February 9, 2014 – Epiphany 5

Epiphany 5 Feb 9, 2014 (Isaiah 58:1-1—see below2)  Matthew 5:13-20  Salt and light

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Matthew 5:13-20

“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.

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For the first thousand years or so, Valentines’ Day was a day of remembrance for Christian martyrs, at least three of them (all) named Valentine. Emperor Claudius II tried to convert the first of these saintly Valentines to state-sponsored Roman paganism. St Valentine then tried to convert the Emperor to Christian faith – and was sent to prison and executed as a result. ‘Happy Saint Valentines Day’ was probably not a greeting given casually in our first millennia of Valentine’s Days.

Centuries pass. Times change. St Valentine the Martyr Day also goes through changes. By the late middle ages Valentines Day is starting to mix and mingle with birds and bees and romantic love. The first hand-made Valentines Day cards begin to appear. Another four or five centuries pass. In the early 1800’s, as the first inexpensive postage stamps come along, soon also comes mass-produced greeting cards in England, then America. A mass-market Valentines’ Day greeting card industry springs up. The make-over of Valentines Day goes into overdrive. The rest is history… Now anyone even thinking about romantic love better be aware: get ready to be burned at the stake if you haven’t purchased proper products by February 14. Happy Valentines’ Day.

And I hope this is not a good metaphor for church history… But when we were young and head-over-heels in love with Jesus, we the church were willing to climb every mountain, even risk dying for Jesus… Now it’s so much easier to go on-line and click… and text each other… Happy Valentines’s Day instead.

It’s not so easy… to go up the mountain with Jesus and listen as he tells us –

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world…. I’ve come to fulfill, not abolish the law and prophets. Don’t set aside any of the law and prophets…” (including our strong message from Isaiah today). ‘And don’t be counting on getting into my heavenly kingdom,’ Jesus says, ‘unless you’re more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees.’ That last part in particular can sound a little intimidating…

But the word gospel means good news, remember. So let’s head up the mountain with Jesus and unpack the good news…

We are the salt of the earth, Jesus says. Salt is notorious for its flavor. Salt, in days of old was even more famously a powerful preservative. Salt was the difference between food going rotten and spoiling, and food safe for eating. Salt makes a life-and-death difference. That’s why if salt should lose it’s flavor, it’s power to preserve – it’s good only to be tossed.

But that’s not how its to be with you, Jesus says. You are the salt of the earth. Shake and bake! Come out of the salt shaker. Join the dinner party. Add that good salty flavor. Preserve life!

You are the light of the world, Jesus says. Jesus himself is the light of the world, we’re told in John’s gospel. But Jesus tells us we too are also the light of the world. Let your light so shine that people will see what good and Godly stuff we’re up to – and give glory to God.

Which can sound a little incredible – to be light of the world with Jesus. But this is the job description for all Christians – to be salt of the earth, light for the world.

Which can sound a little scary… and get me looking for second opinions, even an escape clause. (Like – I’m on a low sodium diet – no more salt please. Or I can’t do that light of the world thing, I’m an insomniac – got to keep the lights low and get my rest…)

But this is metaphor, dude, I hear Jesus reminding. And probably about now we should back up a little and re-orient ourselves to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ longest recorded sermon, that take up all of chapters five, six, and seven in Matthew’s gospel. (Of which this is the second section.)

At the start of chapter five Jesus leads disciples up the mountain for a teaching session. We’re don’t have any idea how many went with Jesus. Methodist Statistical Report Forms (which are due Valentines Day this year – pray for me) had not yet been invented. (Which is probably why disciples had time to go up a mountain and listen to Jesus all day.)

We don’t know how many disciples are on the mountain with Jesus – but when we get to the end of the Sermon, we’re told large crowds have gathered. Now here we are with them, listening at the feet of Jesus, as he teaches the good news of the kingdom of heaven. God’s royal presence made known in the person of Jesus – who, Matthew tells us is Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us…

Last week we heard Jesus saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, they’ll inherit the earth…” Jesus says blessed are they (in the third person) eight times in the beatitudes just before our reading today.

But now Jesus speaks to us directly, saying: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world” – addressing us personally, telling us we’re the ones who’ve got the blessing. You are the Valentine. (I’m not sending a card. I’m sending you in person.)

We’re the salt – to preserve life on earth. We’re the light to illumine the world. Called to bring the flavor of God to life on this planet. Called to let our little lights shine till all the world lights up with the love of Jesus.

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Jesus also tells us… he’s come to fulfill, not abolish, all the law and prophets. “Law and prophets” is shorthand for the whole Hebrew bible. Elsewhere in this sermon on the mount he’ll say ‘do to others as you’d have them do to you, this is the law and the prophets.’ Elsewhere in this gospel Jesus says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – ‘and all the law and prophets hang on these two great commandments.’

Jesus says its fine to summarize the law and prophets…  But don’t set aside even the least of the commandments.

All the law and prophets of Israel teach the mercy, justice, and love of God. Heaven and earth may pass away, but none of the details of God’s instruction will pass away (Jesus says)… We can summarize all the bible’s grand themes in a few words – but we should also be getting familiar with all the whole teaching library, all the large medicine cabinet the bible represents…

And Jesus also says righteousness – meaning right relationship with God and neighbor – is the standard to which we’re held accountable by God. Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the religious establishment we’ll have to watch the rest of the game from somewhere in limbo… (metaphorically…)

Which can sound again a little scary, especially if we’re looking at faith as some kind of Super Bowl match up, with all of us more-or-less-average Christians pitted against famous-name-brand religious leaders – like, in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and scribes, who would be 30-point favorites in Vegas if we’re playing on their field by their rules. Scribes and Pharisees (like mega-church pastors) are usually better than we are at the game of religion. (If it’s a game.) Praying longer, louder, more eloquently – sometimes conspicuously, not in the right spirit, to be sure, but still, doing some of what we’re in fact all supposed to do – studying, longer, harder – spending more time in worship – fasting, even giving more. More obsessively religious than most of us. If we’re going to go by quantitative measuring standards – as modern Methodism sometimes seems to be doing – we’re gonna lose, big time in the Big Game with the Pharisees and scribes.

Which, thinking on all this, anticipating the annual Bowl Game of Methodist Statistical Reports later this week, in which we’re reminded of how few numerical signs of progress we’re usually registering – has me remembering an old Doonesbury cartoon, where BD, the quarterback, is calling signals at the line of scrimmage. He looks up at the other team’s line. They’re all enormously huge and incredibly rough and mean-looking. Like they eat quarterbacks for lunch, and it’s lunchtime now. And instead of counting off numbers til its time for the hike – now instead, our quarterback says, really loud to be sure the other team hears – this next play is a hand-off!”

And yet… I’m also reminded of the poet Jimmy Cliff of old singing… the harder they come, the harder they fall…one and all

And Jesus, remember, calls the Pharisees “blind guides” and “you brood of vipers” (Mt 23). If we play the game like Pharisees, by their rules (yes), they win and we lose. But I’m hearing Jesus say – we’ll beat the Pharisees to heaven every time – if we listen to Jesus. And play by his rules.

Jesus fulfills all the law and prophets. Til the final buzzer sounds, all the law, all the prophets are all in play, all the time – a living word for all of us.

But the word translated here as law is actually Torah – meaning Instruction more than law. The word of God is for our instruction – not for punishment – but for teaching, correction, reproof and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). Righteousness again meaning right relationship with God and neighbor. When we pray and listen for Jesus, his light shines… his Spirit guides us into right hearing of the law and prophets and all the fullness of right relationship with God and neighbor….

Jesus says none of the law and prophets pass away till all’s fulfilled. And Jesus tells us we’re his chosen ones, called to help him fulfill all the law and prophets. We’re the seed, we’re the salt, we’re the light, we’re the yeast…We’re God’s own Valentine…hand delivered to the world.

All the metaphors are for us… Together we’re Jesus’s own called and chosen… Called to make his presence known by lives well-lived… Called to make his message come alive for those around us, through lives lived together in his love.  Because –

We are the salt of the earth.  We are the light of the world.

Can this really be? I still sometimes wonder –

Til – I recall again… all the ways I see you… modeling grace and faith and love…

Some of you staffing our Thrift Shop…

Some of you visiting our sick and shut-ins…

Some studying how we can do better (even better) in offering hospitality… and worshiping well…

Some of you rebuilding our nursery…

Some of you plotting our next moves in mission and outreach to the community…

Some of you singing in the choir… Some serving coffee hour… Some ushering and greeting…

Many I hope studying the book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations

Some now (more soon, I hope) doing bible study…. to keep getting better able to share the good news, widely and effectively…

All of us praying for one another… and all our neighbors…

that the light of Jesus will shine ever more brightly among us…

Thanks be to God… for God’s light and life and love… among us…

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Isaiah 58:1-9a

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.