Text: Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
A story from the Desert Fathers. Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said, “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence. And according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts. Now what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said, “Why not become fire?”
I like this story from the Desert Fathers. I can identify with Abba Lot. Deep in my heart I carry a sense of burden that I am not doing enough. I find myself asking, am I doing enough to love my family? Am I doing enough to minister to the congregation? Am I doing enough to care for my community and the environment? Even the idea of self-care can become a thing. I ask myself, do I love myself enough?
This kind of thinking can also lead into a more insecure question. Am I enough? Am I good enough? I remember one colleague in ministry, whose sigh of relief found an echo in a room filled with ministers attending a retreat. It was during a workshop about how to renew ministry, the presenter said to us, “The decline of the church attendance is not your fault!” My colleague who always looked confident stood up saying “I need to hear that kind of affirmation not just once but every so often.” Her statement made me aware of the burden she was carrying: the burden of guilt and inadequacy.
Perhaps, Abba Lot had a similar burden in his spiritual life. He kept the rule, fast, prayer and meditation as best as he could, and yet he still felt not enough. Abba Joseph’s response – “Why not become fire?” – pointed out what it was that Abba Lot was missing. It was not that he didn’t do enough but that he distanced himself from his spiritual practice. As long as he remained in dualistic way of thinking between what’s spiritual and what’s mundane, he would continue to suffer from the inadequacy. Abba Lot could break through the gap by becoming what he was longing for. Or better yet, he just needed to realize that there was nothing he could achieve that he didn’t already have.
Jesus is an expert in non-dualistic thinking. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” He didn’t mean us to work toward something that we’re not already. He wants us to embrace our core identity, and do everything as who we are as the salt and the light. So, whether we pray, sing, worship, work, rest, eat, sleep, play, exercise we do it inside out.
It is still possible to live a divided life by forgetting who we are. As Jesus warns us, sometimes we do lose our saltiness, and hide our light, and we become timid and fearful. Sometimes church is like that. The church without saltiness or light. Nothing is more frightening than that.
I often hear people lament the loss of younger people in the church. I totally get that. We all want to pass on what we’ve been given to the next generation. We must, however, focus on how to live the gospel of Jesus Christ as a church, not how to be an attractive church. We can become more interested in people from all walks of life and engage them, not necessarily become an interesting church. For, people will notice when we live out our calling as authentically as possible. I also hear people express their concerns about how the church is losing its passion for social justice. We are the church that once dreamed and practiced “Thy will be done one earth as it is in heaven” with the social gospel movement. I wonder if the real issue is not so much losing the passion for justice as the separation of justice and spirituality as if they are different. We have suffered the consequence of the separation. Now is the time for the church to integrate the two – spirituality and justice. For, worshipping God and working for justice are one.
Isaiah gives us a clear path as to how to solve our dilemma. “I’ll tell you what it really means to worship the LORD. Remove the chains of prisoners who are chained unjustly. Free those who are abused! Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and homeless. Give clothes to those in need; don’t turn away your relatives. Then your light will shine like the dawning sun, and you will quickly be healed.”
I can’t find a more clear answer than what we’ve just heard. We come to worship God not because we want to feel good, but because we are called to celebrate God’s presence in the midst of brokenness and suffering in the world. We are also called to do the will of God right where we are as we worship the God of justice and compassion. We must reclaim the saltiness and light, the prophetic voice in each of us. When we live inside out, we can be assured that we are doing enough, and we are enough.
I’d like to end my reflection with a story from Sufism:
Past the seeker as he prayed came the crippled and the beggar and the beaten. And seeing them he cried, “Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?” God said, “I did do something. I made you.”