For St. Andrew Deanery Day
Sunday, February 9, 2020
SERMON Text: Matthew 5: 14-16
Jesus says: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill-top cannot be hidden. In the same way your light must shine in people’s sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your father in heaven”.
I am told that the Christian missionary E. Stanley Jones once asked Mahatma Gandhi: “Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower (Christian)”? The latter’s reply was clear: “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ”.
It is necessary to have faith to be saved, but following Christ cannot be theoretical. It must be shown in action and in deeds. Jesus had warned in Mt 7: 21-23 that: “Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers”.
The greatest threat to Christianity is not other religions; it’s not atheism, or secularism. The greatest threat to Christianity is Christians trying to sneak into heaven incognito without ever living their faith, without ever living out the Christian life, without ever becoming involved in the most significant work God is doing in the world.
This is exactly the problem Jesus was trying to remedy with his Sermon on the Mount, the prelude to today’s Gospel. The question is, are we taking seriously the moral dilemma we have found ourselves in as a nation? Think about the crowd to whom Jesus was speaking. It was a group of common people living ordinary lives. They were under occupation; they couldn’t make their own laws; they couldn’t plan their own futures; they couldn’t determine their own destinies. Yet Jesus said to them, “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.” You may think you are insignificant, but I can tell you if you are a Christian you can make an incredible difference in this world. But we have to first believe it, because as Jesus puts it if salt becomes tasteless, how can we salt the world with it. That message seems especially true today. For if we no longer believe the Gospel, if we no longer believe in reconciliation as God’s gift to a hurting world, then who is going to preserve the moral and ethical values that sustain the social order? We’re supposed to be the leaven of the world, yet if we no longer believe what we proclaim week after week, what hope do we have of offering anything new to our community and nation?
Until the Church, that is you and me, believes its own message, there is no point in going out and telling other people to be Christian. There is no new narrative to point them to if we are not living the life. Jesus’ conclusion is rather pessimistic. He says, “If salt has lost its zing, it’s good for nothing but to be thrown out and be trampled underfoot”. Now let me say something that is often missed. By calling his disciples salt of the earth, Jesus is not saying they are the saved ones. He is, in fact, saying; “so long as people are prepared to live by the upside-down wisdom of the gospel, it will be enough to flavour the whole meal of life”.
We are salt and we are light. But just what does this mean? Why does Jesus insist that we need to “salt-ti-fy the earth and turn on the light?” How are we to do that?
The first thing I want to say to you this morning is that when Jesus says in our gospel; “You are the salt of the earth” (v.13a), he is not speaking to everyone. He is addressing the same small group whom he called the happy ones in the Beatitudes. When you can weep, when you can identify with the little ones, when you can make peace, when you can be persecuted and still be joyful; then you will be like salt to the earth, adding flavour.
Salt itself is a miracle. As you know, it is chemically composed of sodium and chloride. In a world that is decaying it is our job as salt to preserve the holiness of God, and the goodness of Jesus as much as we can. As bad as things are, can you imagine how bad things would be if there were no churches? How bad would things be if there were no Christians living exemplary lives?
Yes, we need to be salt, but there’s a danger. Jesus goes on to say, “…if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned?” (v.13b)
I must admit I only came across your theme a couple days ago; “Disciples on the move…. Praising, Praying, Sharing”. While I would agree that this speaks to much of what we are about, the one word that’s missing is “listening”. Later this year we will gather as a Diocese to begin our year-long commemoration of 150 Years of Disestablishment. Of course, the Anglican Church has been around for over 300 years. However, it wasn’t until 150 years ago that we became a self-Governing body, setting our own policies and directing our course for mission. Amidst our vast decline in recent decades and an increasing number of Jamaicans still ignorant about who or what an Anglican is, we are bound to ask; have we lost our relevance to the larger society?
That question has bothered me for decades
and so I returned to my thesis which I wrote 17 years ago. In fact, I spent
most of Thursday night reading it again. My task then was to explore ways
whereby a church, once perceived as complicit in a people’s oppression might
now become agents of reconciliation and transformation. This, of course, sounds odd to our ears, but
that is largely how we are perceived by others.
To become a truly witnessing Church, we must learn how to be a listening
Church. Anglicans seem not to have
recognized that often it is the people outside the “church of the status quo”
who have already perceived the possibility of their own emancipation. And we
ignore them to our own demise.
Bear with me while I quote a paragraph from my thesis, Redemption Song, A New Hermeneutics for Social Transformation: “Those outside the status quo, those often considered to be on the margins, are the very ones who ask the most penetrating questions; questions like: ‘Why has God not liberated us?’ ‘Why is the Church so silent on issues of injustice?’ ‘In whose interest does democracy serve?’ These questions invite the church into new areas of social and theological engagement and demand a reassessment of the way we can assist an ‘alienated community’ to hear the liberating voice of scripture”. The challenge, I suggested is not for the Church to produce more theologies from the top; there are already many of these in existence. The challenge is to re-examine the way the Bible has been read and interpreted in the past and to open up a new discourse to include those voices of resistance that have felt excluded from the historic hermeneutical process. “…if the salt loses its flavour, how shall it be seasoned?”
The second thing Jesus Says in our gospel is that we must shine the Light to a darkened world for “You are the light of the world.”(v.14a) The difference between salt and light, is that salt relates to our character while light relates to our conduct. Salt speaks to what we are; light sheds light on what we do. The quality and integrity of our lives serve to attract others outside the Church to join with us in Christian fellowship. Attracting remember, is different from proselytizing, which often involves criticizing others. When people are drawn to join in the life of a Christian community not because of argument or debate, but rather because of its Christ-like quality, our witness will, undoubtedly, lead to personal transformation.
When light appears it chases darkness away and reveals what was in the shadows. This is good! But in dealing with others we must understand that people can only endure so much light. We have no right to drag people kicking and screaming out of darkness. We must never do violence to a person’s God-given freedom. And that is why it is so challenging to practice discipleship as an Anglican, because Anglicans respect people’s freedom. We echo Richard Rohr’s warning; “that we must not force those who dwell in shadow into the light prematurely”. We must invite not coerce. When love, and not coercion, becomes our primary reason for discipleship, then accepting people as they are and where they are, must be our primary concern. With humility, we believe that it is God who knows what must be done in their lives and through us will accomplish it. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “God has an eternity to spend with each of us alone.” It is for us to offer a hand and walk together with those God brings into our lives without judgment or condition. It is only for us to love, we must leave it to God to transform. We are not the light, for as John’s Gospel says of Jesus, we can only bear witness to the true light which enlightens everyone.
I am reminded of the story about a little boy that was taken by his mother to see a famous cathedral. As he was watching the sunbeams shining through the stained-glass windows, he asked his mother, “Who are those people on the windows?” She said, “They’re saints.” The little boy looked at the windows and said, “Well, now I know what saints are. They are people who let the light shine through.” That little boy got it right. That’s what a saint is – someone who lets the light of Jesus shine through his life.
Finally, Jesus is saying to us this morning, share the Truth to a morally dying World – Salt can easily lose its capacity to season and light can be hidden.
And so Jesus concludes by saying this: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” How do you know if you’re being salt and light? How do you know if you’re adding flavour, and how do you know if you’re shining the light? Well, here is the test; if “People see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
When you begin to live your life in such a way that people are attracted to Jesus Christ, and want to glorify your Father in heaven, you will know that your salt is tasty and your light is bright. Someone has said, “The real mark of a saint is that he makes it easier for others to believe in God.”
Each one of us was created by God as a story waiting to be told – and each of us has to find a way to tell that story. Telling God’s story as your story has tremendous power in itself. We Anglicans need to learn how to do that. It is very easy for us to get involved in doing everything “right” that we sometimes forget to walk in the mystery of the story. We claim to know the gospel story, but we don’t know how to tell it anymore because the story is not really our own. It is not who we are. It is a story that others have told to us, and we merely repeat it.
That is what is often reflected in the way we worship and witness to Jesus Christ. We do it as if it is someone else’s experience we are communicating. There is no fire, no joy, no freedom in our voice and action. And where there is no joy, no freedom and no fire, there can be no commitment to telling the Good News of the Gospel as if it is our story. If nothing is done to stimulate Christian witness; if the people of God are not empowered through prayer and study to discern the Word of God, and if we do not find a new theological language to interpret our lives and the life of the community, in not too long from now, our church buildings will be nothing more than museums of former memories.
Sometime ago, I read a story about a duck who broke his wing during the flight home for the winter. A sympathetic farmer retrieved the fallen duck and took him home. The farmer’s children adopted the duck as their pet and began to feed him from the table and take him along as they performed their daily chores. By next fall, the children were heartbroken as they watched the duck look at the other ducks that were flying south for the winter, but his wing still wasn’t strong enough for the flight. Every time a flock flew south, the duck would look longingly into the sky and then return to play with the children.
Well, the second year the duck’s wing had grown much stronger, but the children had fed the duck so well that when he attempted to take off he was too fat to get off the ground. After one or two attempts he gave up and returned to play with the children.
The third-year the duck was completely healed. But as the other ducks quacked their call to go south, the duck never even looked up as they flew over. He had become so accustomed to the comfort of his new existence he had lost his focus on the true calling and meaning of his life.
God has not called us to be fat ducks, satisfied with a world that has lost its moral compass. God has given us good news in human form and has even given us the grace to proclaim it, but part of our terrible freedom is the freedom to lose our voices, to forget where we were going and why. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes; “While that knowledge doesn’t strike us as prophetic, it does keep us from taking both our own ministry and that of the whole church for granted. If we do not attend to God’s presence in our midst and bring all our best gifts to serving that presence in the world, we may find ourselves selling tickets to a museum”.
We live in a world and at a time that is restless and impatient, known for abandoning our saviours as quickly as we elect them, for not saving us soon or well or often enough; a world that gives us plenty of choices in our search for a meaning that eludes us. Believe it or not, we belong to that world, fickle and flawed. But we are more than that, because we believe in a God who believes in us. God looks at us and sees the best; sees beloved children; sees able allies and partners in His ongoing work of creation and calls us the very thing that our world needs. Light and salt! In faith he calls us from this place of worship to claim these as our true identity and to live into them, trusting God’s vision of us more than we trust our own. This is the work God is seeking to renew in you today, not only for our own members, but for the sake of our community and nation; work that is more important now than it has ever been. Go now and become what you are. Salt and Light.