A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 9, 2014
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9 (10); I Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
Jesus’ preaching of the Sermon on the Mount was no fluke. It was well-planned and intentional. It was Jesus’ launching of his central idea of the Kingdom of God. He wanted to give the people following him a crystal clear idea of what the kingdom is about and who they are that are working toward birthing it in the world. So he came to the place where the sermon-event would be optimally given and he sat them down and began “Blessed are the poor in spirit …”
Church history connects the dots from then to now and helps us understand all the historical developments that have shaped the people of God’s kingdom. Some of those events are heart-warming and others are heart-breaking. All the stories are fully human and form the tapestry of the church as each generation makes their own stories.
There’s some great writing being done these days that explores why fewer Christians attend church and more and more are choosing to ditch on Sunday morning. Most of the articles are honest confessions that we’re living in a post-Christian age when the old congregational foundations are being eroded by a set of new assumptions people make about faith and church and the habits of faith. Clearly the old order of the church is being challenged and the pro forma habits of church are collapsing before our eyes. Seems silly to ask, but in light of these trends perhaps it’s necessary: Why are you here today? What urge got into you that you would get out of a warm bed to be here?
Let’s begin the sermon today with a healthy critical question to help frame the issue. My pastoral friend Jim Somerville struggles with this nagging question:
“As I was studying the Sermon on the Mount (this past) week, I had a feeling … Jesus might be disappointed in the way his church has evolved. In that moment, on that hillside in Galilee, he may have seen the potential of those people to ‘bring out all the God-flavors of the earth,’ and to ‘bring out all the God-colors of the world’ (ala Eugene Peterson). He may have pictured those who were poor, and meek, and mourning transformed by the coming Kingdom into a great force for good in the world and spreading out over the face of the earth in a way that would bless and help and heal. And although there’s been some of that—no, actually, a lot of that—there’s also been a lot of building up of our own little kingdoms, creating these beautiful boxes called churches where we can (go) on Sunday morning to sing hymns and say prayers and listen to a sermon and then go home again. I can’t imagine that that’s what Jesus had in mind.”
The church of the imperative mood is slowly dying and being replaced by a different way of practicing the faith and that shift has questioned the old platforms on which faith has been practiced. In the past preaching described faith using the verbs, ought, should, and must.
Admittedly, the Bible has this kind of language. If you read through Matthew’s gospel, you recognize that Matthew is not one you would accuse of soft-pedaling the faith. Here is a sample of the good news in the imperative mood:
“Judge not, that you be not judged” (7:1)
“Enter by the narrow gate;
for the gate is wide and the way easy,
that leads to destruction” (7:13)
“Every tree that does not bear good fruit
is cut down and thrown into the fire” (7:19)
Matthew is the gospel of responsibility, accountability. You ought, you should, and you must!
But this is not the only way faith is framed. Interrupting all this imperative language, Jesus tells the multitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit … blessed are those who mourn … blessed are the meek.” Notice something missing? No should, no ought, and no must!
Instead, Jesus begins his sermon with blessings, blessings upon the unblessed, those who are utter failures as the world judges us to be successes or failures. Jesus blesses the poor, the empty, and the bereft, and goes on record for what the Liberation Theologians say is “a preferential option for the poor.”
Jesus goes against the tide of popular conservative political thought (viz., against the Ayn Rands of the world), by choosing to include and care for the despised orphans of society. Wherever people are suffering, oppressed, or hurting in the whole world, Jesus blesses them all.
Then surprisingly, the Beatitudes inexplicably shift from the third person to the second person. Jesus shifts from all those suffering multitudes toward his own disciples, (towards us) and says: “Blessed are you …” Can you just see him turning towards us, his community of faith, and saying to us, “Blessed are You …” And so, what he says now, he says just for you. We begin to squirm a bit with his gaze fixed so directly upon us now. “Blessed are you when they revile you, persecute you, utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account … that’s the way they treated the prophets before you” (5:12).
But imagine yourself sitting on that hillside that day. You’re not one of the insiders and you never will be. You are one of those nameless, faceless followers. You think of yourself as plain vanilla, nothing too dramatic and not at all important. But you’re glad to be listening to Jesus and glad he stopped to talk to the crowd. He’s barely gotten started and he looks across the sea of faces and you realize he’s looking at you, and he says: “You are the salt of the earth … you are the light of the world.”
He does not break eye-contact and you think he’s speaking to that person just over your shoulder and yet you see that look on his face that says, “YES! I’m talking to you … YOU are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”
This is what Will Willimon calls, “faith in the indicative mood.” But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on to suggest two lovely metaphors to help us understand the implications of being blessed.
Salt … Tiny grains, yet utterly essential in its uses. Salt, not significant in itself (i.e., nobody eats just salt), yet essential in what salt enables to happen (go on a salt-free diet and see how something as pleasurable as eating can become something to dread!). You disciples … you who are small and seemingly insignificant … yet sprinkle a few of you around in places like this neighborhood or your place of business … sprinkle a few of you over at Center Middle School … sprinkle some of you over at the Kansas City Rescue Mission … or over at the Hillcrest Transitional Housing where the needs of our city can be plainly seen … or down at the Forrest Avenue shelter where homeless women have a chance to rebuild the platform of their lives … or almost anywhere where our congregation goes and there’s no telling what you will stir up, no telling what you’ll flavor along the way.
Light … like salt, is mainly of significance in what it enables to happen (you don’t stare at a light bulb). Light is valuable in that it enables us to see something else. Switch on a light, and a dark room is transformed.
“You are the light of the COSMOS,” says Jesus. Without you, the world cannot see what it is. The world has no means of seeing that it is violent, that all of its national orders and governments are propped up by force, until it meets someone who isn’t violent. Without you, the world cannot see that it is distorted and that there is a terrible economic inequity in the world, until it sees someone who is not dedicated to that injustice and who is working for justice. People of the world don’t know that they’re superficial until they come face-to-face with someone who isn’t.
But disciples who don’t look like disciples, or churches that have chameleon-like blended into the wallpaper of secular culture are not much help in showing anyone out of the dark. Jesus says that salt that has stopped being salt has “lost its savor,” it is moranthe, i.e., the Greek word we use for moronic, foolish, stupid.
People of the kingdom, it’s a great gift to know who you are … to know that your life is caught up with the grand and wonderful purposes of God through the person of Jesus Christ. In both the reality and the limitations of our humanity, and this collective community we call “the church,” Jesus is busy enlivening the universe. There’s a great responsibility of being salt and light in the world, but the surprise of all surprises is that it’s through us that Jesus mends the world when we live out more fully our own reconciliation. Are we up to it?
 Jim Somerville, comment on Facebook, 2/8/14
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).