Fifth Sunday after Epiphany Matthew 5:13-20

I had wonderful Sunday School teachers. I learned that little song about that sweet story of old when Jesus was here, “how he called little children as lambs to his fold.  I should like to have been with him then.”  I wish all children could learn that song because I’ve known too many adults who argue with God.  We argue with God when he expects truth and we are not willing to be truthful about ourselves.

When I was pastor of St. James in Brunswick, Georgia, the older people told me of the traveling evangelist who pitched his tent beside the Marshes of Glynn. That would be Sidney Lanier’s marshes of Glynn County, Georgia.

One night he asked for ten married men who had never had an argument with their wife. Ten men including the mayor volunteered.  “Now you’ve never had an argument with your wife?” Silence.  He turned back to the congregation.  “I want you to meet the ten biggest liars in Glynn County.”  Even the giants of faith argued with God about what he expected.  Moses at the burning bush wanted God to find someone else to face the Pharaoh.

Isaiah drew back from his assignment. “Hey, God. Don’t look at me.  Send him.”   Jonah would shirk his duty, but he changed his mind so the big fish coughed him up.

Paul persecuted Christians until God told him to become a follower. The disciples wanted Jesus to solve questions we wrestle with.  They most likely wanted specific assignments.  “James, you stay in Jerusalem and be the executive in residence.   “Peter can have a turn, too.  John, you go organize the First Church of Galilee.  Andrew, you’re in charge of helping the hungry and the homeless.”  But he didn’t.  Nor will God give us a clear answer when we ask, “What do you want me to do?”  Our answer should be obvious

Even if we once had a working answer, today is a new day and God will not be satisfied with yesterday’s response.  Instead, we find metaphors.  You ask him a question and he answers with a riddle.

Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”  That’s about as definite as we ever get from God. With such simple metaphors about salt and light, we’re supposed to learn God’s will.  God both hides and reveals his answer to our questions, our prayers, even our arguments with him.

He speaks to our doubts and to our faith at the same time. Salt?  Light?  I would like to respond, “Don’t put that burden on me, Lord.

“Do you expect me to flavor the world? Do you expect me to preserve something? And be a light for others?” Jesus would have seen his mother preserve food with salt. He would have seen her light the oil lamp when the sun went down.  Does he expect us to be fundamentally different from non-Christians, as light is from darkness, and as salted is to food?

We ask, “Am I supposed to make the difference between what is good and useful in the world, and what is bad or no value? Am I supposed to dispel the darkness of fear with the light of Christ?”  How could fishermen turned followers have such an influence on the world?  But salt can preserve meat, and one candle can be seen from a great distance.  It all seems unreal, given the shape of the world today that God is counting on us to flavor the world, to give light to those in darkness.

That is exactly what Jesus had in mind – but without specific directions. Whatever is good, whatever is right, whatever is nourishing, whatever is useful and helpful to our brothers and sisters, the followers of Jesus Christ will do the right thing.  The people of God will bring the love of God and the example of Christ to every situation or judgment. God expects us to use our brains and our hearts so that we are able to look at every situation with the eyes of Christ.

We should recognize our duty without God having to dot every i and cross every t for us. If we have minds and hearts headed in the right direction, we don’t need detailed instructions.  But it took the white people of North America almost 250 years to realize that black people forced into slavery were really human beings.   Jesus didn’t leave instructions on how Black or Mexican or Japanese or Muslim or Hindu or homosexual people should be treated. He thought it obvious that we could figure out some things for ourselves.

He said, “In your present circumstances, exactly as you are, you are now the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”  What grade would you give us?  God in Jesus is saying that as we still reek of our humanity, we are the salt of the earth.  Salted food tastes better.  Now, is that not an awesome declaration by God, that as we exist in everyday life, upon us rests the preservation of all that is good, right, just, holy, helpful, and uplifting?

And from the light we shed in ordinary circumstances, others see a path in their darkness. He does not see us as whom on our worst days we are, but rather he sees us as we on our best days can become.  God looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, the color supplied by the blood of Jesus Christ.  In the tale of beauty and the beast, the lovely maiden consents to live with the beast to save her father’s life.

Beneath his glistening snout and curved tusks, she sees compassion, thoughtfulness, consideration, totally opposite from what his outward appearance suggests. When Beast learns that Beauty loves him, he asks, “How can it be that someone lovely as you can love such a beast?”

She replies, “Your deformity scarce appears.” By her love, he is released from the wicked spell to become the handsome prince.

I suppose there do many persons who really think of themselves as trapped, like Beast, in all kinds of injustices – all of which furnish a valid excuse for our not being more love.

“Lord, I would bear more burdens in the kingdom. Lord, I would be more like you but you see I’m such a beast.  When I’ve found my way out of this ugliness, this deformity, this unfair burden, then I’ll come around.”

Jesus didn’t tell his disciples they could wait until they understood everything about following him before they took the first step, nor could they wait until they had found a way to become outwardly handsome and appealing.

He said to them, “Exactly as you are in your present condition, your role in the world is that you are as salt to food. You are as light to darkness.”  God loves us in our ugliness, but in his sight we are beautiful and handsome.

When a person discovers God’s love in a personal way, then that person becomes lovely and God-like in a lifetime process.

We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not finished, but it is going on.  This is not the end, but it is the road.  Little by little and yet more and more, the forgiven person becomes a forgiving person, and the healed person becomes a healing person.  The loved person starts to become more a loving person.  God started when we were baptized.   The end of the process is eternal life.

The challenge before us is not so much to become something we are not, but rather to recognize ourselves for what we already are, people of God. Why should we want to preserve all that is good?  Why should we want to be the light by which others may walk?  Because that’s what God expects of us.

It’s that simple, and that complicated. Can we argue with God’s expectation?