Sunday, April 2, 2017
Sermon: You Are the Ones
Matthew 5:13-16 (April Renew Group reading)
You Are the Ones
James Sledge April 2, 2017
Today’s gospel reading does not come from the lectionary as it does most Sundays. This week we hear the passage chosen to facilitate discussion among our congregation’s Renew Groups that are meeting in members’ homes and discussing who we are as a congregation. This passage is a portion of the so-called Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5:1 – 7:29. These teachings come immediately after the Beatitudes.
Today’s gospel reading is a small portion of what is usually called “The Sermon on the Mount.” I’m not sure that’s the best title. Jesus isn’t really preaching; he’s teaching. Here’s how Matthew describes the scene. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them saying… What follows are the Beatitudes, then our verses for this morning and then much more after that.
Jesus is teaching his disciples, but they are not the only ones who hear. The crowds are there as well. Jesus may not be speaking directly to them, but they still overhear. Do they think Jesus is also speaking to them as they listen in?
These crowds aren’t followers, aren’t disciples. They’re curious and intrigued. They may hope Jesus can cure their ailments or help in some other way. But as they listen in from a distance, standing at the back of the church with one foot still outside the sanctuary, it’s not clear what will come of their encounter with Jesus.
Jesus has just offered his strange list of those who are blessed, favored by God: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and the merciful, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted. The very last blessing shifts from “Blessed are,” to “Blessed are you…” “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” says Jesus. After all, that’s what happened to the prophets before you.
And then, in the verses we just heard, Jesus doubles down on that word “you.” “You are the salt of the earth.” But that translation doesn’t really capture the force of what Jesus says. Jesus literally uses a double “you,” and maybe a better way to render this in English would be “You are the ones who are the salt of the earth… You are the ones who are the light of the world.”
Salt of the earth. Salt doesn’t really have the same importance to us that it did to those who first heard Jesus speak. For us salt is cheap, mundane, ubiquitous. For some of us there is too much of it. Doctors tell people, “You need to cut back on your salt.”
But in Jesus’ day, salt was much more than a seasoning. It was valuable and absolutely essential. Salt was the only reliable way to preserve food in the ancient world. Salt was included in the offerings that the Old Testament commanded Israel to bring. Salt was associated with purification and with life. “You are the ones who are salt” speaks of something crucial and essential and life-giving.
Salt of the earth. Of the earth, of course of the earth; that’s where we are. Except Jesus may mean something more. Just a little later in his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus teaches the model prayer that we call the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
None of the people listening to Jesus, not the disciples seated right next to him or those standing out in the narthex thought that the kingdom of heaven had anything to do with going to heaven. The kingdom is about things being made new, being transformed. The kingdom is when God’s will is done on earth, when earth starts to look like heaven.
The late Mississippi comedian Jerry Clower once said, “Some people are so heavenly minded they ain’t no earthly good.” That’s because a lot of folks think Christian faith is about getting on God’s invitation list, but Jesus says it’s about becoming his disciples, becoming those who live and work in ways that bring life to the earth, bring light to the world.
It’s a powerful bit of encouragement for Peter and James and John and the other disciples. “You may think you’re just simple fishermen, you may think you’re not all that important, but you are the ones who are critical, essential in helping the earth become what it was created to be. You are the ones who will show the people of the world how to live as they were created to live. You are the ones who will help transform the world.”
Peter, James, and John hear, but so do those in the crowd. So do those out in narthex and those thinking about bringing a child to Vacation Bible School and those who just happened by that day for who knows what reason. Jesus wants to be clear what this movement he is starting is all about, both for followers and those who may become followers.
The people listening to Jesus, both then and now, include a mix of disciples and the crowd, of followers and considerers. Many, maybe most of you, have said you’re in the disciple group. But we say and repeat a lot of things at church without always considering exactly what they mean. Like when people first join a church and make their profession of faith, answering this question, “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?”
When we are ready to say yes, Jesus says to us, “You, yes you, are the ones. You may think that you’re too young or too old, not important enough or smart enough, don’t know enough or have enough power or influence. But you are the ones I will use to bring life and light to the earth. You are the ones I have chosen to help me transform the world.”