Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Our Gospel readings in the first part of this year are taken largely from Matthew, and no one has ever accused Matthew of soft peddling ought, must, and should. Here is the good news via command: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (4:17). "Follow me..."(4:19). "Judge not, that you be not judged" (7:1). "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way easy, that leads to destruction" (7:13). "[Bear fruit!] Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (7:19). Matthew is largely the gospel of responsibility, accountability. You ought, should, and must.
But in his opening remarks of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowd, "Blessed are the poor in spirit...Blessed are those who mourn...Blessed are the meek." It's a radical shift from should, ought, or must! Jesus begins with blessings, blessings upon those who are unblessed, outsiders, those who are failures by the way the world judges success and failure. He crafts a lens through which we might glimpse a vision of God's alternative community values.
Blessing for the poor, hungry, persecuted, meek of the earth. Blessing for those whom the world has cursed. And we're glad that Jesus blesses the poor, the empty, the bereft. We are pleased that he begins his sermon by going on record as having, as the liberation theologians say, "a preferential option for the poor," because at times we have felt poor ourselves. And let’s be perfectly clear, some of us are existentially poor. We are really hurting because we are empty…The good news is that wherever people are suffering or hurting in the world, Jesus seeks to bless them.
But then, in verse eleven, the Beatitudes shift from the third to the second person. Jesus turns from the suffering multitudes toward his own disciples, toward us, and says: "Blessed are you..." Can you see him turn? Blessed are you. What he says now, he says just for you. And we begin to squirm a bit with his gaze fixed so directly upon us. "Blessed are you when they revile you, persecute you, utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account ... that's the way they treated the prophets before you" (5:12). The implication is that the little rag-tag band of fishermen, tax agents, and others off the streets - are in Jesus' view - prophets!!
Imagine the scene... Simon Peter swats a fly. Nathaniel nudges Mary Magdalene who breaks out in a smile. Us? Prophets? "Yes!" says Jesus. "Prophets. Interpreters and truth-tellers of Israel. You. You are the salt of the entire earth...You are the light of the whole world... so shine!"
The Greek, unlike the English, needs no pronoun before a conjugated verb, unless it is used for emphasis. Matthew employs the pronoun here in order to underscore the you. "It's not just ‘You are the salt of the earth, ...the light of the world," it's "You are salt,...You are light." The Gospel made personal...
Note that Jesus doesn't say they ought to be salt, or that they should be light. He says that they ARE. Here is the Gospel in the gracious indicative mood.
I wonder that any in that rumpled bunch, squatting in the dust of that Galilean hillside, could take it in. What a way to begin the transformation of the world! What a way to continue transforming the world...
I’m still struck by the fruit vendor of Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, who lit himself on fire as a final act of desperation in order to express his anger and humiliation. He was a nobody by worldly standards. But he spoke out in the face of injustice and abuse. He would not be ignored. His single tragic act initiated demonstrations in Tunisia which brought down the 23 year dictatorship of President Ben Ali… and that wave of public outrage has spilled over into Egypt and triggered major shifting of the political powers there and around the middle east. Indeed, because of one fruit vendor, the shock waves are being felt around the world…
That’s the good news of Jesus. Small is beautiful. Our Lord can make something out of nothing. Salt. Tiny grains, yet utterly essential in its uses. Salt is not significant in itself. I don't know anybody who eats just salt although I am learning here in France that there are a wonderful variety of kinds of sea salt. Oh, how wonderful is a little dash of salt on eggs, vegetables, or meat. It enhances flavor - It brings out more of the essential flavor of the food which it permeates. Note that Jesus did not say, "You are the hot sauce of the world!" numbing the senses to any other flavor. On the contrary, salt is to enhance and appreciate, not overpower or depreciate the flavor of the food on which you sprinkle it. Of course, salt is also used as a purifier, a preserver, but I don’t think Jesus is talking about that here. He's talking about salt as essential for flavor. We are the ones through whom God seeks to bring the flavor of life back to the world.
You disciples; so small in number. Yet sprinkle a few of you around in your arrondisement or mine, there's no telling what you'll stir up, no telling what you'll savor. You disciples, without you, the whole earth would lose its zest. Without you, it would be boringly bland! How do you like that? We, the disciples of Jesus Christ today, are to add a little zip to the life of our times.
It is not easy to be salt and light in our world. In a world where anyone who believes anything is perceived as a threat, we are tempted not to keep our distinctive flavor. Maybe you have experienced this at your office or school, or among your circle of friends. How many people actually know that you are a Christian? And how do they know? Is it because you are adding a zest for life to the people around you?
I loved the story Jim Belcher told Thursday about the woman who came to a new members class at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. When asked why she was interested in joining the church, she told the following story: “My boss is a member of your church and in a meeting where I had made a huge mistake he took the blame for me. Later, I went to ask him why on earth he would do that. And he wouldn’t say anything. I kept asking him and finally he said simply, ‘I did it because I’m a Christian. Jesus took the blame for me, and so now I can take the blame for others. It’s OK.’” The next question she asked was “Where do you go to church??”
We had some out of town pastors as guests this week. Typically they want to know how many people show up for our services on a Sunday morning. I think a great answer would be from now on, "Not that many, but enough to get the job done… We don't get tens of thousands of English speaking people out for worship on Sundays, just enough of the right people to keep the whole city livened up."
As Jesus explained it, "Many are called, but few are chosen" (Matt. 22:14).
Light, like salt, is powerful even in small doses. Like salt, light is mainly of significance in what it enables to happen. You don't stare at a light bulb. Light is valuable in that it enables us to see something else. Switch on a light, and a dark room is transformed. Light adds depth and perspective, colors and contour. Even in the darkest places of the world, light can bring to life beautiful colors and images. Those of you who are spelunkers or deep sea divers know what I'm talking about.
"You are the light of the whole cosmos," says Jesus. Without you, the world cannot see what it really is. Light reveals not only that which is beautiful and good, but that which is ugly and evil. Light brings contrast. People of the world don't know that they're superficial until they come face-to face with someone of spiritual character and depth. People of the world have no means of seeing its wicked violence until they see people of peace, forgiveness, and sacrificial love. People of the world have no idea what honesty and integrity is until they can see people who actually practice honesty and put words into action. People of the world will never comprehend righteousness until God's Living Word is actually internalized and lived out in the believing community. The summary of the whole law which Jesus came to fulfill is about our love for God and one another. Will the people of the world see in our community life the striking qualities of Christ-like love??
There is so much violence in our world, so much fear and hatred, bigotry and injustice…. And there are a variety of ways to respond. I like the Motto of the Friends Church: "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness."
The world needs you and me to be redeemed before it can know that it is fallen, corrupt, and sin-filled. The world must stumble across just one free person still running loose before the world sees how enslaved it is to a host of cruel masters. You are the light of the world, according to Jesus. Hide your light under a basket, and everyone stumbles.
The world is right in judging the truth of Jesus by the sort of people faith in Jesus is able to produce. The hard question is: Are you being salt and light in your neck of the cosmos? Are you making life a little zestier and real where you are? Do you bring color, true perspective and clarity to life; or gray, empty compliance and assimilation?
I was intrigued to hear about a pyro-technician (who sets up the fire-works at public celebrations). He died, and was cremated. Instead of potting his ashes, his family had his remains stuffed into a fireworks and had him literally light up the whole sky. Perhaps that is a parable for those of us who are to be light in the world. How can we give our whole lives to brighten the world?
Disciples who don't look like brilliant disciples, churches which have blended chameleon-like into the wallpaper of secular political culture are not much help in showing anyone truth and beauty, let alone the way out of darkness. Jesus says that salt that has stopped being salt is moranthe, ie moronic folly. The point here is that the Gospel, like salt, will never lose its flavor - but we can sure lose ours - if we part company from our Saviour, if we subsitute our words for the Word of the Lord, our own dim philosophical reasoning for the scandalous salvation by way of the cross. And that would be ridiculous tragedy.
May this word of grace not become a word of judgment for us. Be who you are in Christ Jesus, brothers and sisters. You are the salt and light of the world. Remember that your life is caught up in some vast cosmic program of Jesus. You are the way Jesus is busy turning the world upside down, enlivening the whole universe. Little things you do, like the way you spend your money, the words you speak to other people, the way you use your body and other peoples' bodies, the jokes you tell, the way you spend your time.. are transformed from being purely personal matters of individual lifestyle into great, cosmic, witness to the Light of the World.
You come to church, to sing and pray and seek out the Light of Christ. Are you surprised when Mr. Light of the World turns around and focuses his high beam of truth upon your little life and calls you his light of the world, you his salt of the earth? May the Gospel of the indicative “being who you are” shine brightly for all the world to see…
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.