Below is my sermon from the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, preached at St Mark’s Warwick. The lessons can be found here. A recording of the sermon along with the manuscript can be found below. As always, comments and feedback welcome.
20th century Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple is often quoted for saying, “the Church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.”
In this sentence, Temple has articulated a deep and profound reality of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. From the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry to this moment in 2017 this is the abiding truth of the Church. As the catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
Now I’ll admit, these two phrases sound a bit like lofty ideals put forward by academics, bishops, and church councils, which is exactly what they are, but at the heart of these words are the very words of Jesus.
Today we hear from Matthew’s Gospel. We continue along this five-week journey through that most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount. The journey began last week as we heard those familiar words of the Beatitudes, and continues this week as we hear Jesus announce our identity – we hear Jesus tell us what it means to follow him – we hear Jesus say, “You are the salt of the earth . . .You are the light of the world.”
These words are familiar. They have inspired the hearts and minds of artist, poets, and musicians for centuries. They have seeped into the cultural imagination of our world, and friends they can even be found on bumper stickers.
I wonder if I am the only one who started singing to myself, “hide it under a bushel NO, I’m gonna let it shine” as the words, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,” were proclaimed from the Gospel.
We know these words, and that is where the danger lies.
The danger lies in the complacency of the familiar. The danger lies in becoming numb to just how powerful these words are. We must wake up and see the fullness of what Jesus is really calling us to this day.
So what does it mean to be salt?
The phrase, “the salt of the earth” has been normalized into our cultural vocabulary to mean really good, down to earth people. Because this phrase is so familiar we miss out on recognizing just how bizarre this would have sounded to those present with Jesus. Imagine instead if Jesus said, “You are the red hot chili peppers of the earth.”
You add zest. You add spice. You enliven. You shake up and unsettle the world.
This is what the disciples are called to do.
The way they are to engage the world should have profound consequences for the behavior of humanity. But in order to do this they must stay vigilant. That is why Jesus warns about salt that has lost its saltiness. The danger for the disciples is that they might lose that capacity, by forgetting that they are to disorder the status quo by valuing those who are dispossessed, by caring for those who suffer loss, by seeking to do justice, showing mercy, having integrity, being peacemakers, and courageously standing for what they believe. Jesus is clear; disciples who do not engage in such practices that humanize life and restore the dignity of humanity are bland, and fall into the trap of following the ways of this early kingdom instead of the ways of God.
Today we are called to be red hot chili peppers. Today we are called to be salt.
The second metaphor used to instruct the disciples in their newfound identity as followers of Jesus is light.
It is important to note here that the disciples themselves are not the light.
There is only one light. The light that shines in the darkness. The light that enlightens the nations. The light of the world is Jesus.
So when Jesus says to the disciples, “You are the light of the world,” Jesus is saying to them that you are to be windows through which the light of God passes through and shines on the world. The gathered community of the disciples are to be so transformed by the light of God which passes through them, that they become beacons that burst forth the image and reality of God’s justice, God’s mercy, and God’s love.
Today we are called to be windows. Today we are called to be light.
After Jesus finished his metaphors of salt and light, he interjects with a clarification about the connection between this new thing that he is doing and the tradition that has been handed down to them.
Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Jesus is being explicit here, that the law and the prophets stand until they have been accomplished – until the prophecies have been fulfilled. So these words from Jesus force us to connect what it means to be salt and light with the prophetic message we hear from Isaiah.
Today’s passage from Isaiah draws our attention to the true meaning of worship. Throughout the beginning of the passage, the prophet is calling out the people of Israel for making their worship about themselves. They say to God, “why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” After pointing out the problems with the Israelites behavior the prophet goes on to say:
Is this not 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?
Worship, when it is only about us, is not true worship. True worship is that which brings us closer to God and inspires us to go out into the world and live into the fullness of that relationship.
I want to be clear. There is nothing wrong with worship and ritual as long as we are not participating in those things for their own sake or out of some sort of obligation. Worship is not the end, but a vehicle to something more.
Worship should push us, it should make us uncomfortable, it should trouble the complacency in our hearts for worship is the primary way we build a deeper and more honest relationship with God. From this place of discomfort we should be moved to go out and act – to go out and make real the fast the Lord has chosen.
So, when Jesus says not one letter of the law or prophets will be erased until they have been fulfilled, Jesus is saying the work of my disciples – the work of salt and light – is to loose the bonds of injustice; to let the oppressed go free; to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to shelter the homeless; to not cast anyone aside; to welcome all people into the community that is the followers of Jesus; and to not rest until the realms of justice, peace, freedom and love prevail.
Over the years as I have come to know this community; as I have heard stories from some of you, from Deacon Joyce, and from Mother Susan I have come to see just how many windows there are here at St. Mark’s. I have come to know just how well you allow the light of Christ to shine through you. Every month over one hundred people come to your doors to be fed, to share in fellowship, and to take food home with them from your Community Lunch. You knit prayer shawls. You’ve established a relationship with the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center. You do all this and so much more. Here at St. Mark’s you are working hard, as a gathered community of disciples of Jesus, to build the kingdom of God, which is already and not yet.
Today as we once again here the invitation of Jesus to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world we are invited to discern how we can live into this identity more fully. We have the opportunity to imagine how we can better live into the sentiments of Archbishop Temple that, “the Church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” In this historical moment it is our responsibility as disciples of Jesus to seek out the lost, the left behind, the broken, the stranger, the scared and welcome them to be among us. To care for them. To love as Jesus loves us.
In a world of increasing anxiety and fear it can be hard to have the courage to keep doing these things.
It can be hard to continue in the righteousness of Jesus.
It can be hard to not be overwhelmed by it all.
In those moments we can turn to the words of the psalmist, who reminds us that the righteous have no reason to fear.
In those moments we can turn to our worshipping communities and pray together.
In those moments, we take all that holds us back and place that into the arms of the loving, life-giving, and liberating God.
Once we are set free from that burden, we can continue on with our work of being salt and light – we can continue on with our work of being the Church.