February 5, 2023
11A Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Salt and Light
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“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. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:13-20
Ya gotta love those prophets of old. They give shock value to the Word of God. As soon as we would get comfortable with the way things are in our spiritual life, the prophets remind us that while life in the Spirit will certainly bring comfort, life in the Spirit is not about our being comfortable. The peace that is from above, the peace that the world cannot give, is born of doing what is right, and, more often than not, doing what is right puts us in a very uncomfortable position. Doing what is right will often put others in conflict with us and can even evoke a hostile to violent response from them.
The prophets also have this knack of reminding us that life in the Spirit is never to be understood as a life that is disconnected from the realities of this world. And what the prophets drove home with their words, God personally endorsed in taking our nature upon Himself. The One who created us in His image made a choice to be born in our likeness. It is in the human drama that God lives. It is here that He wills that we seek Him, and it is here that He promises that we will find Him.
The faith of Israel and Christian faith do not find their authenticity in a private personal relationship with God, but in a personal relationship with God that is lived in the context of community, that takes into account each and every dimension of our shared life. In an incarnational faith there is no separation between the sacred and the secular. There is no area of life that is off limits to Divine involvement, concern, scrutiny, and judgment. To spiritualize our faith, to compartmentalize it, such that we attempt to disconnect it from any facet of our shared humanity is always to render it less authentic.
The Prophet Isaiah has a powerful word for us today. Basically, he is saying that our religious practice – our worship, our prayers, our observance, and our fasting are bankrupt, are empty, are useless and meaningless, if they do not connect us with the pain of this world such that we might minister to it with healing and light.
In the passage, the Lord instructs Isaiah, “Shout out, do not hold back. Lift your voice like a trumpet, and say to the people, ‘You are a nation that does not practice righteousness and yet you want to imagine that you are near to me. You accuse me of not taking notice of your religious observance and yet while you pray and fast, you oppress the powerless. The fast that I desire is that you: loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke; share your bread with the hungry,
bring the homeless poor into your house; and cover the naked.’”
Do you see what I mean about shock value and about a spiritual life that takes the mystery of the incarnation, God’s becoming flesh, seriously?
Now enter Jesus, the prophets’ Prophet. Continuing the great teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, that began with last Sunday’s Beatitudes, Jesus looks at His disciples, gathered at His feet and drinking in or struggling with every comforting and compelling instruction as directives for their lives, and says to them, “Beloved, you are the salt of the earth. Yes, you are the light of the world.”
Picture the scene. Can you not just see those folks questioning themselves and looking around at each other wondering to whom the Master is speaking? Jesus, appreciating and maybe even amused at their puzzlement, probably had to repeat Himself, “Yes, you, my dear ones, are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”
Building upon Isaiah’s legacy, Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light. Being righteous, being in right relationship with God, has much do with being as salt and light in this world. In addition to enhancing the flavor of food, salt, as the ancients knew and as we know, has genuine medicinal properties. And if darkness serves as a word that identifies evil, light is forever its obvious antidote. Light dispels the darkness and makes a space safe. Isaiah said, “If you remove the yoke of oppression, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, healing shall spring up quickly and light shall rise in the darkness.” Jesus pronounces a great “Amen” upon Isaiah’s prophetic message.
Instead of a symphony of love, the foolishness of the world orchestrates an unending cacophony of greed and violence in mutual service to each other. The ambiance is fear, insecurity, murderous conflicts and wars, expressions of unspeakable inhumanity, indifference to the pain of the poor and the displaced, and destruction of the earth. Three capitalist enterprises: China, Russia, and the United States plot and vie with each other in their unending struggle for economic hegemony and military dominance.
And they persist, it would appear, with unmitigated indifference to the mounting carnage.
We have a growing number of poor people within our midst, here in the richest country in the world, and throughout the wider world there is a growing number of people who do not share in what God has given for all. And yet our congress is frozen by some self-serving ideological fools in a place where they simply will not be about the business of creating real, or at least promising, solutions to the unconscionable disparity in wealth and relieving hunger and starvation. But ask them for an increase in military spending and they cannot say yes fast enough.
Far too many live from and to a different place other than the course and direction that Jesus set in His Sermon on the Mount. This is made more and more obvious with each passing day. More attention and encouragement are paid to self-interest, self-care, self- protection, and self-preservation. By distinction, the mandates enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount are about self-giving love and taking the risks involved in loving our neighbors, loving strangers, and even loving our enemies as we have been loved by God in Christ. It is not easy, but it most certainly is God’s will for us. It is the way of Christians. It is the way of the cross.
In today’s second lesson St. Paul reminds us of what is maybe the most difficult of all the teachings of Jesus. In the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaimed, “Blest are the peacemakers, those who overcome violence and hatred that leads to fighting, war, destruction and death. Blest are the peacemakers.”
For Jesus, making peace was something that had to be done in a very special way. St. Paul says, “I came to proclaim the Good News, but not in terms of human wisdom and power. I came only to preach Christ crucified.” Jesus the Christ gives up power, might and greatness, and reaches out in forgiveness, reconciliation, humility, and love. He identifies with the least among us. Power and might are the great deception. They are the lie. Forgiveness, reconciliation, humility, and love are the truth. Even as he’s being executed and tortured, Jesus prays, “Forgive them.” He reaches out in love, and that is how peace is made. Blest are the peacemakers.
We don’t change our thinking or behavior until we allow God to change our hearts. A sensitive, loving heart, that rejects violence and that has developed the steady beat of attending to the needs of the other before our own real or often imagined needs, is a heart that only God can fashion within us, but never without our allowing His doing so.
Jesus wants us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. We are salt and light when we share our bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless poor, clothe the naked, and welcome immigrants and refugees with open arms and hearts.
Jesus invites us to follow Him by becoming peacemakers. Disciples make peace by responding to hatred and violence only ever with love. And we remain mindful that being a peacemaker involves a great deal more than simply investing ourselves in keeping the peace. It sometimes involves disturbing the peace.
February 5, 2023