Sunday, February 5
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Letting the Light Through
O God of light, your searching Spirit reveals and illumines your presence in creation. Shine your radiant holiness into our lives, that we may offer our hands and hearts to your work: to heal and shelter, to feed and clothe, to break every yoke and silence evil tongues. Amen.
[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."
All readings for this week
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)
1. What are some of the "indelibly etched pictures" of God's love that your congregation has drawn?
2. How is your congregation being "salt" in its setting, right now, in turbulent times?
3. Is surpassing "conventional" righteousness too much of a challenge?
4. What is the connection between what we do and who we are?
5. Do economic "hard times" change the call that we have to righteousness? Why or why not?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
It's common practice, at the end of a worship service, for the preacher to offer the benediction: a "good word" of blessing, and one last teaching moment before we're sent forth to love the world that God loves. 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 already 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.
Responding to the hunger of the people
Like every preacher, however, Jesus is delivering a message in a specific setting. One scholar, Edwin Chr. Van Driel, offers 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, which was 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 the best way 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," he 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," that is, until that great day when God would make all things right, in the fullness of God's own time. 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.
Questions were in the air
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 notes that Jesus is talking about the in-breaking reign of God present before their very eyes, right there, right then: "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 a world that is, in an ironic sense, much smaller than the one Jesus lived in. After all, the good we do or fail to do--the light that we do or do not shine--affects people thousands of miles away (and thanks to technology, those miles can feel like next-door), and the traditions we leave to generations after us may be more a sorrowful legacy of harm than our own contribution of wisdom and blessing.
Aren't we faced, then, with what it means for Christians to be Christians today, under these conditions? In every age and every circumstance, Marcia Y. Riggs claims, "Jesus' followers are both commanded and enabled by Jesus to surpass conventional and institutional practices of righteousness" What would you consider "conventional and institutional practices of righteousness" for 21st century followers of Jesus?
Linking the Beatitudes and further instructions
For three chapters, Matthew pulls together a number of Jesus' teachings to form a very long sermon; this week's short passage connects the Beatitudes and the difficult instructions that follow. Before Matthew's Jesus repeatedly raises the standard for his own followers ("you have heard it saidÖbut I say to youÖ"), he uses two common, everyday images to help his disciples to remember who they are.
After lifting up the most 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 privately pious Christians but as the Body of Christ active in the world God loves, even if that runs a risk, even if it brings persecution upon us, for our reward in heaven, Jesus has told us, will be great.
Bringing forth goodness on the earth
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: Riggs warns that we may lose our "distinctive capacity to elicit goodness on the earth...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." If you and your congregation created a list, a litany, of these "dispossessed" people, what would it look and sound like?
The images of salt and light are packed with many meanings, and we can hardly begin to do them justice. However, two thousand years later, we still understand that "un-salty" salt 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.
What is salt to you?
When Robert P. Hoch suggests that the power of salt describes "the intensification of our being in fellowship with Christ in the world," 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." What comes to your mind when you think of salt as an image for Christians? It's powerful to think of that tiny bit of flavoring--a single courageous voice, a community of lively faith--making a huge difference in a much larger entity, that is, a world gone madly cynical and distracted with that which does not feed our souls.
This ancient yet contemporary image reminds us that we live and love not just for our own little worlds, our families and friends, but for the whole world that God loves, whether we "like" it or not. We can have a deeply personal faith without it being a "private" (and very comforting), Jesus-and-me relationship: salt and light for the world means loving the neighbor we have to deal with every day but also caring about the "stranger"--refugees fleeing war-torn countries, children who go to school hungry, teens who are bullied and the bullies as well, those who disagree with us politically (oh, yes--how else will we find common ground?), victims of violence and disasters, those caught in poverty and addiction...and the world that surrounds us all, including the good earth that holds us and all of God's beautiful creatures, all of these so vulnerable to our decisions, to our arrogance and our lack of consideration.
Shining the light of God's love
In the same way and in every age, we know that "light" means many things, not the least of these being 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. (Madeleine L'Engle's approach to evangelism draws on Jesus' own words here: "We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.")
Robert P. Hoch's commentary is especially relevant in our present political climate and economic turbulence, 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." One could reasonably, in these days, add "an excessive desire for safety" to that list of anxieties. We have allowed ourselves to build a wall of fear around our private and even public lives, making us afraid of one another and of that "stranger" that God loves and bids us welcome into our lives.
How can we "be light" in such a contentious world?
Indeed, when we hear Jesus using such simple images as salt and light, we wonder how Christians today find themselves so divided on issues of justice, sharing, and the protection of vulnerable people. Perhaps these images might help to bring us together, to begin dialogue, study and reflection anew as we listen for God's leading in difficult times. Are we up for such a formidable challenge? How can we shine for the rest of the world, if we are not more united as followers of Jesus? There are many places of light even in these days: I notice, for example, that many of my friends (sadly de-churched or proudly nones) find hope in the words and deeds of the current Pope, Francis, who prioritizes marginalized people and annoys the judgmental.
My friends, non-churched and churched (however clumsy those terms are), also hungrily consume and share the writings of ministers like John Pavlovitz, who struggles with what it means to truly follow Jesus when he told us to love those we would consider enemies. Pavlovitz, for example, does a magnficent job of describing the "radical extremism" that Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount: "Radical extremism is the essence of The Cross and the life of Jesus; a confounding, expectation-defying, hate-rattling decision to love defiantly in the face of violent intolerance. It's the greatest thing a Christian can aspire to; not might or force or payback or revenge. It is in cultivating a heart which spends itself on behalf of the hurting, the forgotten, the silenced, the wounded in the most audacious manner, even to the point of its breaking."
The power of a little salt and light
Alas, the church, especially in mainline Protestantism, has been challenged for some time, long before we found ourselves in today's quandaries--economic, political and most of all, theological. It seems to me that Thomas Long's description fits us well even more today than in the past: "overpowered, outnumbered, and often overlooked." Today, a growing number of people call themselves "nones," and a large percentage of those who claim church membership rarely attend services. Most troubling, people of faith and the church itself are often seen as obstructions to what is best for the world: we're often seen as irrelevant, or worse, as judgmental, hypocritical and even arrogant.
It may make us uncomfortable to take stock of our shared life as communities of faith, and to "repent"--we use that word a lot in the church, but what if we heard this week's reading from Isaiah as a kind of "examination of conscience," exhorting us not to focus on our religious "fasts," our "sackcloth and ashes," but to turn our sights, to "see" and "notice" what matters to God: how we live in peace and justice with one another, doing what Jesus announced in Luke 4 as his own mission, to "let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke." The prophet exhorts us to turn away from violence, to share from our abundance with those who are hungry, homeless, naked...and what will happen then? Isaiah promises that our "light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly...." The prophet goes on about our ruins being rebuilt, our bones being strengthened, our breaches repaired, our streets restored, and even we ourselves will become like well-watered gardens, laying the foundations for generations to come. Could there be a more beautiful hope for us, and for the world?
Words of hope when we feel small and powerless
Those powerful words of Isaiah, paired with Jesus' own teaching about salt and light, provide the basics for any church, large or small, vital or besieged. I agree with Long that our way of life may indeed be an "alternative" one, "in the midst of a teeming, fast-changing culture that neither appreciates nor understands" us, and fulfilling Jesus' commands are difficult, not just "for a day, but being faithful day after day, maintaining confidence in what, for all the world, appears to be a losing cause." Matthew--and Isaiah--are a 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."
When Long speaks of Christians as a "small group" trying to live in this very different way, I'm reminded of the nuns I know, who have bravely lived and given witness to the most fundamental truths of Christianity, welcoming the stranger, feeding the poor, and giving voice to those who have been silenced. I think of the Iona Community, which describes itself this way: "The Iona Community is a dispersed Christian ecumenical community based in Scotland, working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship." My own impression is that they care about creation, about the poor and marginalized, and about a worship life that strives to approach God with integrity of heart. I find them inspiring and hope-filled.
We need to refocus. We need to read these clear and simple words from Jesus--including his words about true righteousness and fulfilling the ancient commandments--along with the passage from Isaiah so that we, too, in our time, might be salt and light for the world. 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." 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.
A model, not a mirror
There's an important difference between building on the tradition (what's been handed down to us, and what we'll 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 that call to be faithful in our own time; truly, we have much in common with those often-maligned Pharisees.
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." What's the difference between these two? 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." How would your community embody those purposes, as Isaiah lays them out, in your setting of ministry today?
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, just as God wills.
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.
Holy as God is holy
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."
Later, 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 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." I am reminded, too, of the beautiful Hebrew phrase, tikkun olam ("repairing the world"), when I think of the highest ideals of people of all faiths, that ground we share in common.
"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. (Are there many more wonderful summations of faithfulness than "be generous with your lives"?)
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 dramatic economic inequality 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, the image of light, which has sometimes been contrasted with "darkness" in a way that may unintentionally reinforce racial prejudice. Second, the word "Father," which Douglas Hare calls "Jesus' favorite name for God," does not limit God to the masculine (with all the problems that have come from that narrow image) but rather impresses on us the 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.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
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For further reflection
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 21st century
"The thing about light is that it really isn't yours; it's what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness; if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself."
"Lighthouses don't go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining."
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 (quoted by Nelson Mandela)
"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."
Hafiz, 14th century
"Let tenderness pour from your eyes, the way sun gazes warmly on earth."
"I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing Light of your own Being."
John O'Donohue, 21st century
"May the light of your soul guide you. May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the secret love and warmth of your heart....May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light and renewal to those who work with you and to those who see and receive your work."
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