Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
I often wonder whether the stick-on badges that charity collectors give out are there to permit us free passage without further challenge from other charity collectors, or whether they are there to tell the world: “Look, I have given to charity. Is that not noble of me?”
I suspect that there may be a bit of both. A certain relief from further accosting by collectors mingled with a small degree of smugness.
Perhaps my skepticism extends also to some of our national honours: many given to the already wealthy and successful, to those who have already gained acclaim, and who just burnish it a bit more.
In Isaiah, the prophet rebuked his people for shallow religious practice: they made a show of their alms and fasting, but still went around abusing others. And it was not strangers that they were getting to but their own kin.
It did not really matter how extravagant was their show of worship if their lives were still empty and worse, oppressive of others.
Isaiah was not opposing worship: rather he was demanding that it should continue beyond the temple and the national cult into the daily lives of the people.
And these needy people were there in the streets of the cities, to be seen every day and so to minister to them was direct and personal. Charity was not in that sense delegated to the government to do the difficult personal bits: as if, as now, the people paid taxes to massive bureaucracies to do the charity stuff on their behalf.
Paul also stressed that his ministry was not an exercise in show-business or public relations. There were no slick presentations, no song and dance routines, no spotlights or microphones or dazzling outfits. Paul stripped his message of the razzamatazz so that its simplicity and authority might speak for themselves.
Similarly he did not make a demonstration of his learning by quoting the other authorities, preferably in the languages of their writings which would of course be wholly unintelligible to most others.
In proclaiming Jesus Christ and Him crucified, Paul was relying on the simplicity of his speech so that the glory of God might give power to his words. In this Paul was also crucifying himself and was reducing himself rather than promoting himself.
The message would be powerful enough: absurd perhaps to those who prided themselves in their education and learning, but a glorious release to those who also were and had nothing.
In His way, Jesus made a very similar point. He said that the people already were the salt of the earth and the light of the world: they did not have to do anything to earn it. All they had to do was to continue to follow Him and the rest would come.
And this was not an invitation for the future but a statement of the present. The people already were His witnesses, even before He had gone to the cross. How much more so would they be afterwards. Their mission was to be themselves – and to let Jesus be Himself within their hearts and lives, and among them in their relations with one another.
But both would be necessary – and both would begin where they were right them. They would not be able to put it off. The reconciliations that they would have to make with estranged family members and villagers would indeed come in due course.
These would not be excuses for delay.
Rather like switching on a low energy light bulb: light comes forth the moment it is switched on, but it is dim and sheds little light: not very much but it still sheds a quality that we recognise as light.
As time passes, provided that it is still switched on, then the light grows, until it really does penetrate the dark corners, and it really does fill the room, and indeed cast a light into the night outside.
But there is another point in what Jesus says about the works of His disciples. The purpose of these works is to glorify God – and not to establish personal reputations for generosity or kindness or goodness or godliness in any other form.
The works that will glorify God will be those that come without personal agenda, even if they come at some personal cost. Their aim is to reflect some of the love and mercy of God, and not to place God or anyone else under any kind of obligation or to find recognition.
But if every person is a candle, each lit and giving light – and yes, each expending him or herself in the process, then the overall effect is a candelabra of unspeakable magnificence. And when more candles of different sizes and intensities, in different positions and casting light in different ways are presented: then the effect is to provide both light and warmth.
In Jesus, this is not a speculation but a statement of fact: and you are the facts.