Gospel Truths 5th February 2017 Madingley
Isaiah 58:1-9a 1 Cor. 2:1-12[13-15] Matthew 5:13-20
This week I have been sorely tempted, oh so sorely tempted. I looked at the readings set for today at a time when the whole world was reacting to the immigration law changes being instituted on the other side of the Atlantic; and I remembered the new President’s claim at his inauguration that God was on his nation’s side. Then I read Isaiah saying, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free … Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house… ? Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’” I don’t need to say any more, do I? So I have overcome the temptation, at least in part, to use the whole of this sermon as a fulmination against the iniquities of people elsewhere. Perhaps I should look for the beam in my own eye, rather than drawing attention to the mote in my brother’s.
But Isaiah was drawing attention to the danger of acting and speaking as if we have God in our pocket, as it were. We know that he is a generous and loving God, and that he longs to give us all that we need. But there is a danger here if we misinterpret that generosity. Trump’s faith was hugely influenced by the teaching of Norman Vincent Peale. He it was who taught that God wants to bless us with success and prosperity, and the sign of God’s approval of us is when we become rich. All that is required of us is to have faith that we will achieve this. I don’t know about you, but somehow what I read in the Gospels about the birth and life of Jesus does not suggest that attaining material prosperity was at the heart of his teaching.
But if we were to fill out a list of things to request from God, much like a child writing his letter to Father Christmas, I wonder what we would ask for? Would we ask God to be on our side, to protect us from all the dangers and the things in the world that frighten us? Would we ask him to make it plain once and for all that our faith is the right one? Or might we want him to let others see how well-meaning and kindly we are at heart, so that everyone will like us? But then, those are the things that we might want, rather than asking God what he wants to give us. And what God knows we need, and is prepared to give us might leave us feeling somewhat perplexed, or even distinctly put out.
The people Isaiah was speaking to in our first lesson must have had a similar reaction to his words. They thought they were doing the right thing, carrying out the religious rituals required of them. The problem was that despite their apparent faithfulness and devotion, it had no impact on how they behaved outside the time of fasting and other rituals. They were content to feel assured of God’s care for them, but did not realize that he had the same concern for those who they felt to be beyond the pale. And not only did God have that compassion himself, but he wanted his people to express it too. To see the world through his eyes, rather than their own, our own, self-centred lenses.
Jesus’ words that we heard in the Gospel illustrate this further. Just as Jerusalem was supposed to be the holy city set up on a hill, drawing people of all nations to it, and to experience and learn about God within its walls, Jesus calls his followers similarly to replicate it in themselves, as light and salt in the world, with light streaming out far and wide drawing others to them as the gathered Body of Christ.
Salt on the other hand is more hidden; a necessary enhancer of flavour and preserver of the goodness of food, its effect is less obvious for those who benefit from it, but without it food can be bland and even, in those days without fridges, unsafe to eat. Jesus’ followers may not be large in numbers, but their presence should make a difference to the rest of the world, just as a few grains of salt have an essential impact on a large plate of food. We are reminded of the words at the end of our service, sending us out in peace to love and serve the Lord through our love and service of others. In other words, the work continues, or even begins, at the end of the service. Seeing that the whole world is equally dependant on God, we go out to share in his caring work, and to recognize our inter-connectedness.
We may not be set on a very big hill here; they are rather difficult to find locally, but it is our intention to shine out as a beacon for the local community and beyond. This call from Jesus to be a source of salt and light for the rest of the world is one of the ideas which inspires our plans for our church building. We are making steady progress in our fund raising, but one of the things which will give us heart as we move through this year of major efforts, is that we are not doing all of this just for our own benefit, although of course we will enjoy it when it is done. But through it we are following our Lord’s call to reach out to others, and to provide them with the means of coming close to him, either meeting him in depth for the first time, or growing deeper in their journey of faith which is well-established.
I am thoroughly convinced, and you will probably get tired of hearing me say it, that God is calling us to make this church not only fit for use in the normal way of regular services for years to come, but also as an outstanding resource for quiet days and retreats which so many people are seeking increasingly in our time. We have an opportunity to do a wonderful thing here, and I not only hope, I know that we are a community which is capable of doing this, under the guidance and encouragement of God.
Do I begin to sound like a certain American President here? I hope not. The difference should be that the call to carry out this work came in response to prayer, seeking God’s will for this church; not a demand that he would fall into line with what we wanted to do, without first asking him about it! And there is a strong imperative to continue in prayer, seeking discernment about the way ahead in fundraising, and the decisions to be made about the project itself. Yes we are called upon to give, and every single pound given will have huge importance, but also, beyond that, our own enthusiasm will be infectious and encourage others to join us in this project. We must not feel daunted, but give thanks for what has already been achieved, and press on towards our goal, looking to God’s guidance and inspiration.
And an important factor in all of this is the love and unity of this whole congregation, as we share the vision and commitment to God’s call to us as we work out what it means to be salt and light for the world. We may be just a few grains of salt, but without us the local community, and beyond, would be the poorer. Believe it. President Trump, it is not how much money we have, but how much we find ways of sharing the love of God we have experienced with the rest of the world, which reveals our faith. And this congregation is full of faith, and is capable of doing great things as a result. Let us press on with joy and belief towards our goal, and in continuing the work God has given us to do.