Sermon Seeds: Restoring Beauty
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany Year A
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
It’s customary for a preacher to offer the benediction at the end of a worship service: a “good word” of blessing that’s also one more moment of teaching, of encouragement, of sending forth into the world that God loves. I suspect that many preachers have favorite themes and images, and the biblical passages to draw on for those blessings. My favorite images for a benediction – salt and light – come from this week’s focus text from the Gospel of Matthew. But salt and light aren’t just pretty or useful images. These are Jesus’ own way of describing his followers and the words he used to inspire, encourage, and exhort them (and us today) for ministry in the world.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that these powerful images are part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ most well-known sermon and his first in the Gospel of Matthew. As he climbs up the mountain, he turns to look upon the crowd that’s gathered around him since he started his ministry of teaching and healing. Their suffering and their need fill his heart with compassion. Even more, he knows the spiritual hunger and the physical suffering of the world, and he sits down to teach about the reign of God that is even now, in his own person, breaking into that world.
Like every preacher, however, Jesus is delivering a message in a specific context. In his Feasting on the Word commentary (Year A, Vol. 1), Edwin Chr. Van Driel provides helpful background on what is happening in Jesus’ own generation, years before Matthew wrote his Gospel for an early Christian community. This sermon, Van Driel writes, is for Israel, in a time of oppression by outsiders (a chronic problem since the Exile six hundred years earlier): with their “land, city, and temple ruled by goyim; soldiers’ boots marching through the country; and the prophetic promises of divine kingship never fully fulfilled,” there was a lively–or rather, a heated and even anguished debate about the meaning of their suffering (how could God let this happen to us?) and about how to respond. Like many scholars who describe the various answers to these questions as voiced by different factions in Israel, Van Driel lists the collaborating Sadducees, the violently revolutionary Zealots, and the striving, studious, and righteous Pharisees. “If one could not obtain one’s political independence,” Van Driel writes, “at least one could preserve one’s cultural and religious identity as a people called and set apart by God; at least one could live in covenantal righteousness, until God would express God’s righteousness in the eschatological coming of God’s reign.” (An acute sense of an impending end to all things, several scholars write, is present in Israel’s mindset and Matthew’s Gospel as well.) So Jesus’ preaching is one more voice, one more answer to the questions that swirled around him. Van Driel quotes N.T. Wright in describing this foundational sermon as “a challenge to Israel to be Israel,” and then, like other scholars, he writes that Jesus is talking about the in-breaking reign of God present before their eyes: “God was already doing a new thing.”
We who follow Jesus two thousand years later continue to watch that new thing unfold in our own time and place, with questions swirling around us, too, about what it means to be faithful disciples, and about how to respond to the challenges we face. In every age and every circumstance, Marcia Y. Riggs claims that “Jesus’ followers are both commanded and enabled by Jesus to surpass conventional and institutional practices of righteousness” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1).
For three chapters, then, Matthew pulls together a number of Jesus’ teachings to form a very long sermon; this short passage is a hinge between the Beatitudes and the difficult instructions that follow. Before Matthew’s Jesus repeatedly raises the standard for his own followers (“you have heard it said…but I say to you…”), he uses two common, everyday images to tell his disciples to remember who they are. After lifting up the mostly unlikely people – the poor in spirit, the meek and the merciful, those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted – and calling them “blessed,” Jesus then addresses the crowd as “you,” and offers them words of both reassurance and challenge. The “you,” is, of course, plural, to be heard by us not as private, pious Christians but as the Body of Christ in the world God loves.
Like that second generation of Christians in Matthew’s community, we listen with the crowd to hear that we, too, are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” While Jesus is telling us who or what we are, these metaphors are about what we do, how we do it, and the effect of what we do in the world. They are dynamic, not static, and they churn things up: Marcia Y. Riggs speaks of “distinctive capacity to elicit goodness on the earth,” and warns that we “may lose that capacity by forgetting that [we] are to disorder the status quo by valuing those who are dispossessed, caring for those who suffer loss, seeking to do justice, showing mercy, having integrity, being peacemakers, and courageously standing for what [we] believe” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1).
The images of salt and light are packed with many meanings, and an entire sermon can’t begin to do them justice. However, two thousand years later, we still understand that salt that isn’t salty isn’t much good for anything, while just a little flavorful salt can have an impact far beyond its size, spreading through the whole of something much larger. A simple, even humble image, salt had many different associations for Jesus’ audience, Ronald Allen writes, as it not only strengthens flavor and preserves food but in ancient times was rubbed on newborn children, used to seal covenants, sprinkled on sacrifices, and understood as a metaphor for wisdom. No wonder, then, that salt became “associated with God’s gracious activity,” Allen tells us (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). When Robert P. Hoch suggests that the power of salt describes “the intensification of our being in fellowship with Christ in the world” (New Proclamation Year A 2011), we once again hear the metaphor not as individuals but as a community of transformation. And Douglas R. A. Hare suggests a different, livelier translation of this verse: “You must add zest to the life of the whole world” (Matthew, Interpretation).
In every age, we know that “light” means many things, not the least of them hope. Earlier in his Gospel (4:16), Matthew spoke of Jesus by recalling the words of the prophet Isaiah (9:2a), that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Those who feel lost, or in despair, or confused, those who have no idea which way to turn: on them “light has dawned.” In Jesus Christ, we find our way, and in turn, we’re called to be the Body of Christ in the world today: Jesus tells us to “let our light shine before others,” to let the good things that we do, rather than bringing us glory, radiate God’s own goodness and love in the world. Robert P. Hoch’s commentary is especially relevant in today’s prolonged economic woes, because “we will probably recognize the temptation of burying our vocation as disciples under ‘the bushel basket’ of either economic scarcity or opportunity. The light of this community will not be swallowed up in the black whole [sic] of greedy ambition or fearful apprehension of scarcity” (New Proclamation Year A 2011).
A formidable challenge for the faithful
However, the church, especially in the mainline, has been challenged for some time, even before the economy veered toward collapse. “The church, for all of its vision, is overpowered, outnumbered, and often overlooked,” Thomas Long writes; the challenge is indeed formidable for “a small group trying with mixed results to live out an alternative life, set down in the midst of a teeming, fast-changing culture that neither appreciates nor understands them….The hardest part is not in being Christian for a day, but being faithful day after day, maintaining confidence in what, for all the world, appears to be a losing cause.” This text provides a beautiful reminder to Jesus’ disciples of who they are and what Jesus calls them to do in the world, no matter how great the obstacles they face. Our calling isn’t about institutional survival, but something much greater, Long continues: “Jesus is saying that what the people of God do in the world really counts” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).
Indeed, when people encounter us – as individuals and as communities of faith – they should see and sense more: they should feel hope, they should feel the possibility of a “different world,” Charles Cousar writes, “marked by unheard-of reconciliation, simple truth-telling, outrageous generosity, and love of one’s enemies” (Texts for Preaching Year A). We’re called not to make just a refreshing but a reinvigorating difference in the world, so that all who watch us will feel new life, new vitality, new possibility, new hope, new beauty. There is an important difference between building on the tradition (what has been handed down to us, and what we will hand down to our descendants) and keeping our focus frozen on the past, forgetting that God is in truth doing a new thing today, in this world, in this time. Just as Jesus challenged the striving, earnest Pharisees to recognize that new thing happening in their time and in doing so to experience the law and the prophets as fulfilled, so we wrestle with the call to be faithful in our own time. Ronald Allen suggests that we reflect on “whether the life of [our] congregation is actually a model or simply a mirror of old values and behaviors.” Just as Thomas Long recognized the difficulty of day-to-day faithfulness, Allen reminds us that “[t]o fulfill the law and the prophets is to bring their purposes to complete expression in everyday community” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1).
Working a difference in the world
If we are salt, then we won’t just find comfort and assurance in being something but will find our purpose and identity in participating in the doing of something significant, and that something will work a difference in the world around us rather than simply conform us to the values of the culture that surrounds us. “Any church that adapts itself so completely to the secular world around it that its distinctive calling is forgotten has rendered itself useless,” Douglas Hare writes. And if we are to “be” light, it is really God’s light that is shining through us, he says, for we are “not the light itself but only the window through which the light is to be seen,” as we do the works of healing, justice, and mercy that are “indelibly etched pictures of the Father’s love.” That, truly, is beauty restored (Matthew, Interpretation).
All of this talk about doing and identity is certainly central to the part of the text about the law, given the way it has shaped and strengthened the people of Israel, and the church as well. The temptation for Christians has been to judge the Pharisees rather than to share their struggle with the question, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her sermon, “Exceeding Righteousness,” of “how to remain obedient to God in a changed world.” Matthew’s community faced dramatic changes and the turmoil that always follows, just as we find ourselves in a world changing at a bewilderingly rapid pace, and we feel the need to grab onto a rock of reassurance, something we can hang onto. When Taylor describes what the law is for the Jewish people, we feel our rootedness in their understanding of God’s unwavering grace and care: “For them, Torah is the way of life, granted by God within a covenant of pure grace. It is the incarnation of God’s love for humankind. It is the invitation to become holy as God is holy.” Yes, we may debate, as those ancient religious authorities did, what is binding and what is not; Douglas Hare observes, “Many of the prescriptions of the Mosaic code had become dead letters by the first century, including the majority of death penalty rules” (Matthew, Interpretation). Later in this same Gospel, Jesus himself speaks of “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23), acknowledging that the law has to be interpreted. However, as Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, “Jesus did not interpret Torah; he fulfilled Torah in his flesh.” We honor and connect with our Jewish sisters and brothers when we acknowledge that faithfulness “has never been a matter of following rules but of honoring relationships – with aliens as well as kin, with enemies as well as allies. The Torah of Moses and the torah of Jesus both agree on that” ((“Exceeding Righteousness” in The Seeds of Heaven). I am reminded, too, of the beautiful Hebrew phrase, tikkun olam (“repairing the world”), when I read our theme for this week, “restoring beauty.”
“Going public with this”
The church is no secret society, Jesus tells us, right from the beginning. Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, “We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill….Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house, be generous with your lives.” As we strive to live faithfully in the world, we may be small, but we are mighty, not because of our own strength but because of God’s own grace, which will never leave us on our own.
What are some of the “indelibly etched pictures” of God’s love that your congregation has drawn? How has your congregation been “salt” in its setting, restoring beauty in God’s world? Is surpassing “conventional” righteousness too much of a challenge? What is the connection between “doing” and identity? Does an economic crisis change the call that we have to righteousness? Why or why not?
Note: Special sensitivity is called for with two images in this text: first, with the image of light, which has sometimes been contrasted with “darkness” in a way that may unintentionally reinforce racial prejudice. Second, the use of “Father,” which Douglas Hare calls “Jesus’ favorite name for God” (Matthew, Interpretation), does not limit God to the masculine but rather impresses on us the interpersonal nature of our relationship with the One who gives us life. God is not, of course, a concept or a force but a tenderly personal, loving Parent.
For further reflection:
Voltaire, 18th century
“Those who are occupied in the restoration of health to others, by the joint exertion of skill and humanity, are above all the great of the earth. They even partake of divinity, since to preserve and renew is almost as noble as to create.”
Marianne Williamson, 21st century
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure….We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in all of us. And when we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, 20th century
“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”
Confucius, 6th century b.c.e.
“Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
Helen Keller, 20th century
“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.”
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this 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?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 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. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
Praise be to God!
Happy are those who fear God,
who greatly delight in God’s commandments.
Their descendants will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in their houses,
and their righteousness endures forever.
They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright;
they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.
It is well with those who deal generously and lend,
who conduct their affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved;
they will be remembered forever.
They are not afraid of evil tidings;
their hearts are firm, secure in God.
Their hearts are steady,
they will not be afraid;
in the end they will look in triumph
on their foes.
They have distributed freely,
they have given to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever;
their horn is exalted in honor.
The wicked see it and are angry;
they gnash their teeth and melt away;
the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” – these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
[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 hidden. 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 fulfil. 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.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.