Rev. James E. Lunde
WPC on 2/5/17
Good morning, it’s good to see you and have you with us for worship this morning at WPC. Today, we continue our sermon series: Standing on the Promises of God. So far, we’ve explored God’s promise that we belong as beloved children, that God is faithful–even when we’re not, that God calls each of us to participate in ministry and finally that God calls us blessed in the good and bad of life. Today we’re exploring God’s promise of guidance. God not only sends us out and calls us blessed, but God provides continual guidance to us in our lives.
To explore this promise, we return to Matthew’s gospel right where we left off last week with the Beatitudes as Jesus continues his beloved Sermon on the Mount…
Matthew 5:13-20 (New Revised Standard Version)
13“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.
14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In 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.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For 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. 19Therefore, 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. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
As your pastor, one of my favorite duties along with preaching and teaching is helping with the weekly chapel service of our preschool. Normally, I just try to not bore them too much as I tell them a story from the Bible–often the same story we’re covering in church Sunday. I enjoy telling them the stories of our faith–and teaching them about Jesus, but what I enjoy even more is their singing that begins and ends the chapel service led by our own Suzan Hammill. Ask any of our staff members and they will tell you that the office space which isn’t even directly below the sanctuary, will shake and boom as the forty-some children jump up and down as they joyfully sing God’s praise. One of my favorite songs they sing just about every week is the well-known song “This Little Light of Mine”–a song inspired by our gospel lesson this morning. When it gets to the part “hide it (the light) under a bushel…” the children in unison jump and scream an emphatic “NO!” I’m gonna let it shine! The energy–the excitement is palpable–and is truly life-giving.
It seems to me that Jesus and the gospel-writer Matthew both desired their communities to have this kind of life and energy and passion. Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount; transitioning from language of blessing in the beatitudes, to language of action. We hear Jesus use two familiar images both to his disciples and Matthew’s gospel community: salt and light.
Jesus says you (the disciples/followers) are the salt of the earth. But, you have lost your saltiness. Salt that has lost it’s flavor is useless and is discarded. By Jesus’ time, salt had become a symbol for covenant in Judaism. It seems clear that the gospel writer Matthew is well aware of this image and uses it for wordplay to illustrate a crisis in their community.
So what do you think it means that they have lost their saltiness? It could mean that their covenant community–their salt has deteriorated. They’re engaged in bitter infighting and embedded in conflict–because of which, their covenant with each other in community has weakened. It could mean that their covenant community may be intact and together–but lackluster. It’s almost like they are just going through the motions of discipleship–not living out lives in gratitude for the gift of God’s grace. Or perhaps it was a bit of both.
Jesus then calls them the light of the world. Light too had a symbolic meaning–that was the kingdom–God’s eternal reign. Isaiah and other prophets used it as a symbol of hope–something John the Baptists and the gospel writers picked up. In the first century, long before electricity, light was rare and expensive. People in Jesus’ day were used to living in the dark, because the oil or fat needed to fuel a lamp was considered a luxury. But just a little light could go a long way. As Jesus says, just one little lamp properly placed, could light an entire home–which in that time and place was basically one room.
Along with salt, Matthew picks up on this familiar image of light to continue the wordplay. The gospel community is the light of the world–that is they had something unique and life-giving to share with others, yet this light remains hidden. Matthew’s gospel was written at a time when his community was facing persecution from Jewish authorities. So it was a dark time for them–it was a fearful time for them. Their fear, as is human nature, drew them into hiding rather than boldly proclaiming God’s kingdom. They hid their light under a bushel out of fear.
Jesus calls his followers the salt of the earth and the light of the world–two monikers that the gospel community isn’t living up to as they continue Jesus’ ministry.
It wouldn’t be too difficult today for us to find connections with the church of Matthew’s community. Our saltiness, our covenant community has weakened with so much division in our world–from different denominations, traditions, ideologies. These divisions, quarrels, infighting has caused the church in the world today to lose its saltiness. To lose its flavor, it’s covenantal bond in Christ. Just like Matthew’s community, it seems that the church today has lost its saltiness–its unity in Christ.
In a similar way, we can identify with the challenge to be the light of the world.
We, like the early gospel community, struggle to shine our light–we hide it under bushels of fear, we dissolve it in conflict. In this polarized world we live in, it seems that Christians today are more comfortable throwing shade on others than shining the light of Christ–the life-giving light of God’s kingdom. As a result, we are not shining our light to a world in darkness. We are not proclaiming God’s kingdom–God’s eternal reign of love and peace.
These questions force us to ask ourselves: How are we to live in community? How are we to shine the light of God’s Kingdom without fear into our world?
In our gospel reading, Jesus moves from these familiar images of salt and light, to a discussion about the law–the Torah. Jesus’ followers, along with Matthew’s gospel community (about 50 or so years later), were looking for a new direction–for something away from what they knew. Some early Christians, particularly those in conflict with the synagogues (like Matthew’s community), believed that Jesus abolished the law. Jesus, in his sermon on the Mount disclaimed this idea, saying that he didn’t come to replace, but to fulfill the law. For Jesus, the law is a gift of God. Its purpose is to guide rather than to punish. For Jesus, the law is the vessel by which God’s promise of guidance is realized and experienced. The law guides those who wish to follow Jesus in how they are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world–embracing covenantal community and proclaiming God’s reign of peace.
As many of you know, this year I have been teaching a class on the theology of John Calvin–who is a key figure in the history of our Presbyterian heritage. Calvin’s understanding of the law helps further illustrate Jesus’ teaching here in the gospel.
Calvin claimed that there were three uses of the law. The first use of the law is pedagogical–that is teaches us, it serves as a mirror to show us how we’ve fallen short of who God has called us to be. The second use is political–the law works as a deterrent to restrain wrongdoers and prevent bad things from happening. The first two are important for Calvin, but he claims the third and final purpose of the law is by far the most important for the Christian–he calls it the principal use of the law. Unlike the first two, it’s positive, not punitive. For the Christian, the law becomes the guidebook for how to continue to grow in Christ throughout life. Calvin quotes the psalm saying that the law becomes, “a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” (Ps. 119: 105 NRSV)
Jesus proclaims God’s promise of guidance in the law to his followers, but this law is indicative of the greater promise: of God’s abiding presence in our lives. A presence that never leaves us and, if we listen, always guides us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Hear the prophet Isaiah again from our first lesson:
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail. (Is. 58: 11, NRSV)
God doesn’t just call us beloved children, call us to ministry, but God continues to guide us throughout our lives–through the law, through presence, through community. It is through God’s promise of guidance that disciples can live into Jesus’ charge to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
This understanding of God’s guidance can help the church reclaim its saltiness, it’s flavor of covenant and community, in a bitterly polarized and divisive world. The promise of God’s abiding presence and guidance can transform the church from infighting to shining light–proclaiming God’s kingdom–God’s eternal reign of love and peace to a world trapped in darkness.
It seems like a daunting task in the world we live in to shine the light of God’s kingdom.As we learned before, just a little light can go a long way. One candle can illuminate an entire room. Just like the life and energy of the preschool shined light for me… any act of kindness, of compassion, of love and witness–no matter how small–can shine a significant and transformational light.
Strengthened by this promise of God’s abiding presence with us, may we be that light to those trapped in darkness.
(following prep notes for ending at Communion Table)
Communion–place where we experience salt and light–guidance, Christ feeds us and so builds and sustains our covenant community. Look ahead hopefully for the kingdom where all will gather at table (light).
Works Consulted and Cited:
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, National Council of Churches for Christ, 1989.
Multiple Authors, Feasting on the Word, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2010.
Multiple Authors, A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2016.
Christopher Elwood, Calvin for Armchair Theologians, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2002.