all. How do we look at the folks we serve here at St. Margaret’s? Do we walk into this building on a Monday night and expect that it is you or I that will be changed by an encounter with God? Who do we seek to heal on the third Friday night of the month? Are we, can we be open to be transformed by the creative spirit of God present in those whom we serve?

More than 30 years ago, there was a man who in time took Jesus’ call seriously in El Salvador. He raised his voice to challenge the oppression and murder going on in that nation in the 1970’s. When a reporter asked the Bishop if he was afraid, he said, “ I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.” He was, as we all know, killed, but his assassination lent enormous energy to the quest for justice in that land. To this day, when people of El Salvador gather, they claim his presence by calling his name and answering for him: Oscar Romero, presente. Oscar Romero, present!

We don’t live with the death-laced fear that Oscar Romero did. Yet our names are being called. We’re challenged in this very broken world to “show up,” to present ourselves ready, willing, and able to help heal the world. To hear and respond once again to the Prophets call:

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families.”

Simply put we’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth – we’re here to remind the world of God’s justice – we’re called to be part of the body of Christ. We’re called to answer “present” when the poor need justice.

We all know the reasons why we can’t help those on social assistance – Jesus, our gentle saviour, a man without a steady job, who owned nothing, must wonder why it is we can’t – why it is we won’t – be the ‘salt’ that he dreams, that he calls us to be. The American Bishop ended her sermon with these words:

Body of Christ, are you here? Will you answer? Body of Christ?

The assembled Primates of the Anglican Communion answered “present.”

What will our answer be? Amen.

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