Lectionary Sermon 9 February 2020 on Matthew 5:13-20


I don’t know about you, but BBC images of traumatized and wounded children being pulled from the wreckage of bombed buildings, or for that matter video clips of clearly undernourished refugees living in crowded refugee camps make me feel very uncomfortable. But here is a rather awkward point. Anyone else noting my reaction would be very likely to assume I was just a passive TV news junkie. I can hardly argue. Part of my discomfit is that I am keenly aware that it is some time since I have felt sufficiently moved to ask my local MP to insist that as a nation we should take a bigger share of refugees, and as it happens my home Church is not particularly involved in helping with the re-settlement of refugees.

Similarly I guess I was not alone in being appalled a week ago when I watched a recent small news item to the effect that Trump’s government was relaxing the US’s relatively short-lived ban on using land-mines. As I watched Mr Trump arguing for the return to land-mines I guess I wasn’t the only one who would hold a distant memory of a film clip of Princess Diana doing her bit to publicise the fight against the use of land-mines by joining a team of mine clearing team of soldiers. I can also remember a separate set of images of one legged civilian land-mine victims including children hobbling about on crutches.

I certainly don’t share Mr Trump’s claimed impression that this return to land mines would help our ally the United States regain it’s rightful place as the most admired powerful Government in the world. But there that same awkward post-script. Once again without intended action I am not sure I am entitled to what I would like to think is my righteous indignation. If I care, shouldn’t I be asking our Church to pass on my concerns to those who represent our country at the United Nations. I rather hope someone other than me is representing the teaching of Jesus and in effect is someone other than me shining a light on Jesus’ behalf, speaking up in my place.

I suspect I am not alone. By far the most common response seems to be resigned acceptance – trying to put such images out of mind. Refugees and war victims are an uncomfortable challenge and carry with them a reminder of dangers…. refugees are also seen as 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… Nothing to do with me. ..

Thinking of the more immediate concerns of the day, I wonder if the prayers of Christians will include the desire that more should be spent on meeting the immediate needs of those caught up in the Coronavirus crisis emerging from China. Are our prayers alone enough to claim the title of being the light on the hill?

Nevertheless we should never forget that there is a high probability that Jesus intended that his followers should follow not just admire his teaching of  the sort in today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps not everybody agrees that we are intended to take Jesus at his word. I suspect we would all like to be seen as a 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 they find themselves attracted back to the safe line of minimal help and maximum self interest.

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 coincidentally appear most inclined to discourage the resettlement of refugees. But make no mistake about it. Many in Britain, along with European populations like those of Germany and France, regardless of their Christian majorities, are also complaining that their leaders are too accepting of refugees. Our own New Zealand government has allowed a very slight increase in refugee quota and we note even our own Church has been rather muted in its protests that the effort is too small.

It is all very well admiring Jesus’ teaching when he asked his followers to be a light on the hill rather than a light under a bushel …yet it somehow lessens our integrity if we say we admire Jesus with no sign that we are responding to his words. In the same way we may feel Jesus was right on the button when he used his other example of being the salt – yet again the test would be if others saw such a sign in us.

Because so much of our Church thinking is centred on worship, the fact is that it is easy to emerge from Church with no serious attempt to change anything we were intending to do as a consequence. Remember Jesus’ salt illustration finished with a warning. 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 earth and then follows it up with a suggestion that there is a danger we might become a salt that loses its flavour, this suggests he does not award his followers the title “salt of the earth” 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 thoughtless or even 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 Matthew’s record 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.

Remember back to Christmas when 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. In practice we as adults are sometimes remarkably slow to catch on to what is required of the full follower of Christ.

A compassionate child or beginning Christian shows 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, or at least for those who would follow Christ, there is an implied radical approach to this confusion. The question must be answered separately for each one of us. 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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