I commend this sermon by my friend and seminary classmate, the Revd. Les Harman. He is the Vicar of St. John's Church in Royston, Herts.
Fifth Sunday before Lent 6/2/11
Royston Parish Church 8.00 a.m. and 10.00 a.m.
Jesus calls a mixed bunch of very ordinary people, men and women, to be his followers. They are just like you and I. Flawed human beings with all the usual faults and foibles and the occasional rising to acts of great courage and nobility. They did not belong to the class of people normally recognised as religious like the scribes and pharisees. Some people say to me: ‘I am not a religious person’ as if that exempted them from thinking about spiritual matters. Well, nor were Jesus’s followers. Nevertheless he said to them, these ordinary people, just like you and I, you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. Last week we celebrated Candlemas on Sunday evening when we thought about the words of Simeon calling Jesus ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel’. Jesus’s followers are light because Christ is light. Can we say similarly that Christ is salt? The connection is not quite so obvious but in the OT the sacrificial offerings were seasoned with salt and the people of Israel had been compared to salt. The main point is that Jesus’s followers were called to lives of integrity and worth within society just as Christ lived a life of loving service.
But then just when you think Jesus is starting a new way of approaching God, bypassing all the religious traditions of the past and present, he insists that he has not come to do away with a single law of the Old Testament. ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ he says uncompromisingly. Whatever does he mean by that? I think maybe our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 58: 1-9a) can cast a bit of light on the matter. The prophet warns the people about using religion as a barrier against God rather than as a path towards him. Their rituals of fasting and worship are a box-ticking exercise and do not make them better people. The real evils of the world: injustice, oppression, hunger and poverty are simply ignored in their worship. Until they start to make a real difference in the society around them, being salt and light in other words, then God’s deliverance will never become a reality, says the prophet.
When I was on sabbatical a few years ago now in the USA I was impressed by the great generosity of American Christians. They were committed to the poor in their local community through the daily provision of soup kitchens. And they gave sacrificially to many charities and missions overseas. Most of the Christians I met were from the Episcopal Church, the same Church that is regarded today as a pariah by bishops of the Global South grouping, the primates of Uganda, Rwanda, West Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and the Southern Cone, because of the Episcopal Church in the USA’s stance on gay bishops and same sex unions. All of these Global South bishops absented themselves from last week’s meeting of Primates in Dublin. I find this very sad firstly on the grounds of my own experience of the faith and witness of these American Christians. Secondly for the failure to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. And thirdly for being unwilling to acknowledge that may be, just may be, they are wrong in their interpretation of what the will of God is.
A week last Wednesday a gay Ugandan Christian called David Kato was killed by someone who came into his house with a hammer. He had been on a hit list of 100 gay Ugandans in a magazine on account of his opposition to the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The headline in the magazine was : ‘Hang them’. An account of the funeral reported that the Church of Uganda sent no priest, no bishop, but a lay reader to conduct the service. It is said the reader made inappropriate remarks condemning homosexuality quite graphically and stating the Church of Uganda’s position…the crowd began to cheer him on.
When Jesus said: ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees’ was he meaning righteous anger towards all those we perceive to be going against God’s will giving us licence to kill or hate or at least refuse to journey with, or was he not pointing us all to go deeper into the heart of God who is love and compassion, faithfully revealed to us by Christ himself?
All of us have to make that journey. As we do so we will become salt and light ourselves.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.