Epiphany 5 A – Promises, Not Commands

Matthew 5:13-20

Dear Partner in Preaching,

It’s a promise, not a command.

This is, I think, the absolutely crucial element of this passage to keep in mind and allow to shape your sermon. Jesus isn’t saying, “You should be the salt of the earth and light of the world.” Or, “You have to be,…” let alone “You better be,….” Rather, he is saying, you are. As in already are. Even if you don’t know it. Even if you once knew it and forgot. Even if you have a hard time believing it.

Jesus is making to his disciples a promise about their very being, he is not commanding, let alone threatening, them about what they should be doing. And that’s worth tarrying over, as so many in our congregations and world experience God more like a divine law-maker and rule-enforcer than generous gift-giver. And because we experience God that way – always setting expectations that we can rarely live up to, we tend not to find as much inspiration and energy in our worship experience and faith lives as we might hope.

But in this passage, Jesus is making promises and giving out gifts. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. This is, like last week, sheer blessing. And, like the week before, it is about identity, about our very being, which in turn leads to doing. But before getting there, tarry with that promise. That is, invite people to look deeply into their lives over the last couple of weeks and think of the variety of ways God has used them to be salt and light. Their words of encouragement to others. Their faithful work at their places of employment. The volunteering they’ve done. The prayers they’ve offered or protests they’ve been a part of or promises they’ve made and kept.

Yes, any of these things may seem, in and of themselves, small. But please don’t forget: small is what God most often uses to change the world.

Once people begin to believe they are salt and light – not simply becoming or hoping to be but actually are – then you can encourage them to continue to be salt and light, letting their light shine so that people will see their good works and give thanksgiving and glory to God.

And that matters, because if ever there was a time when we needed to be blessed with the gifts of salt and light it’s right now. Check the headlines; listen to the news; glance over the social media pages – there is an unusually pervasive sense of dis-ease in our world and the divisions evident in our country don’t skip all that many of our congregations. Which is why we need to remind our folks that they are salt and light and bless them to let that light shine all the brighter.

But here’s what’s hard: we won’t all agree on what exactly being salt and light looks like. I have pretty strong opinions about that, and perhaps you do too. But my difficulty is that some of the people who feel very differently than I do are people I know well and love. Family members, wonderful colleagues, capable parishioners, and I find it hard to discard their opinions without discarding them.

So where do we go? Is encouragement “in general” all that is available to us? Is a silence that makes room for all to feel welcome that best we can manage?

Two thoughts on this. First, do not underestimate the importance of congregations being a place where folks of all different viewpoints come together. While many of our congregations are fairly homogeneous in terms of cultural, ethnic, and economic diversity, they are more diverse in terms of political views and generationally than most spaces in the country. Perhaps part of our congregational calling is to be places that gather people who may differ on approach to being salt and light but commit to pray for deeper understanding, for wisdom, and for courage to speak and act in line with our faith, and for each other.

Second, there may be value in linking this sermon to last week’s, where we saw Jesus called blessed all kinds of people the world doesn’t always call blessed. What does this say about the God who sends Jesus and the communities called to follow him? Those who mourn and are meek. Those who are poor in spirit and merciful. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These are the people God blesses and calls us to bless. Much later in Matthew, well after the sermon on the mount and just prior to Jesus’ crucifixion on another mountain, our Lord will also call us to discover his presence among those who are without shelter, without adequate food and clothing, and who are imprisoned and lonely (Mt. 25). These words from Jesus can shape a shared sense of calling and values even if we may continue to wrestle with how best to live those values here and now.

This is a difficult time for many people and for many reasons. We need salt and light in this world. And the crazy thing is that God has already provided it…right in and through the persons who will be seated in front of you this weekend. Tell them they are loved, Dear Partner. Tell them they are blessed. Tell them they are salt and light – already! And tell them that God is not done with them yet, that God will continue to bless the world through their prayers, words, and deeds as Jesus’ faithful disciples. Tell them, that is, that Jesus is making promises today, and we are all about to be changed by them.

And then, please, do just one more thing: count on the promise that Jesus will use your words and life, Dear Partner, to continue to bless this people and world God loves so much. Thank you.

Yours in Christ,