Two weeks ago I described a letter sent from 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Mahatma Gandhi that had been discovered recently. Bonhoeffer wanted to come visit Gandhi in order to learn how a community could live out the ideals of Jesus since it had become clear to him that neither Christians in Europe nor North America were doing so. Bonhoeffer wrote, “Western Christianity must be reborn on the Sermon on the Mount.”
As luck—or perhaps, Providence—would have it, our gospel readings for the next couple of weeks are from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Matthew sets it up this way, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them.” Remember, Jesus’ ministry had just started there in the region around Galilee, but already crowds were forming around him. So he went up a mountainside in order to speak to a large crowd—he would have been higher up than the crowds who would have been downslope. And he begins his first great teaching to them.
He begins with the Beatitudes that we know well. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.” “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” And then we get to the lesson we heard read today, “You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world.”
Which is really quite an amazing thing to say when you think about it. In the Gospel of John Jesus says that he is the light of the world. But here, on the Sermon on the Mount, it’s not Jesus saying this about himself, but Jesus saying these things about the assembled crowd, the people following him. Imagine having followed this new rabbi for a short time and already he’s telling you that you are to be light and salt. These were not people who had studied at the local religious college or gotten a divinity school degree. These were just the locals from a backwoods area of Galilee. And yet the new rabbi was telling them that they were light and salt and that the world needed them for both illumination and preservation.
Because that’s what light and salt would do in that time. Illumine the darkness and preserve food. And the crowd of disciples that had shown up to hear him would be the ones doing just that for the world.
I can only begin to imagine their response. “Uh, Jesus, are you sure you got this right? I mean, I don’t know a lot about Scripture, and I’m a little shaky when it comes to the commandments. Don’t you really mean that someone else will be light and salt? Like the clergy person at the local synagogue? Or the person with more education than me?” And we’re not that far off in our own thinking, that somehow God is wrong when we hear that God desires to use us in sharing the good news of the kingdom. That we’re not prepared enough, or knowledgable enough, or good enough. That someone else should do it.
In his book Finding Our Way Again, pastor and activist Brian McLaren asks Christians engage in a thought experiment. He writes: “Imagine that all pastors, theologians, ministers, priests, and other religious professionals were to get a ‘regular job.’ Imagine that all church services were shut down and church buildings closed, all denominations disbanded. Imagine that the only way Christian faith could survive was through people living it and passing it on to others through friendship and daily informal interaction. What outcomes could you imagine from this situation?”
“You are the light of the world,” Jesus said. Not your priest or your neighbor or the person sitting next to you in the pew, but you just as you are. “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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” “Imagine that the only way Christian faith could survive was through people living it and passing it on to others.”
If that doesn’t slightly simultaneously excite and terrify you, I don’t know what will. Because God has always chosen those things the world would ignore in order to bring about God’s purposes. Notice Jesus doesn’t hold a local clergy conference in order to proclaim who’s salt and light. He goes up on the mountainside and christens the normal folks who follow him as those who would change the world. In other words, you don’t get a free pass when it comes to spreading and living the good news.
If someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer were to come here to Southborough looking for evidence of Jesus’ community and way of love, would they find it? Are we fully living into the way of Jesus expressed in the Sermon on the Mount?
It’s in that Sermon that we hear Jesus say, “You’ve heard it said ‘Do not murder.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council.” And this, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” He told them this when it came to their goods and resources, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Or this one, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’… But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” And finally this: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” Oh it goes on, of course—there are three chapters of sermon there for you to ponder—but you get the point. It’s a call to live as salt and light and bring hope and joy to our world.
In 2017 near the end of January, Meir Kalmanson walked the streets of New York City. He came across a homeless man with a cardboard sign that read, “’I don’t want anything to eat. I don’t want to drink. All I want is to be seen. I want to talk to somebody.” Kalmanson reported that the sign hit him in the gut. And so he decided that he would do something. A week or so later on Super Bowl Sunday he spoke with a half dozen homeless men, introducing himself. He then invited them to a Super Bowl Party hosted by a friend on a rooftop bar. The results and connections were unbelievable, and Meir soon launched the non-profit “Super Soul Party.” This year they hosted 20 parties across the US—including Boston—for those living on the streets to come get a hot meal and cold drinks, to get a free haircut and some new clothes, to talk with others, laugh, and of course, enjoy the big game. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”
We’re doing that work here too. Two weeks ago we launched a simple concept through the Sunshine Group by offering a frozen homemade meal to anyone who might want one or know someone who could appreciate it due to their current life situation. In the past two weeks, sixteen meals have gone out our doors to bring light to others, and that nearly depleted freezer —there were 2o meals in there when we began—has since been restocked. And there’s more light to share, more seasoning to be done.
Friends, Jesus let us know that it is up to all of us to bring transformation to the world. You and me, ordinary people choosing to follow after the one who brought a message of hope and love. Are we perfect? Of course not, and neither were the ones following him at the time. But they dedicated their lives to living out that way of love more and more and so can we. I’d invite you this week to join me in reading the entire Sermon on the Mount—it shouldn’t take you too long, perhaps 20 minutes. You can find it in Matthew’s gospel chapters 5-7. And then fully imagine the kind of life and community Jesus desires for us. His way always means encouraging others and lifting them up, of making choices now that’ll benefit the long-term goals of his kingdom, of recognizing that we have been given a tremendous gift. You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. Let us make the purpose of our lives to live out and share that good news with the world.
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