Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

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.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Where are we? Who are we? Why are we here? What are we meant to be doing? How are we to go about this thing we call life? These are the elemental questions that humans have been pondering for thousands of years. These are the basic questions that form the basis of all human religious yearnings.

There are many voices surrounding us on all sides claiming to answer these questions for us – in effect telling us what to do. Yet, we pray: “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” We seek freedom and abundance, yet most of us remain enslaved, bonded, to three verbs, as Evelyn Underhill explains in her book The Spiritual Life: “to Want, to Have, and to Do.
Evelyn goes on to say: Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual – even on the religious – plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest: forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life” (p. 20).

We seek to know the essence of our Being–what it means to be truly human. Jesus offers what we mistakenly believe to be metaphors: we are salt and light– and as such, we are capable of fulfilling all that God requires of us as laid out in commandments and reminders from prophets.

Like Isaiah, who helps us to imagine what it really means to observe a fast: “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… Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

Some five hundred years, later Matthew’s Jesus confirms, our light, the light of Christ, the light of God’s purpose, shines brightest when we do just these things spoken of in Isaiah (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). This is the essence of our Being. This is why we are here in a world in desperate need of more light. This is how to fulfill our Being light: by reconciliation. By striving for justice and peace and dignity for all people – not some people, not most or a lot of people.

Some have said Love is just as mysterious as salt and light. Jesus is calling us to be Love like salt. Love is to make up the very essence of who we are and why we are here. We come from Love, we return to Love, and Love is all around. Should we forget this elemental essence of our existence, we are made up of a mixture of saltwater and stardust – a very mixture of light and salt. Funny how the ancient wisdom of Isaiah and Jesus suddenly seem more basic and agreement with the discovery of our origins in science!

The Apostle Paul calls us to consider what it means to be “truly human” in his Corinthian correspondence: “We speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.’”

Yet, the “rulers of this age” continue to keep us busy Wanting, Having, and Doing; craving, clutching and fussing “on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual – even on the religious – plane,” kept in perpetual unrest. The secret and hidden wisdom of God calls us to recall the essence of life, the essence of our being made of salt and light, is to remind us where we come from, where we are going, and what we are meant to be doing–if anything at all–which all revolve
around Love–restoring justice, peace and dignity for all people in a world that too often wants us to believe it is every man, woman, and child for themselves.

This is why Underhill calls us to stop all else and take time to simply Be–for it is in taking time to recollect the essence of being truly human that we are set free to be who we are meant to be and remember what we are meant to be doing.

The elements of creation, like salt, water, light—acts of kindness and love for all creatures great and small—define the very essence of who we are and whose we are, which Jesus sums up in just a few words about salt and light. When we live lives of justice, peace, and dignity for all people and all of creation, says Isaiah, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

There is healing from all that seeks to keep us in a state of perpetual unrest. The prophet imagines what that looks like. The apostle calls us to remember what it means to be truly human. Jesus reminds us what it means to be the salt of the earth, and the light that shines upon others so that they might join us in giving all glory to the God—God, whose property is always to have mercy, who sets us free and gives us the liberty of that abundant life made known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

To bring this all together I want to tell you of Mahatma Gandhi’s 240-mile march to the coast of India protesting the British tax on salt. Hundreds of thousands trailed behind him; 60,000 were arrested. When Gandhi got to the shore, he made a little salt—his point being it occurs quite naturally in God’s good world, is so essential to life, and thus should not be a high control government monopoly. This sounds like grace, or compassion, or even justice.

When speaking of the “city set on a hill,” Jesus may have pointed north above the Galilee to the town perched up there: Safed, the highest city in all of Israel. To this day it is a fabled center for Jewish learning and mysticism. The image of “the city set on a hill” fed the dreams (and fantasies) of America as God’s chosen people.
These visions haven’t been all wicked, and there is a holy dream at the core of it, yet the perils, the implicit arrogance and problems. Jesus is inviting his people, the nobodies, to be the bright hope of the world.

We who dig notions of being saved by grace not works, and we whose religious
life is really I do what I want, then I ask God to help with what I want or when I’m in trouble, then I go to heaven one day, should shudder at the clarity and height of Jesus’ soaring invitation. Jesus doesn’t want mere adherence to rules, although rules mattered to him. He wasn’t a lax, do-whatever-you-feel-like kind of guy. The commandments must be exceeded in the heart of God’s holy people as he explains in next week’s text.

It’s a profound inner and outer holiness Jesus is after. It’s not a straitjacket; it’s the way of freedom.


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