February 9, 2020: The 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

February 9, 2020: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20

From St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, “But we have the mind of Christ.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

    The downside of having observed the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) last Sunday is that our gospel lesson this morning jumps to the conclusion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And with that conclusion – for all its depth on what it means to be the “salt of the earth and light of the world” – we have missed all that Jesus said beforehand about how his followers demonstrate that salt and light. So, I encourage you this afternoon and this week to read those first 12 verses of Matthew chapter 5 and ponder them deeply. For the truth is, beloved, with all that is going on in our nation today, now more than ever God’s people need to and must demonstrate what St. Paul describes as “the mind of Christ;” to be merciful and pure in heart; to hunger and thirst after God’s righteousness; and be the people Jesus describes in today’s gospel lesson.

   My Grandmother often described those who could be depended upon to help with any task saying, “She is the salt of the earth”. And that phrase, “salt of the earth” was always said with a sense of gratitude and humility; a sense of thanksgiving for those who demonstrate the best of human character: giving, helping, volunteering, loving and yes, even forgiving. Now, another thing about my grandmother – she was a phenomenal cook and baker. There was nothing more wonderful than to walk into her home and smell the aroma of her freshly baked pies or cookies, her roast beef and homemade bread. My mouth starts watering just thinking about it.

    No wonder I always looked forward to “going to Grandma’s” on Sunday afternoons. But then something happened. While she could cook and bake up a storm and delicious aromas still filled her house, a time came when whatever she prepared had lost its zip and was devoid of any taste. Come to find out that having been diagnosed with high blood pressure, Grandma had stopped putting salt into her foods. In fact, she didn’t even put out saltshakers on her dining table. And every meal thereafter while wonderful occasions of fellowship and joy, just wasn’t the same.

    In our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus talks about what happens not when salt is removedfrom a recipe, but what happens when the salt we use no longer works: when it has lost its taste. Oh, for all appearances it is there alright, but as Jesus says, it has become useless and “no longer good for anything”. 

    That was the very situation described by the prophet Isaiah in today’s Old Testament reading.  See, Isaiah understood that how God’s people choose to live in this world is always seen by others. No matter how hard we might try to disguise ourselves or our actions, someone somewhere is bound to take notice. Isaiah says that one’s commitment to God’s ways and values: that is, God’s economy, God’s mercy, God’s kingdom, is not recognized through what one says or what we want people to think about us, but rather, by how we live, how we demonstrate our commitment to God and all that God desires as evidenced through our everyday lives; how we embody what it means to be “salt of the earth.”

In Isaiah’s time, most of the people of Israel – especially her religious and political leaders – looked out solely for their own interests. Yes, they fasted and kept all the right festivals and religious observances.  They appeared before others as the salt of the earth, pillars of their community, holy people and yet, Isaiah says, they were frauds. “But look God, we’re fasting … and we’re humbling ourselves for all to see. Why don’t you notice us?” And God responds that you might be doing all this stuff, but it means nothing because you continue to oppress your workers and quarrel with each other. Acts of contrition, of repentance, of prayer and fasting mean nothing if they don’t come from a changed heart – how we choose to think, how we live, how we treat others. God says, "You want me to notice you? Well, first, ‘loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless into your house, cover the naked, and don’t hide from your own kin in need.’” And when you have done these things, “Then I will notice you and I will answer you.” There is a sense in the words of Isaiah that God will answer once people stop “doing” religion and start practicing it, living it; when we become the salt of the earth in our homes, our communities, and nation.

   Returning to our gospel reading, Jesus says salt is salt or it is not. Then he goes on to describe his followers – that’s me and you, folks – as the “light of the world.” But, he says, that light is useless if it’s tucked away and hidden only to be used for ourselves. As we have explored in our scripture lessons these past few weeks, being people of God and scripture says true people of God uphold all of God’s values and ways, all of God’s commandments, and recognize that we cannot love God if we do not love our neighbor, being people of God makes a positive difference in the world. A light hidden away, a light kept secret does nothing: it, too, is useless and, no pun intended, is not worth its salt.

    No, Jesus says his followers are both salt and light. Salt is intended to improve whatever it is combined with, to enhance flavor and bring out the best in life. Similarly, light is intended to dispel darkness and reveal that which is lurking especially in our own souls, our hearts and minds, and then show us the way forward and see darkness and the world as God sees it; see them both in the light of Christ.

     St. Paul, writing to the Church at Corinth, says that those who follow Jesus see the world through the lens of “Christ crucified,” not the lenses we typically use when looking around. You know those lenses that judge or disparage people, or categorize them by class, status, power, wealth, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, their opinion on a particular issue, or any other descriptor, but rather, see every human being as worthy of God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, grace, and redemption we believe our own selves deserve. Christ died, Paul said, for all. The Church at Corinth was filled with every spiritual gift and yet her people were critical of one another, “My gift is better than yours; mine is more important than yours.” Paul says, “No way.” Salt and light on their own do nothing. They have a purpose, a role, and so do God’s people.

     Jesus says that useless salt is cast aside, and light hidden away soon burns out. Then he adds, unless we exceed in righteousness we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Now, I thought being the salt of the earth and the light of the world was challenge enough: These are difficult words to hear, let alone comprehend. In fact, during these final three weeks of this Epiphany Season we will come face to face with even more hard sayings of Jesus. In today’s gospel reading and those yet to come, Jesus says if we are not living and demonstrating our faith in concrete, real life-changing, life-transforming, redeeming, and reconciling ways, we have lost our ability to be salt of the earth and the light of the world, a city built on a hill for all to see; our lives as examples of faith and fidelity to God will be judged as having fallen short. Just like in Isaiah’s time, we, too, will realize we are not the people of God that we think we are.

     Tough, tough words! And yet they are a frank reminder that the Christian way of life, that Christian faith and witness, that always seeing the world through the lens of Christ’s redemption is difficult and requires constantconversion and re-formation, just as they are also, an Epiphany, a revelation of God to us, and to all people of faith this morning.

See, the increasing division in our nation today now includes utter disdain for, and a questioning of, the sincerity of the prayers and beliefs of others without even a second thought. Is it any wonder why so many are asking if the Christian “Church has lost its saltiness”? Not as in telling others how to live – Lord knows some Churches love to do that – but rather, does how we choose to live and speak, what we buy and sell, how we share and provide, bring light and enhance the lives of others and, in the process, honor God, or miss the mark of what it means to be the body of Christin this world. In other words, are we truly living as salt and light?

     St. Paul says we can, and we will but only if, and when we choose to have “the mind of Christ.” And what does it mean to have the mind of Christ? It means choosing to embrace every aspect of that Sermon on the Mount. It means to be merciful and pure in heart; to hunger and thirst after God’s ways and values – God’s righteousness – to, in the words of our baptismal covenant, “uphold the dignity of every human being” even those with whom we disagree.

By God’s grace may it be true of this parish church and especially for each of us that we choose to not only have the mind of Christ, but be it and show and, most of all, live it. … Always. … Amen.