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Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12) Psalm 112:1-9 (10) I Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16) Matthew 5:13-20

An Episcopal priest stands in the front of the church to begin a Sunday service. The sanctuary is large and full of people. Suddenly, his microphone breaks into pieces and a high shrill rings throughout the space. He lifts his hands and says, “Something went wrong with my microphone,” and the people respond, “And also with you.”

Even in the midst of confusing or unpredictable times, our experiences and knowledge help guide us. We are also led forward by instruction and guidance from people we trust. Our lives are filled with reminders of who we are and what our direction or purpose is. Those reminders help guide our actions. In the case of the beginning story, the people know the response to the beginning of the service, even though the priest didn’t start it correctly. Their life experience helped guide their action. In faith, Jesus reminds us that the path forward is to let our light shine. We are oriented toward God, so that our actions are a beacon of God’s light and glory for those around us.

In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah doesn’t realize how good he has it. His people can hardly wait to get themselves out of bed and into worship. The people “seek God” and “delight” to know God’s ways. They “delight to draw near to God.” I’m thinking today, that church is not the first place people go when they are searching for delight. But something is not right for Isaiah. Worship for them had become a proxy for all the things that must happen if the faith community is to avoid the mistakes of the past and secure a new future.

Worship style and practice are not what pleases or offends God, according to Isaiah. Worship style and practice are not the measuring sticks by which people of God will be judged. They will not restore or preserve a relationship with God in and of themselves. But for us, worship is one of the most important things we do together as a community of faith. It is the place and space that forms us into the people of God. It is the place where we inhale God’s love and grace, so that we can be sent forth to exhale God’s love and grace in a broken world in need of so much. What Isaiah is trying to say is that the more the people of Israel become self-conscious about its improved worship life, the less it will remain open to God’s vision for the community. Praise, prayer, and fasting are cherished not as gifts that nurture the covenant relationship with God, but as techniques for drawing attention to its human participants. Isaiah is concerned that the people spending so much time in worship have lost the vision of God’s will for justice.

But what about us? There are lots of messages here for us today. The Gospel reading implies two fundamental questions of life: Who are we? What are we to do? These questions hang in the recesses of our minds. The situation of Matthew’s congregation is similar to many of our congregations today. Matthew lived in a time of theological and social tension following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. His gospel was probably written between 60 and 65 A.D. The Jewish community was in conflict regarding the future of Judaism and what it meant to be Jewish.

Today’s churches face the same issues. Many values and practices popular with our parents’ generation are being questioned and tossed aside. Congregations in the historic denominations are getting smaller, and the denominations are losing social power. What does it mean to be disciples of Jesus Christ in this setting? How are we to live?

Matthew adapts, “You are the light of the world” from Isaiah, where it describes the vocation of Israel. God called Israel to be a light to the nations (Gentiles). Israel is to model God’s covenantal ways so that all people can be blessed. So, Matthew’s community was to be such a light in the first century, and the church is to be a light among human communities today. Do we see the light of the folks at Grace in the community? Those folks faithfully showing up to pack the sacks for the Ruskin kids and to make the sandwiches for Mary Street Mission, Mike, Don, Mike and Sandy, Barbara, Blossom, Tina and Irene. They speak with compassion and love about the program. Anita Lynn taking time to frequently connect with her great grandson in Florida. Linda and Gordon Nessmith always welcoming with grace and hospitality anyone who comes to their door. Audrey Jernigan devoted to attending to her husband during his time of illness. Light, hope, promise, we all have it and we all need to share it.

Matthew’s passage is a powerful corrective to congregations who think that Jesus or the earliest communities of Jesus’ followers rejected the law and Judaism. We know that Matthew criticizes the Pharisees for their interpretation of the law, but he assumes that Jewish members of the community will be law-observant and that Gentile members will adopt core values of the law, even if they are not fully initiated into Judaism.

The Beatitudes were the gospel last Sunday if we didn’t use The Presentation in the Temple. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

Jesus’ challenge to the disciples was to participate in the goodness of the world. The danger for the disciples is that they may lose that capacity by forgetting that they are to disorder the status quo by valuing those who are dispossessed, caring for those who suffer loss, seeking to do justice, showing mercy, having integrity, being peacemakers, and courageously standing for what they believe. Disciples who do not engage in practices that humanize life on earth will be like salt that has lost its taste.

After presenting the Beatitudes, Jesus begins this sermon by making an analogy that his followers are to be like salt and light. These are interesting choices, and both have implications in mission and compassion. To say that we are to be the salt of the earth implies that we are to bring some “flavor” – to spice up and bring something to add to our relationships with others. Salt has an edge as well as a satisfying taste. It makes things that are bland and tasteless come alive. If you have ever had popcorn or boiled peanuts without salt, you know what I mean. In certain situations, salt can be used as a preservative, keeping food fresh for an extended period of time. Salt is also used to stimulate thirst. We can begin to see how this image of salt might relate to the practice of our Christian faith, but two analogies seem particularly important.

We are to bring salt to the world, a sense of ourselves – our individuality, our personalities, our humor and humanness. Lonnie and Allen willingly allowing me to borrow their truck when there is a need my car can’t do. Tom Strait being a voice for the voiceless in politics and life. When it ain’t right, he says so. Mike Taylor and the choir bringing the saltiness of their talents in music in hymns and anthems. Jim Brown taking time out of his busy day to check on the heat and air conditioning when I call. So much salt, so much light….so much hope….

Compassion in living out a life of faith in recent years has been defined as supporting and affirming one another, regardless of the situation. Support and affirmation have their place, but there are times when we need to confront someone or a situation. Jesus could be both affirming of the individual person and challenging the person’s behavior. Jesus accepted the rich young man, but he challenged him to give away his possessions and follow him. Jesus accepted the woman caught in adultery, and then instructed her to sin no more.

We could readily say that affirming a person upholds a person’s dignity, while the challenge invites a behavioral change for the better. Both responses are required for an effective life in community. The challenge for change is the saltiness that keeps the moment alive to promote growth - both spiritual and personal. The saltiness of the challenge over time becomes the preservative that keeps us alive. What was once experienced as only bitter becomes bittersweet. Challenge leads to change that leads to perseverance.

Jesus tells his followers that they are the light of the world and that this light should not be hidden but seen. We often interpret this to mean that we should not hide our gifts and talents by putting them in a bucket. One of the favored offertory sentences in the prayer book is “let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” These words have offered challenge and support to many folks who have been hiding their lights.

Jesus encourages his followers to bring light to a dark and broken world. The light is the light of the gospel. The light is Jesus Christ shining in and through us. And it draws all people to its warmth and radiance. This mission has been primary, from the very beginning and throughout every age. Archbishop William Temple said, “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” For the light to be seen, we must be willing to go where the darkness exists, to engage and walk through it, so that, in time, the light can overcome the darkness. We must go into those dark places, bearing the light of Christ. The light is not given for our own personal enjoyment.

Being effective apostles also involves looking at the darkness within ourselves, to seek “the dark of the soul.” Parker Palmer refers to this process as looking or reading our inner landscape. While this is never easy, it is necessary. We can’t bring the light of Christ to others if we are unaware of where that light needs to shine in our own hearts. Living a life of faith requires looking at those dark places within, which will also help us understand external darkness. We need not fear this internal exploration. God is with us. Jesus’ light is within us. We are a part of a community of faith.

Finally, when we are salt and light for others, we are more likely to fulfill the law as Jesus suggested: To love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and soul; and our neighbor as ourselves. May we all be salt and light this day…..Amen.

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