Sermon for Epiphany V
St Thomas', Glen Carbon--Matthew 5:13-20
Most of you have heard me say before—many times, perhaps—that we are presently living through the death rattle of the era—a long era, an era that has lasted more than a millennium and a half—an era in which Christianity was the dominant force in western civilization. Those of us who are middle-aged or older have witnessed a significant deterioration in the relationship between church and society just within our lifetimes. Of course, we can debate the causes and effects, the dangers and the opportunities, presented by this fact, but that’s not really where I want to go in this sermon, at least not directly. I bring it up, however, because it is precisely the relationship between church and society that Jesus is talking about in the fifth chapter of St Matthew’s gospel.
Jesus says that the church is the “salt” of the earth. In ancient times, salt was not thought of primarily as something that raises your blood pressure, but, rather, as an invaluable preservative and flavor enhancer. Because of salt, people could enjoy a year-round supply of meat and other perishable foods, and it all tasted better to boot! So the salt metaphor is a pretty good one because, for most of our civilization’s history, the church has been a preservative agent and a flavoring agent; the church has been the very fabric of society. Our task today is more challenging, because it falls to us to discern how we are to be “salty” within a very unstable social context.
Jesus also says that the church is to be a light. Darkness intimidates us because it conceals danger. We can’t see where the hazards are. But when the lights are turned on, danger evaporates. We can see the chair that we might otherwise stub our toe on, or the deer crossing the highway that we might otherwise hit. When we come upon an accident, or roadwork, on the highway, a State Police or Illinois Department of Transportation vehicle is almost always there with an unmissable flashing arrow, letting everyone know where the problem is and pointing traffic to the way around it. What is hazardous in the dark is harmless in the light.
In a similar metaphor, Jesus says that the church is like a lit-up city on a hill, a beacon that travelers can see for miles around. If you’ve ever driven at night on any of the main roads leading from Utah into Nevada, you have seen the impression that a lit-up city on a hill—or in a valley, for that matter—the impression that light can make. The Mormon reserve of Utah gives way to a riot of light emanating from the gambling establishments of Nevada. Now, this doesn’t mean we should be installing blackjack tables and slot machines in the parish hall, but the church’s calling is to make the same sort of impression on the darkness of the world, to serve as a beacon, a point of reference by which people can order their lives, or at least recognize the disorder of their lives. I have discovered that even those who do not claim to be religiously observant, or even many of the mockers and despisers of Christian faith, are, deep down, glad that somebody is religious. They might not ever care to darken the door of a church themselves, but they would by no means want churches to disappear. I would probably bet that, even in this relatively small parish, there are those on the rolls whose money the Treasurer sees regularly, but whose faces are rarely or never seen. It’s almost as if those of us who do engage in outward religious practices do so not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of all those others as well, those who don’t want to join us, but are glad we’re here. We are, indeed, a city on a hill.
We are light.
We are salt.
We have always been those things. We just can’t keep on trying to be those things, however, in quite the same way that our parents and grandparents of the last forty or fifty generations went about it. They did it by acting as the gatekeepers, the pillars, of the culture. The church was the establishment, and anyone outside the church was also on the margins of society. For good or for ill, we no longer enjoy that position. But our mission is the same. Rather than pursuing that mission as part of the establishment, we now do it by challenging the establishment.
We are at odds with the mainstream culture itself, but we can now be a counter-culture, an alternative society, a microcosm, a working model, of the Kingdom of Heaven which it is our job to announce. In a society where the rule is to be greedy and exploitative, we can be loving and just. In a society that gets things done through violence, we can be effective through peacemaking. In a culture that is obsessed with rights, we can be obsessed with servanthood. Among a generation that honors a self-serving sexual ethic, we can be incorrigible rebels and honor the virtue of abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within it. With neighbors and friends who twist even Christian faith by bending it to the force of every desire, we can be dangerously subversive by adhering to the revealed faith of our forebears, the faith once delivered to the saints.
Being subversive in this way, living as counter-cultural rebels, as guerilla fighters for an alternative society—as salt, light, and a city on a hill—takes great resolve. It is a demanding vocation, because there are great many forces that will try to distract us from it. If journalists and historians were our only sources of information, our minds and imaginations would be consumed by the torture and beheading of Christians carried out by ISIS, by Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jews, by the Gulag prison camps of Siberia, the killing fields of Khmer Rouge Cambodia, the rampages of the Vikings and the Huns and legions of unnamed marauders. We would be emotionally numbed by the incidence of divorce, and out-of-wedlock births, and abortion, and spousal abuse. It would be difficult to escape the conclusion that the human race is on a terminal course toward self-destruction, which would leave us with cynicism and self-absorption as two of the most viable coping strategies. Everything’s going to crash and burn anyway, so why not grab for the all short-term gratification we can while we can. Why not just go bungee-jumping, both literally and figuratively? I was channel-surfing one day and came across several young men in their twenties—presumably with many good years ahead of them—defying death by jumping off a cliff into a fog bank that lay over a Norwegian fjord. Now, they were wearing parachutes, but still . . .
In my estimation, their behavior is a symbol of the cynicism and low-grade despair that is rampant in the mainstream culture, the culture to which the church is supposed to be an alternative. Indeed, the message of Jesus, recorded for us by Matthew, is that through the life of the church, God shows the world an alternative to its own self-destructiveness. Through our being salt, through our being light, through our being a gleaming city on a hill—that is to say, in our worship, in our prayer, downstairs in the parish hall during coffee hour, in our Bible studies and small groups, in the way we live our lives in offices and studios and classrooms and shops and stores—we announce to the world that ISIS and Hitler and Stalin do not have the last word—the Lord of hosts has the last word. Cancer and depression and disease in general do not have the last word—the God who healed all manner of disease through Jesus has the last word. The spiritual disintegration that leads to dysfunction and divorce and abortion and abuse do not have the last word—the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit who gives life and health and hope has the last word.
The very existence of the church, the very fabric of our life together, is subversive of the despair and cynicism of our society because it gives people a reason to hope. We are a neon sign that points to the fact that God is not through with the world yet, that the redemption of creation is still a work in progress, that the “fat lady” has not only not sung yet, she isn’t even on the stage, that God is our hope and our salvation and is worthy of our trust. So keep that lamp lit and let it shine. Let it shine.