You are the salt of the earth; but 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 under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches other to do the same, will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be call great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus is in the middle of his proclamation. He is preaching his sermon on the mount. And whenever Jesus teaches there are fireworks, in large part because what he has to say runs counter to everything we think we know.
The sermon begins, innocuously enough, with a bunch of blessings. Albeit, a bunch of blessings don’t make sent according to the convictions of the world. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
And then Jesus turns the discourse over to a reflection on salt and light.
Ya’ll, Jesus says, are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
In other words, ya’ll bring the flavor and people are going to see me through you. It’s a beautiful bit of metaphoric reflection. Jesus takes these simple images and symbols and uses them to help us see who we are and whose we are.
But they come with warnings – the salt that provides zero flavor is worthless and the light that is hidden is nothing but more darkness.
And then comes the new teaching. It’s actually all new, but this is the beginning of the end for us. This is when Jesus’ sermon starts to make us squirm in our pews.
I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets. I’m not here to destroy the past or leave it behind. In fact, I have come to fulfill it.
What in the world does that mean?
We, the people of God, have always had plenty of trouble observing God’s commandments from the ten handed down on Sinai to the other six hundred or so from the Old Testament. And yet, Jesus says, if any of us break any of these commandments, or if we teach anyone to relax them, we will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.
And that would be enough to cause us pause. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Listen – unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
What if we tried to distill it a little more? What’s really at stake?
In another part of the Gospel, while not in the middle of a sermon, some do-goodery religious types try to trap Jesus with those questions: Which commandment Jesus is the most important?
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Thanks JC! Sounds easy!
But, of course, we can’t even do those two commandments. We all worship other things, thereby not loving God. And, when push comes to shove, we generally look out for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors.
Even John Wesley, founder of what became the Methodist movement tried to whittle it all down to three simple rules: Do no harm, do good, and observe the ordnances of God.
But we don’t do those either!
Jesus says, unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Oddly, within a few years of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, St. Paul will write to the church in Rome, “None of us is righteous, no not one.”
What then, are we to do?
Christians have, from the very beginning, struggled with this part of Jesus’ sermon. And, to be completely honest, it will only get harder next week as Jesus goes on his rant about “You have heard it was said, but I say to you…”
Maybe we can feel a little better about our meager righteousness, if we have any at all, because the scribes and the Pharisees, whom we are supposed to compare ourselves, weren’t very righteous to begin with. Sure, they had all the outward signs, they obeyed the law and they showed up for worship and they knew all the rules. But they followed the law at the expense of others, leaving behind the widowed and the orphaned to fend for themselves.
And yet, if Paul is right that none of us is righteous, what in the world are we doing?
Every organization, and every church, subscribes to its own theory of change. We human beings are not static creatures, and there is always a gulf between where we are and where we can be. The theory of change that an institution embodies shows what they think works.
For instance, the self-help industry believes that we can help ourselves. We merely need to read the right books with the right tips and we will finally become the best version of ourselves. And yet, if those books worked, there would no longer be a self-help section in book stores.
And the church has a similar theory of change, or at least we do without knowing it or acknowledging it. We assume that if people read their bibles, or pay attention to sermons, or show up for the right small groups, they will begin to move in the right direction.
The great challenge with this theory of change is that it doesn’t work.
Have you ever tried to have a rational argument with someone of a different political persuasion about why they’re wrong? Or have you ever tried to convince a smoker to stop smoking?
Have you ever tired to tell a bunch of sinners to start being more righteous?
We can’t will ourselves, or anyone else for that matter, into better behavior. We can’t get rid of our sin on our own. Only God can do that.
Therefore there is a difference between what we call the Law and the Gospel.
Jesus is hammering his listeners with the Law – there is no leniency whatsoever. Which should leave us shaking in our boots or, to put a more liturgical spin on it, it should bring us to our knees. Which, incidentally, is kind of the point.
The primary purpose of the Law, the call to righteousness, isn’t so much what the Law says. The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.
It reveals the truth of who we are – that no matter how many books we consume, or sermons we receive, we will forever be sinners in need of grace.
Basically, the function of the Law is to get each of us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we will ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”
When we are in a space to ask that question, we are not far from the Kingdom of God.
We are not far from the Gospel – the Good News.
The Good News is that Jesus makes us righteous because we cannot do it on our own.
But there is a question that lingers: How?
I mean, I recognize the irony in preaching a sermon about how sermons can’t and don’t make us change. But if you’ll bear with me for a just a bit… The sermon on the mount, this proclamation from the Lord, is what begins to constitute the community we call church. The sermon is not about giving us tips on how to be better people, instead it functions to help us see that we’re not very good to begin with and yet we are welcome in a place, this place, despite our inability to be good.
The law, the call to righteousness, drives us and downright forces us to the gospel. It requires us to rest in and trust Jesus’ amazing grace to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.
In other words, the only way we can ever change is through our hearts, and not our minds.
Change is only ever possible through relationships, not requirements.
But even that is almost impossible. Its so difficult that only God can really do it.
Change, transformation, occurs through the gift of the Holy Spirit such that our desires, not our minds, start to shift.
Or, as Paul says “Our hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
People are changed not through their will, their choices and actions. And neither are people changed through their minds and the consumption of knowledge. People are changed through their hearts, through love.
And judgment kills love. When we feel judged, ie when we are told what to do, we hide our love away and we put up walls and we resist.
St. Augustine says, “The law commands rather than helps. It teaches us what is wrong without healing it. In fact, it increases what it does not heal, that we might seek the gift of grace with even greater attention.”
The church, then, exists not to judge the world, but to proclaim the gift of God’s unending power and love in the person of Jesus Christ. We do what we do to help others encounter the profound wonder of Jesus. The experience of being met by God in our need is the heart of our faith.
Basically, guilt only ever produces more guilt. Love, on the other hand, is full of impossible possibility.
Love actually changes things.
A few years ago I was listening to the radio when I was bombarded by a story of grace, a story of love, a story about a man named Daryl Davis.
– Daryl Davis Picture –
Davis is a black blues musician and, for the past 30 years, he has spent his free time doing something outrageous – befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. And, a result of those friendships, 200 Klansmen have given up their robes.
How did he do it?
Did he go to Klan meetings with pamphlets about their racism? Did he encourage them to read certain books that would help reframe their thinking?
He did something much harder and much more dangerous.
He befriended them.
It all started in a bar call the Silver Dollar Lounge when, after playing a set of music, a white man walked up to thank him for his performance and told him that he couldn’t believe a black man could play the blues so well. Davis was so confused by the comment that he asked if he could buy the man a drink and they sat down to talk. And talk they did. They talked about music and musicians, about how the blues originated with black musicians, and after offering a set of recommended records to buy the white man said to Davis, “You know, this is the first time in my life I’ve ever had a beer with a black man.”
Again, Davis pushed to find out why, and the man pulled out his KKK membership card from his wallet.
However, that conversation led to a friendship that led to the man leaving the KKK behind forever. Not because Davis judged him, but because he befriended him. The man’s heart, to put it one way, was strangely warmed and he was never the same.
Why do we give ourselves over to wondrous music? Why do we make friends and invite them over for dinner? Why do we ooh and ahh over various sunrises and sunsets?
We do so out of the simple delight in the goodness of creation but also because half of the planet’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become.
In short, we fill our lives with loves out of a delight for what they point us toward: the kingdom of heaven.
But make no mistake: love, the kind of radical love that leaves to KKK members turning in their robes, the kind of delight that actually leads to any change is downright dangerous.
And yet, ultimately that’s the kind of radical love that God has for us, a people completely undeserving. But God keeps showing up, even to the point of the cross, with nothing but the Gospel.
In the bread and cup, in the singing of our faith, through the hard wood of the cross, we all receive a righteousness that far exceeds anything the scribes or Pharisees could ever hope to accomplish – the righteousness of God.
The Gospel does not promise the possible – it deliver the impossible.
The Good News of Jesus Christ gives what the law demands.
That’s why the love of God is strong enough to change things, even us.
Or, as Luther put it: God accepts none except the abandoned, makes no one healthy but the sick, gives sight to none but the blind, brings life to none but the dead, and makes no one righteous except sinners.
Sinners like you and me. Amen.