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Reflection February 5, 2023

          Today’s reading from Matthew continues from our reading last week as part of the famous Sermon on the Mount.  Our Gospel last Sunday was the beginning of this wonderful sermon that Jesus gave to a gathering of folks who had come to hear him and to hear some words of hope and comfort.  Many who were in the crowd were sick or struggling, along with the members of their families, and he presented them with a beautiful and touching blessing in which they could hear their own lives.  This week, he offers them some guidance on how to live their lives, a short class on how to help him create this Kin’dom, this community of love despite the suffering and struggles of the world.   In our  reading from Isaiah,  believed to have been written shortly after the return from Babyonian exile, the prophet is confronting his community directly,  by contrasting hypocritical religious practices with truly faithful ones.  So here we are this Sunday, back in Sunday School if you will, learning again from the Master teacher and one of the Prophets whom God had sent in earlier times. Let us pray, Gracious One, be our teacher this cold, cold morning.  Help us to hear your message for us this day.  May it guide our thoughts as we dream of a world where love, justice and kindness reign.

          If we remember our beautiful reading from last week, Jesus has just proclaimed the surprising news that many among his listeners are those graciously blessed by God. And now Jesus makes this idea even more explicit. He addresses his audience directly, using the second person: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world” (Mt 5:13-14). God has made you, and blessed you, for a particular role in creation’s redemption.  These are such great images…salt and light, which even in small amounts can make a real difference.  And they were metaphors that spoke to the people sitting there and ones to which we can relate as well. 

          For all the cooks out there, we understand that salt is meant to enhance the flavor of a dish.  It’s not meant to overwhelm the other flavors but it can really add something.  It’s subtle when used well, although I must admit that as much as we are supposed to use it in moderation for our health, nice salty homemade popcorn or salt on French fries can be delicious.  And light, light is not subtle.  Any of you who were without power last week can attest to the way even a small candle can light up a room.  I read that a single candle can be seen from more than a mile away.  And both salt and light have simple, elemental purposes. As a seasoning, we know that clearly salt is salty. No-one would use salt that’s “lost its taste” (Mt 5:13). Salt is for saltiness; its identity and its purpose are virtually one and the same. Likewise, light is for shining. Just as no-one would use unsalty salt, no-one would light a lamp and then hide it out of sight!

Jesus, this great teacher, is speaking about the potential that is within us, what we really are, not what people think of us, not even what we think of ourselves, but who we really are.  What we really are is we’re the salt of the earth, the light of the world.  Wow!  We might imagine the people sitting there who may have felt dragged down by daily life; we might think of times when we have been faltering, when we have lost our inner spark or are wavering in our self-confidence, and then Jesus says…No, you are so much more than that.  As one writer explained, “ our identity and purpose — who we are and what we’re meant to do — are virtually one and the same. Like salt and light, God made you as a small thing that can make a big difference for a larger whole. God made you to spice things up — not to overpower the dish, but to enliven it, enhancing and highlighting its other flavors. And likewise, God made you to shine, as only you can: a flame that can light up an entire room,  or help guide a lost traveler home.” We have this splendor that we are meant to develop in a spiritual sense and we have to let it shine.  Jesus is naming who we already are.  God made us with the gifts that are meant to bless the world and it is truly the work of our lives to embrace these gifts and share them.  We have to be most fully who we are and let our light shine.

We know in life that we can encounter people who make us feel less than, who  perhaps put others down because it makes them feel better.  And sadly, we all have life experiences that can undermine our sense of our selves and the best of who we are.  So too for the people who gathered at that time.  But every so often, we meet people who truly make us feel special.  I can think of a few people I’ve had the privilege of knowing who had the gift of helping others to shine, those special people who have the gift of encouraging others to be the best versions of themselves.  We hope that parents understand their role in this way, to help enhance the gifts of their children and to provide the kinds of support to really let their children shine. 

There are also wonderful leaders in a variety of settings who have the gift of really bringing out the best in the whole group…of inviting everyone to share something of themselves such that the results really bring out the best in everyone…and hopefully add something of value to our world. 

It is important to remember that the Sermon on the Mount, from which this passage is drawn, is found in the early chapters of Matthew, soon after Jesus has called his disciples and has begun his journey throughout Galilee.  All of his teachings thereafter are built upon this foundation of blessing.  Jesus does not begin by telling people how sinful and lost they are, No.  He says you are blessed; you are salt and light.  God made you to bless the world.  You may feel small or insignificant at times, but much like a small pinch of salt or a spark of light, you can make an amazing difference to the world.  He is telling them and telling us, Be who you are.  Be bold! Shine your light for all to see.  Please don’t hide that light!  The world needs your light and your unique flavor.

Another important point about this passage is when he attempts to explain the larger context for what they will hear. Some of the teachings to come may at first sound quite different from what you’ve heard in the law, but don’t worry, he assures them. If you really listen to what I’m saying, you’re going to hear the essential features of what Moses taught.  I’m not trying to abolish the law or change it, but I’m trying to expand upon its meaning, in spirit and in substance. He is trying to let them know that he is focused on the heart of the law as well as fully living it fully in our lives. (Mt 5:17-20).   Jesus is the light of the world, and we, Jesus insists, are too!

Ultimately, Jesus really tries to make it clear that all of the good works that he will recommend in the rest of the sermon and throughout his teaching are not strategies for earning such blessings.  Actually,  they are concrete ways for us to respond to our unique blessedness and to bless the world in joy and love.  That’s the heart of his message.  We are blessed and we are meant to bless the world!

Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)

58:1 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

58:2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

58:3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

58:4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

58:5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

58:8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

58:9a Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

58:9b If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

58:10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

58:11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

58:12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

Matthew 5:13-20

5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

5:15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.

5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

5:18 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.

5:19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”