February 5, 2017

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Isaiah 58:1-9a
Matthew 5:13-20

“I’m not THAT kind of Christian!”

“I’m not THAT kind of Christian.” Have you found yourself saying that lately, in this climate of extremism, suspicion, and hatred? You know what I mean, right? When people assume that Christians are judgmental, bigoted, and exclusionary… When people presume that being a Christian means sharing the perspectives of the Religious Right, being sexist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, and a whole host of other negative views.

I’ve heard people say, “I’m not THAT kind of Christian” a lot lately, and when I looked up the phrase online, I found that there was a Facebook group called “I’m Not That Kind of Christian” and that one person had even written a book with the same name.

The author, Christian Piatt, points out that “there are lots of perceptions about who Christians are, and most of them aren’t good.” In a survey he conducted some years ago for a book, the words most often associated with Christians were “narrow-minded,” “judgmental,” and “hypocritical.” Of course, we’ve earned a lot of those labels, Christian admits, but some of it has come from the tendency of media to jump on stories of scandal and corruption that are hardly the status quo.

And so, we find ourselves trying to explain that we’re not “that kind of Christian” – the one you heard preaching on TV about women being subservient to their husbands as the heads of the household; or the one you heard about disowning her teenage son who turned out to be transgender; or the one whose comments you read about how Canada is a Christian country and everyone else should go back where they came from.

This morning’s passage from the prophet Isaiah reminds us that we make choices about our religion – we choose what KIND of Christians we will be. We not only choose to believe in God, or to become a member of a religious community, but we choose how to live out our faith – how to practice our religion and how to live in response to it in our daily lives.

This particular passage from Isaiah is the same one that we usually read on Ash Wednesday as we begin the Season of Lent. On that day, we confess our sins, remember our frailty, and commit to draw near to God through prayer, fasting, and other spiritual practices during the season of preparation for Easter.

Isaiah challenges us to consider what KIND of FAST we will choose, what KIND of RELIGION we will embrace, what KIND of CHRISTIANS we will be. And I think these are good questions for us to consider, not only during Lent, but any time at all.

Although he doesn’t rule out spiritual disciplines like prayer, worship, and abstaining for certain foods as ways of honouring God, he invites us to go further by living out our faith in acts of justice and mercy.

The prophet asks, “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? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Isaiah would likely agree with the author of the Book of James in the New Testament when he rights, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God… is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

And the prophet assures his listeners that it is in doing these kinds of things that we will encounter God and experience God’s blessing in our lives. He promises, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

Of course, you know that I’m not suggesting that worship, prayer, and Bible reading are not important Christian practices, and disciplines through which we hear God’s voice and grow in faith. But what I am acknowledging is that we are just as likely to encounter God while volunteering in a soup kitchen or food bank, as we are to do so while singing hymns and spiritual songs at church.

We are just as likely to experience the presence of Christ while helping a friend or family member in hospital, as we are to do so by quietly reflecting on Scripture at home. We are just as likely to hear the Spirit’s powerful call at a rally for justice and peace, as we are to do so in the midst of our prayer in church.

And when we do get together to pray, and sing, and study the Scriptures (as we are called to do), the whole point of our gatherings is to hear the call of God, to experience the grace of Christ, and to receive the power of the Spirit to go out as God’s people to live lives of justice, and mercy, and peace in the world.

This week, I came across a wonderful quote that I’ve heard before from Archbishop William Temple. He said, “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.”

Isn’t that a good reminder of our mission, of the fact that we exist for mission? We are not the church because we enjoy being together, or because we like the music here, or because it’s fun to share food and fellowship Sunday-by-Sunday with a group of like-minded people. We are the church because we have heard and experienced the love of God in Jesus Christ, and we are called to share it with others in word and deed.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus explains our mission by using three metaphors: We are the light of the world. We are the salt of the earth. We are a city on a hill.

The community of Christians that Jesus describes does not exist for its own sake, but it exists for the sake of the world – even for the sake of the world that rejects or maligns, ignores or even persecutes the church.

A light does not exist for its own sake. Its sole purpose is to let other things be seen. Salt does not exist for its own sake. No, salt exists for seasoning, for preserving, for melting, for healing.

If we are light and salt, then we exist for the world – for its illumination, for its healing, for its life. That is our mission and our identity as followers of Jesus.

Although it is our nature to be light and salt for the world – to preach the Gospel, to love our neighbours, and to work for justice and peace and goodness in all our relationships – the reality is that we often don’t live out our calling as God’s people.

Very much like the Pharisees, we sometimes get wrapped up in the trappings of our religiosity. We practice our faith insofar as we find it personally helpful to do so. We worship, we pray, we read scripture, and we think about God because doing these things makes us feel good. It makes us feel righteous, and holy, and good. We get a lot out of our faith. We have good friends at church. We enjoy coming to worship.

It’s not that any of those things are wrong. It’s just that they are all missing the most important part of who we are as Christians. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites because their religion had become all about them and how pious they could be. They had missed the point that as God’s people we are made to be salt and light – we are made to be FOR the world.

And so, when we make decisions about our church programs and plans, we need to keep that focus in mind so that mission, outreach, and care for our neighbours stays primary. And when we make decisions about our own occupations and pastimes, we must remember our mission as well.

Besides what I see so many of you doing to participate in the work of the church, I am so often proud to hear about the other things you are doing in your families, workplaces, and communities.

Some of you are volunteering with helping agencies. Some of you are pouring yourselves into the work of teaching or healing or helping in your vocations. Some of you are giving your time and energy to help others with their computers, or shovelling their sidewalks, or visiting and offering support to people who are lonely. Some of you are caring for family members who are sick. Some of you are working in community organizations, coaching sports, raising awareness about injustice, or raising money to find cures for illness. I could go on and on.

The point is that you have chosen what KIND of Christians you want to be. You’re not perfect yet, but your intention is to live out your faith in your daily life – to be salt for the earth and light for the world, to share God’s love with others in word and deed.

At times, I expect we all get frustrated by so-called Christians who give our religion a bad name and a bad reputation of superiority, exclusion, and even hatred. We want to shout out and tell the world that we’re not all like that – we’re not that kind of Christian!

But as Jesus encouraged his first disciples, let us remember today that we are the salt of the earth… we are the light of the world… we are a city on a hill… and our acts of justice and mercy, our words of love and respect, our gestures of kindness and solidarity will proclaim the love and grace of God that we have experienced in Jesus Christ.

In the aftermath of the terrible shooting in a Quebec City mosque last Sunday night, we received an invitation to live out our faith in an act of solidarity with our Muslim neighbours. Imam Ilyas of the Islamic Association here in Saskatoon invited us to come to the evening prayer time, just 24 hours after a man had walked into another prayer time in Quebec and killed six people at prayer, injuring many others.

And so we went… hundreds of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Bahai, Indigenous people, and others… It felt almost as if we were a guard watching over our neighbours as they prayed, keeping them safe from harm while they worshipped God, assuring them that they are welcome and at home in this community that we share.

May God give us the grace to be THAT kind of Christian… in our worship, in our daily lives, in our relationships with our neighbours… so that the light of God’s love will shine through us for the sake of the world. Amen.