Monday, February 6, 2017

Being the Salt and the Light (2/5/17)

On Sunday, February 5th, we continued to examine the question of what true righteousness looks like. We heard from the prophet Isaiah and we continued to explore the Sermon on the Mount. Did I make another extended reference to The Godfather in my sermon? You'll have to read on if you want to find out. 
Being the Salt and the Light (2/5/17)
Nicholas Roerich, Procopius the Righteous Praying

          Good morning! I’ve heard from a few of you and it seemed like you enjoyed my reference to The Godfather in last week’s sermon. I was thinking about starting with a reference to The Godfather Part II. You have to admit, that’s about the only time in history where the sequel was as good as the original or maybe even better. But then I realized I would have to make a reference to The Godfather Part III in next Sunday’s sermon. That wasn’t such a good movie; I was afraid you might not want to come out for one more sequel.
          However, this week’s gospel lesson is truly a sequel to what we heard last week; it continues the Sermon on the Mount. Our Old Testament reading also picks up the theme of righteousness. As you may remember, last week we heard from the prophet Micah, who posed the question: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” I suggested that we could use these requirements to interpret all of scripture. To put it another way, if we are to walk along the path of righteousness, we must always do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
          In this morning’s reading from Isaiah, God’s chosen people are upset with the Lord; they feel that God is not paying attention to all their observances of the Law. They cry out to God: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Now when I hear this, I’m reminded of a classmate of mine from seminary. I’ll call him Will, but that’s not his real name.
          Will is a younger guy, and like me, he doesn’t miss too many meals. One day, another one of our classmates, Rachel—and that is her real name—brought a pan of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies to class. Rachel did this from time to time and her cookies were legendary. When the pan of cookies reached Will, he said, “No thank you; I’m fasting today!” He said it just loud enough so that everyone in the room could hear.
          Really, Will?
          Really? In a class in seminary, where everyone knew this scripture from Isaiah. To say nothing of the next chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus instructs the disciples:
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Truly, truly, Will must have known those scriptures, yet it didn’t stop him from calling our attention to his fast. We were all a little amused. Also, I was glad there was an extra cookie for me.
          The prophets of the Old Testament are consistent; they call for God’s chosen people, Israel, to take care of the poor and the vulnerable, feed the hungry, end injustice and oppression.[1] The people want to worship God correctly and righteously, but they come up short. They get the form of worship correct, they fast as they are instructed, but they can’t integrate this part of the ritual into a complete and righteous spiritual life; they fast, “but their fasting does not seem to affect their actions toward others.”[2] They just want to know which rituals they have to complete and how much money they have to put in the collection plate. They want to finish worship on time so they can get home in time to watch the Steelers. Wait. Maybe that last example isn’t from ancient Israel.
          Our life of faith is about more than what we do while we’re in worship. If our main concern is about what we do here in church or how much money we give, then the giving becomes about us. It is not true worship. No. True worship begins with humility; it begins when we admit that we are dependent upon God for all our blessings; and it begins when we thank God for all the wonderful things that God has done for us, simply because God loves us.
The proper response to God’s love is to love and worship God, and also to love everyone else, because we are all created by God. We return that love by doing justice and acting kindly toward one another. That is what the prophet Micah told us last week and that is also what Isaiah tells us this Sunday. When the people of Israel complain that God doesn’t notice their fasting, God speaks to them through the prophet Isaiah. God says:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
I can’t hear this without hearing Jesus saying: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you clothed me.” Here’s the thing: “Religious ritual when unaccompanied by social action is self-serving. It is empty.”[3]
That is not to say that we are to abandon the rituals of worship or stop observing the Law! In fact, Jesus states this very clearly in this morning’s gospel lesson: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus is the one who acts with complete and total righteousness. Remember, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ first public act in the Gospel of Matthew. So, the first and most important thing is to teach the disciples how to act with righteousness. In last Sunday’s lesson, Jesus began by telling the disciples that they were blessed, that they were equipped for the work that they were about to go out and do. In this lesson, Jesus explains that they must put their blessings into action. All of Christ’s teaching will be for naught if the disciples just sit on what Jesus has taught them:
“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 lampstand, 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.
Jesus is telling the disciples that they have to act on what he is teaching. Remember, teaching is very important in the Gospel of Matthew. The Presbyterian Church also thinks teaching is very important; that’s why my job title is Teaching Elder. Remember, too, that the disciples are where we enter this story; the disciples are stand-ins for us. I am here to teach you and I am here to equip you for the work of discipleship, because knowledge must be followed with action. If not, then all of this becomes a form of spiritual entertainment—just one more thing to compete for people’s time and attention.
          Many churches try to be entertaining. I try to be entertaining. I want you to laugh at my jokes and I hope that references to pop songs and movies like The Godfather draw you in to the message. I also know that I’m not going to be that preacher who struts around the chancel screaming out about fire and brimstone. I’m not gonna be that cool, young pastor who breaks out an electric guitar and plays in the praise band. Yes, those pastors can be very entertaining. We can draw people in if we are more entertaining. We can get more money in the collection plate if we are more entertaining. But being entertained is very different from being righteous.
          As the prophets of the Old Testament remind us, being righteous is not just a checklist of behaviors, a list of chores that God gives us. Righteousness is more than coming to church every Sunday. Righteousness is more than putting your envelope in the collection plate every Sunday. Righteousness is about our relationship with God; it is about our complete faithfulness to God’s covenants. That’s not easy!
          Jesus tells the disciples that they have to be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes and the Pharisees followed the Law, observed all of the rules of ritual purity, and their worship was always correct. They had the knowledge, but their faith was imperfect. When God told them they weren’t living righteously, they asked how much money they had to put in the collection plate. They knew the letter of the Law, but they didn’t act in the spirit of the Law.
          For too long in the church, we have had knowledge without action. We’ve been going on auto-pilot for so long, that we’ve forgotten what true righteousness looks like:
  •       It looks like visiting sick people in the hospital.
  •       It looks like visiting the elderly in their homes or care facilities.
  •       It looks like visiting people in jail.
  •       It involves listening to people who are struggling with addiction, or listening to those who have lost loved ones to addiction.
  •       It involves working for social justice.
  •       It requires us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide for the poor.
  •       It requires us to be in relationships with people who make us uncomfortable.

          I know that many of you already do these things in your personal lives. Thank you! That’s wonderful! Keep up the good work! But it’s not enough. We have to live as a changed people. We have to act collectively as the Church, the body of Christ in the world. And we have to do it visibly, as the Church, the body of Christ in the world. We have to come together and shine with the light of Christ’s love. This is what it means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
          There are lots of ways to be the salt and the light. Over the next few months, it will be the work of this congregation to figure out how you are all called to be the salt and the light. There are many righteous ways to live into this calling. May God equip us with His Holy Spirit as we discern our response to this calling. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ. We are called to participate in His saving work. We are called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Live as changed people. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Tyler Mayfield, “Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-12,” retrieved from:
[2] Tyler Mayfield.
[3] Tyler Mayfield.

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