THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EPIPHANY
February 5, 2017

“God: I Will Guide You”
Isaiah 58:1-9a
Matthew 5:13-20

In the Anchor Bible Commentary, the NRSV of Matthew 5:13, says The salt hasn’t “lost it’s saltiness,” but it’s “low-grade” salt. The Greek word here translated as “low-grade” is μωρανθῇ (mōranthē).

Etymologically this word is related to: moron. Imbecile. Just store that fact away for a bit.

See, salt is an identifiable substance because of certain qualities. Salt is identifiable because of what it does. This is not unlike the term ‘Christian.’ Yet, frequently folks identify with this term, christian, solely on the basis of their perceived status as ‘being saved’ not by qualities of action.

The apostle Paul, the great champion of the idea of salvation by grace, is exasperated at one point; in his letter to the Romans he writes, “should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” The epistle to James emphasizes the importance of good works to such a degree that grace-loving Martin Luther longed to strike it from the canon. Christians have long pondered their relationship with the law, and most are content to ignore it even though in this Gospel passage, Jesus unequivocally states that he came ‘not to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets.

In a nutshell, we are saved by grace – and yet, what is next? how do we live in response to this extraordinary gift? Thus, we need guidance.

That word, response, is the key to understanding. Our actions do not save our lives; God’s action does. After that, the ball is back in our court, so to speak. We can choose to live in a way that honors the incredible gift we have been given, forgiveness even though we do not deserve it. We can choose a life that embodies the love and justice of Jesus Christ, or we can choose to live in a way that denies it. There is a huge difference between a follower of Jesus and a believer in Jesus.

For instance, some people are uncomfortable with Justice and Witness ministries. But if, as faithful Christians, we do not protest and fight for the values of justice that Jesus himself described, then we never were followers/disciples and our fellowship is nothing more than some sort of self-aggrandizement gathering. We might associate our fellowship with this idea of Christianity, but we are not really followers of Jesus.

The OT Lesson today is from Isaiah 58, where the prophet says:
Isaiah 58:1-5
58
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.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…

It is not as if we, and Israel, have no directive. The promise I am considering today is this: God does not leave us without direction. If we prayerfully and faithfully craft a response to God’s grace, even with consideration to our own gifts and abilities, our own limitations and shortcomings, we are shown a path forward. We are not left to sort it out alone. We have the prophet’s cries for righteousness and repentance, from Isaiah to John the baptist. We have the law as it is expressed in the Hebrew Bible, and as it is fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. We have Jesus’ teachings, those invaluable (if seemingly unreasonable) invitations to overthrow the status quo. Lazarus and Dives makes this claim obvious (Luke 16:19-31). The division of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:44) makes this plain.

Still, the promise of these life-giving mandates does not compromise our freedom. No one is asked to do more than they are able. Benedict, founder of the benedictines, crafted for his young community a ‘rule of life.’ There is a beautiful tension between obedience and freedom; once vows have been made, monks and oblates are bound to order their lives according to the rule of life. But each member submits to this rule only through his or her own abilities and resources.

The rule doesn’t save a Benedictine any more than the law saves the sinner. But the rule, the law, the commandments – the way – is itself a form of grace. We need a map. We need markers reminding us to pursue justice and love kindness as we walk humbly with our God.

There is a promise within the promise here. Remember the psalmist’s words: “happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” To put it as plainly as possible: we are better off when our response to the grace of God is to honor God with lives the reflect God’s values. We are happier when we are truly the salt that we were redeemed to be, and we will surely know sorrow and regret if we lose that.

Every now and then someone says to me that the church should not be political. It is only in the last couple of months that I realized that it isn’t so much that the church is political, but that the politics of the world do not square up, in any way shape or fashion, with faith – that is the faith that calls for a response to the radical grace of God. The Beatitudes, of which todays Gospel reading is a part, is literally Jesus’ big speech where he turns to his followers and tells them (and that means us) not to be an embarrassment.

See, there is a line, and if you cross it, you go from “Christian” to imbecile pretty quickly. It’s hard to define where that line is…but we all know it when we see it. We all know it when we stand squarely on the other side of the line, and looking back we see Jesus standing there shaking his head. We all know it when we turn on the TV and another yay-hoo who claims to be a Christian is giving their support for torture or racism or the exclusion of one group or another.

Jesus said “You are the salt of the earth.” He names and claims this for the disciples, and to us. In response to God’s grace, great things are expected of us in the name of justice and righteousness, and we can do great things in the name of God and God’s Kingdom. So, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

And don’t be a moron.

Amen.

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