Sermon for Sunday, February 9

Matthew 5:13-20

A Little Goes a Long Way

        As we read through the stories that Jesus told, we see that he had a way of taking those things which we think are small and insignificant, things like coins, and sheep, and seeds and he transforms them into something really important.  Take today’s reading, for example, Jesus calls his followers “salt” and “light” and he transforms us into agents of the kingdom of God.  He is saying that it is just going to take a few of us to transform the world into the world which God as Creator intends it to be.

1965 was a great year for the United Church of Canada.  Never had so many Canadians been attending church weekly.  The Church proved that adage “If you build it, they will come.”  The congregation I worked with many years later, had over 500 children in Sunday school in the 1960s.  As a child, I recall almost every family on our suburban Toronto street going to church on Sunday morning.  I remember reciting the Lord’s Prayer and reading a portion of scriptures each morning in my public school class.  Canadian society was equated with Christian society and vice versa.

Some of you may recall those days.  Sometimes we pine after those golden days.  The church and its position in our community and our society is something much different today.  Rather than being equated with society, the Christian faith is minority, and quite often at odds with the norms of society.  What has shifted?  Is it that we have a new, a fresh understanding of the message of Jesus?

It seems that the way Jesus preached and the rest of the Bible has been written is that it is for a time such as this, when Christians find themselves in the minority.  Jesus’ followers were certainly on the fringe of society.  While Jesus might have had crowds who came and listened to his preaching, how many really became his followers?  The picture we have of the arrest and trial of Jesus is that he was deserted by almost every one.  The early Church, by whom and for whom much of our New Testament was written, was certainly on the edge of society, if it wasn’t being outright persecuted by the Roman authorities.  Perhaps we don’t experience persecution in these early days of this century, but we certainly do know what it is like to be Christians from the sidelines or even the benches of contemporary society.  I want to suggest to you this morning that the bible, particularly the New Testament, can be seen an instruction manual for people who are living as a minority in a non-religious society.  The Old Testament Hebrews were surrounded by people they deemed to be pagan.  We see Jesus continually in dialogue with the religious and non-religious elements of first century Palestine and then later we see the early Church seeking to live out its faith in the Greco and Roman worlds.

When I lived in Toronto, I used to commute each morning and evening on a suburban train.  People are creatures of habit and on these trains they tend to sit in the same spot every day.  I found myself for nearly an hour twice a day with the same eight companions in the same compartment.  Ten hours a week with the same people, you get to know them quite well.  One of the fellows announced that his wife was pregnant.  Over the next few months, we would ask how things were going.   As the time for the birth was growing near, he confided in us that he was terrified he would be a good father.  We reassured him that of course he would.  However, one of the fellows had great answer for him.  He said, “Don’t worry, I found the instruction manual came with the first child.”  What he meant was that he just naturally knew what to do.  As we look back over how we have parented, isn’t that true in many instances?   With our children, we have faced situations that we never could have imagined and we have dealt with them with some sort of wisdom that came from who knows where.

I wonder if in this passage Jesus is saying that each one of us has the knowledge of what it is to be a Christian.  He says, “You are the light.  You are salt.”   It is not, you should be or you ought to be.  So often, the church and preachers are criticized of filling the air with words like “should”, “ought, and “must”.  Everything preached in the imperative mood – “you have to do this.”  However, Jesus doesn’t say this morning “You ought to be like light to the world.”  He says, “You are the light of the world.”  There are days when I need to hear this.  There are days when I need to look in the mirror and hear Jesus say, “You are already what God needs and wants and what God delights in.”  There are days when I need to feel in the deepest part of my being that I don’t have to change or be something else to know that God love and cares for me.  “You are…”  That’s good enough for God.

Yet salt and light in being what they are have tremendous transformative capacities.  Throw some salt into a stew and it makes a different.  Turn on a light in a dark room and the difference is like night and day.  Jesus, when he spoke of his followers didn’t say something like, “You are a great army marching into the world.”  He didn’t say that we were to go screaming his message into the world.  Jesus just said you were something small and fragile like salt and light, yet both of these substances go a long way and can make all the difference.

This is in contrast to the “Church triumphant” theology which can quite easily seduce us.  Did it seduce the Church of fifty years ago?  In the twenty-first century perhaps we are not called to dominate the culture in which we find ourselves.  Perhaps our vocation, our task, is to be salt and light…that seemingly insignificant, yet surprisingly powerful substance let loose in the world that makes a difference.    Think of all of the stories that Jesus told in which something that the world regards as small insignificant is, when seen through the lens of God’s Kingdom, full of power.

When I was doing my research for my thesis working with persons living with life-threatening cancer, one of the trends repeated over and over was how the small things done by a caregiver could make all the difference to a person’s day.  I recall one man with lung cancer saying that his day was made great by the young man who delivered some balloons.  “What did that young man do?”, I asked. “He smiled at me and he treated me as if I was a person not a cancer patient.”  A small gesture, but big in that man’s life.  In one of my congregations was a government official.  The government was writing a new health policy.  This man told me that he was at a meeting when they were talking about how the policy would affect the poor and marginalized and he said he suddenly remembered the children’s story from last Sunday in church and told everyone at the meeting about it.  He said that there was a major shift in the policy which became more caring.

You do this.  I see you do this countless times.  I want to quote the American theologian and preacher William Williamon who really stirred up the church when he was appointed a Methodist Bishop in Alabama.  He is one of the two most read Christian writers by mainline Christian preachers in the United States, the other being Henri Nouwen.    He writes:

When you arrive at the elementary school in the morning, you don’t show up in a gold chariot with the word “CHRISTIAN” emblazoned on the side.  You slip in quietly.  You do your work.  You don’t look that different from anyone else.  However, from the moment when you stuck up for that wayward child whom everyone else had given up on, that time when you told a fellow teacher who was experiencing a tough time in her marriage that you were there for her, and that you would be glad to give of yourself and your resources for her – that was when you became salt and light.  You became that substance which savoured a world which for another had become tasteless and dull, not worth living.  You became that light shining in the darkness.

It is interesting that Jesus didn’t say here, “I am the light of the world.  I am the salt of the earth.”  Maybe it is implied.  To me the amazing thing, the awe and faith inspiring thing is that he turns to ordinary, unspectacular people like us and says, “You are light.  You are salt.”  And by the grace of God that is what we are.  Amen.