Feb. 9, 2014: Matthew 5:13-20

February 9, 2014

Year A, Epiphany 5                                        

            St. John’s had their stained glass windows restored recently.  I wish I was able to see them before so I would have a better appreciation for the change that occurred.  I bet it was amazing to see them after they were restored.  The light must have shined so much more brightly.  One person told me that the window above the altar was referred to as “the hidden cross” because no one could even tell it was a cross!  I am so grateful for the fact that I can see it so clearly now. 

            Our reading from the Gospel is part of the Sermon on the Mount.   The Sermon on the Mount can be found in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.  However, in Luke, it is called “The Sermon on the Plain.”  That just does not have the same ring to it.    These two sermons have some similarities, but many differences as well.  In Matthew’s Gospel (the one we heard today) the Sermon on the Mount happens right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  He has just chosen his disciples and started curing the sick and proclaiming the good news.   In the previous chapter, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ fame began to spread and that crowds began to follow him.             

            He was the newest thing.  He was a miracle worker who preached and shared good news.  So he chose this time, when all the crowds were following him to sit down and do some teaching.    The beginning of chapter 5 says that , “ When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.”  A rabbi always sat to teach, so this act of sitting was a sign to all who were around that he was about to teach them. 

He began with the blessings: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…”  He continued like that for several lines, providing blessing to the people in the crowds, to the people who really needed to be blessed, needed to be loved.  These were the people who thought that God had forgotten them.  He was reminding them that they were loved by God.  That was the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.

            Our reading from today continues with, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”  “You are the light of the world…No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house…”  It’s an interesting transition from the Beatitudes (the blessings). We are still on the mount.  Jesus is still teaching, but the tone has changed somehow.   It seems to me that things just got a little more personal, at least it seems that way with the pronoun you.  “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world…”  It is both intensely personal and communal at the same time.

            What does it mean to be salt of the earth?  Usually when you hear that phrase, you hear it in reference to another person: “So and so is a great guy….salt of the earth.”  Apparently that phrase comes from this biblical passage.  However, that was not quite what Jesus was talking about.  In Biblical times, salt had several important uses.

They did not have gas or electric ovens like we have to day.  They didn’t even use wood because it was hard to come by.  The stuff that was very abundant was camel or donkey dung.  This could be used as fuel, but only if you were able to mix salt with it.  A slab of salt was placed at the base of the oven and the lovely salted dung patty was put right on top of the slab. Salt is essentially the catalyst that causes the dung to burn. However, eventually the salt slab loses its catalytic ability and becomes useless. Salt is critical in that it creates the reaction needed to have the fire, but when it sapped and can no longer create a spark, it becomes useless.*

            Another way to look at salt is less smelly.  It is what seasons our food.  It makes whatever we are eating a little tastier.  It can add zest to an otherwise bland meal.  If salt is not your thing, think of your favorite herb or spice.  For me it would be cilantro.  I think that just about anything tastes better with cilantro.  What Jesus is telling his followers, his disciples is that they are zest of the earth.  They are the spark that creates the fire.  Those are some pretty important functions. They are not just descriptions.  They are more like vocations…Christian vocations. 

This zest, this spark cannot be for us alone.  They are not even just for our family or our social circle.  They are for the earth…for the world.  “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.”  You see, it is both personal and communal.  Some people say that Christians are boring.  If that is so, then that is tragic because Jesus wants us to be zest.  Jesus wants us to be the spark that creates the fire.  Does that sound boring to any of you?

            When Jesus talks about light, he says, “You are the light of the world. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to the whole house.”  When we think of lamps, we think of something with a cord, a light bulb and hopefully a lampshade.  Why would anyone put a lamp under a basket?  But in the 1st century, a lamp was a sauceboat filled with oil, with a flame floating in it.  Once you lit the flame, you really did not want it to go out—no matches.  Consequently when people left they would remove the lamp from the stand and put a basket over it to keep the flame from going out.  The basket protected the flame. 

            That makes pretty good sense.  Why would Jesus tell people to keep the flame unprotected when he knew what a pain it was to light it? Have you ever been in place that was completely dark, no street lights, no ambient light, you could not even see your hand it front of you? That was how it was in the 1st century.  At night, the only light was from those candles in people’s homes.  Imagine how much of a difference even one light would make in a pitch black environment. It would make all the difference. Jesus was not thinking about the people who might have to go to the trouble of lighting the lamp; he was thinking of all those people wandering in the darkness, desperate for just one point of light. We are not the light for those other people under the bushel basket with us.  We are the light for the world, a world that is so often lost in darkness.   People need to see the light and we have take the chance that it might get a little windy.

            Sometimes, churches get pretty comfortable staying under the bushel basket.  It’s safe there.  We don’t need to worry about the light going out and then having go through all the work of relighting it.  But the problem is….then no one sees the light.  It’s like when the stained glass windows were all grimy.  No one even knew there was a cross there.  What’s the point of having cross if you can’t see it?  What’s the point of having a light that only some people can see?

            When I was first here, I was telling someone how I was terrified of leaving a candle lit and having the church burn down on my watch. The person replied, “Hey, it’s happened before.  We can always rebuild.”  While I am still a huge proponent of fire safety, I think that’s a great attitude.  That is an attitude that will allow us to get out from under the bushel basket.  St. John’s needs to be seen.  We need to be a witness to the community and to the world.  We need to be zesty and sometimes risky.  But guess what, God’s not going to let us do it alone.  He will support us. We also have a phenomenal history of getting a little beat up, but then rising from the ashes.  Let’s topple over the bushel basket.  It’s time for the light of St. John’s to shine.  It’s time for each one of you to shine. 

*Information from this paragraph came from: http://liturgy.slu.edu/5OrdA020914/theword_cultural.html