Friday, February 14, 2014

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany - February 9, 2014

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112; 1 Cor. 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20
St Stephen Lutheran Church
Pastor Maurice Frontz

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I was sixteen years old,
I travelled to Europe as part of a contingent of high school students
which went by the name ‘American Music Abroad.’
I was in the choir, some friends were in the band.
We got to sing in Notre Dame and Chartres Cathedrals.
We did a homestay in the Netherlands,
visited Germany and Austria and Switzerland.
One morning in Switzerland we were given free time,
and there was a hill just outside the town that was a ski slope in the wintertime.
There was a trail up to the top, and I took the trail,
the better to take pictures of the Alps.
It was a Sunday,
and out on the side of the hill I saw a large number of people gathered.
As I got closer, I realized that it was an open-air church service,
a pastor teaching a flock of worshipers.
It’s the scene that I always remember when I think of the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus is sitting and teaching his disciples.
Nowadays, we are accustomed to having our teachers or preachers stand,
but in Jesus’ time and place,
the teacher would sit down.
As an aside, this is why ‘cathedrals’ are called what they are.
The bishop’s chair, where he sits and teaches from, is called a cathedra,
and so a ‘cathedral’ is simply where the bishop’s chair is.
Jesus teaches the disciples who are gathered around them,
while the crowd watches and listens what Jesus is teaching them.

Many times in the Gospels it is the crowd being taught by Jesus.
But here in the Sermon on the Mount, it is Jesus teaching the disciples.
The crowd is free to listen,
but Jesus is not imparting general information about reality.
He is not teaching about how to live a good life
or how to attain your goals and reach your dreams.
He is teaching the new people that he has called into being
about who they are and who they are to be.

Jesus called this new people into being
when he called Peter and Andrew and James and John
from their fishermen’s nets by the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus did not give these men an entrance exam when he called them.
Or rather, it was a different kind of entrance exam.
The entrance exam of the new people is ‘Follow me!’
Those who follow are part of the new people.
Following Jesus means first and foremost being in proximity to him,
listening to what he says, and one presumes, asking questions.
The disciples did not begin to follow Jesus when they understood what he was saying.
So if you think you don’t understand what Jesus says some of the time,
you’re in some very good company.
If you think you have to understand what Jesus says before you follow him,
you’re doing it backwards.

Jesus calls the new people ‘Blessed.’
We talked a little bit about this last week.
Mourning, hungering and thirsting after righteousness,
being persecuted, and the like
are not little signs of God’s favor for which all of us ought to pray…
‘O Lord, give me more persecution!’
Rather, they are the inevitable accompaniments to a life spent with Jesus,
and they can take a variety of forms.
One can’t be with Jesus and not become more merciful, at least in some small way.
One can’t be with Jesus and not seek the purity of heart that he displays.
One can’t be with Jesus and somehow escape the animosity
that this world displays toward the holiness and purity that he displays in its midst.

By being called by Jesus,
the community of disciples become visible as community.
They are now a body politic, if you will.
The disciples are not simply a group of individuals meeting together
because they have a common interest in religion, or ethics, or sitting down on hillsides,
but they are community, family, they are to speak with one voice and have one purpose.
Here Jesus teaches them about who they are, what they are to be.

It’s important to say that here Jesus does not command the disciples to be anything.
From the moment the disciples were called and began to follow,
they were the new people.
Jesus does not say, ‘You must be the new people!’
Instead he says, ‘You are the new people.’
From the moment the disciples were called, they were blessed.
Jesus does not say, ‘You must be blessed people!’
Instead he calls them blessed.

In a similar vein, when Jesus calls the disciples ‘salt and light,’
he does not say, ‘You must be salt and light.’
By virtue of their call, by virtue of their association with him,
they are salt and light for the world.
Salt, a seasoning and a preservative,
and light, a guide in darkness,
a source of joy, pointing toward the God who is the true guide and the true source.
Jesus’ teaching is not so much a command to the disciples to become something they are not,
but instead a revelation of what they already are.

It’s so interesting, isn’t it,
that in the Gospel of John, Jesus says,
‘I am the Light of the World,’
and here in Matthew he says, ‘You are the light of the world.’
Isn’t that interesting?
Well, which is it?
Did one of them get it wrong?
If I were a New Testament scholar, I might say something like,
‘Well, John has a higher Christology than Saint Matthew,
and so he deems it inappropriate for a Messianic title that is only appropriate to Jesus
to be given to the disciples.’
But I’m not a New Testament scholar.
Instead, both statements are true.
Jesus is the light of the world;
but because the disciples are following him,
because they are the new people he has called into existence,
because they are the people who will be in the world
after his resurrection and ascension into heaven,
they truly are salt and light for the earth.
They are to be witnesses to God’s love in Jesus Christ,
When people look for Jesus in the world,
they will not see him,
but they will see them,
perhaps on a hillside in Switzerland;
perhaps in the cities of India or the villages of Ethiopia;
perhaps in the suburbs and cities and rural hamlets of America,
teaching and hearing his words,
gathered around his hidden yet very real presence,
sharing the meal he gave them.

They will also be called to a righteousness that is greater than the world’s righteousness.
But that is a topic for another time,
perhaps, I don’t know,
next week.
For now it is enough to say that I hope it is obvious
that we are the new people of God
who have been called by Jesus Christ.
Remember that in the service of baptism we hold out a candle to a little child
and address that child as if the child could understand us,
and we say,
‘Let your light so shine before others
that they may see your good works
and glorify your Father who is in heaven.’
Before this baby can talk or listen,
before he can build a house or wash the wounds of an injured person,
before the baby can recite the Ten Commandments, the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer,
that baby is to let light shine
because he or she has been called and claimed by Jesus Christ.

And so have you.
You are salt of the earth
and light for the world,
simply because he says you are,
because you are part of the Church,
the people of salt and light.

And we have the enormous privilege
and the enormous challenge
of spending the rest of our lives,
no matter how short or long they may be,
to spend our lives sitting at his feet,
asking our questions
and trying our best to become even more what we already are,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.