We continue in the season of Epiphany until Ash Wednesday, March 1. Epiphany is about recognizing the manifestation of God in Jesus and in the world and in ourselves. This week we are seeing God made manifest in human acts of righteousness. The scriptures stress again and again that righteousness is not about obeying rules or upholding traditions of the past. We will hear Isaiah talk about the rigorous religious observances of the people including fasting, yet God’s response is, “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? 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? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” (Isaiah 58:1-12)
The health and vitality of the church today depend on it “rising in the darkness as a light” as the Psalm of our Call to Worship puts it (Psalm 112), or as Jesus puts it in the section of the Sermon on the Mount we will be reading, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-20)
The history of the worldwide church is full of inspiring stories of people and congregations that have done this. Our congregation has responded to the calling of Isaiah and Jesus in our most joyous and glorious moments and made a lasting difference–for instance the food shelf, or the helping of refugees and immigrants and minorities in the past and the continuation of it today. We will celebrate this history by hearing the ancient scriptures and singing four stirring old hymns from the Pilgrim Hymnal (starting with the Introit, “Lead Me, Lord,” and then the congregation singing “Once to Every Man and Nation,” “God of the Nations, Who from Dawn of Days,” and “God Send Us Men Whose Aim ‘Twill Be”). We will also read our covenant (click here to see it) in which we promise God and one another that we will continue in our day to live in the ways of righteousness, a path that Paul defines simply as “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
The choir will sing “Author of Life Divine” by Cecilia McDowall and Organist John Atwood will play pieces by Guilmant, Sweelinck and Pachelbel’s beautiful and uplifting “Fugue in C Major.” You may listen to two versions of the Pachelbel below, an exhilarating organ performance followed by an inspired harpsichord rendition.
But first I invite you to experience a deeply moving version of the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation.” This has been sung at many moments in the church’s historic pursuit of righteousness when the world around it strayed. It was sung during the Civil War and during the Civil Rights Movement and many times in between. Here it is being sung in India, where it, along with the Sermon on the Mount we will be reading, inspired Mahatma Gandhi to lead his people to freedom. Think of that as you listen.