a sermon for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Jesus compared his disciples to salt, light and a shining city on a hill. But what does that mean for us today? Is it possible to be political without being partisan?
Before I begin, I need to remind you all of something. Last week, three members of the congregation asked me about how I picked the bible readings that I preach on. They wondered if I “cherry-picked” the readings based on what was going on in the news, in order to have a biblical basis to express my personal point of view. Now the interesting thing was that two of the people who asked were what I think are liberals in their politics. The other was more on the conservative side. So I must have been doing something right.
I think that the amazing thing about the lectionary is how it allows us to interpret what’s going on in the world through a biblical lens. Maybe it makes us a little itchy, maybe it makes us a little angry or anxious – but it always makes us think. That’s what happened last Sunday when the readings, one from Micah and the Beatitudes from Matthew, were read in the context of our current political climate. These readings were selected by a group of people sitting in a room somewhere back in 1965 or so, long before our current political situation could have been imagined. And what’s really funny is that this week’s readings – I didn’t pick them either.
Today we are back with Jesus, listening to his inaugural sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. Remember that he is preaching to his disciples. And remember that he’s trying to teach them what he thinks is important about their ministry. (And if it’s important to their ministry, it’s important to ours.)
You are the salt of the earth. We all know that salt is an essential mineral for life. Three quarters of the planet is covered with salt water, or it can be mined from vast underground caverns. And it can be used for so many things: It’s used as a preservative. It helps melt icy roads and sidewalks. It stimulates thirst. And it makes food more flavorful. Jesus says, if you’re going to be salt, don’t be bland and tasteless salt. Be salty salt – salt that adds zest, that preserves life, that stimulates someone’s thirst for more knowledge and understanding of who God is in the world.
You are the light of the world. Light is the first thing that God created. LET THERE BE LIGHT! Light fuels all life on earth, because without light we don’t get plants, and without plants, we die. Light makes it possible for us to work and learn and to grow. Light also makes it possible for us to see, and not just in black and white, but in rich, vibrant, technicolor! Light is what keeps us warm and generates all the energy in the universe. Jesus says, if you’re going to be light, don’t be like a light hidden under a bushel basket that nobody even knows is there. Be a ten-thousand jigawatt light. Be a light that shines so bright, that you can’t possibly be ignored. Not because YOU are so important, but so that others who may be going through a dark patch or who have never known the light of Truth might be able to find God through you. Be a bright shining example of God’s perfect, shining love for the world in Jesus Christ.
You are a city on a hill. A city on a hill can be seen from miles and miles away. This church is a church on a hill. Cities are built on hills to make them easier to defend from attack. But also, cities that are built higher up are much less likely to flood. Now I don’t have to remind you (but I will) that since the before the founding of our nation, generations of people – religious leaders, workers, farmers, immigrants, ordinary citizens and politicians, including several presidents (of both parties) – have called America a “shining city of a hill.” They are quoting Jesus! So, if we’re going to claim this bit of scripture to describe our nation, we sure need to live into it. Everyone in the world is watching this city on a hill.
Does this mean that we should not protect ourselves? Of course not! What it means is that how we do things is important. How we say things is important – the words we use, the way we speak. How we treat others is important. How we protect the rights of both our citizens and people in the rest of the world. It’s important, because we said that we’re going to be a city on a hill. We claim to be followers of Jesus Christ and he will be known by the way we behave.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the law or the prophets. I came to fulfill them instead.” God gave us the gift of being salty salt, of being bright shining lights. But the purpose of our saltiness and brightness is to bear witness to the rest of the world that we will live according to God’s law; we will proclaim Christ through everything that we say and do. As followers of Jesus Christ, our entire purpose help the rest of the world know that he is the fulfillment of God’s law. And what is the law that Christ fulfills?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Jesus did not come to create a human government. Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom on earth. And we, who have freely chosen to be followers of Jesus, have to wrestle with the fact that sometimes our human laws and commands simply don’t agree with God’s laws and commandments. The question we face is not whether this will happen – it happens all the time. Politics and religion are often at odds with each other. The question we face is how will we respond when it does happen? Can we be political without being partisan? Will we quarrel among ourselves, dividing ourselves and destroying the unity that Christ died on the cross to join us together for? Or will we sit down in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and listen to one another, and try to find a faithful way to move forward together? Will we be bland as sawdust, not good for anything, trampled under foot? Or will we be salty salt, maybe a little too sharp at times, but always striving, as we say in our baptismal covenant, to respect the dignity of every human being, loving our neighbors as ourselves?
So, I have a proposition for you. I have two books. One was written by a former Republican senator who became an Episcopal priest, John Danforth of Illinois. He wrote a book called “The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics.” The other was written by a Quaker who is a teacher and a minister, Parker Palmer. He wrote a book called “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.” Rather than say that we’re not going to talk about politics in the church – something that happens all the time – why don’t we learn how we can talk with each other in a meaningful and respectful way? Both books take a fresh look at how we can engage our political system and remain faithful to our call as disciples. I’d like for us to read these books together and talk about what we find in them. I don’t know how long it will take, but I’m sure it will be time very well spent together.
In the meantime, remember this: you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world – whether you like it or not! You are called to preserve life and shine a light into the darkness so that everyone else can find their way to God.
Thank be to God.