A Sermon for 5 Epiphany
They are strong lessons we have heard this morning, with a common theme calling us to live into the work God gives us.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would definitely qualify to go on his “Greatest Hits” album. The Sermon, an extended set of teaching covering three chapters in the early part of Matthew’s gospel, is the longest passage of Jesus’ direct teaching that we find in the New Testament.
It wasn’t actually a single sermon, according to New Testament scholarship. It’s now believed that during the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, a set of his most important teachings was collected in a single document that circulated among the communities of his followers, and when Matthew came to composing his account of the Good News of Jesus’ life and ministry, he included this great chunk of teaching as one sermon delivered on a mountainside. (Luke has a largely identical sermon delivered by Jesus, but on a plain.)
In the sermon, Jesus begins by talking about God’s favor, by reflecting on those who are blessed, or fortunate, in their relationship with God. We heard “the Beatitudes” last Sunday. Today ‘we’ve heard Jesus’ teaching about salt and light, and his commentary on his relationship to the Law of Moses. Next Sunday we’ll listen to the core of Jesus’ ethical teachings in a series of proclamations know as “the Antitheses”.
One of my seminary professors described the Sermon on the Mount as “the constitution for the Kingdom of God”, what we would now call “the Reign of God”:
Jesus had preached that “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, and now Jesus was teaching his disciples what the Reign of God looks like in practice.
Last Sunday Julie reflected with us on Jesus’ observations about those who are blessed – who are fortunate, who find themselves in relationship with God. The commonality, she observed, is that the blessed, the fortunate, are those who are vulnerable, NOT those recognized as powerful and successful. The blessed are those who know both their own brokenness, she said, and who recognize the world’s brokenness and who hunger for justice.
The way Jesus uses language in this set of teachings is worth paying attention to. As he begins talking about those who are blessed, he speaks of them as “they”. But during his description of those who are blessed, however, it’s almost as if he realizes how important it is for his listeners, the disciples, to recognize that he is talking about them, and his pronoun switches to “you”.
And that’s where we take up the sermon this morning:
YOU ARE the salt of the earth.
YOU ARE the light of the world.
These are rich metaphors, for sure. Both salt and light have value because they transform things. They are positive metaphors.
Salt gives flavor and seasoning. It is used to purify and to preserve. Associated with sanctification in the ancient world, salt was used in sealing covenants and sprinkled on sacrifices. Although most of us consume more of it than we need, our bodies require salt to transmit nerve impulses, and to contract and relax our muscles. Salt affects what it touches.
Light enables sight; it illuminates; it provides it provides freedom for movement. We know, especially in the seasons when the sun’s light is decreased, how much light affects our moods.
Listen closely: in speaking of salt and light, Jesus was affirming his listeners, not prescribing. He didn’t say “you need to be salty” or “God wants you to be light”, but rather, “You ARE salt”; “you ARE light”.
This is the thing - we are called to manifest what we already are. We are not only blessed in the truth of our vulnerability, but the very being that God creates us with is what the world needs. Our words and our actions manifest God. Just as the salt and the light impact what they are applied to, God works through us to make a difference to those we come in contact with.
We are the salt that heals the world, the light that gives hope and courage, because, in our frailty and our brokenness, we know God’s loving presence. We are the city on the hill that makes God’s blessing and God’s love known to others.
It sounds good, doesn’t it? That we know what God calls us to? It is the living into it, the putting it into practice that is terribly hard.
And this is where I think we also need to listen to the prophet Isaiah.
The book we know as “Isaiah” is actually a compilation of several voices speaking from and to the Hebrew people over the course of generations. One part of Isaiah was composed during the Exile in Babylon and reflects hope for deliverance, while another expresses the joy of return to Judah.
Today’s reading, from the section known as Trito-Isaiah, reflects the disillusionment and despair of the post-exilic period, in which Israel had returned to the ancestral lands but was faced with famine, drought, failing crops, and strife in relations with their non-Hebrew neighbors, all struggling to survive under Persian rule.
Isaiah 58 cries out at God’s apparent disinterest in their plight. They seek God and believe they are practicing righteousness, but they don’t receive the response they look for:
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
The prophet’s answer, articulated in God’s own voice, reflects the same message we heard last week from the prophet Micah, that God is not interested in acts of religious devotion for their own sake. Isaiah lays out an accusation of hypocrisy: the people fast, but oppress their workers; they humble themselves but quarrel with neighbors.
The righteousness God calls for is care for the real needs of God’s children, and the righteousness of actions that work to bring justice:
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?
The passage then transitions into the assurance of God’s response:
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
It is a very important connection that Isaiah clear: it is our efforts at doing God’s work that call God’s presence forth in the world. Saying the right things, going through the motions, don’t manifest God. Showing up is what God asks of us – showing up in all of our our imperfections is the work we’re called to. Theologian Sallie McFague famously said “If God is absent from this world, it is because we are.” *
Jesus’ message – to hearers in Galilee and to us today – is a word of love, hope, and reassurance, but it is a call to action.
It is about God’s favor, not God’s demands.
It is about God’s inclusion of those who feel excluded.
It is God’s affirmation of who we already are.
It is the invitation to be the salt and the light that the world needs.
The spring of water that never fails.
How will we do it this week?
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