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Isaiah 58:1–12; Psalm 112:1–9; 1 Corinthians 2:1–12; Matthew 5:13–20

I think today it might be important to just take a moment to rest in the peace that we share together in this place, to even do something a little un-Anglican, and take the hand of the person closest to you. Look at them. See them as one whom you love and who loves you. With your gaze, wish them peace, and when you are ready to let go of that hand, leave peace with them.

There are houses of prayer in this world where peace is elusive, where fear exists alongside faith, where those who come together to rest in God’s presence run the risk of sharing their sacred space with hate and bullets. There are people of God in this world who are afraid to leave their homes, who are afraid for their children, who are afraid that they are all alone. There is a whole world outside the doors of this beautiful place that is afraid and angry and lonely and hurting, a whole world that you and I, St. Philip’s in Dunbar, are being empowered to save, by the grace of God, in the Body of Christ, with the power of the Holy Spirit. The love you all embody will be what saves God’s precious world. We must believe this.

Last week, in this place, we heard the words of our Lord speaking blessing to the downtrodden and oppressed, the fearful and humble, the peacemakers and the persecuted. Today, we receive a call to be salt and light – simple things without which life could not exist on this planet, which do their work without the use of words or sound, simple things which simply are, for God’s sake.

Most of you know that I am recently returned to you after two weeks in the Holy Land. I met quite a few people on my travels who were salt and light, and they were the kind of salt in the eye, blinding light that a body could despair of ever matching. And yet, like the salt of the ocean and the light of the sun, they nurture life seemingly without effort, by the grace of God.

The one I want to tell you about today is a Palestinian Anglican named Bishara Khoury. Bishara is the St. George’s College logistics officer and was our guide on the trip. He kept us on task and he kept us safe. He reminded us every day to make sure we had our passports and our “blue paper,” our travel visas, our personal sound systems, and our water. He told us what to do if soldiers came onto our bus at a checkpoint. He kept us going by calling, “Y’allah, St. George’s!” (Let’s go!) He told us to be careful of the pickpockets on the Mount of Olives. He told us we would never regret trying kanafeh, an unparalleled dessert of fried noodles, goat cheese, and honey – and he was right. He told us to “Open your hearts to the biggest size of it,” when we were being instructed on how to handle the Israeli security officials at the airport.

Most of all, he told us to always keep all the people of Jerusalem in our prayers, and he meant all of them.

Everyone loved Bishara. Everywhere he went, people greeted him, hugged him, shook his hand and smiled. He knew them all, called them “Habibi,” which is sort of like “dear” or “buddy.” He made jokes with Palestinian street vendors in Hebron and was crushed into a bear hug by an Israeli settler in Efrat. Whenever I said, “Sabaah al-kheyr; good morning, Bishara, how are you?” he always responded, “I am wonderful! Praise be to God!” In Advent I spoke about how Christian hope should be audacious. Bishara showed me what that looked like. He wished only joy to the people around him, and had complete faith that the prayers of God’s people would be answered and peace would come, and that it was worth any pain or struggle.

He was able to say that knowing full well the risks Christians run in the place of his birth. There are the simple denials, like entrance into Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, and then there are the greater risks, like the violence regularly visited upon Christians and Muslims by Jewish extremists in places like Nablus and Hebron, or like the Hezbollah rockets which occasionally hit the city of Haifa. All of these were places that we visited, and not only did Bishara help keep all of us safe, his connections took us into places most people never get a chance to see. He was not afraid of owning his identity. Bishara rested in the knowledge of God’s ultimate love. And he was not alone. This was a steadfast faith nourished well in the Anglican churches we visited. Father Hatem, the priest at St. Luke’s in Haifa, reminded us and his Arabic-speaking congregation repeatedly that Jesus came down from the mountain after teaching; that he didn’t remain up above everyone else but came down among the sick and unclean to do the work of healing.

The focus of that sermon was not prescription but assurance. God sees us. God comes to us. God wants to be near us. God is not put off by our sickness or our fear or our doubt. We know this because Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes that the ones who are blessed are the ones the world ignores or cuts down. Those too are not mere prescriptions but assurances.

Bishara believed that. He lived as though he believed it. He literally staked his life on it.

I consider myself to be a fairly faithful person…but my soul’s got nothing on Bishara.

Here on the secular West Coast, it’s not particularly risky to be a Christian. A Christian who wants to take risks here has to make them. It’s one thing to risk awkward dinner conversations. It’s another to risk death. I would argue that the church’s worst enemy in the West is societal apathy about our existence. Societal apathy isn’t what I’d call pleasant, but neither is it particularly painful either. And yet, for many faithful Western Christians, it’s the biggest boogeyman of all time.

Obviously I’m not suggesting we work to create a world where we are in the same boat as Christians in the Middle East. But I do think it’s imperative that we take time to consider the great gift of safety we have here, and use that to make some risks on behalf of the one who risked and lost his life for us…and in return gave us everything.

What does this look like? Maybe it looks like standing up for someone who’s being bullied. Maybe it’s giving something up that, on further contemplation, doesn’t contribute to life – ours or someone else’s. Maybe it’s smiling and talking to a homeless person on the street instead of walking by. Maybe it’s doing something special for someone you don’t really like that much.

It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It just has to be sincere.

Bishara didn’t walk on water. But he had a heart big enough to love the whole world, and he left it wide open for anyone to respond how they saw fit. The stories he told detailed a life in which much had been lost, but this did not take away his saltiness; or put a bushel basket over his light. Instead it deepened his commitment to a cruciform life, a life lived for others in steadfast prayer and compassion, which I can categorically prove.

As I posted pictures from my trip on Facebook, I added one of the two of us, taken by the river Jordan after we renewed our baptismal vows. In the photo’s caption I wrote how special Bishara was to me and to all of us on that trip. I made sure I tagged him in the photo, so it would show up on his own Facebook page. That was a week ago, and there are already eight comments beneath the page, most of them from people I don’t know, affirming how special Bishara is and has been to them. So far he has responded personally to each one.

Friends, God has equipped us, Jesus calls us, and the Holy Spirit dwells in us. We won’t all be Bisharas. But if for one minute we can aim to embody the love of Jesus – the boundary-breaking, life-affirming, arms-wide-open love of the Anointed Son of God – then, friends, maybe we really will see the Kingdom of God breaking into the world.