Sermon for Holy Communion at St Andrew’s, Cobham, on 9th February 2014, the Fourth Sunday before Lent
Isaiah 58:1-9, Matt. 5:13-20

It’s funny how words change their meaning over time. When Jesus was speaking to his disciples, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, he said they were ‘the salt of the earth’. He meant that they were pretty good: that they had a strong flavour: they were capable of doing good things.

They used salt, in those days, to preserve food; so if a piece of meat was well salted, it would stop it going off. But these days, when we say that somebody is the ‘salt of the earth’, we tend to think of them more in terms of Arthur Daley or Eddie Grundy in the Archers: a little bit fly, a bit of a lad. Heart of gold, but the cheque’s in the post. You know what I mean.

So maybe to get the full flavour of what Jesus was saying, you need a slightly different expression. Not ‘salt of the earth.’ How about ‘light of the world’? As we’ve just heard, Jesus told His disciples that they were ‘the light of the world’ [Matt.5:14]. In St John’s gospel he says that He himself is ‘the light of the world’. Here He goes on to talk about the disciples being like ‘a city built on a hill’, which can’t be hidden from view, and that, once you have lit a lamp, you mustn’t hide it away: you mustn’t ‘hide your light under a bushel’.

What does it all mean in practice? Jesus was to some extent contrasting His message with the teaching of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law – the Jewish law, which was the 10 Commandments and the laws of behaviour which you get in the first five books of the Old Testament, and then in the Jewish law as developed by the various rabbis over the years and recorded in the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Jewish Law has a rule for absolutely everything, and the Pharisees were famous for knowing all those rules and punctiliously carrying them out. But of course in the story of Jesus, in the gospels, the Pharisees are not the good guys. They are the ones that opposed Him. They are the ones that Jesus called hypocrites, ‘whited sepulchres’; they looked all right on the outside, but on the inside they were full of awfulness, ‘full of dead men’s bones’.

But it doesn’t mean that Jesus was against the Jewish law. The Jewish law, in its essence, was – and is – a very good set of principles. The bit that we’re familiar with, the 10 Commandments, is a fine ethical code, and Jesus assured the disciples that He wasn’t there to dismantle the Jewish law: not ‘one jot or one tittle’ would be taken away. But, He said, you have to do better than the Pharisees and the scribes if you’re going to have a place in heaven.

Then Jesus went on to preach His most famous sermon – probably the most famous sermon there’s ever been – the Sermon on the Mount, about going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies. All this is contrary, counter-cultural stuff, which is the essence of Jesus’ teaching.

But He wasn’t going against what the law and the prophets had previously taught. If we look again at the first lesson, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, it’s actually the same kind of message. What do you do in order to show that you’re obedient to God, that you have a proper respect for Him?

Do you cover yourself with sackcloth and ashes, and do some drastic fasting? According to the prophet Isaiah, the Israelites are complaining, because they do do all that, they go through all the ritual of fasting and self-abasement: but they don’t think God takes any notice.

Isaiah points out – and as a prophet he’s speaking the words of the Lord – that the right kind of penitential behaviour is not doing something which only really impacts on you yourself. Instead it is doing something for other people: ‘to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free’. Sharing your food with the hungry: taking the homeless poor into your house: clothing the naked when you meet them, and never sneaking out of looking after your family.

‘Then’, Isaiah says,’your light shall break forth like the dawn.’ If you give of your own food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the wretched, ‘then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noonday’.

How should it affect us? There are posters for the Alpha Course, where there’s a man looking a bit puzzled and asking himself, ‘Is that all there is?’ Is his normal life all that there is – or is there more to life?’ The course introduces you to the idea that there is more to life, and the reason that we know that there is more to life is because, as Christians, we understand that the meaning of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, is that God does care for us.

But what Jesus is telling us here in his preaching is that this is not just something good for us as individuals. If we’re disciples, the fact of our being a disciple should shine out from us. ‘Let your light so shine … so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

Let’s assume that we are all trying to be good disciples. What does it mean in practice to say, ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works’? What good works? ‘To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free’. But – are you actually oppressing anybody? What do you think? Do you think that it applies to you in any way today?

Isaiah suggests that the way to set free the oppressed is to share your food with the hungry: take the homeless poor into your house: clothe the naked when you meet them.

Sharing your food with the hungry may be quite straightforward. As the manager of our Foodbank, I’m very grateful that so many people – and that certainly includes lots of people here – have gone and bought extra food when they’re shopping and have given it to the Foodbank.

But what about taking the homeless poor into your house, and clothing the naked when you meet them? Would it be stretching it too far to ask, in this context, how you think that the ‘Bedroom Tax’ fits in with the idea of taking the homeless poor into your house?

Say somebody works for a low wage, and gets housing benefit. In the old days, they would have had a council house at a cheap rent which they would have been able to afford. Unfortunately they don’t have many council houses any more, so now we have housing benefit, to make up for the extra cost of privately rented houses. The poor person’s children have grown up and moved away; so strictly speaking, they don’t need three bedrooms any more.

So the new rules say that their housing benefit will only be paid to cover the cost of a house which the government says is necessary. So they are paid enough to be able to afford a one-bedroomed house – whereas they are actually living in a three-bedroomed house. There aren’t any one-bedroomed houses available. Very soon our poor person won’t have enough to live on.

In effect, Isaiah suggests that we, as individuals, should be doing something about that. The Jewish law, the law of Moses, is pretty clear that society must care for its weakest members. In Deuteronomy ch.14, Moses tells the Israelites to make a tithe on all their wealth, to provide for ‘aliens, orphans and widows’ living with them, so that those aliens, orphans and widows may have enough to eat.

Aliens, orphans and widows. Immigrants, refugees: children in care: people living on their own. It really doesn’t take too big a stretch of the imagination to realise that we still have the same sort of people in our society that Moses was worried about 3,000 years ago.

I’m not telling you what the answers should be. But I encourage you to go away and think about it. Just to suggest one instance: is it right that, when the property market is booming, we should be imposing taxes on the poorest people so that they have to make a choice between paying the rent and buying food?

Or, do you think that things have changed, and in fact these ideas from the Jewish law and from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are not actually directly referable any more to present-day circumstances? What do you think?

Last week was Candlemas, when we celebrated the coming of Jesus as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’, and Jesus said later on, ‘I am the light of the world’. This week, we’re looking at Jesus’ teaching that we, his disciples, his followers, we also are the light of the world.

Our challenge today is to make it a reality, so that our light is not in fact hidden under a bushel, so that it is not just a matter of us feeling a rosy glow: instead the challenge is to us, so that we really do become a light, a light to the world outside.

So I pray, ‘Let our light so shine, so that they may see our good works, and give glory to you, to our Father in heaven’.

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