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A Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20

[for an audio recording of the sermon, click here. Photo by Jason Tuinstra on Unsplash]

So, does anyone remember back to five weeks ago, when we gathered on the first day of January, with the satisfying feeling of having said goodbye to 2022, looking ahead to a fresh new year with no grief, or fear, or disappointments in it yet?

Was that really only five weeks ago?

It has been a tough January for many in our community, or for people in our extended networks.

Many of us are feeling tired, or overwhelmed.

And even for those who have not faced any unexpected crises in the last month, we are worn down by the extended exhaustion of pandemic and are-we-yet-post-pandemic?, and by a 24-hour news cycle of war and violence, and by cold grey days, and the price of heating our homes, and… not a lot of us are bursting with excited energy these days!

So, I have a feeling that many of you will be sympathetic to my first reaction when I read our gospel text this week, which was:

“Seriously?! Could we not just have something nice and comforting this week Jesus? I don’t need any more pressure!”

Because “pressure” is how I am used to hearing this familiar passage:

“Be the salt of the earth” –

Salt is used to preserve food and enhance other flavors, so I need to be about the work of protecting and empowering.

And I need to guard against losing my efficacy, because then I won’t be good for anything.

“Be the light of the world” –

Light is used to help us see in the darkness, so I need to be about revealing truth.

And I better not get tired of feeling exposed up on the lampstand, because I’m not supposed to hide my light.

“I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For… not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

So, apparently, I need to BE devoted to upholding every small detail of God’s law… even though I don’t know how to do that when different passages rub against each other, or seem wildly inappropriate to my context, or are doing actual harm in the way they are being applied.

It’s just a lot of PRESSURE!

BUT – it’s possible that this says more about me, or at least about the legalistic faith context in which I first learned the Sermon on the Mount, than it says about what Jesus is actually saying in this section of his most famous sermon.

Because, as I was reminded by one commentary this week, Jesus was addressing his words to a crowd who were probably AT LEAST as overwhelmed and beaten down as I am on my worst day.

Those who gathered from all around Galilee, and even further, were mostly the sick or afflicted, or their care-givers.[1]

They were people whose bodies or minds or spirits were broken in a context where health was the prerequisite to self-sufficiency, and not very much could be done medically… unless by the miracle-worker who healed and spoke with divine power.

In other words, Jesus was not addressing his teaching to the rich and powerful who needed to be called to account for how they were using their resources… He was talking to people who had no resources left. People who came to him because of their needs.

And for these people, it makes the most sense that – following his words of blessing that open the sermon – Jesus’s next words would be words of encouragement:

“You ARE salt” – valuable and important; able to profoundly impact your environment just by being you.

“You ARE light” – useful and accessible; able to illuminate and to guide, even when you feel weak.

Jesus’s words are statements of identity, rather than instruction.

He doesn’t say “you must become salt…” or “you should perform as light.”

He says “you are.” Full stop. This is your identity.

And, if you think about it – of course he is talking about identity and not performance.

Salt and light are elemental realities – they are not things that are crafted or cultivated; not things you work to become. They just are.

The “warning” about salt losing its saltiness is sort of weird. Salt can’t lose its saltiness – it’s a chemical property.

And while light can certainly be hidden – that’s something that is done TO the light, not a failure of the light itself to shine.

These are not metaphors that really WORK very well as commands, or as warnings… they really are statements of identity.

Which eases much of the potential pressure in this teaching. But what about the “not one stroke of a letter of the law will pass away”? – that DOES seem burdensome, because the Biblical “law” is quite a mixed bag.

Last Sunday, in our RIC forum, we examined some of the laws that have been used to do tremendous harm to people who reflect the image of God outside of cis-gender and heteronormative ways…

And if that were not problematic enough, some of the clearest of these “laws” are later expressly contradicted by the very same Bible.

And while here Jesus talks about “fulfilling” the law, elsewhere he rejects the inflexible authority of the law, and declares that the Sabbath was made for humanity and not humanity for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)

So, here again, I have to be a little suspicious about the legalistic way of reading Jesus’s teaching, and to instead get curious about what he means by “fulfilling” the law.

Of course, my first step is to go to the Greek,[2] and there’s a lot of potential shades of meaning.

Including the idea that fulfilling means to complete – to actually fill in the holes so that where aspects were missing before it is now whole.

And also the idea that fulfilling means to bring to realization – “to cause God’s will to be done as it should be, and God’s promises to receive fulfillment” (suggesting that this wasn’t the case before).

And I wonder if Jesus is telling us that we really need a lot of help to understand what to do with the so-called laws that scripture relates.

In the same way that an indifferent reader is probably going to struggle to get most of the nuances if they sit down to just read a Shakespearean play on paper… they need actors and directors to fulfill the script… to embody its fullness with movement, and facial expressions, and tones of voice to convey all the meaning packed into the archaic language.

So too, we need Jesus to embody the meaning of the guidance and instruction passed down to us, to fulfill God’s will and God’s promises.

And this week, in this reading, Jesus does that by calling us into a blessing.

As the SALT Commentary summarizes: “(Jesus) says, You ARE salt and light. God made you to bless the world! You may feel small and insignificant, but like a pinch of salt or a spark of light, you can make a tremendous difference. Go boldly, then, and be who you are! For heaven’s sake, don’t hide your light — go and shine for all to see![3]

The commentary goes on to explain that this week’s gospel is really a melding of blessing and guidance. It’s an affirmation of identity that calls us to live into that identity.

We are made blessed, and that blessing is made to be shared, and THAT living out of our blessing is what embodies the law that God has laid out for God’s people.

So, in that spirit, I would like to close my sermon today with a word of blessing especially for this community:

People of Abiding Peace,

You are clear water for a thirsty soul.

Fresh water is transparent and refreshing. So, be this genuine community where truth is told, and people are welcome to be exactly who they are.

You are a warm hug.

A hug expresses love and seeks to hold the needs of others tenderly within strong arms. So, care for each other and the community around you (including those who are not huggy people – knowing that it’s OK to have personal boundaries).

You are God’s Holy People

God’s people are set-apart and equipped by the Spirit within them. So, trust that God hears you and knows you and works through you.

You ARE blessed, so go be who you are!

You are genuine, so share your stories.

You are caring, so keeping finding ways to reach out.

You are spiritually equipped, so trust your wisdom.

You are salt, so lend your flavor to the world.

You are light, so shine.

You are the people God made you to be, so embody all that you are.

Thanks be to God.


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