A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Girash
February 5, 2017
When we read this passage in our bulletin or Bible, we are missing two important flavors, because of the lack of specificity in English grammar. I, as a Southerner, have a solution to this problem, so listen now for the Southern accent version of God’s word to us in Matthew 5:13-20.
Y’all, this community, right now, y’all 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 "Y’all 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."
It was an extraordinary thing, to walk the streets of Boston with my congregation, carrying signs of love, hospitality, radical welcome. We would catch the eyes of folks on the side of the route and see the surprise in their eyes - a church, here, in the march? Surprise often turned to tears, sometimes a shouted, thank you for walking! A couple of times people asked, where is your church, and we told them where, and invited them to visit.
The mood of the whole gathering was determined, joyful, defiant. We wanted so much to have the light of God’s love to shine through us so people would feel loved and know our solidarity. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the hats were just fantastic.
It was June, 1998, and my congregation was marching in Boston Pride for the first time.
Before he preached on the mountainside, Jesus moved through Galilee, teaching and healing all manner of illnesses and ministering to all manner of folk, and they begin to follow him. Crowds of hungry children, with full bellies. Scores of women healed from illnesses that made them unclean. Dozens of men, sight restored. Circles of faithful people reconnected to God and a liberating law. They followed him. They followed him away from the Roman occupation. They followed him toward God’s kingdom. He said the kingdom is right here.
And then there were the fishermen. His dear friends, his disciples. And when he saw the crowds following them, he sat them down and illuminated a world upside down from everything they knew.
The sick, healed.
The unclean, welcomed.
The meek, blessed.
The humble, wise.
The peacemakers, called God’s children.
Rome, you know, thought it was the light of the world. The greatest, the pinnacle, that which all should bow to, the empire that could do to anyone according to its own whim because of its greatness. Because it was great in power, Rome said, it was inherently righteous.
Jesus spoke to a small, distinct community - not to Rome. His message about living into the kingdom, already and not yet, presented a hope that existed outside culture and empire. They were never supposed to be popular, he never intended his message to become the religion of empire, to be the default. They were meant to be salt. His followers were prophetic outsiders. They were salt to empire - but just as much, they were light to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, to the crowd sitting on the hillside. The light of God passed through the disciples to allow people to see their good works and through them the love, mercy, hope, and justice of God.
Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire in 379 of the Common Era, and its saltiness became diluted. Its focus on a liberating message for the marginalized was supplanted when it sat in the center of power.
“Moving from persecuted to persecutor, the church had become the church militant and triumphant...In the name of the one who taught us to love our enemies, the church burned its enemies alive.”
As I considered this history, Dr. King’s commentary on the church in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail came to mind. Writing to clergy who aligned with political power and resisted the prophetic witness of the civil rights movement, Dr. King illuminated the problem of being the faith of an empire:
“... The early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But they went on with the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven" and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.
Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
Dr. King was salt and light not just to the empire of the United States, but to the empire of the American Church.
Now, fifty years on, the church no longer has the option of being the religion of empire. The very notion of being a church person seems counter cultural. There are some who lament the size of the church in 2017. We are smaller than 60 years ago, we are not the cultural default, ours is no longer the language of this empire.
I say to you, that is good news.
Our language is no longer the language of empire. Thank God. Jesus preached salty prophetic witness from the margins. I lament the centuries our faith was adapted and coopted by empire. Our language is the language of the kingdom of God which is salt to empire and light to people in need. Our faith is salty, peculiar, prophetic, hopeful, care-ful, loving, and distinct.
It matters that we follow a brown skinned Middle Eastern teacher who spent his toddlerhood as a refugee, who taught at the margins, because when he says, I am not leaving behind one iota of the law, he is sending us back to study
Deuteronomy 10, when Moses reminds the people to love the stranger and the foreigner for the people were strangers once in Egypt.
Micah 6, when the prophet calls the people to justice, compassion and humility.
Isaiah, when the prophet calls the people to defend the oppressed.Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
He is sending us back to study, as British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks described, no fewer than 36 commandments in Hebrew scriptures to love the stranger.
The Ten Commandments - “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me.”
It matters that we follow the illuminator of a different realm. It matters that we follow a teacher who turns every lesson upside down. It matters that we follow an incarnate God-with-us who said share all you have and take care of the least of these. It matters that we follow the Host of a Table where EVERYONE is welcome.
And I want to tell you, this is the Good News for us, today. Times are hard. But Jesus said, Y’all are the salt of the earth. Y’all are the light of the world. This is who we are. This is waht Christians have been called to be for 2000 years - it is not a new commission. This is what we are called to be. This is who we blessed to be. This is Jesus’ claim upon us and our our great assurance. We are salt and light and a city on hill, we are blessed and we are called to bring good news to the oppressed and practice love and justice and we are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Shane Claiborne, Jesus for President, Page 163
 The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail
As described by Tony Robinson on the UCC Daily Devotional of February 5, 2017