The Quest for Righteousness–A Sermon

Sermon on Mount

The Rev. Noah Van Niel

St. John the Evangelist

February 5th, 2017

Epiphany 5: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Cor 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

Why do you come to church? There are lots of reasons to come; lots of good reasons. But if you had to pick the one thing that keeps you coming back (hopefully) week after week, what would it be?

I’ll tell you why I come to church, what first drew me in and has kept me coming back: Righteousness. I come looking for righteousness, not because I have it, but because I know I do not. I come because I want it.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about “righteousness” this year because Matthew loves righteousness, he talks about it more than any of the other Gospels. And we are going to be walking with Matthew as our primary Gospel narrative until next Advent. So keep your ears out for it. Last week, if we hadn’t celebrated our patronal feast of St. John the Evangelist, we would have heard The Beatitudes which open Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. Righteousness is all over those “blessed art thou’s”: “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for you will be filled”; “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And this morning we hear Jesus tell his disciples, that unless their righteousness exceeds even that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

What is Righteousness, though? It’s one of those words that you hear all the time, you know it’s a good thing, but it’s hard to define. A dictionary definition isn’t much help, for it defines righteousness as “right living or conduct.” Living rightly. But what that “rightly” consists of is by no means clear.

So this morning, I have four things I believe can help us clarify what is meant by righteousness; that can help keep us from wandering off the path that leads to a life that is pleasing to God. Four habits of living that help us live rightly.

Number one: In order to be righteous we first need to live authentically. We need to know who we truly are. In our Gospel passage this morning, we pick up after the Beatitudes with lines just as famous, “You are the Salt of the earth,” Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the Light of the world.” But if salt has lost its saltiness it is not salt, it’s worthless. If a light is hidden under a basket, it is not lighting, it might as well not be a light at all. Do the thing you were created to do and be, Jesus is saying. Don’t be something or someone you are not. Don’t lose your identity; don’t hide it. If you’re salt, be salty, if you’re a light, shine. That’s what it means to be authentic.

But what about us, what are we, human beings, created to be? What is our authentic and true self?

Nowhere is this question more beautifully answered than in the poem “As kingfishers catch fire,” by the great Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. In the first stanza Hopkins uses a number of examples from the natural world to make the point that, “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells… Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.” They externalize that which they are internally. And in the second stanza, Hopkins turns his attention to human beings. Each Man, Hopkins continues,

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

We are Christ. Or more accurately, Christ dwells in us. That is our authentic self, that which “indoors dwells” in us. Our authentic life is to be in touch with that identity.

But what does it mean to be Christ? To live like Christ? Surely we do not have his powers and perfection. No, to live like Christ means to live for others. That is my second point. If we are to be like Christ we must be for others, especially, for the others for whom no one else is for. This is the path to righteousness. Just ask Isaiah. Frustrated with the self-righteousness of the empty rituals and sacrifices made by his chosen people, God tells Isaiah to make it crystal clear what true righteous living looks like:

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?

Those words make things pretty clear. Righteousness is to be found by being there for those in need. For if you care for your fellow human being, those who are your own kin, especially those human beings suffering injustice, oppression, hunger, homelessness, or persecution, God promises that “then your light shall break forth like the dawn…then your light shall rise in the darkness.” Let your light shine into the live that are the bleakest, so that all may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

But what about all the other moments in our life where the moral imperative is less clear, where it’s a lot harder to know what is the “right” way to live in a given moment? For that we need the third habit of righteousness, which is a rule to live by. Some sort of law to guide us in our living, that we can use to measure, and weigh a situation and find the way forward. For ancient Jews that was the purpose of The Law. The rules and commandments laid out in The Hebrew Bible were there to lead people to righteousness. As Christians, we have a new law to judge our lives by—Jesus Christ. As Jesus tells us this morning, he did not come to abolish the old law, but to fulfill it, and then some. For the kingdom of heaven is opened to those whose life goes above and beyond the letter of the law and seeks to fulfill the Spirit of it. A Spirit which for us is encompassed in that great summary, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all they mind and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Love is the measure of righteousness. The love given form and voice in Jesus Christ. When you come to a fork on the path, ask yourself which option is most loving of God and neighbor, and you will choose rightly.

Some of you may have seen, on the news, in the papers, or on Facebook, that last Tuesday, Fr. Tim and I attended a press conference with a number of our clerical colleagues from across religious faiths in rejection of a presidential order that was discriminatory and harmful to exactly the human beings Isaiah is talking about. An order that does not abide by the law of love as I understand it. I want to be clear, it was not politics that drew us into those crowds last week, it was righteousness. Not because we are righteous but because we want to be. It was about trying, desperately, to live in a way that Jesus would have lived. Because if our purpose, the goal of all our living, the aim of all our lives is righteousness—living rightly, and that rightness is measured in the person of Jesus Christ, then the fact is, how we live our lives—where we stand, what we stand for, who we stand with—is what that righteousness consists of. Is our life Christ-like or not? Does it abide by the law of love, or not?

Even if we can answer affirmatively to those questions though, there is one last thing we need in order to have any hope of being righteous, and to keep us from becoming self-righteous. To be righteous we need authenticity, purpose, rules, but most of all, we need faith. We need faith because, ultimately, full righteousness is beyond our ability to achieve it ourselves. It is our faith in Jesus to fill in the gaps, to reach out across the divide between who we are and who we long to be that will ultimately bring our righteousness to fulfillment. Never forget that God alone is truly righteous. And while we can’t actually be fully righteous of our own efforts, we must strive for it with all our might. That’s an important distinction. And it is what allows me to stand up before you in this collar and robes and say that by no stretch of the definition of the word am I a righteous man. But I want to be. I long to be. I hunger and thirst after righteousness trusting that, by the grace of God, I will be filled. Trusting that by the grace of God I will be a little more righteous today than I was yesterday.

Live authentically. Live for others. Live by love. Live with faith. That is how to live rightly. That is the life that leads towards righteousness. That is what I come to church for. To learn who I am, what I’m supposed to do, how I know if it’s right, and where to look for help. And the answer to all of these, (which you know, if you’ve been keeping track) is Jesus. Who are we when we are our most authentic? Jesus. What is our purpose in life? To live like Jesus. How will we know what to do? Follow Jesus’ law of love. And who do we put our trust in to make up for our shortcomings? Jesus. Jesus Christ. The one who promises to lead us into all righteousness. The one who is our companion and friend, our guardian and guide, our rock and redeemer, our savior and Lord.