February 9, 2014
He was caught between two worlds. Memories of home brought some comfort, but there was sadness, too. He knew there was no going back. Everything had changed, and he knew that the place he had once called “home” no longer existed. It had been destroyed, and all his friends and family had been scattered. He’d managed to get out alive, but the life of a refugee was full of challenges. So here he was, in Syria, speaking a different language, trying to live out his faith in a culture where faith was something you just didn’t talk about.
He’d found a few others in this city who were like him, also refugees. They had started to meet together to pray, to talk about their faith. But when they told the familiar stories to one another, they found that the details were getting fuzzy, and they didn’t always agree on the order of events, or the meaning behind them. They had asked him to be their pastor, their guide, and he had accepted the call to lead them. As he prayed for guidance, it became clear to him that he needed to write down the story as best he could remember it.
So he gathered the notes he had collected, the stories others had written, and the letters he had found. He was grateful for his friend, Mark, who had scratched out a rough draft earlier, and he used Mark’s words as his own starting point. But he knew that this story needed to reach a specific group of people: people like himself who were caught between two worlds.
The Jews no longer accepted them, but they certainly weren’t Gentiles, either. They wanted to be faithful to the whole story. They didn’t think for a moment that they had an exclusive claim on Jesus, but they knew his teaching was so deeply rooted in the story of Israel, that it just didn’t make sense to tell it apart from Torah and the writings of the prophets. Yet, this good news of God’s promise to his people was meant for everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike. So the story had to be rooted in Jewish history, but understood by all who would read it, wherever they lived, whatever their background.
Pastor Matt put down his pen and rubbed his eyes. This business of writing words was exhausting. Matt was much more comfortable adding up numbers. He picked up the manuscript, and read over what he had managed to get down on papyrus so far. It didn’t seem like much. He had listed the generations leading up to Jesus, and told about the events surrounding his birth. He had described the baptism and temptation in the desert, and the way Jesus had called his first disciples. Now came the hard part, remembering the things Jesus had said as he taught them day after day. Starting with the blessings had helped.
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One who is most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.”
“Yes,” Matt thought. “That’s exactly where I am, deep in God’s kingdom while I’m persecuted by this Roman one.” The memory of Jesus’ voice echoed in his mind. The words came to him in a flood. He picked up his pen, and started to write…
“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.” – Matthew 5:13-20
Matt put down his pen again, and breathed the words we say every Sunday when we hear the Good News: This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of the Lord. “Thanks be to God.”
We don’t know exactly when the Gospel of Matthew was written. Some scholars think Jerusalem had already been destroyed, while others think Matthew’s story appeared only a year or two after Mark’s, in the middle of the first century. We also don’t know exactly where the author was living when he wrote this version of the story, but the best guess is Syria, probably in the city of Antioch. We do know that Matthew had a particular audience in mind. He was writing primarily to the Jewish Christians who had been scattered throughout the Roman Empire. These believers had been expelled from the Jewish synagogues, but their identity was still rooted in Judaism. At the same time, more and more Gentiles were coming to believe in Jesus, and Matthew wanted to give them some background in Jewish history and culture.
Caught between two worlds, Matthew saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism, even though Judaism had rejected Jesus. He struggled to defend Jewish Christianity to the Jews, while helping them to find their new identity with Gentile Christians as the people of God. Matthew borrowed heavily from Mark’s earlier Gospel, but he knew that the best way to convey the truth about Jesus was to use the words Jesus had spoken. So Matthew’s Gospel account is framed by the sermons and teachings of Jesus, gathered into five “discourses” or speaking sections. The first of these is the Sermon on the Mount, and we will spend the next few Sundays examining this sermon, to learn what Jesus has to say to us.
Last week, we heard the familiar blessings of the Beatitudes. They are familiar to us now, but they were radical words when Jesus first spoke them. You’re blessed when you are persecuted for my sake? You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope, when you’ve lost everything dear to you? Jesus was trying to reframe the way his followers saw the world. Instead of mindlessly obeying a long list of rules, Jesus was urging his disciples to see the world through God’s eyes, to recognize that God’s Kingdom was at hand. As he so often did, Jesus used everyday images to help his followers get the message.
“You are the salt of the earth,” he told them. “You are the light of the world.”
Jesus doesn’t say, “ You should be salt and light,” or “Please be salt and light,” or “Here’s how you can be salt and light,” or even “I command you to be salt and light.” We don’t need a how-to guide for becoming salt and light, because Jesus isn’t asking us to change into salt and light. It isn’t something we need to become, because it’s something we already are. Jesus says, “You are salt and light.”
Simple salt. But salt held a lot of meaning for the people of Israel. For one thing, it was a sign of covenant. Every agreement, to be legal, included the sharing of salt. Salt was an important commodity. Salt doesn’t just add flavor to food; it acts as a preservative. When Jesus says, “You are salt,” he’s telling us “You are a fundamental part of the way things are supposed to be in God’s kingdom.” As salt, we are a sign of God’s covenant with the world, his promise to redeem it from its brokenness. As salt, we are important to God’s work of saving his good creation. It isn’t something we do or have to work toward. How can salt not be salty, Jesus asks? It can’t. We are the seasoning that puts God’s stamp on this world, as he works through us to bring his kingdom to completion.
You are salt and light. Light can’t be anything else but light. Its primary function is to eliminate darkness. Light was the very first thing God created. And light is also directly connected to God’s covenant with his chosen people. In Isaiah 42:6 God says, “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations.”
And we can’t hide our light under a bucket, either. We have no choice but to shine. The question is, “How are we shining? What light are we giving to the world around us?”
Jesus tells us that we are the signs of God’s kingdom, and then, in verse 16, he gives us a direct command: “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.”
Wait a minute. See our good works? That sounds a lot like following the law.
But Jesus is already a step ahead of us. “I didn’t come to abolish the law, but fulfill it,” he says. And this is the central truth of today’s passage. Not one tiny mark of the Law will disappear until it is completely fulfilled, and that is what Jesus came to do.
Christ came to fulfill the spirit of Torah. The scribes and Pharisees had been caught up in the details of abiding by the Law, but they had forgotten the spirit of Torah, which focuses on righteousness. Not the kind of righteousness that is faultless because you obeyed all the rules, but the kind of righteousness that seeks the good of others, helping those in need, caring for those no one else cares about. Later in Matthew, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “You’ve done a great job of tithing your spices, but you forgot to feed the hungry. You should have done both.” (Matt 23:23)
Perhaps we need to remember what it means to live Torah lives. The Torah includes the first five books of our Old Testament, and it’s important to keep in mind that this includes the history of God and his people as well as the commandments he gave to the Israelites. Living Torah meant more than following the rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It meant identifying with the chosen people of God from the beginning of human history. It meant living a life that was set apart from the way neighboring nations lived and treated each other. It meant seeking God first, and his righteousness. It meant a change of heart.
Psalm 119 is the longest psalm in the Bible, and every verse in it – but one – mentions the Law, God’s Word, God’s statutes. Verse eleven reads, “Thy Word have I hid in my heart that I may not sin against God.” This was what it meant to live Torah: to be transformed by a change of heart into someone who embodies God’s goodness.
There was nothing wrong with keeping Torah – after all, “not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (v 18). But the Pharisees had based their practices on an outdated interpretation of that law. They were stuck in a mindset that focused on a checklist of behaviors that would put them in favor with God. They thought the fulfillment of God’s promises lay in the future, but God was already doing a new thing. The kingdom of God was in their midst, just as it is in ours right now, but they were trying to put God into a box of their own expectations.
As Methodists, we often refer to The Book of Discipline when we aren’t sure what to do. Living by The Discipline isn’t a bad thing, anymore than living Torah was a bad thing. But when we rely more on the letter of the Discipline to shape who we are and how we live out our faith, we can easily make the mistake of putting God in a box, just as the Pharisees did. Why should we limit how God can use us?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we should ignore The Discipline, any more than Jesus was saying “abolish the Law.” I am saying that living into our calling requires breathing life into The Discipline, allowing it to guide us into right living that brings more and more people into rightness with God, and changes the world for God’s glory.
Jesus did not reject Torah, but he read it from a different perspective than the Pharisees. They saw Torah as a way to keep themselves from sin. Jesus saw it through the eyes of the Kingdom of God, where human limitations are overcome by the abundance of God’s righteousness. Righteousness is not about following the rules, but seeking God’s justice, living into the spirit of the Law.
And it’s about teaching others to do the same thing. Our place in the Kingdom of Heaven is determined by what we teach others, Jesus says. If we teach them to ignore God’s commands, we will be least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but our obedience to true righteousness, and teaching others how to live into that same kind of Kingdom living, moves us up the table, “above the salt,” so to speak.
Matthew is big on teaching. At the end of his Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples to “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20) We call this “The Great Commission” and this final commandment from Jesus forms the foundation of our lives as Christ’s disciples.
So what are we teaching by the way we live our lives? How is our light shining: brightly or dimly? And what does that tell the world we really believe? How are we seasoning the world: with Christ’s love, or some routine we call “church?” What message of love are we sending out to the world this Valentine’s Day by the way we live?
Or maybe we need to ask ourselves, “What do we let get in the way of shining our light into the darkness that fills the world around us? What robs us of our saltiness?” What keeps us from being everything God calls us to be as followers of Jesus? Is our time and energy spent in knowing Christ better through prayer and study, or do we fill our time with television and Internet surfing? Is God plainly evident in our speech and actions, or do we hide our faith under a bucket, hoping no one will ask us why we believe what we believe?
Our righteousness shows in lives seasoned with love and light that shines in the darkness. Christ calls us to well-seasoned lives, undiluted by “filler.” Christ calls us to lives that uncover God’s light for others to see. That light shines, not because we make it shine, but because of what God is doing in and among us.
As salt and light, we are the sign that God keeps his promises.
So the question isn’t “How are we to be salt and light in the world?” but “How am I already being salt and light? What am I doing and saying that seasons the world around me with godliness and shows God to others who can’t see him yet?” A number of years ago, there was a popular wall poster that said, “Live your life in such a way that when your feet hit the floor in the morning, Satan shudders and says, “Oh no! She’s awake!” You may have seen a more colorful version of that same sentiment, and the pronoun can just as easily be “he” as “she.” But you get the idea. Satan thrives in the dark, and we are like the city on the hill that cannot be hidden, shining into that darkness.
So I want to challenge you today, to help me create a “Salt and Light Log” of how God is shining in and through us. Start looking intentionally for the things God is doing. I know it isn’t very Minnesotan to call attention to ourselves, so you may not feel comfortable telling the rest of us how you are being salt and light, but I really want to start collecting examples of how God is working through us – through you – to help others. Don’t think of it as boasting on yourself, recognize it as boasting in the Lord, as Floyd reminded us last week. But I really need you to do this. E-mail me, or drop a note in my In box in the office, if you want to keep it anonymous. Tell me about someone else you see being salt and light. Through the rest of this month, let’s highlight the ways God is using each of us to be salt and light. The goal is to help us start looking for God at work, and to believe that we are the ones through whom God is working, as we live into who we are, and whose we are, finding our identity as children of God. Amen.