I was commissioned by Congress, way back in 1974 as an officer in the U.S. Army. Like every officer in the armed forces, I was commissioned as an officer and a gentleman. That is what the document states,
which I interpreted at the time to mean they did not know me at all. We used to have a saying: An act of Congress can make you an officer, but it takes an act of God to make you a gentleman. It was fairly humorous at the time. I came later to see how true it actually was.
As an officer I was bound by my commission to live is such a way as to be a gentleman, defined in the regulations as having a duty to avoid dishonest acts, displays of indecency, lawlessness, dealing unfairly, non decorum, injustice, or acts of cruelty.
Article 133 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice stated that any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.
As an officer I could be charged with the offense of conduct unbecoming an officer because as an officer, my behavior no longer was just about me. I now represented the Army and the country. I became a reflection of the larger entity that commissioned me. By my commission I became something different.
Today in the gospel lesson, Jesus is making a similar point. He is giving instructions to his disciples, those he has commissioned in the kingdom, as it were. He is defining the behaviors or attitudes that will identify them as his disciples because following Jesus, like being commissioned, makes you different.
Prior to this passage Jesus talked about the beatitudes. Remember? Blessed are you who take a certain attitude toward life, who act a certain way, for you will receive particular blessings that are associated with the kingdom of God.
But those blessings normally fly in the face of what we normally desire as blessing in this world because they cause us to exemplify attitudes and life styles that require letting go of things of this world to attain the blessings of the kingdom.
And those attitudes, that way of life, fairly mark us out to the world, with uncomfortable consequences sometimes. Remember the last two of those beatitudes? Blessed are those who are persecuted, reproached, or suffer for the kingdom.
Today’s gospel lesson is a continuation of that Sermon on the Mount, a continuation of Jesus’ description of what his disciples are to be.
Here Jesus makes two assertions about his disciples. He tells them: You are salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.
Salt in the ancient world would have been used for particular things. It was used in preservation of food, especially meat and fish. It altered the meat or fish in such a way that mold and bacteria, things that caused the food to go putrid, would not grow.
It was also used to flavor food. Salt would make the actual flavor of the food more noticeable to taste.
To be as salt in the world, Christians are to be a purifying element, permeating the world; every nation, culture and society, preserving and purifying that which is good, inhibiting and preventing the growth of things that cause decay and rot. And we should make life somehow, tastier, better, more attractive.
Jesus sees his disciples as antidotes to the moral, ethical and philosophic poisons that rebel against his will and purpose in the world. We are to be a power for life, and truth, living our lives in such a way that others take notice and are drawn to life in Jesus. We are to influence the world for him.
And that brings up another aspect of salt; it makes people thirsty. Jesus says “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’.
Our lives are to appear as a well-watered oasis to those thirsting in a desert.
But the reality in being salt permeating the culture is: The culture can resist, probably will. Christians are thus tempted to compromise, to go along, wink at sin, shrug at evil, avoid conflict and thus lose their saltiness; literally the text says become fools, thus become useless and ineffective for Jesus and the growth of his kingdom.
We need to be wise and use discernment in living our lives, in being salt. Throwing too much salt on a food destroys its taste. Similarly, not putting enough salt on food you are trying to preserve will not inhibit its decay.
Someone once noticed that some people bring life to a party when they come; others bring life to a party when they leave. We need to be discriminating and wise in our faith, in how we live our lives.
Jesus also says: You are the light of the world. As light, a Christian is to come against darkness. a Christian is to make visible those life threatening dangers which are invisible to those walking in darkness.
A Christian is to be like a beacon in the darkness, a lighthouse on a dark ocean, marking dangerous water, and pointing the direction to safe passage.
One ancient Christian likened the relationship of Jesus’ disciples to their Lord, as the moon is related to the sun.
As Jesus is the sun, he is the light. In John’s gospel, Jesus claims for himself: I am the light of the world
but here he tells his disciples: You are the light of the world. Thus we are to be reflections of Jesus into the world.
To be light, reflections of Christ’s light, we must be in a relationship with him. There must be a connection, a direct view, a line of sight between us the reflector, and the Lord; the light himself.
Care must be taken to preserve and protect that relationship lest that light be blocked. What happens when the earth comes between the sun and the moon? The line of sight is blocked and the moon has nothing to reflect, and we have an eclipse. It goes dark, absorbed by the darkness of its own environment.
As Christians we need to do those things that keep our line of sight relationship to Jesus healthy: reading scripture, prayer, worship. And we need to deal with the things in our lives; behaviors, attitudes, addictions, fears, worries, doubts, that block our line of sight to Jesus, to be rid of anything that can cause an eclipse of Jesus’ light and life in us; and cause us to go dark, absorbed by the darkness of our environment.
Likewise, this light of Christ is not to be hid, not put under a bushel. Have you ever been in that situation where it is extremely uncomfortable to be Christian? At a party where the talk goes awry, into gossip or topics of unsavory or immoral nature? Or your boss asks you to do something that may bend the rules a bit….
The temptation is to hide that light, put it out or dim it for the moment. But Jesus calls us to live in such a way that light, the truth of Christ, burns bright.
Did you know that Benjamin Franklin is the father of public street lighting? When he wanted to convince the people of Philadelphia of the benefit of street lighting, he didn’t just talk about it.
He hung a lantern on a long bracket in front of his home. He kept the glass highly polished. Every evening, he lit the wick.
People saw the light from a distance and when they walked in its light, found that it helped them walk safely. They didn’t stumble over unseen obstacles; they didn’t step in the exhaust of their primary mode of transportation of the time. Soon, others placed lights at their homes, and Philadelphia recognized the need for street lighting.
As others see the light of Christ in you, the peace, joy, faithfulness, the love you have in your life for Jesus, they may recognize their need for him. Your witness is a personal testimony, a light, that may be just what someone is waiting for!
A couple of weeks ago I was at a conference where Dr. John Lennox, a noted Christian mathematician and apologist, told about a short encounter. It seems that a newspaper asked the noted atheist Richard Dawkins what he thought of the concept of God.
Dawkins said that belief in God was a fairy tale invented by those who are afraid of the dark.
When the newspaper approached Lennox for a pithy response he rejoined that he believed atheism is a fairy tale invented by those afraid of the light.
We are to be a light to a dark world, as a city set on a hill: Bright, prominent, evident, secure.
As Jesus’ disciples, we are set apart, made new creations. Thus how we live is important because it says as much about our God and who he is, and all those who call themselves Christians, as it does about us.
Are we being salt and light in the world in which we live? Does our light shine in our family, in our church community, in our places of work, in our local society?
Does our life like salt preserve that which is good, and inhibit that which is bad? Does it make others thirsty to drink of the living water of Jesus? Does it flavor life?
As an officer in the army, I had to be conscious of the fact that my behavior had consequences beyond me.
Should we not be as conscious that as Christians, that how we live, has even greater consequences for us, the church and the world? Let us pray that we be light and salt in this world. Jesus is counting on it and the world needs it.
Sermon preached by the the Rev. Richard C. Marsden
The Church of the Redeemer
5th Sunday after Epiphany
9 February 2014