Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year A] - February 9, 2014 (Matthew 5:13-20 and Isaiah 58:1-9a)

On Christmas Eve, to make room for people to sit in the balcony, our hand bell choir moves all their equipment and music stands down to the right side of the narthex and plays from there. They set up all their hand-bell tables in a U-formation and Kevin directs from the middle. As it turns out, the sound reverberates in that space very nicely and since it’s not completely cut off from the sanctuary here we can hear the sound of the bells echoing throughout the church. The problem with this configuration has always been that during evening services that area gets very dark. In fact, it is so dark that the musicians have a hard time playing. In the past one ringer would always bring little lights for each music stand, but for whatever reason that was not available this year. So, what to do? It was, like, “Jesus, we know you’re the light of the world and all…but we can’t see our music.” Our property manager, overheard them talking about this one day in the office and on a trip to Home Depot came up with a brilliant solution: Miner’s headlamps! He bought about six of them and distributed them to the choir.

Now, I’m not a hand bell player, but I can’t imagine why they didn’t end up going with this option, can you? This would have been awesome! Apparently someone just brought in a floor lamp instead and they used that. But…check it out! Miner’s head lamps!  Imagine each person with their own, right there on their forehead, right about where a pastor’s oily finger once made the sign of the cross! It fits Jesus’ instruction almost perfectly: “Let your light so shine before others that you blind them with the piercing beam of your good works so that they may see their music and ring praises to your Father in heaven.”

Darkness was not just something the hand bell choir had to deal with on Christmas Eve. Darkness—and I mean pitch-black darkness—was an everyday reality for those who lived in Jesus’ time. In fact, I don’t think we in the 21st century can quite appreciate just how dark it was back then. I read an article recently about some research that suggests that until the dawn of streetlights in the 19th century, people typically went to bed around 8:00 every night. It was just too dark to do anything. Therefore, the presence of light—any light at all—was significant.

Moreover, most families lived in one-room houses back then. The stove and kitchen area was typically located outside but the eating area, the sleeping area, and the place where the animals could overnight was often one big space inside. In other words, there weren’t any interior walls or corners that could cast shadows. Therefore, you can see how the placement of one single oil lamp in the room would then illuminate everything, although that illumination would have still been weak. A simple oil lamp made of clay was not a miner’s headlamp, after all! By contrast, it provided a soft glow that probably didn’t give off enough light for anyone actually to do anything all that productive, but as long as no one obstructed the light, it at least allowed people to see the basic dimensions of the room in the dark—where the walls began, where any furniture was, where people lay sleeping. In a way, you could say the light gave the room shape and form, that it brought it to life.

Salt, the other metaphor that Jesus latches onto to explain what embodying his kingdom’s righteousness, functioned much the same way. Salt had many uses in ancient times—it was used as a preservative, as a fertilizer, and as something that gave flavor to food and brought out its best qualities. In addition to that, we know that pieces of stone known as salt plates were thrown into the dung pile, which is what was used in each house as fuel for the earthen stoves. These salt plates served as a type of catalyst to keep the dung burning. After a while these plates tended to lose their chemical properties—their “saltiness,” perhaps—and they’d be discarded. Bread bakers will assure you that salt is actually what gives bread its flavor. It’s not really the type of flour you use or the amount of fermentation the yeast provides that makes bread tasty. Those add to it, of course, but the key ingredient is the salt. So, regardless of which use of salt Jesus was referring to as he spoke about the kingdom, notice that salt is something that is added to something else in order to make it function better or taste the way it’s supposed to.

By using both salt and light as descriptions in his teachings, Jesus is saying that his followers’ life together—their ability to embody God’s righteousness—is the element that expands the world’s dimensions, an essential ingredient to the best life of the world. When they shine, for example, the world won’t be shrouded in darkness. The world will be able see what it really is, that it has a purpose and function. It can wake up and give glory to God. Their task, in other words, is not to become the room, the space, itself. Rather, they are live in a way that illuminates the room so that it may become visible and useful. Likewise, Jesus’ disciples aren’t expected to become the whole loaf of bread, or the whole dung pile, as the case may be. Instead, they become the element in the bread that makes it come to life. They give the world flavor; they enable it to live up to its true purpose. They become the catalyst in the burning fuel that helps the fire burn brighter and stronger.

In giving these instructions, Jesus wasn’t really saying anything new to God’s people. Ancient Israel, you see, was supposed to live as a light to the nations. From their very beginning they had been called out of relative obscurity, given a life as an often scrappy little group of people and yet placed on the lampstand of Jerusalem for all to see. Their goal was never to try to take over the world and expand their borders so they might include everyone. It was to live in holiness and righteousness in such a way that others may know that their God was the real Sovereign who loved the world and wanted to save it. Their light would shine when they embodied the mercy and lovingkindness of God’s law. 

The prophet Isaiah points out what that looks like very clearly this morning: when they, for example, share their bread with the hungry and do something to take care of the homeless and needy. It isn’t pious acts of religiosity or efforts at world domination that will be salt and light. It is humble living out of God’s rule of justice and peace for everyone. It is that kind of righteousness that makes them the key ingredient, the bright light, for creation.

This is the pattern that Jesus lays out for his own followers in his teachings, in his life, and ultimately through his death on the cross. The truth of this community’s relationships with God and then with each other—how they deal with conflict, for example, how they practice forgiveness and mercy, how they care for the least among them, how they lay down their lives for each other—would shed light on what humanity could be. It would disperse the shadows of sinfulness that had been lurking for so long.

There are a lot of challenges to being salt and light for the world, but one of the greatest is fighting that urge to become the whole room or the whole loaf. This is not to say that Jesus’ community should not welcome new followers or grow in size and influence. But it does suggest that we need to focus on ways to be in the world rather than withdrawing from it to exist to ourselves or dominating it in order to create some type of Christian super-state. Those are temptations that the Church has all too often given into. Jesus words are a good reminder that even though he calls us to what seems like minority status, we should not feel small and insignificant and ineffective. God still has given those in his kingdom the ability to function as that which allows the world to see God’s glory and be blessed by his righteousness. That all seems kind of obvious, but it’s critically important to remember that God’s light does not just shine as we do ministry and tend to the needs of each other when we’re in these four walls. The life we share in Jesus Christ is not just something we pass back and forth with each other in a self-serving manner.

As a pastor, I love it, of course, when there are a lot of kids at a youth group event or high participation in some service project one of our teams has organized. And I’m thankful for the support from parents and other family members that have allowed our youth programs at Epiphany to expand and include more and more people. However, Jesus words about salt and light are a strong reminder to me that Jesus doesn’t just call us to participation in church events. After all, that was one thing the scribes and the Pharisees were probably really good at: church attendance. Rather, Jesus calls us to be salt of the earth and light of the world. If a youth is unable to attend a particular event, it may be that person is called to be a little salt on the football team that day. Or shine a little light of Jesus’ righteousness at play practice. Or add a little of God’s good flavor at band rehearsal.  It means to shine in that cubicle at work, to practice acts of faith and sacrificial love throughout the day, wherever we are. 

Did anyone watch the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics the other night? I could take or leave the fancy choreography of the floor show, but I do always like to see how they light the Olympic flame. There’s always some kind of dramatic pageantry that goes along with it. I’ll never forget the games in Barcelona where the archer shot a flaming arrow into the cauldron. That’s why the way they staged the flame-lighting in Sochi the other night caught me a little off-guard. The Olympic flame was cleverly placed outside the stadium where the opening ceremonies were held. When the time came for the flame to be lit, the torch bearers simply left the stadium! Rather unceremoniously, they walked right out the doors and into the open area outside. All those thousands of spectators were left back inside by themselves. 

It wasn’t a very dramatic end to all the torch-passing at all, but it certainly served as an example of what God intends for his followers to do with this light of righteousness: it’s meant for the world. It’s eventually meant to go out there. We share the Lord’s light with each other here. We are replenished by the bread and the wine and the font of new life. But, ultimately, we are the light of the world, too. And whether it burns in you like a small oil lamp…or a the piercing beam of a miner’s headlamp…the point is to carry it out there, to open their dimensions, and let the world know who has created it and what it really is called to be.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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