SALT & LIGHT Sermon Feb 5, 2017
Isaiah 58:1-12 Rev. Ruth Everhart
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 Hermon Presbyterian
"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 lamp stand, 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.
FRIENDS IN JESUS CHRIST,
During an election cycle, such as the one just passed, we become all too familiar with stump speeches. These are the talking points that political candidates repeat at every campaign stop. If they are particularly adept, the refrains they use will become familiar and will echo in the silence, even after the candidate has moved on. If the candidate is a good speaker, particular phrases become associated with their face and voice and agenda. Later, even fragments of the speech will retain power — fragments will call to mind the candidate’s entire platform.
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ stump speech, if you will. I’ve just a read a small part of it. But to put it in context, I really ought to back up a bit — because the prior verses — the first 12 verses of Matthew 5 — are the Beautitudes. I want to suggest that the Beautitudes are the beginning and foundation of Jesus’ stump speech — the bits and pieces that will echo long after Jesus has moved on.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit 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 pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“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.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I like to picture these nine Beautitudes — these “Blessed Are” statements — on placards borne aloft in the sea of faces around Jesus. These slogans, if you will, form the context for today’s texts about salt and light. Like the texts about salt and light, these verses seem simple enough to be campaign refrains.
But the seemingly simple texts are followed up with rather confounding exhortations about righteousness. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
What does that mean? It is literally not possible to be more righteous than the scribes and pharisees. Legal perfection is the whole point of how they live — following every jot and tittle of every law. Following the law exactly is the reason for their existence. So how can we outdo them? Is Jesus asking us to do something impossible?
So the Salt & Light passage seems simple enough, but let’s pay attention to these rather difficult bookends. The Salt & Light passage begins with the Beautitudes — which is the promise of blessing in the most difficult of circumstances — circumstances anyone would avoid! And the passage ends with Righteousness — a righteousness that would seem to be impossible. Yet the phrases themselves seem so simple and straightforward: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Like the best campaign slogan, each is full of promise and evokes more than it says. Not, you will be the salt of the earth. But you are salt. Here and now. Not, you will be the light of the world. But you are light. Here and now. Who is salt and light? Who is Jesus addressing? The Beautitudes show us the way.
Who is the salt of the earth? Those who are humble, those who mourn, those who are meek, and those who thirst after doing what is right. Well that makes poetic sense! Salt creates thirst, does it not? We are called to thirst after doing what is right. We are called to be salty, and we are called to thirst. And who is Jesus calling the light of the world? Those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers, and those who receive abuse for standing up for what is right.
See how Jesus moves us back to righteousness, and ties it in to light? Righteousness is a form of light, is it not? The righteous are blessed to show forth purity and peace as they stand up for what is right. They shed light through their actions. Not heat, but light.
Stump speeches may seem a sour topic right now. Politics may feel like a far cry from the gospel and its good news. Our nation is in the midst of a particularly contentious political season, one shedding more heat than light. You might even say we’re embroiled in this season. Perhaps the word embroiled tickles my fancy because something em-broiled begs for seasoning. It begs for salt.
I only missed one Sunday out of the pulpit — but that makes this the first time I’ve preached since the Inauguration. Already there is talk of overturning the Johnson amendment. The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the tax code, established in 1954. It prohibits non-profit organizations from endorsing political candidates. The Johnson Amendment gets it names from the man who proposed it — Lyndon B. Johnson, who was a Senator from Texas at the time, and later became President.
Churches fall into this category of non-profits — technically 501(c)(3) organizations. The Johnson Amendment is why I should not preach politics from this pulpit. It is why you would be right to confront me if I do so. During contentious political times it can be a fine line to know when you are speaking truth to power, and when you are preaching politics. It is a fine line, but we must all observe it. As Presbyterians we should be particularly careful, for our tradition invented the representative form of government and its separation of powers, in Philadelphia in 1776.
The Johnson Amendment is important because it protects the separation of church and state. We need to protect this amendment is foundational to the health of our society. If the Johnson Amendment disappears, I believe that the church will lose its power to be salt and light. Like so much of politics, the church will become more heat and less light. Like so much of politics, the church will begin to taste sour in our mouth, rather than well-seasoned. The church ought to follow Jesus — rather than politics or politicians. Each belongs in its separate venue — and world. That is not to say that the two don’t inform each other. Indeed it is a challenge for each of us to follow Jesus AND be a good citizen. There should be a constant tension between these two identities.
We need to stay grounded in Jesus’ stump speech. The words about blessing — and this notion of righteousness — which, my friends, is not something you will hear about in politics. Politics is about expediency. Blessing and righteousness are not expedient. They are difficult. Blessing often involves suffering, as the Beautitude placards will remind us. And righteousness? We may understand righteousness in the abstract, but struggle with the particulars and the logistics.
Do you consider yourself to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Then you know — any disciple worth her salt knows (!) — that righteousness is our goal. But we also know that righteousness is not achieved by keeping the Pharisaic law. Instead, righteousness is found in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why we disciples don’t follow the law set forth in the Hebrew scriptures. I assume none of you keep Kosher — and you freely wear clothes of mixed fibers —because we understand that Jesus fulfilled those laws.
Our goal now is to follow Jesus, to emulate him, to press closely to him. In other words, we know we will never achieve righteousness ourselves —but instead will cling to the one who achieves it for us. Once we do that, we find our blessing in difficult circumstances —and we find ourselves pressing toward righteousness, in all its challenges.
Salt and light. Elemental things. Multi-faceted things. They seem simple but there is nothing innocuous about either one. Salt preserves. Salt flavors. But salt can also sting and burn. Salt is abrasive. Light dispels darkness. Light sheds illumination. But light can also blind — either temporarily or permanently. Christians want to be salt and light, but that means we will sometimes be abrasive, and sometimes blinding. It is not easy to know how and when to be salty and glaring. How far do we take these things? What would Jesus do?
Take the recent political events. We had the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President on Jan 20. And the next day came the Women’s March on Washington, with sister marches around the country, and indeed the globe. For some marchers, this was a way to be salt and light, while for others, the mere presence of the marchers was abrasive.
So what’s the role of the church? This is a serious and important question. Should we spend more time talking about salt and light, or more time marching with placards? What should our placards say? Would Jesus have marched? Would Jesus have blessed the marchers? The more we immerse ourselves in scripture — the more questions we should have.
There are not many things I am absolutely sure of. And as I get older, I am sure of even fewer. But I do know this — as followers of Jesus we should be unafraid of the sting of salt. Serious discipleship will be abrasive. And we should spend less time arguing about the design of a lamp stand — and spend more time shedding light in the darkness -- more light and less heat.
Friends in Jesus Christ —you who intend to be salty disciples — who intend to carry the light of Christ —let’s re-read Jesus’ stump speech with regularity this year.
Let’s memorize the Beautitudes —those waving placards— “Blessed Are” — and let’s think long and hard about righteousness. Discipleship is not for the faint of heart. What Jesus has in mind might be stinging and blinding at times. So be it.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.