"The message of Jesus as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole. If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, Oh, yes, I am a Christian." ~Mohandas Gandhi
A careful reading of this sermon from the mountainside would indicate that the audience being addressed was not in a very good place. These words and sayings of Jesus, which were assembled by the author of Matthews Gospel some 50 years after the death of Jesus, seem to speak to a small group of followers who are in a difficult place and are being persecuted:
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Like many throughout history when the present situation seems hopeless and the powerful have their way, hopefulness is projected not only into the future but beyond this earth to heaven. The American slaves in their poverty and despair would sing about arriving in the Promised Land. Edgar Page, a well-known gospel hymn writer, set this vision to song in his masterpiece Beulah land. An image that comes from the Prophet Isaiah (62:4):
O Beulah land, sweet Beulah land!
As on thy highest mount I stand,
I look away across the sea
Where mansions are prepared for me
And view the shining glory shore
My heaven, my home forever more.
The Beatitudes, Seeking another Way of Life
Each of these beatitudes, those words of blessing, is seeking a reversal of what might be called the "natural" order. The poor in spirit, or as Luke says, the poor in general, the humble, the mournful, the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted turn out to be the winners in this life and the next. It only really fits in the world of faith, because when you look around that does not seem to be the way things are.
Like the quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu "Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us." And as he once said in a sermon in Cape Town cathedral, at the height of the apartheid era, goading the police who were present in the cathedral "You may have the guns, you may have all this power, but you have already lost. Come, join the winning side." It was true but it was a long time coming and is yet to arrive. Somewhat unrelated, I remember another quote from Desmond Tutu and that was:
When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray. We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.
These early followers of the way of Jesus were persecuted, but they were not defeated. Certainly they lived in the present moment, but also held alive the hope that what they had found in the words and message of Jesus would be discovered by others. It was not a code, or a set of rules, or new laws to follow. Nor was it even a philosophy of life. It was both a relationship with the source of life, whom Jesus called father, and a vision of humanity transformed by love found in this "Sermon on the Mount."
You are the Salt of the Earth
As I mentioned last week this is not so much a sermon as a collection of sayings re-collected by the followers of Jesus after his death. So there are some sharp twists and turns. The narrative moves from a list of blessings to an exhortation to be like the salt of the earth.
Salt is a good metaphor because it carries much the same meaning in the ancient world as it does today, with some exceptions. We know that salt helps to preserve food. It can be used today and was in the ancient world used to cure animal hides. It even has an antiseptic quality when placed on a wound; although not the most pleasant experience - rubbing salt into a wound. And it adds flavour. Yes, but remember too much salt is not good for your blood pressure. And too much salt in the earth can make the soil infertile. Something we moderns have worked out. Perhaps one difference between now and the past is that in the ancient world salt could be used as a currency and often traded for other necessities.
So salt, something that is still in common use as it was yesterday, is pressed into service as a symbol of what a follower of Jesus should be like. And the expression we use today when we say that a person is "salt of the earth," is not far from what the writer of this gospel was getting at. It is an encouragement to live life in such a way that it enhances the flavour of living for you and for others. And in this context just a pinch goes a long way.
At each funeral I have taken over the last few years I have always said to those gathered, "You dont have to be religious or a believer to participate in this service today. If you take from this service the good memories of the person whose life we are celebrating; and these words that I believe are central to the Christian faith, spoken by Jesus, I have come that you may have life and that you may have it in all its abundance, then we have all heard the good news of what life is all about." Just a pinch of salt flavours a whole meal.
The Light of the World
From salt to light, the metaphors continue. My goodness, how often is light used in the Scriptures and Biblical narrative? Light is so often used in contrast to the darkness, which can be fearful or dangerous. Theres a story that has circulated on the internet for some years. You may have read it. It goes like this:
This is an actual transcript of a US naval ships contact with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995.
This radio conversation was released by the Chief of Naval Operations on 10-10-95.
"Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision."
"Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision."
"This is the captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course."
"No, I say again, you divert YOUR course."
"This is the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States' Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north, thats one-five degrees north, or counter measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship."
"This is a lighthouse. Your call."
Its not actually a true story, but the Canadians love it. Nevertheless, the image of the lighthouse is quite a good illustration of what the text is saying:
"You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
Again the image is somewhat like the salt. Like a lighthouse we are not called to light up the whole world. Just to be light were we are. It was at an anniversary service for the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romeo where a prayer, more a reflection, was offered by Bishop Ken Untener. It contained these words, which I think should be the mantra for the Christian faith, "We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well."
Let me conclude with the whole prayer:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
There is a simple and clear message here and that is that life and faith and religion are all about grace - graciousness, gracefulness and gratitude. We dont need to do or be everything. We only need to do something, in order to be someone.