Matthew 5: 13-20
Grace and peace this winter morning. In the Church Year we are in a moment of interval. The space between the Super Bowl and the First Pitch on Opening Day. Last Sunday: Candlemas and the 40th and last day of Christmas. Next Sunday: Septuagesima and the first official “pre-lenten” Sunday of preparation for Lent, the next great season on the calendar. This week, the “pause” button. What happens in years with a later Easter . . . .
A friend of mine posted a lovely quotation from the Roman Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen. “Patience is a hard discipline. It’s not just waiting until something happens over which we have no control: the arrival of the bus; the end of the rain; the return of a friend; the resolution of a conflict. Patience is not a waiting passivity until someone else does something. Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now, to be where we are. When we are impatient we try to get away from where we are. We behave as if the real thing will happen tomorrow, later, and somewhere else.” Then he concludes, “Let’s be patient and trust that the treasure we look for is hidden in the ground on which we stand.”
For this morning and the next couple of Sundays the lectionary has for us an appropriately pre-lenten opportunity for reflection on the fifth chapter of St. Matthew, the first few sections of the Sermon on the Mount. Certainly a good way to get ready for Lent— reflecting with a patient heart on this extended homily from Jesus himself on the character and vocation of Christian discipleship.
Because Candlemas and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, with the gospel reading from Luke Chapter 2, fell on a Sunday this year, we missed last Sunday the first part of this Sermon on the Mount reading, the Beatitudes --and so this week we begin a couple of paragraphs down the page, at Chapter 5, verses 13-20. But just to set that familiar background context for us. We remember the opening of the Sermon, verses 1-10. Jesus sees the crowd. He goes up the side of this mountain with his disciples and begins to speak. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . . .
We hear these broad generalities. Each a kind of benediction, opening a thematic vista for reflection on Christian life and virtue. For individuals, and with application to the life of the church. Sometimes we might think of this as an outline to describe what “holy” life might be like. Each one a rich source for reflection, and then to think about how these interact one with another.
Then as this opening come to an end, in a rhetorical shift of some dramatic weight Jesus turns to the disciples and looks them in the eye, we might say, and speaks to them directly. Getting down to brass tacks. Not just talking about general types. Verses 11 and 12, what he says right before the beginning of our reading this morning: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
He catches their attention and our attention too. After those broad generalities, the direction of the wind changes. Stormy weather seems to blow in out of nowhere. As the saying goes, “up close and personal.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that his disciples will be blessed “if” these hard things happen. “When.”
When Jesus calls his disciples, they drop their nets and leave home and family behind. Costly discipleship. The idea that that wasn’t just Peter and Andrew and James and John, but that something like that call and response is true for each and every follower of Jesus. Remembering that haunting hymn that we often sing on St. Andrew’s Day. “They cast their nets in Galilee.” --“The peace of God it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.” Read ahead to the 10th chapter of Matthew after this Sermon comes to an end and Jesus and his disciples go out on their mission preaching and healing and confronting evil spirits, and Jesus comes back to this same theme with his disciples, as an inescapable theme, making our way down the highway from Bethlehem and Christmas to Jerusalem and Holy Week, not letting us rest with midnight angels and shepherds: “Beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues . . . . Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” (And if we think this is all about ancient days of Christians and lions in the coliseum we can pay attention next Sunday afternoon at Evensong when we honor the life of the martyred Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwum, who found himself on the wrong side of Idi Amin.) Or see what’s going on for Christians in Syria, or Pakistan.
In any event, this is just what comes before as we get to the passage in Matthew 5 this morning, framework and context, at verse 13. Beginning with two metaphors, drilling down deeper into our thoughts and imaginations—to shape in a poetic way how we see ourselves when we try to understand who we are as Christians, as disciples.
You are the salt of the earth. All kinds of associations, in the ancient world and still for us. Salt as the essential flavoring. To take what is bland and tasteless and without character and to bring out a fullness of flavor. And of course salt as the essential preservative. Without which food will lose not only its flavor but also its wholesomeness. Especially vivid in a world without refrigeration. Preventing rot and decay. And not a thought from the first century, but I heard a great sermon once talking about how salt works on roads and sidewalks in the midst of a long winter like the one we are having this year. Breaking up the ice, melting the snow. The local news stories this week nervously headline the question of whether the city and county and outlying communities have enough salt on hand to deal with the challenges of this winter. What will be the consequences of a shortage of salt? Perhaps a vivid extension of the metaphor for us this winter . . . .
I’m not sure people in the wider world these days think this way about Christians very often. How we might think of our own lives as Christians as being salt-like. How we might think of what St. Andrew’s is as a parish community in this neighborhood, in the wider world. Salt. How the followers of Jesus bring flavor to an otherwise bland and tasteless world. How the followers of Jesus work to make things that might be spoiled, rancid, toxic, now new and fresh and healthful. Or spread on the ground far and wide as a quiet yet powerful force, breaking barriers and opening pathways. Like any metaphor, a jumping off place for the imagination. If salt has somehow lost its ability to do these things, it’s worthless. It may look like salt, but if it doesn’t do what salt does, what is it? Nothing. Worthless. Again, a jumping off place for the imagination.
You are the light of the world. I love those photographs from the Space Station as it orbits the earth—how from the vast distances of space you can see these flickering lights down below, towns and cities, glittering in the darkness like jewels. In a world that can be so dark, and there is a lot of darkness. You can read it in the newspaper, and you can find it closer to home, sometimes even staring right back at you in the bathroom mirror. In a world covered in darkness, rolling back to us the Christmas Eve reading from John: “in him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In a world that can be so dark, in Christ we are each with the potential to be bright and brilliant jewels. Reflecting his perfect light. Dazzling. A coastal lighthouse at the mouth of a safe harbor in the night of a storm. A lot of folks have come to know Christ because of great writers and teachers and preachers. But I think just as often, and actually probably more often, they have come to know Christ because of the light that is reflected in the lives of Christians. The tenderness and love and mercy and forgiveness and that we would know in Jesus shining through. My life seemed dark and hopeless, and then I caught a glimpse of light.
It is Jesus of course and Jesus only who is the salt of the earth and light of the world. “The treasure we are seeking is hidden in the ground on which we stand.” And he tells us how that happens, how in his presence death and darkness are overcome. Which we may hear as a roadmap and direction—what it would mean to come close to him, to walk in his steps, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but fulfill.”
It’s more than we can unpack this morning, but we will see it unfold in the coming sections of the Sermon on the Mount over the next few weeks. How Jesus says that to come close to him, to be true salt and true light, is about not simply conforming outwardly with the formalities and legalism of the scribes and the Pharisees, who are all about keeping score and ordering the externals, but about exceeding their devotion, going farther, in a deeper perfection, a deeper obedience, with a renewal of the heart in an organic union of God’s Word, and of the Word made flesh. I think we might say a life grounded in scripture and sacrament. Not as observers at a distance, but as full participants in his witness, in his suffering, in his death, and in his resurrection. Which is how we become salt and light.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.