Year A, Epiphany 5
February 9, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherent the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for
they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and
utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
You are the salt of the earth…
You are the light of the world…
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the
prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
We missed the Beatitudes last week as the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple supersedes the regular propers of the day (propers being the appointed collect of the day and its accompanying scripture). They can’t be missed in our church year, so I bring them to you today. More importantly, though, I start this sermon with the Beatitudes to put today’s Gospel, and the Gospel readings for the next four Sunday’s into context. The Beatitudes are the introduction to St. Matthew’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount, and today and for the next four weeks we have the treat of pondering Our Lord’s greatest ethical/moral discourse in scripture. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Paul wrote to his people in Corinth, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom;” Jesus does not, either. Jesus uses very plain language; very plain language steeped in the language and stories of His holy scripture spoken to the people of His time. But so plain, so clear were his words and wisdom, that they speak with ultra-focus clarity all the way from Galilee 2,000 years ago to us, right here, right now. And while we in the church, at the insistence of the principalities and powers of the world have tired our best to obfuscate, misinterpret, subvert, redirect, diffuse and defuse the teaching of Jesus Christ, the words of our Savior throughout the Sermon on the Mount are clear, direct, plain spoken truths that we ignore or manipulate to our own uses at our own peril.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored… You are the light of the world… No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to the whole house.” Plain talk about simple things. Salt. Light. Plain talk about simple things can empower a people to do great things. Powerful things. Courageous things. Holy things.
Jesus preached this sermon to a people subjected to Empire. In that moment it was Rome, but the whole story of Israel is marked by its relationship with Empire. The bondage in Egypt. The Babylonian captivity. The Romans, followed by the Diaspora across an Imperial Europe – Spain, Germany, Britain, France, Russia and now the United States. I suppose that the history of the world is Imperial so the history of Israel could be no different.
In that historical moment, Roman legions possessed the Jerusalem, the city on the hill. All of Israel was affected by the occupation, economically, politically, culturally and religiously. And the powers that were, the various sects and parties that made up Israel’s public life, each had a take on how to deal with yet another gentile occupation. The Sadducees gravitated towards collaboration with the Empire. Think Vichy France kind of collaborators. At the other end of the spectrum were the Zealots, with whom Judas Iscariot is associated. They advocated (and carried out) violent insurgency. The betrayal of Jesus could have been a calculated political/revolutionary move, eliminating a popular nay-sayer to violent revolution. The Pharisees by in large were closer to the Zealots than the Sadducees, but they were a divided house. A few Pharisees advocated violent rebellion, but most opted for isolating themselves, rejecting the powers that be in place, separating themselves culturally and living on their own accord by their own systems of law and its strict observance. Hence all the purity stuff. Keep the law at all costs so that they would be righteous and blameless on the day of judgment, on the day that God’s reign was unleashed. Their idea was that they could live in purity by the Torah, by God’s law, until the occupiers were overthrown. Last were the Essenes, but they spirited themselves away from the world, living in the wilderness, rejecting society. All that remains of them are the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Enter Jesus Christ.
The Beatitudes correct the Sadducean error. The powerful, the wealthy, the violent, the ones the Sadducees threw their lot in with, they, the Romans and her collaborators are not the chosen in God’s economy, are not the victors of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is very clear that being a collaborator is not the path towards God.
The Zealot’s dedication to or at least acceptance of violence is also rejected by Jesus, though a bit further on in the Sermon on the Mount. We are not to hate those who persecute us, but rather love them and meet them with empire-shattering generosity. Non-violence is the way of God.
Our Gospel for today challenges very directly the Pharisaic interpretation of the situation. (The Essennes too, in effect, as Jesus never advocated isolation). You see, the Pharisees shared a lot in common with the Jesus movement. “I did not come to abolish the law or the prophets (shorthand for the Bible as they knew it), I have come not to abolish the law but fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of one letter will pass from the law…” Jesus was all for adherence to the law, to the letter but more importantly to the spirit of the law.
But the Pharisees were waiting for The Kingdom of God to be revealed; that was why they advocated hunkering down. What Jesus proclaimed again and again was that the Kingdom of God was at hand! There was not more waiting to be done, it was happening, God was already doing a new and beautiful thing and the way to embrace that was to live like it was true.
“You are the salt of the earth.” Of the earth. Grounded. Savory. Salt made everything it contacted better: better tasting, longer lasting (it is a food preservative), healthier (all those minerals). Salt was part of sacrificial practices even to today: when I confect the Holy Water at the back of the sanctuary, prayers are said as exorcised water and exorcised salt are comingled. And saltiness being lost? I never understood that as salt is salt is salt, it can’t loosed its saltiness unless, unless it becomes less and less salt, right? Impurities, adulterants reduce the saltiness of pure sodium chloride, just as bad theology, sinfulness and wrong interpretation of the Word and world reduced the capacity of Israel to fulfill its given role as the chosen people of God. Stay on message. Do what you are supposed to be, be what you are supposed to be.
“You are the light of the world.” All of Israel was called to reflect the light of God into the world. The city on the hill is Jerusalem, where from the prophets of old we are told that all the world will come to learn Torah, the Law of God. Jesus is saying, don’t hide the truth that has been revealed to and in you, O Israel. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Now is the time to be what you are: the salt of the earth, the light of the world. “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift your voice like a trumpet,” says Isaiah. In that, in being who and what God made you to be and boldly, proclaiming like a light on the lam pstand, in that the law is fulfilled, every “i” dotted, every “t” crossed.
And that is our lesson for today. The kingdom of God is, it remains at hand, and the only thing in the way of it manifesting for all to see is our own reluctance to be the salt of the earth, to be the light of the world. Egan has been open. It is pretty rough ministry to a pretty rugged crowd, but just showing up, being the beautiful people that you are, opening this church home to the world helps folks, guests and hosts alike, to see the love of God in all its messy abundance, overflowing toilets and all. Everyone who slogged through the ice to get to the Second Sunday breakfast will attest to the same lesson. This is our salvation; not some hoped for heavenly afterlife, but reconciling having and not having, thriving and struggling, light and darkness right here, right now. that is salvation. That is the Kingdom of God. All God in Christ needs from and asks of each of us is to be as truly and authentically ourselves as possible; our whole selves mysteriously crafted in the image of an ever-loving God. Salt. Light. Plain language from our Savior. Israel being its true self would have been impervious to the ravages of Empire. To this day, us, anyone being their true self is impervious to Empire, too. Even, and most importantly, our own. AMEN