"You are"-A Sermon for Epiphany 5, Matthew 5:13-20
So, I will just begin with a bit of an introduction. As I said last week, I am spending four Sundays preaching on the Sermon on the Mount…as our lectionary, which proscribes our readings from the bible each Sunday, follows this sermon or extended teaching of Jesus for four Sundays in Epiphany every three years…and we are in that cycle now. So, I decided to take advantage of the lectionary to do a deep dive into the Sermon on the Mount that, as I said last week, is at the heart of Jesus moral and ethical teaching and, further, describes in words, thoughts and ideas the life that Jesus actually lived…again a wholehearted, other oriented, death defying, sin defeating…life. Moreover, again, as I suggested last week, I believe this teaching also sets before us the love life that we are called to live, or much more so to be, as those who follow and love Jesus in our own day. The Sermon on the Mount is much more than simply a description of a personal life philosophy that seeks a sense of wholeness or meaning for the individual…but, instead, it is an imaginative invitation to live deep within the heart of God in such a way that shapes us both individually and communally to literally be the kingdom of Heaven on earth. And this shaping of a shared life that reflects both inwardly and outwardly…the will of God, the love of God, the life of God…is for way more than ourselves alone…it is for the remaking of the whole world…the transformation of a sin-sick world that is rooted in self-interest and greed, with violence and coercion as its primary modes of operation, into something that looks much more like the kingdom of Heaven…which is a very different world than the one we live in and hear about in the news…a world that is rooted in mutuality, inclusion, and generosity, with compassion, spiritual maturity, and self-giving love as its modes of operation. The Sermon on the Mount, again, has been a theological and scriptural anchor for movements from civil rights in our own nation to non-violent social and religious movements across our world in many generations…that have actually made our world more just, equitable, kind, compassionate, inclusive, and peaceful…more kingdom of Heaven like. Thus, again, as I said last week it is good for us to spend much time with it and in it…to allow this work of shaping to happen...that together we might more and more be and become the blessed community that Jesus’ sermon imaginatively describes…and that I believe is the hope of the world.
Last week I began with the Beatitudes, which indeed begins the Sermon on the Mount. And, just in case you were not here last week and want to refer back to that sermon it is on our blog, which is imbedded in our website…stjuliansaustin.org…and I also created a blog post that is simply the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety, which, again, for your reference begins at Matthew chapter 4 verse 23 and concludes in chapter 7 with verse 29. I continue to encourage you to spend some time with the passage itself either alone or alongside friends and family in some old-school bible study.
Now today’s passage picks up directly after the beatitudes and continues with the use of the verb “are”. As a reminder, Jesus begins each Beatitude with blessed “are”…blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek, and so forth. And, again, he continues the sermon using the verb “are”…but rather than saying “blessed are” he says “you are”…you are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world. And this use of “you are” seems to me to be two-fold in its meaning. The first being “you all are”. You all together are. And the second is simply you are…you, individually, you are…salt and light. But I’ll begin with you all are…the plural…or as we say in Texas…y’all are. For this teaching is ultimately about shaping entire communities…just beginning with our families and church…shaping us into gatherings of faithful people who reflect all together for the world and one another something of what Jesus imagines in the Sermon on the Mount, something of the life Jesus actually lived, something that makes the kingdom of Heaven an experience that we can actually dwell within…even now…right here…a kingdom life that affirms who we are as God created us, unique and awesome…a kingdom life that offers relationships of substance that affirm our belonging and infinite value and that challenge us to grow and mature…and so we are all together salt and light for each other and for all those around us…and, further, our witness to the world…our saltiness and our wattage of illumination are both exponentially increased as we are all together salt and light. Thus, indeed, Jesus saying “you are” is about all of us…about our shared life and ministry…we are together salt and light…and together we have the potential to do so much more good…than we can ever accomplish alone.
Further, we are not a static community. We are indeed called to grow, evolve, change…to be dynamic. Thus, we must always be about the work of increasing our collective saltiness and the brightness of our shared light. And we do this by inviting others to come alongside us, by partnering with other groups and communities that seek to make the world more flavorful and bright…and we must do so in a way that welcomes everyone and values diversity and difference…for in doing so the recipe we are concocting here together is more satisfying and interesting…and the light we are shining out into the world is more colorful and illuminating. More and more people can really taste and see, as that beloved communion hymn reads, the goodness of the Lord. In doing so, we truly begin to, as our vision statement reads, love all well, and, as Desmond Tutu writes, we begin to look more and more like the rainbow-colored people of God. Further, through our growth in number and spiritual depth, the shared life that Jesus imagines in this sermon…becomes more real and tangible…for the promised kingdom of heaven is indeed made manifest.
Now, again, Jesus’ second meaning when he says “You are” is indeed about us individually. So in addition to “you all are salt and light”, Jesus is also saying quite personally you, second person singular, are salt and light…for all communities from the family to the state…are made up of individuals. Individual human beings are, of course, the fundamental building blocks of human community…like a cell to a body or an atom to a molecule. Thus, I hear Jesus saying, “You, Miles, are salt…you, fill in the blank, are light.” I remember a quote that I once heard that said something like, “The line between good and evil does not run through states, religions, or any sort of community…but right through the middle of each and every individual human heart.” Therefore, the sum total is indeed constructed of and equal to its many individual parts. At the end of last summer, the air-conditioning in my car went out. The car otherwise worked just fine. It could just as effectively get me from here to there. But I did like to drive it. I indeed got from here to there…but this is Texas and it was August…thus I arrived with a sheen of sweat covering my body. Which is just a silly way of saying that every part of the whole matters. Our collective witness to the kingdom of Heaven, our level of saltiness and the power of our illumination, is indeed exponentially increased as we all come together…but the overall effectiveness of that very same witness is diminished, less flavorful and bright, when any individual that makes up the whole has lost his or her taste or their own light bulb has a broken filament.
Therefore, we must take good care of each other. Pastoral care is indeed the work of the whole church. The responsibility to care for each other belongs to all of us. So, we must be aware of each other’s struggles, aware of those in crisis and transition, and come alongside them…love them…listen to them…remind them of God’s love and our own. We must pick up those who are being trampled underfoot…such that their saltiness is restored and their light bulb is screwed all the way in. And this pastoral work requires at least two things, probably more. The first is presence and attentiveness. We must be present with one another regularly so as to know what is going on in each other’s life…and we must be attentive to what others are saying with their words, deeds and body language. And second we must be willing to bring the flavor and light in our own life into theirs…and this requires bravery…for offering help sounds easy but it is not…for it often requires time, sacrifice and a willingness to enter into difficult places…letting go of our own assumptions and desire to re-create one another in our own image.
Additionally, Jesus calling us personally to be salt and light requires us to attend to our own saltiness and brightness. Jesus says you are salt and light…each and every one of us is salt and light…but over a lifetime…I would argue we are to varying degrees. Our own lives, at times, can lack variety, feel tasteless…our light can become dim. Therefore we have a personal responsibility to care of ourselves and to grow and mature…and this looks like all sort of things…from intentionally encountering and building relationships with those who look, live and believe differently than we do…to more deeply entering into the gentle disciples of the spiritual life like prayer, worship and bible study…to taking time for rest and refreshment…to exercising our bodies…to exploring new experiences through travel and music and art…to giving ourselves to causes that are important to us and that make our communities more kingdom of God like…causes that make the world more safe, more equitable, more inclusive, more kind, and more peaceful. These are just some of the ways that we become more flavorful and that we increase the wattage in the light shining forth from our own lives.
Salt preserves valuable things so that they last. Salt adds flavor, complexity and richness to the things we make and consume. Salt makes us thirst for water which is elixir of life. And, light illuminates dark places. Light brings vision and allows us to look ahead. Light keeps us safe, avoiding that which might trip us up or even seek to take advantage of us. Jesus says you are salt and light. You individually, every single one of us, are salt and light, and you are all together, as Christ’ body in the world, we are together salt and light. The individual dependent on the community, and the community dependent on the individual. For this we are made…to be salt and light for each other and for the world. And, this holy work, this Sermon on the Mount-like work, is done by increasing the number and depth and diversity of those with whom we walk alongside…in our church and in our life…and by caring for each other and ourselves well. Through this all, we literally become, we can literally become, a living, breathing incarnation of the sermon that Jesus so imaginatively describes…and which is indeed the hope of the world. Amen.