Year A – Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
February 9, 2020
Last week, had Candlemas not been on a Sunday, we would have heard Our Lord give his disciples the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit! Blessed are the peacemakers! Blessed are the merciful! Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness!” It was with these words that Jesus began his longest continuous sermon that we are given in the New Testament, a sermon we know as the Sermon on the Mount. The reading we heard today about salt and light comes just after the Beatitudes, and we will continue hearing the Sermon on the Mount in our gospel readings until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Scholars believe that St. Matthew wrote his gospel around the year 80 AD, which not long after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Judaism was in a state of upheaval, with socio-political and theological tension all around. The people of God were asking questions like, “Who are we? How are we to live in the midst of the political and religious turmoil in which we find ourselves?”
When I was in seminary, an older priest who had long retired gave a presentation one day. He was describing the difference between his years of seminary formation back in the 1950’s and our experience in 2014. It was in the 1950’s that the Episcopal Church experienced its peak in membership and relative pledge and plate income. The church’s attitude was, “If we build it, they will come.” Churches were built in residential neighborhoods all across the country, and the doors were opened, and people came. Attendance was great, the Church was held in high esteem by society at large, and there were abundant financial resources. You should have seen our jaws drop when the priest told us that his diocese provided a car for each seminarian. Needless to say, that’s not at all how things are today.
In 1965, The Episcopal Church had 3.6MM members. In 2018, that number was a little over 1.8MM. In 1965, nearly all active priests in our church served in in a full-time, paid capacity; in 2017, 40% of active priests were either part-time or non-stipendiary. Even outside of these walls, the Episcopal Church had an important position within American society. Christianity in general was respected, and the church’s voice carried weight in the world. Today, we are often ridiculed by the media and those around us and many no longer see the relevance of the message of Jesus Christ. In 1965, the differences between Republican and Democrat were fairly minor, and most Americans respected government officials, even those from the other side of the aisle. If you’ve turned on the TV anytime during the past 5 years, you know that the nature of our political discourse is less than healthy.
Who are we? And how are we to live in the midst of the political and religious turmoil in which we find ourselves?
Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt of course seasons food, and in the Old Testament, it is also linked with the ideas of sacrifice and of being in a covenant relationship with God. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to bring flavor to the world around us, living in a sacrificial way that embodies our covenant relationship with the living God. In other words, we are called to live out the standards given to us in the Beatitudes. The Church loses its saltiness when it ceases to live out these principles. We lose our saltiness when we refuse to stand up for the meek and those who mourn. When we stop seeking peace and when we refuse to stand up for those who are persecuted. When we stop showing mercy to those on the fringes of our society. The result is that the salt “is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” The salt loses its flavor and no longer exemplifies the sacrificial way of living we are called to live.
Next, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” I remember an ice storm when I was a child that resulted in the loss of power for several days. My mother lit candles around the house so that we could read and play board games. I remember being in awe at how just one candle could provide light for an entire room. In Jesus’s time, many of the homes had only one room, and one single candle would “give light to all in the house.” In the previous chapter, Matthew connects the image of light with Jesus’s mission in the darkness and death of a Palestine ruled by an oppressive, imperial power. In this passage, Jesus calls us to let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. That is, we are called as disciples of Jesus to live in such a way that this light shines brightly and provides warmth and clarity to all of those around us.
I have to admit…when the old priest told us seminarians about the state of the church in the 1950’s, I struggled with a bit of jealousy. Things then seemed healthy and positive, and things now can seem sickly and without hope. The Episcopal Church, and even St. Mary’s doesn’t have the people or the money or the political power that we once had. Living out the principles of the Beatitudes is often met with disdain by non-churched folks around us, and we are living in a time of extreme turbulence and division in our society.
Who are we? How are we to live in the midst of the political and religious turmoil in which we find ourselves?
Friends, today, just as it was 2,000 years ago, salt continues to be flavorful and tasty. A candle continues to provide light and warmth in a dark room. God has brought us into relationship with him and with each other through our baptism, and Jesus continues to call us to live out the kingdom principles we he taught us in the Beatitudes. We are called to stand up for the poor and the weak. We are called to give hope to those who have none, to comfort those who mourn. We are called to love not only those whom we want to love, but also to love our enemies. We are called to extend God’s mercy to those who are marginalized in our society – the widow, the orphan, the undocumented immigrant, the oppressed, the prisoner, the persecuted.
In the midst of religious and political turmoil, you and I have an opportunity to share with the world that there is more to believe in than just ourselves. We have such a beautiful opportunity to be the salt of the earth! To be the light of the world! And thanks be to God, we don’t have to do it alone! Look around you and see the beautiful, holy, flawed, strong faces of those in the pew next to you. We get to do this together as a parish community. By the power of the Holy Spirit, little ol’ St. Mary’s Church in downtown Kansas City is bucking the trends of decline and institutional illness in the wider diocese and Episcopal Church. We are not shrinking, we are growing! God is raising up men and women among us for ordained ministry – almost so many now I lose count. New ministries are forming that focus on bringing the saltiness of God’s justice to the people who need it most in Kansas City.
Being the salt of the earth and the light of the world requires more saying a prayer for the person you met last Sunday who sleeps on the streets, or posting how disgusted you are with the latest political happenings on social media. It requires that we practice what we preach and live sacrificially. It requires that the Church be in authentic relationship with the world around us, offering people a Way to live that is unlike any other way: A Way that is the perfect self-giving and self-emptying of the Cross.
Who are we? We are the salt of the earth! We are the light of the world! How are we to live in the midst of the turmoil in which we find ourselves? We are to live sacrificially, giving of ourselves and emptying ourselves just as Jesus did with his very life on the Cross at Calvary. We are to let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. Amen.
 Michael David Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version: With the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1752.
 http://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/full-time_and_part-time_status_of_priests_by_domestic_diocese_2015.pdf. These numbers do not include retired priests, or supply priests.
 Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 138.
 Much of this paragraph came from a Facebook post written by a friend and colleague, Fr. Keith Voets, on 2.8.2020, very likely from his sermon from today..
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!