Lectionary sermon for 5 February 2017, (Epiphany 5A) on Matthew 5:13-20

You probably remember a few months ago when the world TV viewing audiences were shocked by a news clip of a young Syrian boy, sitting alone in mute despair in an ambulance after an air strike on Aleppo, covered in blood and dust. The image of that boy, Omran, is now considered an iconic symbol of the toll the conflict in Syria has been taking on its people and an uncomfortable reminder of the on-going refugee crisis it has created.

There are of course different ways of coping with such an image. By far the most common is simply trying to put the image out of mind. Refugees are an uncomfortable presence and carry with them a reminder of dangers…. refugees are different… and when they come from a different culture, have a different religion and particularly one we don’t really understand and all the while calling on a response which will require us to put ourselves out for them, is it surprising we prefer keeping them at a distance – even to the point of reducing funding for assistance to refugees.  Hence the populist response.  The current travel ban.   We should never forget that this is a popular idea to some. Why else would the world community pretend not to notice and have millions of refugees kept in distressing situations for year upon year.

But back to that small boy in the ambulance.  Not all who saw that image of little Omron wanted to turn their backs. Alex is six years old and lives just outside of New York City with his mom, dad, and little sister Catherine. When Alex saw what had happened to Omran, he sat down at his kitchen table and wrote President Obama a letter. “Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home],” he asked. “We’ll be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.” There was more to that letter and I would encourage you to look it up and read it for yourselves.

In the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees last November, President Obama shared that letter with the world leaders who had gathered together to discuss what they might do towards solving the global refugee crisis.

As the then President Obama put it “We can all learn from Alex” he He told the leaders to see in Alex “The humanity that a young child can display, who hasn’t learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they’re from, or how they look, or how they pray, and who just understands the notion of treating somebody that is like him with compassion, with kindness

I think President Obama – at least in this case – was absolutely right. Six year old Alex even at that tender age was being an unconscious light on the hill. Yet isn’t it also the case that sometimes those who offer those simple truths which light the way for others have those same truths easily snuffed out as we find ourselves attracted back to the safe line of minimal help and maximum self interest.

Obama’s modern words about needing to follow Rex’s example and treat others with kindness and compassion come very close to one of the central themes of the Sermon on the Mount.  So what happened next.  Those same leaders Obama addressed, working with their voters, no doubt initially intending to initiate practical responses to the refugee issues, but their answers turned out to be very different from the sort of thing Jesus encouraged – and certainly very different to the response six year old Alex felt called upon to make.

It is odd from one point of view that the very so called “red states” in the United States where the majority were claiming most affinity to the literal inspired words of the Bible appear most inclined to discourage the resettlement of refugees. But make no mistake about it. Britain with its Brexit policy, along with European populations like those of Germany and France, despite their Christian majorities, are complaining that their leaders are too accepting of refugees. Surely these are no different to those who currently applaud Donald Trump. The shell-shocked tiny figure of Omron might be welcomed by young Rex – but Trump rides a wave of support when he says those like Omron must be kept out. And if it comes to that countries in my part of the world with their Christian majorities are similarly niggardly in their response to the refugee crisis.

It is all very well accepting that Jesus asked his followers to be a light on the hill rather than a light under a bushel …or accept the challenge to be the salt of the earth. But can we be honest enough to admit our community may not accept the challenge. Would Omron find our welcome the same dramatic and open response that a follower of Jesus should offer?

Perhaps to get the most from Jesus’ words, a brief historical reminder mightn’t go amiss.

Salt in the days of Jesus was absolutely critical for survival for any community. Valuable for its unique preservative property in days before refrigeration, salt was even used for trade and barter. This incidentally was the case over much of the civilised world for many hundreds of years, and those for example who have been lucky enough to have done a river cruise on the Danube may well have done a side trip to Salzburg (the salt trading capital of the area) at a time when many of the castles built along the Danube were there expressly for controlling and taxing the passage of salt down the river.)

Paying for a slave who turned out to be lazy or useless gave rise to the expression, “not being worth his salt”, and paying soldiers and servants in small bags of salt was the origin of the word “salary”. Salt losing its flavour was actually a much more local experience for those in Palestine because salt from the Dead Sea contains a mixture of substances together with the salt, some of which would change over time and which could indeed cause a change of the original flavour.

Salt of course is only of value if used appropriately and when Jesus says we are the salt of the world and then follows it up with a suggestion that we might become a salt that loses its flavour, suggests he does not award his followers the title “salt of the world” with the presumption the title is theirs for ever as of right or that it will remain theirs without some appropriate response.

We might start out to be Christian in word and action – but if in our actions we turn out to be hard hearted are we still even worthy of calling ourselves Jesus’ followers?
Remember last week’s reading about the Beatitudes. Living out these according to their spirit is another dimension of being the light shining on the hill, or to put it the other way is to be the salt on which the good food depends, is to accept discipleship.

Certainly we are right to remember Matthew talking earlier of Jesus as the light of the world, because after-all hadn’t he specifically quoted Isaiah as talking about the Messiah with the words: the People who have walked in darkness have seen a great light? Yet we can’t leave it there. When Jesus tells his disciples and other listeners, you are light of the world, this is critical because in effect it says by implication: “My mission has just become your mission”.

The seemingly attractive cop-out alternative is to assume it is only Jesus who carries the light, in which case we have an excuse to be spectators to the faith.

If we are thinking first and foremost of ourselves it is true we are unlikely to want to set our light in the open on the hill. Thinking selfishly we are much safer if we don’t venture out, and unfortunately – or if we are among the timid – perhaps we might even say “fortunately”, we may feel safer with our light under the bushel so to speak. On the other hand to stay with the gist of Jesus argument which he follows through in much of the rest of the sermon, if we are thinking first and foremost of others, we would be anxious to place the light where it would be most helpful to others.

And rather than let us escape the full force of what Jesus is reported as saying Matthew goes on to tell us Jesus is not providing any sort of escape from the essence of the law. Perhaps Matthew is aware that here he is setting his writing at variance with the teaching recorded in Mark and from Paul. We may need reminding that by the time Jesus was on the scene the excessive teachings of the law were appearing so confining and even awkward to live that even some of the Rabbis were beginning to shift direction. The Hillel school of Rabbis were for example teaching that there were some practical situations which would permit a relaxation of the laws of divorce. Mark is prepared to choose Jesus words which suggest that circumstances allow us to set aside some laws which discriminate against people and no longer make sense, particularly some laws relating to food. Likewise Paul suggests that with Jesus we might now look beyond rules about circumcision.

So what then do we make of Matthew recording Jesus saying he did not come to replace the law? In a way it could be argued that Matthew is the most conservative of the New Testament writers, yet don’t forget he also records Jesus as setting priorities within the law. What sounds like legalism, where every jot and tittle of the law needs to be taken into account, turns out to be an exercise in which perspective arrives when we put the emphasis on the laws relating to love and compassion. The law is interpreted not on the basis of slavish attention to which acts are permitted but rather on how the law is interpreted in the attitudes to people and situations – or if you like, the Beatitudes attitudes.

Matthew introduces his gospel with the story of the baby Jesus and I guess this suggests the image of starting a mission as a small child. The six year old Rex shows that it is possible to catch on to the spirit of Jesus mission without years of maturity and depth of learning. However, staying the course of that type of decision is not for everyone. In the real world decisions are not always going to be easy and real world ethical dilemmas provide a genuine test of faith.

Here in today’s reading, at least for those who would follow Christ, there is an implied radical approach to this confusion, but whether or not we can show we trust his challenge as still being relevant for our present circumstances, and where we in effect will come to place the light we are invited to hold up for others may not yet be decided.

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