Sermon: February 9, 2020 – Matthew 5: 13-16

You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.  There is so much empowerment in today’s reading, the second preaching segment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This morning, though, it’s the next part of what Jesus said that insisted I keep coming back to them: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets” said Jesus to the crowd, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5: 17-28).

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And the reason that these verses cry out for attention, is the tension they create, between this strong affirmation of that which is old, and everything else we know about Jesus, which calls us to a way that is completely new.  As we hear Jesus speak of conserving and preserving the old, we know that it’s the same Jesus who promises a complete inversion of the social order… who initiates a new covenant of reconciling, saving, transforming love… who vehemently opposes the religious establishment of his day.  Jesus basically says to the people “things are going to change, completely, but don’t think for a moment that you can just ditch the things that you already know about God.”  The core message of Jesus was revolutionary enough to get him killed, yet in Jesus, we also have an insistence that the Divine wisdom generously shared with the world long before him be honoured, respected, followed.   Anyone who hears Jesus, then, is called to hold in tension, these words about fulfilling rather than abolishing the traditions and wisdom of old, and the reform, upheaval, and new life promised and embodied in Christ Jesus.

Holding opposing ideas in tension is a really hard thing to do in the year 2020, and we are reminded of this by week in which news outlets around the world reported an impeachment acquittal in the US, hilariously poor process at the Iowa Democratic Caucus, and a blustery State of the Union address.  David Roberts, a journalist on the website, describes the current division in the USA – which is mirrored to a degree, I would say, in much of the world – as “[a] growing inability, not just to cooperate, but even to learn and know the same things, to have a shared understanding of reality. We have sorted ourselves into polarized factions living in different worlds, not just of values, but of facts.”  [pause] He goes on to spell out, the way that this factionalized reality now regards truth, as those things that are “good for your camp*”; and trustworthiness is demonstrated not by honesty or integrity, but simply through “loyalty to your camp*”. With these as the basic rules for who and what you can believe, the elements of healthy discourse carry no weight at all: like standards of evidence, and internal coherence, and the ability to prove or disprove that something is true or helpful or feasible.. To put it in simplest terms, the way things work in 2020 is this: if you are not with every single thing that we say or do, then you are completely against us, completely wrong, and will be completely dismissed; if you don’t accept our facts as the only truth, then you are the enemy.  I needed to read this article by David Roberts about four times in order to really get it, but highly recommend it as an essay that is, all-at-once academic, difficult, relentless, and frighteningly clear.  (The link is, you guessed it, posted on the RCMUC website). {* – I have substituted “camp” for “tribe”}

Into our fractious and disrespectful world, where contrary opinions are considered disloyal, dangerous and/or fake, comes Jesus.  He proposes and ushers in a completely new way that overturns the old social order, while at the same time insisting that you don’t get to this new place by dismissing or demeaning age-old wisdom.  No, you get to this new place, by trusting that the God who people yearned for “back then” is the same God we will meet “up ahead.”  We get to this new place, by respecting not just “us, right here” but also “them, over there.”  We arrive at a place that is completely new, by hearing and embracing the divine intention of love that is in all of it, past, present & future.  The way we relate to God will change as we, with God’s guidance, adapt to changing circumstances, but the theme of goodness and love and, well, “light”, is the heartbeat of the universe and that ain’t gonna change.

So what was it that Jesus wanted his audience to hang on to from the old ways, even as they engaged in social and spiritual transformation?   Lots of things.  When Shannon and I were in Israel and Palestine two years ago, our pilgrimage leaders, Andrew Mayes and Richard LeSueur, reminded us that the vast majority of scripture was written when the author and their people were being dominated by a foreign power, and this impacts what Jesus was saying here. He wanted the listeners to remember what it was like as a people, to leave enslavement behind as God led them to freedom. He wanted them to stay true to the healthiest part of their yearning after God: the holy vision of Shalom, a state of peace and wellbeing for all. He wanted them to keep worshipping God, seeing God’s bounty in the goodness of harvest, counting on the restorative power of God and seeking reconciliation when relationships were broken,  acknowledging God’s gift of balance by keeping Sabbath  And he wanted them to retain a healthy sense of religious identity, in a context where their Roman overlords were expected to treat the emperor like a God.

In his call to a new way and a new day, Jesus was shaped by the wisdom of the ages, but not shackled by the top-down structures and unjust applications of days gone by. And as we hear his expansive views on love, and inner peace, and social transformation, Jesus integrates wisdom not just in a “forward and backward” way, connecting the past, present and future of the religious tradition of his birth; but in the similarity of so many of his teachings to the spiritual wisdom of the great religious traditions of Asia, we see a “side to side” integration, bringing together all that is good and true and healthy.  As Richard Rohr repeatedly points out, when we see the world through a dualistic framework that sets my truth against someone else’s error, my goodness against someone else’s evil, my perceptiveness against someone else’s foolishness, we miss the whole point of God and the whole message of Jesus.  The God of Love, the Creativity of Christ, is in all things.  Jesus holds in tension the best of what is and what has been, with a revolutionary new horizon of indescribable hope. Jesus calls us to partner with the Holy God of the ages, known in shared story and tradition, to proclaim a new realm where the downtrodden are uplifted, captives are set free, and rivals and enemies break bread as one.

That ability to embrace the “both-and” nature of Jesus’ mission and not treat it as “either-or” is a crucial message for us to hear and embody, in a world addicted to nasty, name-calling divisiveness.  And lest we think that this is just about what’s going on south of the border, it most definitely isn’t.  In everything we do, as individuals AND as a congregation, we need to keep assessing our own openness to various opinions and perspectives.  This doesn’t mean that we stand for nothing, but it does mean that we keep on checking our words and actions to keep holding tension, to make sure that we aren’t falling into new forms of entitlement, or dogmatic we-versus-they mindsets.  So, as a congregation we’re taking another look at how to authentically articulate our hopes for a more just relationship with Indigenous peoples, while fully acknowledging the apologies that the United Church of Canada made back in 1986 and 1998.  We continue to discover what it means to be an Affirming Ministry, even as we keep checking our practice to make sure it is open and loving and welcoming and invitational, to avoid falling into a new kind of we/they dogmatism.  We explore what it will take for us to be a “greener” congregation and for us to bring a spiritual perspective to the climate emergency, fully aware of the complex tensions that get held anytime these discussions are held here in Alberta.  We invite questionings and wonderings and a wide variety of spiritual understandings, including those for whom God language is problematic, even as we assert that there is a Divine power of love around us that goes beyond what we ourselves generate.  We bring our hearts and minds, our beliefs and our wonderings, an openness to being challenged by new thoughts we’d not encountered before and old thoughts we’d forgotten about and approaches from entirely unfamiliar angles, as we seek to walk the path of love that Christ unfolds before us.  Our world needs respectful, integrative communities, and that’s what Christ calls us into.

As those whom Jesus calls “the salt of the earth” we are called to do those things that salt did in the ancient world – preserve, and heal, and perhaps even perk up.  As those whom Jesus called “the light of the world” – sharing a title that many ascribed to Jesus himself– we are called to bring illumination, to be open to new enlightenment, to be constant yet in the moment, and to not let the light of love ever, ever, be dimmed or extinguished.  We are called to be and do these things, because Jesus sees this great capacity for good within each person here. And as Jesus calls us to table on this day, we do so as a community of diverse ideas, diverse experiences, diverse backgrounds, held together in love by one common loving respect.

Jesus came not to abolish, but to fulfill… not to disregard, but to learn… not to get stuck, but to keep moving… not to divide us into camps, but to unify us in love.  May our journey, with one another and with Christ, be one that not only speaks respect, but truly practices what we preach.  Amen.

References cited:

Roberts, David.

Rohr, Richard. (and many other Rohr posts)


See also:

Bane Sevier, Melissa.

Huyck, Linda.

Krasner-Khait, Barbara.

Lindeman Allen, Amy.


© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church