The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany of Our Lord
5 February 2017
DELIVERED BY: The Reverend Kevin Corbin Smith, Rector
LESSONS: Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12]; Psalm 112:1-9, (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16]; Matthew 5:13-20
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’ve always thought that salt gets a bad rap especially in our current culture. One week one hears that salt is bad for you because it raises one’s blood pressure and the next week we’re told that salt has no effect on blood pressure. We’re told to read the labels on packaged foods and not use the ones that have a high sodium content – again dealing with salt.
Personally, I find this all confusing. As I’ve gotten older, my craving for things that are sweet has diminished and my desire for things salty has grown. While thirty years ago I couldn’t resist dark chocolate, today, given the choice between that and potato chips, it’s the chips hands down. And let’s face it; a dish with no salt in it is boring. My mother used to complain that Merrill Gardens (the assisted living residence in which she spent her final years until 94 years old!) never salted anything. She’d say, “I’m old and I’m not going to live forever. I want may salt! Besides, I take four blood pressure medications. They must do something!”
I suspect these are what is termed in contemporary parlance: First World problems. In the ancient world, salt was a leading commodity rating up there with silver. Since it was used to preserve food and insure that it didn’t go bad or rot,salt had great value. Roman soldiers were even paid in salt and were glad to get it.
If you haven’t noticed yet, the Lectionary is taking us through the Sermon on the Mount. As I mentioned last week, the Sermon on the Mount was not an actual event. Who remembers which Gospel was written first? Mark. That’s right. Scholars are also convinced that either around the same time or before Mark was written, there was another Gospel floating around which has since been lost. They call this Gospel “Q” for the German word “Quelle” meaning “Source.” The theory is that both Matthew and Luke drew on Q and Mark in writing their Gospels, each to a particular audience.
Matthew’s Gospel is very Jewish. The author had to have been Jewish for two reasons. First, his knowledge of Judaism is deep. He knows his stuff. The other thing is that Matthew’s Gospel is highly anti-Semitic, probably because the author was furious at his own people for not having received Jesus as the Messiah but more especially at the Temple Authorities who’d thrown him under the proverbial bus. It was written as a Catechism for those preparing Jewish converts to the new Faith for Baptism – a process that took several years. So, Matthew takes the pithy sayings of Jesus and sets them out through the literary device of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s audience was what is known as Catechumens – those preparing for Baptism.
Given the value of salt at the time, Matthew was trying to stress to these fledgling followers of Jesus that in the eyes of God and thus in the eyes of the Christian community these folks had value; that in the eyes of God, humanity was to God as the beloved to a lover.
However, Matthew didn’t stop with that analogy. He is trying to emphasize that what the Beloved has to offer also has the high and ultimate value of salt. This idea of God’s great love affair with the human race is the salt that needs to be seasoning the whole world. And if it looses its saltiness, salt becomes worthless. And the Christian’s obligation and privilege is raising the spiritual sodium level of the whole of humanity.
Matthew then goes on to tell these catechumens that they are the light of the world. Don’t let this one go to your head to quickly. It’s not as easy as it sounds. This is no, “You light up my life” kinda stuff. Instead Matthew is giving these students a foretaste of the seriousness of their calling to Baptism. What does light do? It uncovers the darkness; it illuminates the shadows; it reveals that which attempts to be hidden. The call to be light expects that the Christian will search out the darkness and shine the light of God on it, exposing it for what it really is. And once the light exposes the darkness, the darkness can never go back.
Then Jesus gets down to the nitty-gritty. He’s on a roll here. He’s trying to make a point; well, at least Matthew is. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets; in other words, Jesus does not abolish the Torah, but fulfills it. As it was, the Law had become a millstone around the necks of the Jewish people, a millstone placed there by the Pharisees and the Clergy. Judaism had lost its saltiness, its original central focus about which we heard last week: Do justice; love kindness and mercy; walk humbly with God. Jesus’ mission is to confront the legalism and oppression of the present system and return it to what God had originally intended.
Now the temptation is to say, “Oh, that’s nice. Matthew was written to a particular audience two thousand years ago.” I won’t deny that. However, while this stuff was just a catechism at the time, for us, it’s been elevated to the status of Holy Scripture. And while over the millennia Holy Mother Church has read Holy Scripture as an allegory rather than literally until a small part of the Church in the 19th Century started to do otherwise – which is another sermon – elevating this little catechism to the rank of Scripture means that it’s important and not to be taken lightly. It means that it is also our catechism, our book through which we hear and receive the teachings of Our Lord and take them to heart. It means that we are called to be salt and light in our own day, rejecting legalism and all its symptoms, and do justice, love kindness and mercy and walk humbly with God.
I don’t think these words have ever been more poignant than they are in the world as we are presently experiencing it. This is a time in which the message of the salt needs to be shaken and spread liberally. The historical fact that God’s love for the whole the human race and the whole of Creation for that matter, is under siege. We keep hearing that there’s a war on Christianity. And it’s true. But it’s not what we’re being told it is.
The war on Christianity is not about baking wedding cakes for gay couples.
The war on Christianity is the message that some people have no worth or not worth worrying about.
The war on Christianity is denying that access to health care is a birthright.
The war on Christianity is tacitly approving of the racism and sexism and homophobia and the other isms we’re seeing going unchecked.
The war on Christianity is going to any extremes to protect an unborn child but not giving a rip about that child once it can breathe on its own.
The war on Christianity is barring people from entering this country based solely on their religion or the color of their skin.
The war on Christianity is putting profit and politics before people.
THIS war on Christianity makes our Blessed Lord want to lose his lunch!
This is the time in which we as Christians have the obligation and privilege to be shaking salt and shining light into the darkness exposing it for what it really is: evil trying to pass itself as respectability, patriotism and virtue.
Confronting this disregard for human dignity and mockery of the love of God for every being on this planet is what got Jesus into trouble. It infuriated the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Priests and the Romans because he threatened their influence, their wallet, their authority and their power. And see where it got him. (Points to the Crucifix at the Altar). And yet, that’s exactly where Jesus is telling us we must go.
If we are to be people of integrity, if we want to be able to sleep at night, if we really want to do justice, love mercy and kindness and walk humbly with God, if we really want to be true to the One we claim is love, then we have no choice but to be salty and shine. And being salt and light just may lead us to a figurative or literal Cross.
And that’s why we gather each Sunday morning. We gather to remind ourselves of the importance of our life as Christians. We gather to affirm that we are not alone in this endeavor. We gather to be fed with the very essence of Being in the Universe so that we can go out the doors of this Church and be light and salt to each other and for those in darkness, whose lives have become bland with
fear, guilt and shame. We gather because we know how this story ends. We know that the Cross is not the last word. We know that physical death is a reality. But we also know that Christ has conquered spiritual and intellectual and moral death and that Eternal Life has already begun and will continue after we have drawn our last breath. And won’t THAT be a wonder to behold!?