A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 5th February 2023
He is up a mountain and, talking to a group of people, he says to them, “you are salt, you are light.”
“You are the salt of the earth;…You are the light of the world.”
We are in Matthew’s Gospel, a gospel which contains five sections of teaching, the first, this section, we know fondly as “the Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus reminds the Jewish hearers of this gospel of Moses, one of the founders of their faith, who spoke with God on a mountain and who returned with teaching about the ways of God and the ways for God’s children to live well with God. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is not so much the one who teaches about God. This gospel is clear. We are told in the narratives of Jesus’ birth found in this gospel that Jesus is to be named “Emmanuel which means God is with us.” We hear Jesus saying in the final verses, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This gospel is bookended with the assurance that God in Jesus is with us, that Jesus somehow shines God’s presence for us. And in the five sections of teaching in this gospel, Jesus, like Moses, teaches us about who God is and who we are and how we are to live well as children of God.
Who we are …he says, is Salt, Light. But this is not easy.
Three years ago in February 2020, the last time we gathered in our cathedral in the year of Matthew, we heard these words, Jesus’ words. Little did we know at the time that a disease, unlike a disease that any of us living had ever encountered, was beginning to weave its way across the world. Little did we know as we heard Jesus’ voice calling us salt and light and calling us to live into the vocation found in these words, that we would just a few weeks later be unable to gather in our cathedral, that we would be isolating for a number of months, and that masks and hand sanitiser and keeping apart would be our only protection … until scientists and frontline medical workers developed and administered vaccines, and slowly, slowly we returned over these three years to a time when we can live our lives, gently, carefully, with some sense that the disease Covid 19 will not take away the lives of us and those we hold dear. As we reflect on these last three years, we know that we in Adelaide have had a fairly easy time, compared to those countries where the virus hit early and there was no protection at all. Before this began three years ago, we heard Jesus say, “You are salt, you are light.” And the struggle of the pandemic may have well had his words ring in our ears, ‘if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.’ The struggle of isolation, and fear of disease, and separation from those we love in different states and different countries, might well have had us think that Jesus might see us as salt that has lost its taste and is no longer good for anything. The pandemic hit the world hard, hit us hard, and we might wonder if who are is not a little damaged by it.
Six years ago, in 2017, gathered in our cathedral, in another year of Matthew, we heard Jesus say “You are salt, you are light.” This was the year when the Referendum Council led a series of Regional Dialogues to discuss options for constitutional recognition with First Nations people from all corners of the country. The purpose of these First Nations Regional Dialogues was to ensure that Aboriginal decision making was at the heart of the process. The stories that were recounted in those Dialogues were collated, and, along with the Records of Meetings, read to the First Nations Constitutional Convention at Uluru in May 2017, as “Our Story”. The Convention endorsed the work of the Dialogues and issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart to the Australian people. The statement concludes
In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
As our nation ponders this passionate request to be heard, as we approach a referendum when we will decide about this, we might listen longingly again for Jesus naming us salt and light and we might hope that we will not be hiding under bushel baskets when Jesus needs each one of us to listen and care and make decisions that will enable all previously silenced voices to heard.
What is it that causes us to struggle to live out our vocation as children created by God, made to shine? Why do we hide?
It’s fear usually. So often Jesus said to his disciples “Do not be afraid”. So often God said through the prophets “Do not fear”. In Isaiah 43 we hear God say,
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
God knows that fear is the one thing that has us close down, has us be salt that loses its saltiness, be lights hiding when we are made to be out in the open shining out God’s love. So often it is fear. Be it fear for our safety, or the safety of those we love, be it fear of people who are different, for whatever reason, be it fear of what nature can do, randomly, it seems, to destroy homes and communities, be it fear of seeming foolish if we try to speak out and live out God’s love. Fear can rid salt of its saltiness, can send us, those created to bring light, into hiding.
And God says, Jesus shining God’s love, says, “Don’t”.
We might wonder what God would have us do. Our reading from Isaiah 58, a reading that we will hear again on Ash Wednesday, is a guide. God seems not so keen on religious activity for its own sake… in this passage Isaiah is speaking about fasting. This is what he says:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
It is not that our religious activities are without worth, far from it. But what God seems to care about most is solidarity with the oppressed. It is then that our light will shine, that we will be salt, light.
The prophet Isaiah, like the writer of Matthew’s gospel, assures us about one thing, God’s presence.
Then you shall call, writes Isaiah, you shall call and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
On Wednesday evening, a group we have named The Company of Preachers, gathered to hear The Rev’d Professor Vicky Balabanski speak about The Gospel of Matthew. This group was first formed to gather preachers to listen to scholars speaking about different aspects of scripture to inspire them in their task. We have come to think that these gatherings are not only for preachers at all, but for anyone who loves to hear and ponder about the ways of God, of God’s love and forgiveness, as found in the words of scripture and other writings. On Wednesday night it was a joy to welcome many from across our diocese and also a number of members of the Cathedral community. We were treated to an excellent talk. Vicky told us that the Gospel of Matthew was written for a Jewish audience and that there are times in the Gospel when it seems that it is written only for this Jewish audience, focussing on the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” as Jesus says at one point in the gospel. However, this is not the only focus of the gospel. In fact, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel makes frequent reference to how central the Gentiles, the nations, are to God, how central all the nations are to God and have been all along.
Vicky challenged us with the question, a question that may well be about what Jesus means when he says we are to be salt and light. What is our purpose? Vicky wrote this:
…as the people of God, are we there not for ourselves but for the sake of the outsiders? The nations? The people that don’t yet know God?
This raises the issue of how we construct our core identity. Is it inward looking, or outward looking?
You are salt. You are light. We hear these words from Matthew’s Gospel in our Sunday services every three years. Three years ago, just before the pandemic struck, six years ago in the year when the Statement from the Heart was written. It was over two thousand years ago that Jesus spoken them on a mountain to a group who had gathered there. These words ring through time and space, and in whatever the circumstance we hear his voice, naming us, God’s beloved, made to shine, made to bring love and healing and forgiveness to the world in God’s name, and we hear his understanding of our struggle …and we know one thing, the one thing the writer of Matthew’s gospel would surely have us know … that we do not do this alone, Emmanuel, God, is with us.