Epiphany V, 2020
A couple of years ago Burger King ran a commercial about bullying. The ad began by stating that thirty percent of students worldwide are bullied. So, Burger King bullied and high school Jr. and a Whopper Jr. to see how people would react. That’s right, they videotaped students bullying a student, and tapped workers, smashing Whopper Jr.s before serving them. Ninety-five percent of customers reported bullied Whoppers, while only twelve percent reported bullied students. What would you have done? In the commercial, many of those who reported their bullied burgers, witnessed the bullied student.
Our text today follows immediately after Jesus’ Beatitudes. The church that lives according to the vision expressed in the Beatitudes is a colony of the kingdom of heaven placed in the midst of an alien culture. In a bullying world, they are peacemakers. In a world that turns its head away from unpleasant sights, they mourn for the homeless, for the refugee, for the lost, for the brokenhearted.
But what good is that? The church, for all its vision, is overpowered, outnumbered, and often overlooked. The ordeal of Matthew’s church is representative of the experience of the church in many times and places—a small group trying with mixed results to live out an alternative life, set down in the midst of a teeming, fast-changing culture that neither appreciates nor understands them. The hardest part is not being Christian for a day, but being faithful day after day, maintaining confidence in what, for all the world, appears a losing cause.
In such an environment, in such a challenging situation, how do we make our faith public? When do we make our faith public? Where do we make our faith public? There is no one answer to the methods of our faith. There is no one way to express faith. No one time to act on our faith.
Some say we should avoid talking “religion” or values altogether because we’re bound to offend someone. And given the diversity and complexity of theological expressions in our world and even just within Christianity, there may be a risk of being misunderstood, or having our message contorted.
Yet it is clear that there are times when we are called out into the world to bear a public and powerful witness to Christ. In the middle of these concerns, Jesus offers an amazing gift, two astounding images of the church. First the church is “the salt of the earth.” The witness of kingdom people, church people, seemingly drowned out by the noise of the world, works like salt; though only a pinch, it flavors the whole, often in ways not seen.
The church is also “the light of the world.” One lamp, lifted on a lampstand, can banish the gloom from a whole room. Or the flickering lights from a small community hilltop can be seen for miles around.
If we do not attend to these precious moments that God provides for us to tell the story in one form or another, we only give lip service to the faith that calls us out into the world. Without public actions and expressions of faith, we risk becoming that bland, tasteless faith that draws fewer and fewer people. One that reports our smashed, bullied burgers, yet says nothing about the troubled kid sitting next to us. Then we will stand, directly in contradiction to the ways Christ took on all sorts of people.
Think of it this way, Jesus is a bit tongue in check with these two sayings. For one thing, salt, pure sodium chloride, never loses its saltiness. And no one would go through the effort to light a lamp just to hide it. What he is pointing out is that both salt and light are commodities, they sustain life when you use them.
Jesus is telling us that our lives operate in the same way, as a valuable resource to be poured out and never hidden. In other words, the only barrier to to attending to the world’s needs is our own barrier in failing to spend ourselves. As Karoline Lewis of Luther seminary notes: It is not enough to know about God. As disciples, we have to be the activity of God in the world. We are called to live out our identity as salt and light.” Or as Braynt McGill once said, “We are here to spend ourselves.
So Jesus is telling us that what the people of God do in the world counts. A warm Grace Café meal on a cold Tuesday night that serves the folks living in their van that I met last week, or the lonely fellow eats alone every other night of the week. The twenty or so students at Margarite Christian who are able to have a weekend of decent meals because folks here bring food, pack backpacks with food and then it gets delivered each week by one of our own, a teacher at the school. Every year, between our work for CCHASM and Curtis Elementary, something like seventy-five households have holiday meals, a family has gifts under their tree, and the children of the 30 or so forgotten prisoners receive a gift from an angel under their tree.
For twenty weeks a year, several households of Curtis Elementary have quality family time in the evenings, without the stress of fighting the “do your homework” battle because CPC tutors worked with their children. Every other month, downtown residents, on the razor thin edge of life, get a warm meal, and a good smile form our folks working the walk-in ministry. And even Friday night, a host of couples got to have a date night because a few adults and youth opened the church doors for something like 27 of children.
In recent years, teams from CPC have built stoves in Guatemala, mucked and patched homes in flooded Louisiana, and repaired an inhabitable home in Lee County, VA. In each instance, CPC folks have stood with residents in dire need and offered comfort, care, a light.
Sometimes, and it seems it is increasingly needed in a darkening world, like a lamp on a lampstand, like a city on a hill, the church bursts forth into view, spending itself and its faithful members, so that the world may look to the church for guidance and illumination.
“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”