February 5, 2023
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday, February 5, 2023
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; I Cor. 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20
From the Prophet Isaiah, “You shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’” I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Epiphany journeys continue this morning with another reminder of God’s invitation to a life of evangelism, God’s invitation, God’s urging, to living in ways that make a difference not only for or in our own selves or communities, but the whole world. In our reading from Matthew, Jesus describes these evangelists – his followers, describes you and me, as the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and a city set on a hill. Each description goes to the heart of who we truly should or need to be as followers of Jesus Christ; as those who answered his invitation to “Come and see.”
I think it safe to assume that most of us think of salt in terms of seasoning or, as is often the case during High Country winters, a remedy for melting snow off our sidewalks and streets. But you might be surprised to learn – I know I was – that salt in Jesus’ day had multiple uses. Yes, it was a seasoning just like today. And that’s a good thing because, let’s face it, the right amount of salt adds flavor to every meal. But in Jesus’ day salt often described the meal itself. People in Israel would describe their entire meal as sharing salt and salt – that meal - expressed a binding relationship between the host and the guests at the table. You know, Leviticus and Ezekiel describe salt as a sacrifice while Ezra and the Book of Numbers describe the passing of salt between people as a sign of loyalty and a covenant of fidelity. Hmmm. I wonder if the expression “pass the salt, please” is not so much a request to season food, but rather, a desire to deepen a relationship. (Now there’s food for thought!) Both Books of the Kings speak of using salt in purification rites and Paul’s letter to the Colossians describes salt as a preservative. So, historically, salt didn’t exist just for itself: it had a purpose and role in the lives of God’s people. And Jesus says, like salt, we, too, have a role in society as hosts, as a preservative, as a seasoning, and as a sign of a loyal covenant with God.
Now Jesus also says we are the light of the world. The interesting thing about light is that just like salt, light doesn’t exist for its own benefit. Light is not present in order to be seen, but rather, light enables us to see things as they really are. How often have we stumbled around in a darkened room not sure of what is in front of us or, for those with pets, what we just stepped in. We turn on a light and suddenly we are able to see the things around us and see them very clearly. Sometimes we don’t like what we see; see in ourselves, our community, and perhaps even each other. And, at other times, light gives us a sense of safety and security. Jesus says that Christians have a role as the light of the world much like ancient Israel was called to be a light to the nations. We are called to show forth in our lives – in and through our life choices and actions - the presence of Christ so that all may see their need and come to experience a renewed, holy, and redeemed relationship with God. Light, just like salt, has a role and purpose in our lives, our communities, and the world.
Throughout this season of the Epiphany with its focus on light and the manifestation or realization that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah, our scripture readings have been very clear that the light of Christ shines in order that we – God’s people - may see ourselves for who we really are: see ourselves as sinners in need of a savior; as people walking in darkness needing direction; and a community called to minister to and serve those whom we now see around us, and see very clearly.
But Jesus doesn’t leave us with just these images of salt and light. He goes on to describe his followers, describe us, as a City. Not just any city, but a city on a hill that can be seen by all. Notice Jesus doesn’t describe his followers as a fortress on a hill protecting ourselves from the world or keeping people out. No, God’s people, these Jesus followers, live like a city on a hill easily seen by all – a destination, as it were, for those who seek God. A city set on a hill cannot help but be seen. As saltiness is essential to salt and shining is essential to light, so is visible mission, visible acts – in word and deed - essential to God’s people: A city set on a hill cannot be hid. It has a purpose. The reality is that Jesus calls his followers to be their real selves: be People of God redeemed, transformed, and by God’s grace, continuing to grow in the knowledge and love of God and our neighbor. We are salt. We are light. We are a city – an example – for all.
Salt, light, a city on a hill. In this Gospel lesson, Jesus is not challenging us to try harder to be salt and light, or even more visible as a city on a hill, but rather, he is urging us to realize that God’s people have a purpose, and that we represent God’s presence in us and in our communities.
As I was pouring over today’s texts as well those from prior weeks, I had a profound sense that God is urging the Church as communities of faith to understand that people are always watching us. They want to know that the faith we claim to have in Christ really does influence how we consciously choose to live our lives. They want to know that, as salt, we care about our community. As light, that we are willing to see things as they really are and speak up for change, speak up for and demand justice and righteousness in all things even within our own selves. And as a city on a hill, we have an opportunity to point the way to God who offers healing and peace.
Our scripture lessons these past weeks have urged us to understand how people perceive this church and what, as Episcopalians, sets us apart from other Christian churches. What do we offer the people who worship and fellowship here that might not be found elsewhere? How do we shine forth as a beacon of hope to our community and encourage everyone we meet to encounter God in new ways? Do our lives prove that our faith does make a difference?
St. Paul, in today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians, reminds us that the church is built upon the faithfulness of God to us in Jesus Christ our redeemer. Christ crucified is the focus of the Gospel and he who brought it to the Corinthians, St. Paul himself, says he is nobody special. Paul says, “I didn’t use lofty words or wisdom. … I came to you in fear and trembling. … I just let the Spirit of God to do its work in you and all I did was preach Christ crucified.” The power of our own witness, the way we live our faith, is the best way to be salt, to be light, and to stand apart as a city on a hill seen by all.
So how do we live our faith? You know, Scribes and Pharisees exemplified a high standard of piety and religious practice. Unfortunately because they insisted on upholding the letter of God’s law they often missed the intent of that law: a law that always extends and upholds God’s mercy, justice, love, and covenant loyalty. So imagine everyone’s surprise when Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The fact that many of them missed or forgot the mercy and inclusivity of God’s law is not Jesus’ point here. What Jesus is saying is that as the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and as cities on a hill, God’s people don’t focus on “doing” religion, but rather, practice and demonstrate what we claim to believe about God’s mercy, love and grace and do so at all times.
Isaiah tells us that doing religion is a false humility that doesn’t bring anyone closer to God. In fact Isaiah says God won’t even look at our fasting or acknowledge our humility unless it serves a purpose in our lives. In today’s reading, the people say to God, “Look at all we’re doing. We’re fasting, we’re humbling ourselves and yet, God, you don’t even notice.” God tells them to stop doing religion and start living it. God says, “Here’s the fast I choose … here’s the humility I respond to … loose the bonds of injustice, share your bread with the hungry, cover the naked, and bring the homeless poor into your house … stop pointing fingers and arguing … satisfy the needs of the afflicted. This is what real fasting and humility is supposed to be about. And God says when you have done these things, then: your light will shine forth; healing shall spring up; you will become like a watered garden, you will restore your city, you will rebuild and be rebuilt.” You will become salt, light, and a city on a hill.
Isaiah condemned ritual action without change in how one chooses to live. And Isaiah says that true righteousness begins in the heart and mind where, St. Paul says, the Spirit of God dwells shaping and smoothing out our rough edges so that we do live as God’s people whose lives do make a difference in the world. Through the witness of our daily lives people should see things for how they really should be. So much so that those who cry out for God hear God answer, “Here I am” as we extend a helping hand. And in so doing find for themselves a welcoming into a true home – this home – called The Church of the Holy Cross, the salt of this earth, a light to this world, and like a city on a hill. By God’s grace at work in us and through us, may it be so. Amen.