February 6, 2011

“A Strange New Rule”

Matthew 5:13-20

Much has been said about the first few verses in this pericope. Many people, humble people of great spiritual strength, have been called the ‘Salt of the earth.’

I want to disagree with conventional wisdom on this part of the text. Matthew, considering who he is and who he is writing to, doesn’t use the word Salt in the commonly understood manner, meaning “the spice of life” I contend that Matthew means salt, in its most essential, most ancient function, as a preservative. Matthew is urging the hearers to preserve the essential nature of the faith. This translates to us meaning that we preserve the essential nature of the Christian faith. It also means that we do not need to dream up Christian practices, or the basic tenets of the faith. We have a rich and varied history to preserve.

He also uses the term light. This, in relationship to the idea of salt being a preservative, makes perfect sense. Why would it be important to preserve something, unless we intend to share it. The church is not a museum in the sense that we preserve Christianity in a way that it cannot be seen, touched, used. We illumine the faith as we practice it; First here in worship, and Spiritual Formation, and then in the world in our daily lives.

Not so much has been said about what follows, this segment that begins in verse 17. Jesus said: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them…”

Jesus declares that “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (v. 18). The passing away of heaven and earth is a reference to the fullness of God’s coming Kingdom. Thus Jesus calls for the totality of the law to be taught and followed, for “whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19).

This must be hard on the ears of most churches listening to the lectionary this morning, because if truth were told, most of us have given ourselves over to a lite version of Christian entertainment. One problem is that there isn’t much substance preserved.

I suppose that there are others who are not offended, but should be. They are those who strive to preserve the faith, but keep it cloistered away, preserved for use on a Sunday morning and isolated from the rest of life..

Jesus is not criticizing the keeping of the Law. He says, “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” What he is doing is criticizing the agenda of every religious leader that calls for a withdrawal from the world so that our identity as God’s people might be kept pristine. This program of ‘separation’ is dependent upon the notion that we are waiting for God to intervene, and we want to preserve ourselves until such time as that happens. Jesus is making the point that “God is already doing a new thing, the Kingdom of Heaven HAS drawn near.” This is something he took upon himself to initiate; remember with me that the religious leaders who were so intent upon their own purity used to mock him, saying: “look, he eats with boozers and people of ill-repute.”

So, even while gathering with the locals down at the nearby watering hole, Jesus calls his followers to a higher righteousness than that of the Scribes and Pharisees. He makes the claim that these professional religious types and religio-political right-wingers may know the law but are not committed to fully living it out. Instead, disciples are to be the light that illumines and the salt that preserves God’s message as they do God’s work of justice, mercy, and freedom in the world.

This is how the church is to confront the empire. Preserving our own identity here on the hill is not enough. We are to take this identity with us out into our daily lives, so that “that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Collectively, we cannot accept the old adage about mission: “Charity starts at home.” Charity, properly understood, begins by taking the fruits of faithfulness out to the world.

In the first lesson today, the Prophet Isaiah called Israel to reject false piety and to shine as a light of justice and liberation. They are to be about this ‘kingdom activity.’

Here’s the problem: people of faith always believe they have been doing just that. Haven’t you ever heard the insistence that “I am a faithful person because I have done what is required of me?” Then, when these people ask why the Lord does not acknowledge their fasts, God responds by proclaiming the difference between the fast that the Lord requires and that which they offer (vv. 3-7). The fasting of the people is corrupt and self-serving as they fight among themselves and ignore the needs of others. “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (v. 4b).

In contrast, true fasting – read that as any spiritual discipline – requires repentance and turning to God—not economic exploitation and oppression of others. The Lord’s fast is characterized by genuine self-denial and humility that brings justice, liberation, and acts of mercy. When the hungry are fed, the homeless are sheltered, and the naked are clothed, then the people will find salvation. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly … ” (v. 8).

Jesus’ words echo this much older imperative from Isaiah; he is making it abundantly clear, that he and his followers are no less serious than the religious authorities about matters of moral and ethical behavior. Following Christ does not mean being careless about conduct, nor does grace mean permissiveness. In fact the opposite is clear. Christ calls us to be perfect.

This strange new rule to be perfect comes most clearly into focus and into the realm of reasonable expectation when viewed within its context. So let’s do that…First, the call to perfection comes within a discussion of relationships. (So this sermon can be seen as a friendly ammendment to Pastor Johnson’s sermon last week)

Second, Jesus rejects for his followers relationships that are based on the double standard of love for the neighbor and hatred for the enemy. The flaw in such relationships is that they are entirely determined by the other person: the one who is friendly is treated as a friend; the one who behaves as an enemy is an object of hatred; the one who speaks is spoken to; the one who spurns is spurned.

Third, Jesus says that one’s life is not to be determined by friend or foe but by God, who relates to all not on the basis of their behavior or attitude toward God but according to God’s own nature, which is love. God does not react, but acts out of love toward the just and unjust, the good and the evil. God is thus portrayed as perfect in relationships, that is, complete: not partial but impartial. God’s perfection in this context is, therefore, love offered without partiality. That is what is meant by the verse, to be perfect ‘even as your Father in heaven is perfect.’

So, when you hear me sounding rigid about worship in a particular way, or emphasizing reformed tradition in thinking about Christ, I am not doing so because I believe that other options are wrong. Some are, of course, but I must dispense with the usual hubris and be humble about my convictions. It is in the practice, the discipline, of a particular tradition that our character is shaped, and our faith developed. That is its value, it is something that at its best shapes our actions and our covenant commitments to God and one another. At its worst, it is a source for self-righteousness and isolation. I simply believe that we cannot follow Christ effectively without a particular tradition to practice. I say to those who will hear that it is not in the way that we follow, but in the following that we are reconciled to God. It is about letting our faith shape our actions in the world, and not letting the world shape our faith. That is what this strange new rule is all about.