A Sermon preached on Epiphany V, February 5th 2017 at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenIsaiah 58:1-9a, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
I was away at a clergy retreat for three days last week. One of the exercises our retreat leader, Bishop Gayle Harris of Massachusetts, gave us was to first write down what we thought we did well, what we believed or what others had told us that our strengths were as priests and pastors. Then we broke up into small groups and in these groups had to tell the others what we had written down. Finally, each member of the group, there were three others in total, reflected back in their own words what they heard and from that, what they felt that person’s particular gifts or strengths were. We moved from “I am” statements to “You are/you do” statements and while some were very similar to what we had said, others were not, and I certainly received some genuine new insights. Now I just have to live up to them to all – so I am not telling you what they told me!
John’s Gospel is famous for its “I am” statements that Jesus uses to describe himself, his role, what sort of person we follow, and what sort of behavior we are called to imitate. I am the bread of life. I am the good shepherd. I am the vine. I am the light of the world. Matthew’s Jesus on the other hand, especially in the long teaching passage we call the Sermon on the Mount, instead uses lots of “You” statements, telling his listeners, his followers, telling all Christians very clearly and directly what he expects them to do and to be. “Jesus said, ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ ‘You are the light of the world.’ ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’” (Matthew 5:13, 14, 16) Jesus says “you are” not you will be, or you might be. So how do we live up to being salt and light?
We are salt when we help people realize that life is not worth living without God. That life is bland and flavorless, i.e. meaningless without a relationship with the Divine. We are salt when people see God in our lives, in our joy, in our mutual trust, in our faith especially when things are not going so well. If they see no difference, if we seem like everyone else, then our salt has lost its taste and is no longer fit for purpose.
We are light when we give direction and clarity. We are light when we use our light to bring injustice into the open, when people’s faces light up with joy because of what we have done. This is the light of God that we carry within us and it is not to be hidden. None of these ideas was new when Jesus used them. Israel was always supposed to be a light to the world and Jerusalem a beacon beckoning all nations through its doors. That is what Jesus means when he says, “do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” (Matthew 5:17) He has not brought a new God or a brand new law with him. He has come to renew the law. The ethical teaching of the Old Testament is a key component of Jesus’ teaching. We heard the prophet Isaiah say that what God wants is not empty ritual or lip service, but concrete action: To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. To share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. To cover the naked. (Isaiah 58:6-7) It is not a coincidence that we will hear almost the same words and phrases from Jesus later in Matthew’s Gospel, in the parable of the sheep and the goats.
When Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:20) he is not asking us to invent and observe ever stricter rules and laws, as the Pharisees were accused of doing, but simply to make the compassion and the love that is at the core of God’s law part of our lives. Because it is in doing so that we make God visible and tangible. “So that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (5:16)
A city built on a hill cannot be hid, cannot be made invisible. (5:14) For those he spoke to on that day, on the mountain, it was clear what Jesus was referring to: Jerusalem, a city built on a hill and so visible from far away. This particular image resonated with the founders and leaders of the United States from the very beginning. Even before the first puritan settlers arrived in what is now Massachusetts, while still aboard their ship Arbella, their leader John Winthrop preached a sermon "A Model of Christian Charity" to the future Massachusetts Bay colonists. "We must always consider", he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.“ By which he meant, that their new community in New England should set an example of communal charity, affection, and unity to the world. Other American leaders have used the phrase. John F. Kennedy did in 1961 and so did Ronald Reagan in his farewell speech to the nation on January 11, 1989. I will be honest with you, I never thought I would quote Ronald Reagan with appreciation. Anyway, in his speech he said:
“I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still.”
That is not the image the USA is currently projecting to the world, nor for that matter is it the image the United Kingdom is projecting, or Poland, or Hungary, or that the would-be leaders of France, the Netherlands and the German AfD party and even some “Christian Democrat” politicians would like their countries to project. I see and hear a rejection of diversity and difference. I see and hear walls being built and doors closed. I see isolation. I see the breaking down of relationships. I see hate, not love.
How do we react? Do not fear. Do not despair. Our faith rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, if the rulers of that age had understood God’s wisdom, they would not have crucified the Lord. But they didn’t and they still don’t. We do not have to accept what the rulers of our age do and say. On the contrary, if it contradicts what God has revealed to us through the Spirit and in God’s Son, it is our calling as salt and light to continually and persistently proclaim God’s commandments and Jesus’ teaching and to stop the world getting any darker.