Fifth Sunday after Epiphany; February 5, 2017, Year A
Isaiah 58..1-9a [9b-12]; Psalm 112.1-9 ; 1 Cor. 2.1-12 [13-16]; Matt. 5.13-20
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus continues to teach us this week through what is called his, “Sermon on the Mount.” It happens right after he calls his first followers. He gathers them around and instructs them how they are to be in the world and what it means to follow him.
One of the most important points Jesus makes in this week’s Gospel reading is one that is not emphasized in the English language. If we were to translate the text from the original Greek language, the first half of verses 13 and 14 would read: “You ALL together are the salt of the earth; You ALL together are the light of the world.” The “you” in this Gospel reading is plural.
Let me make this as clear as I can this morning: You all sitting right here in the pews are the salt of the earth. You all are the light of the world. This is not one of those times in which we can think, “Oh, Jesus isn’t talking about me.” No, he is speaking to and about you and me here today.
Pastor Richard Jensen writes: “You are!’ Jesus says. Not, you might be. Not, you can be a member of the kingdom if you do this or that. Not, you should strive to be. Simply, you are (Richard Jensen, Preaching Matthew’s Gospel, p. 77)!”
Jesus is reminding us today who we are and what our identity is. You are salt; You are light. I’ll get to what that means in a moment, but first a story about identity.
There is a tribe in Africa where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born … but from the day that the child was a thought it its mother’s mind. The mother “goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child … After she’s heard the song of the child … she goes back and teaches it to her husband, and “to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. Then, as the child grows someone picks it up and sings its song to it. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rites of puberty, then as a way of honoring his person, the people of the village sing his or her song.”
If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or harmful social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them. It is love and the remembrance of identity that has the power to remind that person who they really are in their community and in the world.
And it goes this way through their life. In marriage, the songs are sung, together. And finally, when this child is lying in bed, ready to die, all the villagers know his or her song, and they sing—for the last time—the song to that person.
This is one of the most powerful stories I have heard concerning identity. The song reminds the child of who they are.
For us, Jesus reminds us who and what we are: We are salt; we are light.
This Scripture reminds me of a song I learned while growing up:
You are the light of the world, you are the light of the world, so shine, shine, shine where you are. You are the light of the world.
It goes on:
You are a city on a hill …
You are a candle in the dark …
You are a star in the night …
So shine where you are.
These words are helpful when there are competing forces that say we are something else like: you are worthless, you are ugly, you are fat, you are dumb, you are alone.
These words are not the words of Jesus and they should be ignored and kicked to the curb.
We can forget our identity so easily when the world makes us cynical or lose hope. We can forget this when we become angry, or beat down by the burdens of life. We can forget this when we think we need to be salt or be light all on our own in a world where the suffering is overwhelming.
So what does it mean to be the salt of the earth together? What does it mean to be the light of the world together?
For this answer we need to look to our Isaiah reading, which makes it quite clear what it means to be salt and be light:
share your bread with the hungry,
bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, cover them,
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I’m still learning what it means to be light in a dark place, especially with all kinds of complex issues our world is facing. But sometimes it’s really clear to me how we are to be in the world and what we are to do.
Isaiah 58 has no grey in it. Theologian Brett Younger writes: “Isaiah 58 is a harsh, unequivocal call for religious people to worship in a way that leads them [leads us] to care for the hurting (Feasting on the Word, p. 319).”
William Temple once said, “The church is the organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members (Feasting on the Word, p. 336).”
To be salt and to be light is to see the vulnerable, the suffering ones, and those who are hurting, and to not remain silent, to do something to care for them, and to know that right by them is exactly where we are to stand, no matter the risk to our own selves. And when we stand in those places together, our light shines powerfully.
In the second half of our Gospel reading Jesus says some confusing stuff about the law and how he is here to not make it go away, but to fulfill it. God’s law was always meant for the protection of people and for the good of the whole community. It’s really a rulebook as to how people are to treat and care for one another.
Like anything that is meant for a good purpose, it was turned into something that excluded and oppressed people. Following the law (like not healing on the Sabbath day) became more important to some people like the Pharisees, than it was to be with the sick and the hurting. They missed the point of the law. They cloistered themselves in their own little group rather than going out into the world to be the salt and light they were always meant to be.
Being salt and light isn’t about survival, it is about being courageous.
Later in the Gospel of Matthew the Pharisees try and test Jesus and one of the asks him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matt 22.34-40).”
To love God and to love your neighbor his how you exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. To be merciful and be a peacemaker is to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
Now here is the age old question: who is my neighbor? You can start by looking around you. They are as close to you as the people in this chapel and as far away as those fleeing war and violence in Syria. They are the new Americans who are being resettled right here in Bismarck and Mandan. Your neighbor is someone who has a differing political viewpoint than you, or those who practice a different religion than you. If you have been involved in a gang, your neighbor is someone in a rival group.
In the coming weeks we will hear Jesus say to us that we are to love even our enemies and to pray for them. How might our world be different if we really strived to do this?
In our baptism we are each given a candle that symbolizes the light of Christ that burns brightly within us. In one ancient tradition the newly baptized had a little bit of salt put on their tongue to remind them of their continued identity in the world. We ask the newly baptized whether or not they will join in the mission we all share together to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
As followers of Jesus we are “the activity of God in the world (Karoline Lewis www.workingpreacher.org.” We are to know and claim our identity, our song, and live it! You all are the salt of the earth. You all are the light of the world.