February 9, 2014, Epiphany 5 – A Call to Compassion

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The passage from Matthew’s gospel that we just read is part of the teaching we call the “Sermon on the Mount”. Jesus has sat down on the top of a hill to teach, and his disciples, his students, have come and gathered around him to hear him. And the first thing he taught them, before he called them “salt” and “light” part, was; what does a disciple look like? It’s not anything the world would call great, not anything the average man on the street would want to go out of his or her way to become. A disciple, he told them, is poor in Spirit, a disciple mourns for the suffering in the world, a disciple is meek and lowly, a disciple is merciful and pure in heart, a disciple seeks to make peace and longs for justice. And, oh yes, a disciple is despised and persecuted. We call those the beatitudes – blessed are they. What beatitude means is a state of perfect happiness. But it is joy of a very different kind than the world could understand.

After that, Jesus looked around him at his hopeful students. I don’t imagine any of them really understood yet what it really meant to be his disciple. If they stayed with him in the months and years to come, they would learn that the one – the only one – who perfectly embodied the blessed qualities of a disciple was Jesus himself: a man of sorrows, gentle and humble in heart, seeking peace and finding persecution. But on that day, he looked around at them all and told them, “You – you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” And it seems to me a very curious thing for him to say. He didn’t say, “OK, now I’m going to teach you how to do some good in this world.” He simply said to them all, mostly common people like the fishermen that he called first, “You, whom I have called, you are the very ones without whom the world could not survive.”

The thing about salt and light is that we rarely even think about them except in their absence. Without salt, especially back in the days before refrigeration, meat would spoil pretty quickly and all foods would taste flat and insipid. If you’ve ever forgotten to add the salt to Cream of Wheat or if you’ve ever baked a loaf of bread and forgotten the salt, you have discovered how important salt is in enhancing the flavors of other foods even though we use so little that it doesn’t make things taste salty at all. But in and of itself, it is something we take for granted.

Light is an even more humble element, because strangely enough it is invisible on its own. If you looked into outer space, all you would see for miles upon miles upon miles would be utter blackness. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any light there. The thing about light is that you can only see it if you look at the source, or when it illuminates something else. So we can see the sun during the day (though it is too bright to look at directly) and we can see the glimmering sparks of light on a lake or the bright colors of trees and fields or the blue of the sky, all because of the light that is shining. And the glowing colors and sparks of light reveal the presence of the source, just like we know the lamp is lit in the room because we can see all that is around us. But most of the time no one gives a second thought to the presence of the lamp, until it goes out and we fall headlong over the dog in the dark, or stub our toe on the table leg.

So, to say that the disciples – that we, because we are disciples as well – are the salt and the light of the world, is to say that we are, just by being disciples of Jesus Christ, much-needed and little appreciated servants to the world around us. Whether the world acknowledges it or not, without the people of God in this world the rot would set in and darkness would fall. That is, of course, as long as we continue to be followers of Christ. As Paul wrote, “We have the mind of Christ.” We are guided by the Spirit who lives within us, and when we follow Christ we reveal his presence by living with compassion – which is in incredibly short supply in this world, and grace – which is almost unheard of. And it is certain that at many times in history, Christians have been a source of life in corrupt cultures, from the Roman Empire onward.

But then there are those times when we lose our saltiness. There are times when the church comes to look so much like the rest of the world that we are of no use at all, when we no longer serve any useful purpose, when it seems that we no longer preserve life or give savor. And there are times when we get tired of being servants to an ungrateful world, and we hide away like a lamp under a basket, so that the world is left to stumble about in darkness and the glory of God is shuttered. It is what happened in Germany when Hitler was rising to power and the mainline church turned a blind eye to the horrors of Nazism. In those days there were only a few, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a few others, who persevered at being salt and light in the midst of the growing darkness. But their witness still shines today, though they died for their faith.

As sure as it is that Jesus called us to be salt and light in this world, it is just as surely true that he never needed us to do it, whether we are a great Bonhoeffer or a lowly Boswell. The Word who spoke light into being never needed our good works to display his glory, and the One who rose fully and eternally alive from the grave never needed us to preserve life in our little part of the creation. He didn’t need us, but he chose us. He wants us to be his light, he has chosen us to convey his glory, he has told us that’s who we are, just like that old children’s song, “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, to shine for him each day, ever reflecting his goodness, at home, at school, at play.” We are no more than children in his presence no matter how old and wise we might think we are, and he still calls us out and tells us, “I say that you are the salt of this world that I love. You are the light of this world for which I gave my life.”

As I have lived and read the news and listened to people over the last several years, it seems to me that what our world needs most urgently is compassion. One of the things that bothered me when I was in school as an English major not long ago, taking literature classes, was that the other students, who were much younger than I was, judged the characters in the stories so harshly; they almost never took pity on them or sympathized with their suffering. And that seems to hold true out in the world as well. It troubled me then, and it troubles me now that there is such a desperate lack of compassion in our world. Our society looks on an unemployed man or a single mother on welfare, on those with addictions and mental illness, on men or women who are in and out of prison, and they see problems to be dealt with and people – if they see them as people at all – whose lives are little more than a burden to the rest of us. As a nation we are obsessed with fairness and morality and justice (by which we generally mean vengeance), and the church is often quick to jump on those bandwagons, but we fail to recognize that it is grace and mercy and compassion that are our unique, light-and-life-giving gifts to offer. Jesus calls us the salt of this earth to preserve the good, and the light of the world to shine light into the darkest of places. As a people who know the love of Jesus Christ we can bring compassion instead of condemnation and grace instead of accusation. And the world needs that. It always has.

We read today from Isaiah, God calling out to his people to be compassionate and merciful.

“I’m not interested in a show of piety.” God said, “I’m not looking for some kind of religious fervor – I’m looking for a people after my own heart.”

“If you take away the yoke from your midst,” Isaiah wrote,
“the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.

And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.”

It has been a continual failing of God’s people that they choose religion over love, and their own well-being over compassion.  We are quick to rise up against an enemy, but we remain blind to the suffering of widows and orphans. We have repeatedly fallen into the error of legalism and failed to show love. The prophet Amos warned the people,

“For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not relent.
They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.

And even the infamous city of Sodom: people usually think Sodom was destroyed for sexual immorality, and specifically for homosexual sin – but that wasn’t the reason at all. Sodom was punished because they did not care for the poor, as Ezekiel wrote:

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

We human beings are slow to learn, but Jesus came to reveal finally and fully that the way to fulfill God’s law perfectly is not to stamp out sin, but to love sinners, and that includes every one of us.

I know that it is easy to have an unbalanced view of your own time and place, but we surely have at least as urgent a calling to the world around us as the disciples on the hill that day with our Lord Jesus. Never has the salt of grace been more needed than in our culture where people can’t even hear one another in their desperate need to be right, and the clamor for retaliation overcomes forgiveness. Never has the light of Christ been more needed than in these dark days of violence and warfare, when far too many innocent people suffer in wars not of their own making, when too many elderly men and women are shuttled off to nursing homes and forgotten, and too many of our children grow up way too quickly on television and video games with no one to guide and nurture them, and when even helpless animals are treated with cruelty and indifference. It is surely true that there have never been more lives, old or young, or in between, languishing for want of compassion, than there are in the world around us today.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You and I have been called to this ministry, not because God has relinquished his love and care for his creation, not because he couldn’t restore his creation to life without us, but because in his great mercy and humility he has chosen to call us, his children, to share his work of giving life and light to our fellow creatures. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.

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