- The Rev. Frank St. Amour, III
Sermon - 5 Epiphany
In the Name...
There was a man who used to live a life of gambling and drinking and was always at the pawn shop, then, one day he turned his life over to Christ and cleaned up his act. Of course, his old buddies tried to argue with him about his new-found faith. "Surely you can't believe all that religion stuff," they teased. "You can't really believe that Jesus turned water into wine." "Well, you're right, about that," the man replied. "I don't know if he did turn water into wine, but in my house I have seen him turn whiskey into a television."
Today, we begin looking at the Sermon on the Mount with those verses about being the salt of the earth, and let your light so shine before men, and so forth. Good stuff. But what did you think of those words at the end of the passage, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."?
I must admit, I found them troubling. The scribes and Pharisees were men who dedicated their lives to studying the Scriptures and living by every precept therein. In fact, the very name Pharisee derives from the Hebrew "pharash" meaning "to separate" and like today's Hasidic Jews, they separated themselves from society in order to focus on personal holiness.
Pharisees, you can imagine, were not followers of the crowd. They fasted, prayed and tithed and beyond those basics, they were meticulous in observing the hundreds of other rules and regulations found in the Torah. So, the "righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees" looks pretty impressive. And Jesus says if we can't beat that, we're out of luck.
How depressing. How can I know more about the Bible than someone who studies it day and night? How can I hope to live to a higher standard than someone who keeps the highest standard? Surprisingly, quite easily. That's right. There's no need to get depressed. The truth is it’s not all that hard to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees and we can do it.
In the Gospels, people are always coming up to Jesus and asking him, "What must I do to be saved?" and they never like the answers they get because Jesus never tells them what to do. Instead, he tells them how to be and that's a very different thing. Even in the famous story of the Good Samaritan, when he tells the lawyer "go and do the same", the "doing" is predicated upon the "being" – the heart of the Samaritan, the way he looked at people regardless of race or religion. The Samaritan only did what he did because of how he was inside and that is the key to exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Because that is what Jesus was talking about when we heard him say today that we are to be "salt" and "light.”
In Ancient Times, as today, salt, in its many forms, had lots of uses - seasoning, antiseptic, preservative; the list goes on. Now, many people say that Christians are to be a preservative in society, combating moral decay just like salt rubbed into meat combats physical decay. This is a good image. I've used it before. But if we ask, did Jesus talk about salt anywhere else we see in did in Luke 14.34. - “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness...it is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.”
That’s a reference to salt used as a fertilizer and probably the best indicator of what Jesus had in mind. Christians are not so much to be a preservative, but a fertilizer in society. That is, we are to be an active ingredient bringing about the growth of good things in otherwise barren or depleted soil.
So how can a Christian cause something to grow? A Hindu woman in India became a Christian and suffered much from her husband because of that. One day the missionary at her church asked her how she was able to cope. She replied, "Well, sir, I cook his food better; I sweep the floor cleaner; and when he speaks unkindly, I answer him mildly. I try, sir, to show him that as a Christian I am a better wife." What happened was that, although the husband could ignore all the Bible preaching of the missionary, he could not ignore the practical preaching of his wife and, in time, he too, became a Christian.
As for Jesus' "light" image, a story is told about a lighthouse where the regular keeper fell ill and an untrained substitute was put in charge. While he was there, a storm blew up with winds so strong that all sorts of debris banged against the glass. So, to protect the lantern, the substitute got out a big piece of canvas and covered it up. Well, you can guess what happened. He blocked the light. Sounds silly doesn't it? I mean who, as Jesus puts it, lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket? But this fellow thought he was doing a good thing and a lot of Christians are just like that. They hide their light because they don't want to damage it. Like the Pharisees, they separate themselves from society and don't mingle with non-believers. They’re so afraid of being influenced by society that they end up being totally irrelevant to it.
Salt and light. A man being interviewed for a job was once asked, "If we hire you, will you be a thermometer or a thermostat?" The man asking the question went on to say that a thermometer just reflects its environment. That is, if it's hot - it says it's hot; if it's cold, it says it's cold. But a thermostat changes things. It sets the temperature and what he wanted to know was if this fellow was going to make things happen in the company or just sit back and let things happen. And, that's a good analogy for us all, as Christians.
The Pharisees were thermometers. They were quick to condemn their fellow Jews, but they didn't give a sinner one good reason to repent. They studied their Bibles, but never led a Bible study. They tithed, but didn't know the meaning of the word outreach. Their righteousness was all about themselves. There was nothing wrong with anything they were doing. The problem was that there was nothing right with the way they were being. They were not offering salt and light to the world.
The strongest arguments for the Christian faith are often made by showing the practical difference that faith makes in people’s lives. Even, in today’s second reading, St. Paul, a man who had been a 24-carat solid gold Pharisee and a trained theological debater told his congregation of Corinthian Christians, “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” In other words, he didn't try to debate theology to make converts; he simply lived his life and told his story.
When we talk about sharing our faith, too many people I know try to do that by arguing to convince others that their beliefs are wrong. Paul would say a more effective way of presenting the faith is not to argue about anything. Simply share your story of the amazing blessings that living the faith has brought into your life. That is being salt and light.
A fellow named C.S. Lewis once said, "By nature, we are all story-tellers." "By nature, we are all story-tellers." So, let's use that natural ability to spread the good news of the kingdom of God as Paul did. Live our lives in such a way that all men see our good works and let them realize that's because of how we are inside. And that's how we exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. By being.
In the Name...