Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12); Matthew 5:13-20
For many years now, our Church has appeared to be in decline in Europe and in many western countries. It seems as though not that long ago, the church was seen as a beacon of light and hope, a way to follow, its leaders were respected, our communities were expected to be at the centre of our lives and way of living. The church’s values were respected, understood and adopted across society and its ethics were a guide to appropriate behaviour, while its teachings and lessons were sought for young people to help and guide them.
All that has changed. Now the church seems rarely mentioned except in times of poor behaviour, abuse and poor leadership. Its voice is silenced except when extremists are vilified or caricatured as representative of the whole church. Its good work and good news are ignored or diminished. Its values are perceived as optional, simply a choice for people, to take or leave as they want or find useful.
We can hardly describe the church as being viewed as indispensable such as salt and light, which is how we are described by Jesus in Matthew 5:13-10.
And yet, there’s something extraordinary happening in this conversation with Jesus as he teaches this part of the Sermon on the Mount.
In Matthew’s description at the start of the Sermon on the Mount – Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Have you noticed they are words that are said in the ‘third person’ – apparently giving the disciples listening closely, pressing in to hear Jesus speak, and the crowds gathering around to listen and those of us, gathering together to listen two millennia later – the option of choosing to be or not to be in one or more of those categories and apply the description, or not, to ourselves?
And these ‘Beatitudes’ announce this as a present reality, the poor are blessed and happy, now, immediately, those who are mourning are blessed, the persecuted are blessed, the merciful are blessed, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed.
We find it hard to imagine. It seems enormously idealised and unrealistic in our world, in spite of the millions around the world living and dying as Christians.
And yet – who were the early Christians, except Jewish fishermen, homemakers, tax collectors, business men and women, teachers, tent makers, carpenters and shepherds, parents and families, young people, children, eventually former Pharisees and assorted Greco-Roman citizens; but really, they were nothing more than a motley collection of people in the beginning of the early church who were also listening and believing those words.
In those days, there was no structure, no rules, no ways of being together except what they could learn from each other and by word of mouth as people passed on the extraordinary good news about what Jesus had said. The oral tradition in the early years would have had to have been very strong as they struggled to find their way to God.
But in this next part of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew goes on to relate Jesus shifting the descriptions from the third person to the personal, to each individual, speaking directly to them. He’s talking to the disciples and saying ‘YOU are the salt of the earth; and, you ARE the light of the world.’ Not – you might be, possibly you will at some point be and God will make it so, but simply, plainly, ‘YOU ARE’.
And my own reflection is that these ideas including the Beatitudes, although preached by the prophets and by Jesus, are not really accepted in our hearts; because to accept them is to be transformed. How can we not be by such extraordinary good news, which is why people hedge their bets when responding.
Through the metaphor of being salt and light, Jesus attaches these realities directly into the disciples’ lives. Already, right now, not sometime in the future.
The point also in plain sight, is not that the disciples are also good or wise or exceptional people, nor is Jesus predicting what they will become or we will become at some idealised point in the future. He’s saying they simply are…salt and light now, as are we as disciples.
Salt and light are not rare commodities. They are essential to life, salt for taste; light for finding one’s way. They are good and their value is in their usefulness and as a necessity to life. You can’t extract salt out of cooking when its added, you can’t claim that there is darkness when there is a glimmer of light. There is something really basic and uncomplicated about the notion of this way of ‘being’ in God’s world. And it gives such hope for all of us.
The reading we also heard this morning in Isaiah 58:1-12 leans into this teaching. Isaiah is talking about false worship – how we as people, go for the outward look of the worship, to the superficial responses and behaviours, so that, on the surface we look like good and faithful disciples but we are not being as salt and light.
We should not fast to show how good we are; we should not be worshipping to show off our fine clothes with public shows of humility and piety, while all the time we continue to oppress the low paid workers, screw down the best deals, get the cheapest deal, live as we want and serve our own interests. It is a scathing indictment of his community and people by Isaiah; and it’s an indictment which still holds good today in every country in the world.
Isaiah goes on to remind his listeners that instead, the fast we should choose is to fast against selfishness. We should be fasting to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke and let the oppressed go free, break every restraint and share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, cover them…. then your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly. In other words, be salt and light in the world, physically, emotionally, spiritually present to all around you, steadily going about God’s work in God’s kingdom.
When Jesus announces the start of his ministry you may remember, he opens with a quotation from Isaiah ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of the sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free to proclaim the year of the lord’s favour (Is 61:1-2a and Luke 4:18-19). This is Jesus’ story for us to follow as salt and light.
Jesus neither supplants or overrides the law and the prophets, but redeems and fulfils the intention of both. Jesus’ prophetic vocation is evident throughout the Gospel stories as the law is retold again and again. Jesus lives and works as a Godly Jewish man, trying to reach his listeners over and over again as he explains God’s good news through his stories and his own behaviour as salt and light.
Our church has forgotten most of the laws and the prophets; and today, we too as the Church are often among that crowd on the Mount which stands and listens and picks and chooses which bits we want to focus on or leave alone as too hard or unrealistic in our world today.
Our focus on sexual morality has carefully ignored all the teachings on wealth and greed and power. Our focus on particular groups of people has ignored the teachings about all who are poor, aliens, widows and orphans, the blind and the oppressed and imprisoned as all are God’s children.
Our ‘success’ should not and does not depend on the world’s standards to judge us and find us wanting, it is God who is searching us out and it is God who matters.
For ‘you’ are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We as a group of sisters and brothers, whether ridiculed or persecuted, can and must with God’s love, make a difference in others’ lives.
The Lord be with you