This week we begin a new series that will carry us through the rest of the summer. We're going back to the book of Matthew to take a couple of months and focus on the Sermon on the Mount. This is Jesus' core teaching in Matthew, the summary of how he invites his people to live in the world, the vision for what a community of Christ-followers would look like. We're coming to it after our series on Romans, because we have to remember this way of living is the result of following Jesus, not the requirements for following Jesus. Jesus doesn't save us because we live by the Sermon on the Mount. God doesn't love us more because we live by the Sermon on the Mount. And I personally believe that God doesn't even "bless" us more, or give us more stuff, because we live by the Sermon on the Mount. But I do believe that as we follow Jesus' example, we will feel more blessed, we will feel more whole, we will feel more fulfilled, we will feel more at peace, because we will be living in line with God's dream for the world. We will be doing God's will on earth as it is done in heaven, which we will talk about in a few weeks. A couple of times during this series, we will jump around in the text, and so this morning, instead of starting with the Beatitudes, I thought we would start with Jesus' declaration about our identity. Who are we fundamentally as followers of Jesus? "Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the word and the wisdom of God." - Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:13-16 (NIV)
Jesus said to the people, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."
This is the Word of God for All People. Thanks be to God.
This week we celebrated the 4th of July, American Independence Day. I love this holiday. I don't think summer gets much better than parades, and swimming pools, and burgers and fireworks. That's my idea of a good day. And I am sincerely grateful to have been born in this country in this era. Even though this is a troubling time in our country. We all know that the divides among us are growing, the spiritual sense of opposition is getting stronger all the time. And a lot of that is due to our rhetoric, to the words we use to get our point across. Especially when we use soundbites, and when we summarize the opposing viewpoint in a way designed to make those people seem stupid. We oversimplify things. And we're pretty good at it. In part because we've gotten a lot of practice oversimplifying our Bibles and oversimplifying our history. We do it all the time to serve our purposes.
In fact, we do it with this text. How many of you have ever heard of America referred to as "the city on a hill." Me too, and it's always made me uncomfortable, so this week I did some research to see where that idea comes from. In 1630 a group of settlers from England set sail for Massachusetts Bay Colony and before they left a man named John Winthrop preached a sermon entitled "A Model of Christian Charity." In that sermon, Winthrop implored them to establish their new community according to the principles of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. If they were generous with one another, God would bless them. And if they weren't, God would "surely break out in wrath against them." The entire world would see their failure because they would be a city on a hill, the eyes of all people were upon them.
That's where it comes from. Not an affirmation of how awesome they were, but a warning of how visible they were, and how if they failed to live generously, everyone in the world would see their downfall. Basically, John Winthrop did something we all do all the time: he picked up a good image and put it to use for his own tactics, which is fine. He doesn't even reference Jesus or the Sermon on the Mount, he just uses the image to emphasize how visible the colony would be. And for 200 years, everybody forgot about that sermon.
But eventually in the 1950s and 1960s, American politicians on both sides of aisle picked up the image and ran with it in a totally different direction. They misinterpreted and misquoted the original sermon and turned Jesus' image of a city on a hill into THE primary image of American exceptionalism. American is great because God has ordained our common law, our Protestant virtue and morality (sorry Catholics and Jews and everybody else), our free-market capitalism, and the sanctity of private property. Those are the four pillars of American exceptionalism. All of that from oversimplifying our Bible and our history.
So what's a patriotic American to do in this age of ugly arguments and oversimplifying? The best thing for us to do always is go back to our Bible, back to the original text, back to Jesus to clear our minds and reorient ourselves. In this morning's text, who is the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the city on a hill, the lamp that must not be hidden? Not America, not England, not Brazil, not Zimbabwe, not South Korea. The followers of Jesus, all together. Not me individually, not you individually, but all of us together. In English there's not distinction between you singular and you plural, but this is the plural. Jesus is saying y'all are the light of the world. Y'all are the salt of the earth. And the more of us gather together, the brighter and tastier we get.
When the early followers of Jesus took this teaching to heart, right after Pentecost, they lit the world. Not because they were nice people individually, but because they pledged their allegiance to Kingdom of God above anything else. Disregarding their allegiance to their race, class, and nation, they did what John Winthrop encouraged those American settlers to do and created a community of radical generosity. Nobody was poor in the early church because everyone shared everything they had. And the world noticed. This world, this city, would notice a community of radical generosity. It's such a tall order I'm afraid to even say it out loud to you.
What would that look like for us at Zion? What would it look like for us to resist the pull of our culture? To resist the idea that the way things have been done in the past is how they should be done now (that's common law). To resist the idea that Protestant Christians have cornered the market on virtue and morality. What would it look like for US to resist the idea that only people who are able to work deserve to eat? What would it look like for us to resist the idea that personal property is sanctified, is sacred, is holy? What would it look like for us to pledge our allegiance to the Kingdom of God?
This is not an either/or proposition. Don't fall into the trap of oversimplifying this message. But friends, can we open our minds and hearts to new possibilities? To new combinations of ideas and ideologies? Jesus was a radical; that's why they killed him. And if we want to follow him, there is life outside our comfort zones.
Which is what we remember as we come to the table this morning. This table represents a radical departure from Jesus' comfort zone. At this table, with his friends and the one who would betray him, he accepted his destiny, he accepted God's call to do the hardest and most rewarding thing anyone could possibly do: lovingly sacrifice his own comfort on behalf of others. And that is what we remember, what we confess, what celebrate, and what we commit ourselves to as we come around this table this morning. Because, beloved, as our ancestors in the faith insisted, this is the joyful feast of the people of God ... where people all ages, races, genders, abilities, in every type of body, we all come from the north and south, from the east and the west, and gather here around Christ's body at the table.