By Elaine Ramshaw
Revised Common Lectionary
Reflection, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
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February 5, 2023
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? -Isaiah 58:6
There aren’t many more explicit messages about stewardship—what we are to do with what we are given—than the one in this week’s reading from Isaiah. And that fits right in with this week’s Gospel reading, where Jesus tells us to let our light shine before others by our good works. What does this mean? Well, Isaiah tells us to set free all who are oppressed, to loose the bonds of injustice, share our bread with the hungry and house the homeless. What does this mean for God’s people, the ones sitting in your pews? It has to do with stewarding our resources for God’s mission and purpose.
A good sermon could talk about how your congregation or denomination is acting to loose the bonds of injustice, including any ecumenical efforts your congregation participates in that addresses local injustices. Similarly, you could talk about programs your congregation supports, such as ELCA World Hunger Appeal, and ways your congregants share resources (money, food they’ve grown, or time) with people who are hungry or homeless.
The baptismal imagery of light makes it easy to ground all these good works in our graced identity as the children of God’s promise. Just as the lighted candle we receive at baptism draws its light from the Paschal candle of Jesus’ death and resurrection, so the light we get to shine on others in need is the light God has shone on us. It’s for that reason Jesus says that when others see our good works they will give glory, not to us, but to God. What we are sharing is not anything we have created all by ourselves; it is all God’s gift.
This could be an opportunity for the preacher to talk about how stewardship applies to all of what we are and have, not just to our discretionary funds and our free time. If I have stable housing and reliable meals, those are gifts to be shared. If I was born into American citizenship, if I inherited wealth from my parents and their parents, if I look like most of the people who run the government and the big corporations, if I never have to worry about being stopped by the police unless I’ve actually broken a traffic law, then that all adds up to power and privilege that I did not make for myself and which I need to use for the good of those without such advantages. Sometimes that means risking our own position to stand side-by-side with those who are disadvantaged. Sometimes it means giving of our time and energy and money to organizations working for justice in our town, country, world. (If most of the members of your congregation do not have any such power or privilege, of course, your definition of the gifts we steward would be shaped accordingly.)
All the gifts by which we live our lives, the goods we have and the opportunities and respect we are afforded, all of this is like a light. While light can be closed off in a room, the nature of light is to shine beyond its source, to go out and brighten everything around it, to make its way even beyond the atmosphere. That is how God means us to live, not hoarding what we have been given, but radiating it, sharing and shining. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. As Paul wrote to the believers at Philippi (2:15), “you shine like stars in the world.”
Prepare a way for people to light candles during the service. This can be done with votive candles on a table or tapers that people can light and places into boxes filled with sand. Invite folks to light a candle as a symbol of an intention or commitment they are making to fight for justice for the oppressed or to share their goods with those in need. When we do these things, Isaiah says, then our light breaks forth like the dawn. People could light candles during the offertory time to indicate that their intention is an offering. If that seems too unwieldy, they could light the candles on the way back to their seats after communing. At either time, the action could be accompanied with a hymn highlighting the connection between shining our light and helping others: “Arise, Your Light Has Come!” (ELW 314 ) or “This Little Light of Mine” (ELW 677) .
In Sunday school or in a children’s sermon, this is a good day to teach or sing the song “This Little Light of Mine,” probably the camp song version with the hand motions. (“Hide it under a bushel” comes from today’s Gospel!) Connect the “little light of mine” with the candle that was lit from the Easter candle and given for each of us at baptism. Many baptism liturgies use the words from Jesus in today’s Gospel: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Ask the children how we let our light shine. Isaiah says our light shines when we share our food with the hungry; do we do that somehow in this congregation? Through the offering? In other ways (e.g. helping out at a food pantry)? The picture book This Little Light of Mine, illustrated by E. B. Lewis, accompanies the song with a wordless story about a boy helping people throughout his day. How does this boy let his light shine?
One job of adolescence is unmasking hypocrisy and fakery, and today’s reading from Isaiah shows the prophet doing just that. He is railing at people who go through all the motions of righteousness, which in this case involved a religious ritual of fasting and bowing and wearing sackcloth, but who do not act to free the oppressed or share their food with the hungry.
Ask the teens what the equivalent of the fasting-and-sackcloth ritual might be for us today. How do people they know perform goodness, put on a show of virtue, without actually making the world better or helping those in need? What does performative goodness look like in church? What does it look like at school, in other places kids interact, on social media? How do we present ourselves so that other people will think we’re admirable? In contrast, where do they see the real goodness Isaiah says God cares about? How do they and people they know work for justice? How do they and others in their congregation share their bread with the hungry, their goods with the homeless?
Elaine Ramshaw is an author, spiritual director and seminary instructor who teaches pastoral care online from her home in Connecticut.