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Preacher: The Reverend Dr. Cathy S. Gilliard
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 58:9b-12
Matthew 5:13-20

 

Our gospel lesson this morning continues Jesus’ discourse of the Sermon on the Mount.  In my opinion, it is one of the most fundamental passages for the Christian life and what it means to follow Jesus.

Only a short while earlier he had been baptized in the Jordan River by John.  He had walked along the seashore calling people to follow him.  They left their jobs, families, and livelihood and many followed immediately, according to the gospels.  We ask ourselves what was so compelling about this person and this message that made them do so.  Surely, they were smart, hardworking, competent, and capable people enjoying at least a modest lifestyle and comfortable life.

Careful reading of Scripture and we realize that it was not as if these followers did not return to “normalcy” but there was now a “new normal.” Are we not always having to adjust ourselves to a new normal as well?  With every twist and turn of life – that which was – is often no more and we have to adjust ourselves accordingly, don’t we?

Fishermen went back to their fishing; bakers went back to their baking; craftsmen went back to their crafts and yet, they were no longer the same old same old.  I think once we fully experience a truth about ourselves, about another, about life, about the will and purpose of God; once we understand something fundamentally, we can never go back the same old way.

And it’s almost surprising that so many continued to follow.  I mean after all, the message Jesus was preaching was a radical and revolutionary one.  It went against the status quo.  It

shook things up to no end.

Matthew tells us that one day Jesus pulled away from the crowd and went up a hill and sat down.  He called his closest companions and began to teach.  It seems to me that Jesus wanted to strip away any delusions of glamor and prestige; popularity and grandure.  Jesus gets down to the real heart of the matter; the truth of what it would be like to follow.  It’s going to cost you something.  What price?

Eugene Peterson puts it this way:  “You are blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.  With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”1 I’m a little stuck on that one in part because it goes against everything we typically assign to being “blessed” or “happy.”  Vulnerability is the very thing we try so hard to avoid at all cost.  Nobody wants to be at the end of their rope – so weak and vulnerable and dependent.  Yet, Jesus says this about the place and space in which we abandon our sense of self-sufficiency, where no one else can help us – nothing – not our money, not our friends, not our job – nothing else can help – we learn how to trust God.

“You are blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution… Not only that – count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me [meaning Jesus].  What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.  You can be glad when that happens – give a cheer, even! – for though they don’t like it, I do!” says our Christ.  “And all heaven applauds.  And know that you are in good company.  My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”2

Then, Jesus launches into our lesson for this morning.  After having said all of that, Jesus says:  “Let me tell you why you are here.  You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.  If you lose your saltiness, how will

people taste godliness?  You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.  Here’s another way to put it,” he says, “You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.  God is not a secret to be kept.  We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.  If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you?  I’m putting you on a light stand.  Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine!  Keep open house; be generous with your lives.  By opening up to others you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”3

My brothers and sisters, the question before us this morning is, how much like salt and light are we?  How does this work in our day to day lives.  Salt?  Light?  Jesus loops these two metaphors together.  They are so much a part of our culture and our day to day lives that we easily take them for granted.  But just try to imagine life without them.

We live in a health conscious culture in which most of us are told to cut back on our salt-intake.  Our food is so saturated with salt that if you are like me and suffer from some hypertension you are told to throw away the salt shaker altogether.  Most of us are not even aware of how much salt (and sugar) is in our diet.  Without salt almost everything tastes bland – there is no deliciousness to it.  And especially meat.  Salt preserves; it “keeps” the meat from going bad; from being worthless and having to be thrown out.  Jesus says be like salt – the good seasoning.

Be light, Jesus says.  Try closing your eyes sometime and walk around in the dark.  Picture lighting a small candle or turning on a night light. Having that little flicker of light that guides you around so that you don’t run into things is pure joy.

So often when there are circumstances in which we perceive things as crazy and messy; chaotic and dark, our tendency is to take the posture of observer; onlooker.  We look on from a

distance ready to point out the murkiness of it all.  We sometimes become the one quick to announce and share what a mess it is.  But it seems to me that Jesus is saying get right in there – get in there and you make the difference.  If things are crazy around you.  You are there.  Be salt.  If things are not right in the world, at work, at home, with cousin Jane, in the church – you be the seasoning – the flavor that keeps it together and makes it better.

Don’t hide out.  Don’t be reserved or shy.  Don’t hold back.  Not just in words but also in deeds and attitude – Shine.  Be a repairer of the breach; a mender of broken places.

You are light – yes, even now with your own brokenness and vulnerability, you are light. You are salt now  – not in some distant future. What you do now can change the world.

I am excited about celebrating our 180th anniversary as Jennifer has described.  180 years is a long time, isn’t it?  A long time and a lot of people and a lot of world circumstances.

Five years ago, when we were celebrating our 175th year we had an archivist do some research about the history of this church which is fascinating; and over these next months we plan to unfold the history in a variety of ways.  It’s helpful to know our roots – where we came from, how others survived, the difference they made.

One of the things I’ve found most fascinating is a tiny little excerpt in a book called “Forty Years of Methodist in 86th Street City of New York”

It was while the Rev. James Floy, of blessed memory, was preaching on the Harlem Circuit, (embracing Eighty-sixth street Church) as we were then called, in the first years of his ministry, that he was arraigned before the Conference and accused of being an “Abolitionist.”  His trial resulted in his conviction, and his relation to the Conference was suspended for one year.  The world has moved since that.4

You can see why it’s held my attention can’t you?  It may be hard to imagine such a thing now but it was the early 1830’s and the hot issue of the day was slavery.  I’m imagining that it took unmeasurable courage to err on the side of the gospel at a time like that not knowing how it would all turn out; to even go against the law and the mandates of the broader church.  He was punished.  The New York Conference sat him down for a year and I’m imagining his appointment to what would become Park Avenue United Methodist was not considered a plum appointment – not for one so brazen.  And it has taken time and a lot of years for history to prove that the Rev. Floy was right about the matter.  And I’m guessing that he did not stop preaching the gospel as he saw it when he arrived here.

A whole lot of preachers and a whole lot of people have come and gone since that time.  But whenever the history of this church is told, his name is written there. And I’m thinking it is also written in the Lambs Book of Life.  When I read about him, I felt an even deeper conviction; a greater commitment to the things that matter most of all.  He stood on the side of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and love for all God’s people.

What are the hot issues of our day?  Pick one.  Draw the line and fill in the blank.  We ask ourselves:  How will our names go down when history proves itself?  Which side of love will we have stood on when the story is told for future generations?  Were we willing to take the risk for love’s sake?

Jesus said:  “Let me tell you why you are here.  You are here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth.  You are here to be light, bringing out the God-colors of the world.”

May it always be so.

 

[1] Matthew 5:3 The Message Bible

[2] Matthew 5:10-11.

[3] Matthew 5:13-16.

[4] Forty Years of Methodism in Eighty-Sixth-Street, City of New York, Published at the Celebration of the Fortieth Anniversary of the Church March 4, 1877, New York: Printed by Nelson & Phillips, 805 Broadway.