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Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 9, 2014

I have found that sometimes I am noticed because I wear a collar. One day a woman at the gym found me and asked me some theological questions, which I was glad to discuss with her. I want to talk to people about God, so I am glad to be noticed. In the past several days, I have been noticed because of my black eyes and green cheeks. I would rather not be noticed for that, but it is what it is. My two nephews are noticeable in a crowd whether they want to be or not. One is 6’ 7” and one is 6’ 9”. At graduations, some people wear signs on their hats that say, “Hi Mom” or “Go Team” to be noticed in that sea of black. Being noticed is a mixed blessing. Some people want to be noticed in particular instances, some people can’t help but be noticed and some people really just want to blend into the woodwork. They would just as soon go about their business without anyone ever singling them out for anything.

But Jesus’ call to us today is to be noticed – noticed because we carry the good news of the in-breaking kingdom of God in our hearts, our minds and our bodies. Noticed because our actions speak of Jesus and God’s message of love and mercy for the world. Noticed because of the kind of people we are.

Earlier in the text, Matthew has indicated that Jesus has come to be the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel. So far, Israel has failed in its call to be a light to the nations, and Jesus is called to fulfill that promise. Now, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his followers to join him in fulfilling this covenant. Jesus does not say they should be this or that: they already are blessed. God blesses them first as God blessed Abraham to be a blessing. But Jesus blesses different people than one would expect. He blesses the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful and others whom society would not recognize as especially singled out by God. He even blesses those who are reviled and persecuted and slandered for his sake. He assumes the disciples and others who have followed him have one or more of these characteristics.

Israel was blessed too, but did not serve as a blessing to others. In today’s text, now that they are blessed, Jesus calls his followers to action. He tells them they are salt and light, both of which were precious in the world Jesus lived in. Salt was used as a flavor enhancer, as a preservative and for healing purposes. Salt was also a symbol of the covenant between God and Israel, the most precious thing in the world to the Hebrews. Today salt is plentiful and one of the cheapest things in the grocery store. We take it for granted that we will have it. Light was also a precious commodity. In a society that lived by the sun’s rising and setting, even a small lamp was highly valued because it could illuminate a peasant’s one room house and help people see to do things before sunup and after sundown.

Salt and light also share one other commonality. They both are used to better something else. When you season food, the salt is not paid attention to; it is the tastiness of the food that is the focus. When you light a lamp or turn on a flashlight, you do not stare at the lamp or the flashlight; you look at what that light illumines.

Jesus tells his followers that they are indispensible (John R. Brokhoff) in helping fulfill the law and the prophets and bringing in the kingdom of God, which began with his incarnation. The earth needs the salt to taste kingdom virtues instead of earthly values, and it needs the light to illuminate the darkness of sin. Israel in particular needs salt and light to move from a bondage mentality into a liberation way of thinking, even though they are under Roman rule. If the salt loses its flavor, there is nothing it can do to further this goal. If a light is hidden, it cannot shine and might even start a fire – being destructive instead of constructive.

Jesus’ followers are precious to God, and they are indispensible for reflecting the zest of the kingdom and the true light who is Christ into the world. How do they do that? What actions can they take? How can they be noticed as God’s people, working hard out of gratitude for the grace of blessing to glorify God and bring in the kingdom? They can obey the law. Jesus tells them that he has come to fulfill the law according to his interpretation of it. And fulfilling the law means taking righteous behavior out in public, to sprinkle the tastiness of salt in the world’s broken places to help them heal and to illumine the dark corners of the world. Isaiah tells Israel it will be a light when it breaks the bonds of injustice, liberates the people, and cares for the hungry, the homeless and the naked. To be salt and light is to bring the principles of Torah into the world, not only to Israel, but among the Gentiles as well. Disciples must live by the commandments and teach them to others. They must be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees.

Jesus is not criticizing the scribes and the Pharisees for their observance of Torah; that was their specialty. He is criticizing them for pulling in on themselves, for becoming a ghetto that separated itself from the rest of the world (Edwin Chr. Van Driel), and hiding their light under a bushel. Their goal was to be pure, not to bring the world – or even their own outcasts – a blessing from God.

How does it feel to be told to be noticed? Is it something you are comfortable with or something that makes you queasy when you think about it? I have a Baptist colleague who learned to cross himself in an ecumenical colleague group, and now he does it when he says grace at a restaurant. He wants people to know he is a Christian. We wear crosses around our necks, put fish symbols on our cars and wear bracelets that say WWJD (what would Jesus do). Those things may get us noticed in passing, but they are not nearly enough for what Jesus wants us to do. It is frightening for many of us to be noticed, especially when we are called to speak up for our faith, but Jesus calls us to take that risk – to be salt and light to the world, to spread God’s message of love and grace in Jesus Christ.

But there are many other people of different faiths and of no faith out in the world doing what we are called to do. Does it make any difference that people know we are Christians and are doing what we do out of love and thanksgiving for God’s mercy in Jesus? Jesus says it does. I heard of a woman once who worked in a homeless shelter who washed people’s feet and then said the Lord’s Prayer with them. I don’t know if we could do that today in a non-sectarian shelter, but we certainly could ask if people wanted us to pray with them about their needs. We do have to be careful in our ecumenical world, but we can share our stories with those who ask. We can wear T-shirts and name tags that advertise where we come from. We can be noticed.

We can also be noticed for being the kinds of people Jesus singles out in the Beatitudes. Desmond Tutu was noticed for his peacemaking efforts in South Africa; Mother Teresa was noticed for her poverty of spirit. Lech Walesa was noticed for his hunger and thirst for righteousness in an oppressive Communist society.

Jesus was nothing if not noticed – by people who loved him and people who hated him and all he stood for. To be Jesus’ disciples, we have to stay close to him – listen to what he teaches and do what he does – or our salt will be flavorless and our light will be hidden. We will be afraid to take the risk of speaking out for the kingdom. Stay close to Jesus and keep your salt tasty and your light bright, so you can be the carriers of his good news for the world. Take a risk and be noticed!

AMEN

     - The Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Cited:
John R. Brokhoff, “Salt and Light”, from Preaching the Parables, blog post by Sermon Suite
Edwin Chr. Van Driel, Feasting on the Word, vol. 1 Year A, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009), p. 335