Well, I am not sure what to think of the sermon that I preached yesterday. There is just so much in eight verses: "salt of the earth", "trampled underfoot", "light of the world", "see your good works and give God the glory", "not to abolish but to fulfill the law", "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:13-20). Sheesh. By Saturday night I realized that I had spent so much of the week wrestling with the first seven words ("You are the salt of the earth") that I risked brushing off the rest of the text. Then I realized that the children's time was a telling of Jesus' blessing of children (Mark 10:13ff). There entrance into God's kingdom has to do with receiving it as a child. The text from Matthew closes with a call to be exceedingly rigorous in keeping and teaching the law of God (exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees). It all seems so confounding. Is the kingdom a gift to be received or a demanding new way of life that requires all our energy and skill and commitment? And how does one preach on this within the confines of a liturgy that includes a celebration of the Eucharist? Not to mention that just before the service I met four guests who were attending the congregation for the first time - university students including two from China who were in a church for the first time in their lives. It felt impossible to do justice to the text. Which, in truth, it always does.
There were two places where the sermon seemed most faithful. Opening up Jesus' blessing "You are the salt of the earth" opened eyes (you can literally see eyes opening wider as insights flash within). The corporate nature of the "you" in this phrase struck a chord. It is the church, the community, the group of disciples which is a block of rock salt that is life giving for the world. And this life giving quality of salt as preservative, curative, valuable (ie: "salary" - salt as money) surprises us with the news that the church is not simply a volunteer association that does good things in the neighbourhood. It is, in ways we do not understand, a necessity for life - like the salt licks that dot the landscape in cattle country in BC's interior. That numbers of local congregations face closure in the near future may reflect the loss of a salty, distinctive church that understands that it exists not for the sake of its members but for the world in which it has been called to serve. The church as a community of positive values and doing good can easily become a bland spirituality is no longer gospel salt.
The other place where the sermon seemed to find voltage (maybe within my own soul as much as in the congregation) was in my struggle to work out what Jesus intends with lines like "so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" and "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." This is a reflection of my inner work to find language that holds God's grace together with the radically transformed lives that result. I found myself saying that the crucial part of letting your light shine with good works lies in living a life that draws attention to God and not to ourselves. If the good works that others see lead them to conclude that we're really wonderful people or that we think we're especially gifted people then those works are not the kind that Jesus is calling forth from us. I imagined that what Jesus is seeking is something more akin to seeing an alcoholic uncle or aunt at Christmas and finding them to be sober for the first time in living memory. Hearing them tell you that they owe it all to giving their life over to God and relying on God's mercy and power is the kind of testimony that Jesus hopes will emerge from his church. The same interpretive lens informed my turn on the higher righteousness that Jesus expects from his apprentices (I find this a helpful way of translating "disciples" in our context). Later in Matthew's gospel there is an entire chapter of woes upon the scribes and Pharisees (chapter 23). In it the central problem is hypocrisy, lying, falsehood. I remembered the story of the tax-collector and the Pharisee in Luke's gospel in which the honesty of the tax-collector who recognized his deep need of God's forgiveness put him close to God (righteous) while the Pharisee's self-assured and self-confident prayer (self-righteous) placed him far from God. Perhaps the higher righteousness is not so much a legalistic obedience but a humble, truthful desire to keep God's way - a childlike longing to learn and obey the ways of the family and household of God in which failure is not the problem, pretending is.
Obedience. That's not a word in vogue in this cultural milieu. Yesterday's Psalm (112) had us saying together: "Blessed are those who fear God, who greatly delight in God's commandments." We are certainly swimming upstream to be singing of a people who are delighted to have commandments to keep. Yet I notice a hunger and a longing - a leaning in by the congregation - whenever I speak of learning to live a life that learns God's way by keeping God's commands.