Text: Matthew 5:13-20
Tuesday evening this space was full to overflowing for a teach-in led by the Central Ohio Worker Center. The event was called Sanctuary for Immigrants 101: Theory, Data, and Action. It was kind of a rally, but moreso a class. It was designed to teach the basics of how the immigration system functions in the United States, how it’s changed especially over the last 15 years, the relationship between federal departments and local law enforcement, and how cities like Columbus fit into the mix these days. Mark blogged about this Wednesday and included a link to the power point that Austin Kocher presented.
I think the genius of the event was that it was both a timely response to a very specific situation, and a deeper look at a decades old system. It was a 101 class. It was an introduction, a foundation, a teaching of basic concepts. Personally, I left feeling more grounded, with a better sense of history, and community.
By way of holy coincidence, during the month of February, 2017, the lectionary is gifting us with another kind of 101 class. The texts throughout the month come from the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7, otherwise known as the Sermon on the Mount. This solid block of teaching from Jesus was one of the most valued guides for the early church. It was one of the most often cited passages among our spiritual ancestors, the 16th century Anabaptists and Mennonites. In other words, if there’s such a thing as Christianity 101, or Discipleship 101, or If- you- want- to- follow- Jesus- you- should- really- pay- attention- to- this 101, it is the Sermon on the Mount.
And so, the four weeks of February, the remaining Sundays before the season of Lent, we will be focusing on parts of the Sermon on the Mount. Hopefully it serves to further ground us in the ancient words and teachings of the church, even as we listen for what this present moment might be asking of us.
Each of the gospels organize their material a little differently in order to communicate to their original audience, and one of the important things to know about Matthew’s gospel is that it separates Jesus’ teaching into five major blocks. The Sermon on the Mount is the first and longest of these five blocks. The second major block is in chapter 10, then another in 13, another in chapter 18, and then the final block in chapters 24 and 25.
For a mostly Jewish audience, five blocks of teaching would have had immediate symbolic connection to the Teaching. The Torah. The five books of Moses that provided the foundation of Jewish life. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. To suggest that what this teacher from Nazareth had to say was on level with the teaching of Moses would have been quite a claim.
The Sermon on the Mount readings actually started last Sunday with the Beatitudes when we had our Coming of Age service focused on Esther, so now it’s kind of like we’re walking into the 101 teach-in after it already started. We missed the opening session. Traffic was bad, and you had to drive around looking for parking. You finally find a spot, walk briskly toward and into the building. You slip in the back, find one of the few remaining seats, hoping you didn’t miss anything important.
“You are the salt of earth” is the first thing you hear, and the speaker is looking right at you.
Me? I am the salt of the earth? I think have missed something important.
The You is plural, the speaker clarifies, but Yes, it includes you. You are the salt of the earth. You all are the salt of the earth. Ya’ll.
Salt, as in that substance which the Romans believed to be the purest and most useful of all things, product of sun and sea. A gift of the gods and so offered up to the gods, the most primitive and elemental of offerings. Your life is gifted to you, product of sun and sea, fruit of love and longing, and so your life becomes a gift to the world. Salt. You. Your life, an offering.
You all are the salt of the earth.
Salt, as in that most common of substances used for preservation. The world has not always known refrigeration, you know. And the world’s tendency toward decay, toward decomposition, toward slowly coming undone, bonds of relationships loosening and dissipating. That inclination is met with salt. Salt gives us more time. Salt extends viability. It preserves the good. You. Salt. Your life, an agent of preservation.
You all are the salt of the earth.
Salt, as in flavor. Our foods are so permeated with salt it’s easy to forget it’s been added in there. It tastes better with salt. Salt not only preserves the good, it accentuates the good. It adds enjoyment, pleasure, it deepens the quality. Not too much now, don’t overdo it. It’s not all about our salty selves. You, your life, is a sprinkling, here and there. That’s enough. A sprinkling that accentuates the good.
You all, collectively, are the salt of the earth: An offering, preserving goodness, flavoring life on earth.
And not only that. The speaker goes on.
You are the light of the world. Again, the you is plural, and it is a collective reality.
It’s one of those statements that automatically becomes untrue if the person or group claims it for themselves.
“We are the light of the world.” “I am the light of the world.” If it’s the ego making this claim, it comes to represent the exact opposite reality. It becomes colonial. We are the light of the world and must therefore take this light into all the dark and backwards places of the earth.
But it’s different when the claim is made by an authoritative voice speaking to you. “You are the light of the world.” Like a reminder of a truth easily forgotten. Jogging our memory, reminding us that although we are not the source of the light, we contain the light. Our bodies composed of those ancient elements, fused in the cores of distant stars. Fusion’s byproduct is light. Those sacrificial stars gone supernova long ago, offering their creations to world. The cosmos salted with stardust. The periodic table drifting through space. The elements, longing with attraction, find each other, come together, make a home together, join and evolve over an unimaginable stretch of time. We are one of the forms to emerge from this light infused process. It is preserved in our bodies. Your existence is a testimony to sacrifice and love and miracle.
You are the light of the world and there is no hiding. In fact, the speaker is now saying that the light must be public, radically visible. “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.”
You are the light of the world, and that light is brilliantly, publicly, visible, but there is a part of us that must disappear in order for that to be true. It’s the part that serves only the self. The part that either has an overblown sense of itself of being the light, or, equally destructive, the part that will not believe it contains any light at all. The part that denies the Divine miracle that has birthed it and so becomes confined.
You are the light of the world. And Lord knows the world needs light.
This is Discipleship 101. Salt and Light. It’s basic stuff. Profound in its simplicity.
Rather than being asked to do anything yet, it appears we’re being asked to be. Or even simpler than that, we’re being asked to acknowledge who we are already are – the grace that has already been given us. It’s not “You should do salty things,” or “You need to go illuminate something.” Rather, we are given statements of being, reminding us who we are. You are salt. You are light. The doing flows out of the being. Settle into the being, and the doing will flow naturally.
Meanwhile, the speaker has moved on.
It’s sounding a little more archaic now. He’s shifted to talking about those uniquely Jewish documents known as the law and the prophets. Moses and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and so on and so on. Those Scriptures we’re frequently unsure what to do with. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.” He goes on about the value of even the tiniest notation of those ancient scriptures, the jots and the tittles of the scribes. He’s talking about carrying out the old commandments. How whoever does them and teaches others to do the same will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Surely he can’t mean all the commands of the law.
Maybe this part doesn’t apply to us as much. Might be a good time to sneak out for a restroom break and hope our neighbor saves our seat.
Besides, we were kind of hoping for a repeal and replace approach to what we call the “Old Testament.” Can’t these five blocks of teaching in Matthew just take the place of those five books of Moses? We’re the new wave. The big tent of Jews and Gentiles. The new coaltion that’s more chill about all those rules.
But the speaker can’t seem to let it go. Can’t just move on and start something new. “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”
I confess to personally having tendencies toward wanting to abolish. My beef isn’t so much with ancient Judaism, but there are times when I wonder why we don’t just abolish the whole Christian project. Or at least disassociate and try a new name. So much baggage and harm done with that name. I remember a visiting professor at seminary from the UK who talked about a group he knew who wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus but didn’t want to have any connections to the pitfalls of the Christian church. Since they recognized the Sermon on the Mount was the core of Jesus’ teaching, they decided to call themselves the Mounties.
I confess I struggle mightily with some of the stances of the national Mennonite Church. Its hesitance to address matters of racism. It unwillingness to affirm the gifts of LGBT folks. Can’t we just abolish the law? Can’t we just be the Mounties? Or just Humans?
The teacher has an alternative suggestion. Rather than abolish, the teacher draws our attention toward fulfillment. Toward living out the aim of the tradition. Fulfillment. Staying on the trajectory and being a part of the arc for where all this is headed. Fulfilling the best intentions and best aspirations of the law and prophets, and gospels, the church teachings, and maybe even the Mennonite Confession of Faith.
It’s a salty move by the teacher.
To find and preserve the good that’s there from the beginning. Salt, just by being salt, has the capacity to preserve that which is good. To give us more time with what we’ve inherited. To flavor the batch. For example, protecting the immigrant and sojourner in your midst is one of the most repeated themes throughout the Torah. That’s about as old and conservative a value you can find.
Those are a few of the opening ideas of Discipleship 101. Salt, Light, Not abolish, but fulfill.
The speaker has plenty more to say. It appears he’s just getting started. Settle in. Get comfortable with your neighbor. There’s more to come.