Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

“The City built on ‘the Hill’ cannot be hid”

OT: Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm: Psalm 112:1-10
NT: 1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20

“A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”

You may or may not know that our church has a nickname: it’s called “the Hill.” Our homeless brothers and sisters have given us this name, no doubt because St. Joe’s sits on something of a hill in the neighborhood and because our location on Main Street, between 9th and East Campus, is certainly a prominent one in our town.

But “the Hill” has gained notoriety on the streets for being a place of hospitality, friendship, and the breaking of bread. We have gained a distinct reputation as a peculiar little city on a hill, a city with a fresh kind of politics that gathers young and old, rich and poor, male and female, white and black. The unusual bonds of Christian friendship we sow here shine as a light to the world around us, signaling that this is a place where you are welcome, where you can find community, and where the possibility for discovering new life with others is unique. Even if you have a background full of hardship and turmoil, the little church on “the Hill” can be a place of healing and renewal, a place where you can find yourself in the communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And, if there is any doubt these days that God’s Church has lost its saltiness — its taste –well come join us for breakfast some morning after 7:30 prayer. I guarantee, for better or worse, our renowned cheese grits will have plenty of salt.

But that’s not all. Besides Morning and Evening Prayer and breakfast with the homeless during the week, some also gather for a service of healing and Eucharist on Wednesday’s at 6:00. It’s a wonderful time for taking our most urgent cares and concerns to God while receiving anointing and prayer from others. Currently, several folks remain after that Wednesday service for a potluck dinner. There, they read-up on and discuss the many spiritual practices of our tradition, practices that renew us and bind us together in God’s love.

And still, that’s not all. Jamie Kennedy, our Jr. Warden, often organizes a workday on Saturdays for people to help care for the church grounds, plant trees at St. Mary’s in Hillsborough, and, once the spring arrives, tend the garden behind the church or at the Elizabeth house.

Yes, life on “the Hill” has blossomed. It has spread into our homes and into our daily lives. St. Joseph’s has even birthed a new mission in our diocese called the Community of the Franciscan Way. Every Monday, Friday, and Sunday evenings people gather at one of three hospitality houses for dinner, fellowship, and prayer. These houses, inspired by the Catholic Worker tradition, endeavor to make hospitality a fixture in our common life as Episcopalians.

Beyond all of this, St. Joseph’s has become a place of sanctuary for many other groups: a Romanian Orthodox Church worships above our Parish Hall on Sundays. Both an Alcoholics Anonymous group and a Yoga class use our building during the week. And on cold winter nights, our homeless friends find warmth and comfort when we open up the Parish Hall for them to sleep.

Indeed, “This little city built on ‘the Hill’ cannot be hid.” Evermore we are finding ways to give witness to Christ in our midst. We are becoming a light to the world around us. And for many people on this end of Durham, we serve, much like salt, as a preservative, not only for food, but for life.

And yet, we are always at risk for losing our saltiness, for hiding our light under a bushel basket. After all, in our Isaiah reading, we find the people of Israel fasting and humbling themselves, trying to draw near to God, but God says, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. […] you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting… will not be heard on high. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, … 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?”

You see, the people in Isaiah’s time had continued their pious acts of worship, but they soon came to neglect one another, hiding themselves specifically from the poor. They sought only a religion that met their individual desires. It’s as if their light had ceased to shine. They could no longer see, like a people that gathered in darkness unaware of those around them. Even God became, for them, an instrument for their own private interests.

So what does this sort of tasteless religion look like today? What kind of pitfalls should we be aware of that might tempt us to cover up our light, hiding it under a private bushel basket?

Some writers have said that sentimentality is the thing that kills the church the most today. Sentimentality is an emotional response that is disproportionate to the situation at hand. Emotions, of course, are not bad — far from it! But as Oscar Wilde put it, sentimentality is “the desire to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” So rather than the kind of feelings drawn from a confrontation with the truly joyful or tragic realities of our lives; instead, sentimentality is an artificial settling for that which is only superficial. It is the illusion of faithfulness under the guise of “pious feelings” — feelings that take our gaze off what matters most to God and miscasts the world in a way suitable to our liking. In this way, sentimentality is a kind of emotional dishonesty, an inability to feel really, and too often it becomes the mask of cruelty before we even realize it.

Several of us watched the Super Bowl last Sunday at the Teresa House, and as everyone knows, the commercials are the best part. But we were struck by the sentimental nature of many of these advertisements. The cutest one, of course, was of the little puppy that made friends with the Budweiser horse; the two couldn’t be separated from one another. Meanwhile, another commercial played “America the Beautiful” in several different languages while cutting to scenes of various ethnic groups smiling, playing, and sipping their Coca-colas.

Now there’s nothing wrong with commercials like these. They generate a quick emotional response that helps us feel at ease when we buy their products. And, of course, we’re always glad to pick out our favorite Super Bowl ads when the game finally ends. But the problem, obvious as it may be, is that such ads are not a truthful portrayal of the way things really are. Puppies and Clydesdales don’t jump fences to play with one another. And ethnic strife in our country, as well as a persistent fear of violence and isolation, cannot be brushed over by a rosy Coke commercial.

On a personal level, many of us here have real pain and real sorrow that we deal with on a daily basis. We hurt and ache and long to share our burdens with others who may also be hurting and aching. Likewise, we often encounter great joy — the beauty of childbirth, for example, or perhaps the helping hand of a friend giving precious time working alongside of us. And yet even these moments of true beauty or sorrow can quickly get romanticized or commodified by our Super Bowl consumer culture. Such temptations to sentimentalize our lives are so subtle, we hardly taste the difference. And this is especially true for the Church today.

It is so easy to make church merely a comfortable weekend activity, or a place where we actually avoid true vulnerability with one another and our God. Community is what we all long for, but unity takes hard work. Reaching out to those who are different from us and letting ourselves be truly seen is not something our world trains us to do very well. We think in terms of “I” or “me”, but vary rarely in terms of “us” or “we.” And while conflict is a staple of human gatherings, especially in churches, we know that healthy conflict can be the primary fruit of growth for those of us bound by our common baptism.

Here at St. Joseph’s, we are trying to build a city on a hill that cannot be hid. We are learning to come out of the dark and share our wounds, our joys, and our hopes with all sorts of different people. Indeed, we have set a good course, but let us beware our losing our taste. It is far too easy to settle for bland religion, or bland spirituality that only rises to the level of private sentimental feelings. You see, we serve a God who wants to restore us and give us all life abundant. But such life is only possible as a life together.

So why taste like everything else in this world that tries to turn us all into mere consumers. Let’s strive to be different. We don’t have to hide who we are here. We don’t have to fear the brilliance of this light we share with one another. When the church simply IS the Church, people will be drawn to us and to the God whose glory we proclaim. So let’s let it happen. Don’t settle for anything less. Let’s come to this table and taste Him who wants to make us the salt of the earth. Let’s celebrate who we are and who we are becoming. And instead of singing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”, perhaps our common work will shout out, “This magnificent light of ours, we are gonna let it shine.” After all, the world doesn’t want us to hide away, folks. As they are beginning to say all over town these days,

“That little city on “the Hill” — the red door church — that’s the place to be.”

Amen.