Personal Savior

Once again, we stand on a mountaintop with Jesus. For the last four weeks, we’ve been in the Sermon on the Mount, sitting on top of a mountain, listening as Jesus explains God’s vision for blessing the world by blessing us. Next week, we will stand on another mountaintop with Jesus, along with the devil, who will be trying to convince Jesus to use his blessings for himself, for power, for gain. And this week, we stand on a mountain looking out toward the season of Lent, toward the journey to the cross, and we hear the familiar story of the Transfiguration. We read some version of this story every year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, and every year as we stand on that mountain, Peter gets all muddled and confused. Every year, I hope Peter will get it right, but every year, no matter how much preaching and teaching and healing he has seen, Peter still wants to make Jesus his personal savior.

All my life, I’ve heard people talk about accepting Jesus as my personal savior. It was always the question that was asked by the door-to-door Bible salesmen and the street corner preachers. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?!” And for at least a few years now, I have walked around with a ready answer, based on my very Lutheran understanding of salvation. If someone were to ask me today whether I had accepted Jesus as my personal savior, I would respond, “He has accepted me. Thanks for asking.” But my focus has always been on that word, “accept.” And now I find myself asking instead about the word “personal.” What does it mean to have a personal savior? I have a personal trainer. I’ve heard of personal chefs. Personal secretaries. Personal assistants. Does a personal savior show up in the rolodex just before the personal shopper?

This is what Peter is looking for there on the mountaintop. A personal savior experience. It’s what most of us come looking for on the mountaintop. A personal savior.

But the concept of a personal savior is more about American Christianity and individualism than it is about the Bible and the God that is revealed there. At least the way that it gets talked about and used. It is an understanding of salvation as an individual pursuit. Something that I can choose for myself, and then ignore for everyone else. It is a way of selecting and securing my own individual redemption. A way of claiming Jesus as mine, but no one else’s. A personal savior implies that Jesus is ours to command and control. After all, the point of a personal trainer is that she will tailor my workout to my goals, and not let other people’s needs get in my way. The point of a personal shopper or a personal chef is that I don’t have to deal with crowds or conform myself to anyone else’s concerns (I assume – I’ve never used one). So a personal savior should be one that I can use as I see fit. One that is primarily about and for me.

“Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let me build you a dwelling; let’s hang out here on this mountaintop, where you can be my personal savior. Let me keep you to myself, for myself.” After all, here we are on the mountaintop, getting what looks like the Jesus we want – the dazzling display, the glory, the hanging out with the Biblical rock stars, Moses and Elijah.

And then the voice comes from the clouds. It seems to be the same voice we heard back in chapter 3, at the beginning of Epiphany, at Jesus’ baptism, the voice that says, “This is my son. Listen to him.” Notice that it does not say, “This is your Savior. Accept him.” Instead, the focus is on God. This is God’s son, and if we listen to him, we might just learn something about what God is up to in this world. About why God would come into this world. About where God would have us show up. About how God would have us act.

Because it turns out we actually do have a personal savior. It just doesn’t mean what we think it means. It’s not about the personal trainer, personal chef, personal shopper kind of personal. It’s not about how Jesus is just for us, for us to horde up here on our mountaintop. Instead this is about the savior who shows up in person. About the God who shows up right in the middle of this world, in flesh and blood. The God who refuses to stay on a mountaintop, all glow-y and dazzle-y. No, this God turns from the mountaintop toward the people, toward the hurting needy broken world, toward the cross. This is our personal savior – the God who shows up in person and places God’s own self on the cross, personally carrying the brokenness, pain and need of this world right up onto the cross.

This is God, as person, the Jesus we get. It’s not really the Jesus we want – the one who will be all about us, who will live inside the tent we build, conform to the box we create, all dazzling displays and miraculous revelations and my best life now. It’s the Jesus we get – the God who shows up in person, in all the messiness of human personhood, for the pain and grief and disappointment of this world. For the betrayal and the broken relationships and the broken body that hangs on the cross. For the sake of the other. For someone else’s best life now. For our neighbor’s best life now.

This is what we are baptized into. Not our own personal salvation, for our own personal sake. But the person of Christ, the Body of Christ, that shows up in this world for the sake of this world. The One who has come into this world, to fulfill God’s love for each and every person. And this is why baptism is not about accepting Jesus as your personal savior. It is about the God who has already accepted you, and freed you, and now sends you into this world, to be a person in this world, to live for the sake of this world, as the Body of Christ.

Today we welcome Cameron and Alyssa Stewart to the waters of baptism, a mother and son coming together to be named and claimed as a part of God’s mission in this world. It is particularly beautiful to be able to baptize them together, because it is an acknowledgment that we are not baptized for our own sake. We are not coming to this water to accept Jesus as our personal savior. We come to this water to receive the promise that God has already made, to acknowledge that we are already accepted by God, and to be joined to the Body of Christ, for the sake of one another. Alyssa already knows what it is to work for the good of others. First as a nurse, and now as a mother, she has given herself personally to improving the lives of others. And now, today, she and Michael promise together that they will raise their son to this same life. As a Christian, they will raise him to listen to the Son of God, and to follow him, down the mountain and into the world, for the sake of the world.

But let’s be clear about this. These promises that they are making at this font, all the words that I am going to say about responsibilities and living the Christian life: these are a response to what God has already given us. These are a response to our personal savior, the one who has already shown up in person, has already given everything to us, has overcome death and the grave for us, has set us free. In this freedom, we do not have to worry about whether we have accepted Jesus as our personal savior. Jesus has accepted us. We do not have to worry about whether we have said the right prayer with the right tone and the right sincerity. We do not have to worry about whether we manage to be perfect disciples. Even Peter failed at that, spectacularly and often. This is the freedom of the Christian. Because God has shown up in person, we are freed ourselves to show up in person, to live for the sake of our neighbor, to get up and not be afraid, to come down off the mountain and step into the messy business of life, even if we are muddled and confused and imperfect in our discipleship.

There are more mountains to come. As we head into Lent, we will walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward Calvary, toward the cross. But we walk from the waters of baptism, from the table of our Lord’s supper, strengthened for service on the mountaintops and in the valleys, blessed by God’s love, to be God’s love in the world. Blessed to be a blessing.

Advertisements

Persist, or How Are You, Pt. 4

How are you? I am blessed.
Who are you? I am blessed.

This is our last week in the Sermon on the Mount, for now at least. For four weeks now, we’ve heard Jesus lay out the basics of what it means to follow him, to be a disciple. It’s important that this sermon is right up front at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The disciples that are there with him need to know where this is all going. And we, the readers of Matthew’s Gospel, need to know where this is all going. And where this is all going is the final scene of Matthew, Matthew 28, the Great Commission. This Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first word to his disciples, points us toward the Great Commission, Jesus’ last word to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” All nations. Not just Israelites. Not just your family, your tribe, your neighbors, your friends, people who look and sound and think like you. All nations. This is a tall order for a group of Israelites, a people who have come to believe that they are blessed by God for their own sake, that they are set apart and special, to please themselves.

So Jesus has to lay some groundwork now, so that when he gets to that Great Commission, there in chapter 28, that phrase, “all nations,” won’t be so hard to swallow. And he starts by reframing their understanding of how blessing works. They have forgotten that their blessing is for the sake of others, for all nations. Instead, they have used the law as a litmus test for blessing. Those who follow the law, they believe, will be blessed.

But Jesus started this whole sermon with blessings. Not just for the people at the top, not just for the usually blessed, not just for the obvious ones. No, Jesus was handing out blessing to everyone, like Oprah on a good day.giphy You get a blessing, and you get a blessing, and you get a blessing! Look under your chair! There’s a blessing there! In other words, Jesus says, whoever you are, you are blessed. Whether anyone else can tell it to look at you, you are blessed. Just as you are, in all your brokenness, hurt, need, pain, shame, guilt, whatever you are carrying around with you, whether you are grieving or poor or persecuted, you are blessed. That’s just who you are.

And not only are you blessed, but you are blessed for the sake of others. Your blessing comes with tools. It equips you to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, to live in the world as if God’s promises were true. As if it were true that God’s Kingdom is coming into the world. Your blessing means that you are equipped to live out the law, not as a test for who is in and who is out, not as a test for God’s love. But as a gift, for yourself and for your neighbor. Because, as we discussed last week, the law is a gift. It is God’s intention for right relationship between people and between people and God. It is not a path to God’s love, it is the result of God’s love, of God’s blessing. In today’s Leviticus passage, it is restated, reiterated over and over again. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” You are already my people, I am already your God, therefore, this is how God’s Kingdom is going to show up among you. Because I am the Lord, you’re not going to steal, or lie, or be unjust, or hate your neighbor. And because I am the Lord, you are going to take care of everyone, not just your neighbor, but also the poor and the alien. Also the deaf and the blind. Also the people you would rather ignore. In a word, everyone.

And this is what Jesus reminds us of in this Sermon on the Mount. We are equipped to participate in God’s in-breaking Kingdom. We are equipped to be a blessing to our neighbors, and not just to our neighbors, but to everyone. Not just the people who look and sound and think like us, but to everyone. Even our enemies. Which brings us to today’s section of the Sermon. Even our enemies. We are equipped, as God’s blessed people, as God’s beloved, named and claimed people, to be a blessing even to our enemies.

In first century Palestine, occupied by the Roman armies, enemies were everywhere. The people lived in fear, and they were constantly confronted with their occupied status. They were constantly reminded that they were in danger. Jesus knew what it meant to tell them to love their enemies. And yet, that’s what he told them to do. It was not a suggestion. It was not a metaphor. It was not a nice idea that he thought they might implement, if they felt safe enough to do it. It was a commandment, based in the commandments that came all the way from Mt. Sinai, that show us what it looks like when we live as if God truly is God, when we live as if God has truly blessed us, as if God’s Kingdom truly is breaking into this world. Because I am the Lord, therefore you will love your enemies.

But the wisdom of the world tells us that we can’t possibly behave that way. We can’t possibly trust God’s Kingdom to come. Instead we must obey fear. We must live as if fear and hatred and death had the last word. The wisdom of the world tells us that we must hate our enemies, oppress our enemies, imprison our enemies. 75 years ago today, our nation did exactly that. 75 years ago todayjapanese-internment-hero-ab, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the military to round up and incarcerate over 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, most of them natural-born citizens. They lost their homes, their land, their jobs, their pets. They were relocated hundreds, even thousands, of miles away, where they remained until the end of World War II. At which point they were only permitted to leave the camps once they proved they had housing and work. This is the wisdom of the world. Fear the other. Despise the other. Dehumanize the other. Oppress the other. Dispossess the other. And everyone is the other.

But the wisdom of the world is the foolishness of God. And God is a fool for love. God is such a fool for love that God would come into this world for love. God would live in this world for love. God would become one of us for love. God would die on the cross. For love. To bless us, with the certainty of God’s love. To bless us, with the in-breaking Kingdom, the Kingdom in which God’s love is the supreme law, the love that fulfills every law, and equips each one of us to move out of our comfort zones, to welcome the stranger, to love even those who do not love us back. To love even those who wish us harm. To love even our enemies.

This is who you are. You are blessed. To be a blessing. You are blessed. To be God’s Kingdom in this world. You are blessed. To be the Body of Christ, to be Jesus for each person you meet, no matter who they are. You are blessed. For the sake of the whole world. You are blessed. To love your neighbor. And everyone is your neighbor.

And this is the blessing that Sylvi Lee Hawkins comes to the waters of baptism to receive today. Her family have brought her here to claim that blessing, to witness as God names and claims Sylvi as God’s own beloved child. To claim God’s foolishness as their own. They have brought Sylvi to the waters so that they can promise to raise a fool. A fool for love.

It is a tall order, as I said at the beginning. Whether you are a first century Palestinian or a twenty-first century American, the idea of loving the enemy is difficult, if not impossible. It requires courage and strength and persistence and moving out of comfort zones. And there is no way we will get it right every time, because even if we’re trying to do it, we’re gong to do it wrong. We’re going to screw up and tick some people off and make new enemies in the effort. And so it seems that it is impossible to “be holy,” as Leviticus commands, much less “be perfect,” as the last line of our Matthew text says. How could we possibly hope to be perfect, given the enormity of the task that stands before us? I mean, Sylvi is already about as perfect as a person can get, right? After infancy, once we start walking and talking, things just get trickier.

But behind the word “perfect” in our text is the Greek text word telos. Which means completion. It is the word for when an acorn is “perfected” into a tree. It is the word for when an chicken’s egg hatches and the hatchling grows into a chicken, while an owl’s egg hatches and grows into an owl. It is a word about becoming what one is meant to be. In other words, it is a word about persisting. It might be better translated as “Persist, as your heavenly Father persists.” Because your heavenly Father does indeed persist. That foolishness of God means that God persists in love, persists in blessing, persists in transformation, persists in moving this world, and each one of us, and all of us together, toward God’s promised and preferred future. A future in which love is the law. In which enemies are neighbors. In which the Kingdom of Heaven has settled in to this world and in which we know ourselves as God knows us, as beloved and blessed and redeemed and transformed. In which we are as foolish as our heavenly Father is foolish. This is the future that we are being drawn into, that we claim today for Sylvi and for ourselves. A future in which we are blessed to be a blessing; in which we are fools for love; in which we are named and claimed for God’s foolish Kingdom.

Lawful Freedom, or How Are You, Pt. 3

How are you? I am blessed.

Who are you? I am blessed.

A couple of weeks ago, we read the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus named us. All of us. He told us that we are blessed. Whether you are grieving or poor or persecuted, you are blessed. Right where you are, as broken, hurting, and needy as you are. God has named and claimed you as God’s own. Blessed you. This blessing doesn’t look exactly like we usually think of blessing. It doesn’t look like worldly privilege – like power or money or fame or any of the other marks of so-called blessing that we might look for in our society. But blessed is who we are. What we have been named.

And now Jesus is moving on to what that blessing looks like when we try to live it out. When we try to live into the name that we have been given. And he starts in a strange place, to our modern ears. He starts with the law.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, the Hebrew people, who had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, gathered their belongings and walked across a dry sea into the wilderness, to freedom. But once they were free, the Hebrew people had to learn how to live together in freedom.This is the story the Old Testament tells: the people’s struggle to live into the blessing they had been given.

It was at the foot of Mt. Sinai that they received a gift from God. That gift came in the form of the law, brought down from the mountain by Moses. After years of living in slavery and oppression, the people of Israel needed instruction; they needed help to learn how to live in freedom. No sooner had they walked out of Egypt than they began to complain to Moses – why have you brought us out here to die! We should have stayed in Egypt! No sooner had God delivered them from slavery than they began melting down their gold and sculpting idols to worship. How quickly we fall into old habits. So God calls the people to the foot of Mt. Sinai, and tells them, “Look, I brought you into freedom, but I know you need some help with what that means. So here’s my promise, your blessing: I am your God and you are my people. That’s a promise, and nothing can change that. Now, here’s what it looks like to be my people.”

And God gave them the law. Now, notice that God did not say, if you follow this law, I will be your God. If you follow this law, you may be my people. The law is a description of what it looks like to be the people of God. What it looks like to be blessed.

I am your God,
therefore you will love your God,
therefore you will not murder,
therefore you will not steal,
therefore you will not bear false witness,
etc.

The people of Israel had lived in slavery for 400 years. They needed this law to help them learn how to live in freedom, how to live freely with God and how to live freely with one another.

Of course, as time goes by, and Sinai gets farther away in the distant past, people lose sight of that original intention of the law. They forget that God blessed them first, and then gave the law so that they could learn how to live out that blessing. Instead, they begin to hold the law up as the path to blessing. On the surface, it seems like a minor mistake. So what, right? As long as you’re following the law, the community will be fine. The law tells us how to live with God and with one another, so if we’re following it, it’s all good, right?

Well, no. Jesus says, no, that’s not enough.

You see, what happens when I begin to live as though the law is my blessing? My identity, my name? Sure, I don’t murder my neighbor. That’s good. But why am I not murdering my neighbor? Is it because I love her and want what’s best for her? Or is it because I’m worried about my own salvation? Let me give you an example. When I was a kid, my mom lived in a small town in Tennessee. I mean a really small town. There was one stoplight in town, in front of the Baptist church. It only worked on Sunday morning, and only if it hadn’t been shot out that week. There were two churches in town, and the Southern Baptist church was the liberal one. The other church was what you might call a law-centered church.

The women were not permitted to cut their hair or wear jewelry or makeup or slacks. They didn’t watch television, except when the Tennessee Volunteers were playing, and they didn’t go to movies. Now, in spite of their quirkiness, they were also some of the most amazing people I have ever met. They were wonderful, kind, giving, and, I think, genuinely loving people. But one day, when my mother was talking to one of the women of that church, she was told that all that this woman did, she did so that she could go to heaven. So now I have to ask myself, all the times that she was kind to me, helped me out, gave me her hospitality, was I nothing more to her than a tool of her salvation? Is that what God wants us to be in a community – nothing more to one another than a means to an end? (I don’t really think that’s how she thought of me, for what it’s worth. But the question lingers.)

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says no. Now, I know that this is a hard passage to hear. If you hear only what I read today, it’s hard to imagine that this was not spoken just to tell you how far off the mark you are. I hear it and think, well, what does Jesus want from me? Anger, lust, broken relationships, mistrust, these are all part of life, part of being human. Does Jesus really expect that I or anyone can live up to this checklist of righteousness? And anyway, when did Jesus become a checklist guy?

Well, I want to make sure that if you’re hearing this and thinking you’re the only one who hears it pointing directly at some aspect of your life – You’re not the only one.

And that’s not what’s going on here.

This is part of a bigger set of teachings that Jesus is delivering, and it can’t be taken out of the context of the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. And if you will remember the last two weeks of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been describing the Kingdom of God, and naming you as part of it.

The Kingdom of God looks like this, Jesus says: the meek, the poor, the mourners, the oppressed, all those who are usually shunned, in the Kingdom, these people are named blessed.

The Kingdom of God is breaking into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. And you are named and claimed, and called to live Kingdom lives, a life in Christ.

God is always moving us toward reconciliation – reconciliation with God, reconciliation with our neighbors, and reconciliation with ourselves.

The Kingdom of God is in the shape of the cross. Up towards God, and out towards our neighbors. Jesus is calling us to live these cross-shaped, Kingdom lives. Lives where we live as if our names were true, as if we truly were blessed. A life of integrity, an integrated life, a life where who we are and what we do are the same thing; where our exterior actions match our interior intentions. As Christ reached out to us, we are called to reach out to others, not for the sake of our own salvation, but for the sake of our neighbor. We are blessed to be a blessing.

This is a tall order. But it is one that you are equipped for. Jesus has told you that you are the salt of the earth, that you are the light of the world.

What’s more, Jesus has set you free. As the people of Israel were set free, so you are free, knowing that you are already blessed. You are free, knowing that you do not have to spend your days chasing after God’s blessing. You do not have to spend your life proving yourself worthy, feeling guilty for what you have done or ashamed of who you are. You know who you are. You are blessed.

Which means, you are free to start each day as a new creation. You as an individual, and especially you, we, as a community, because we are living cross-shaped lives, cruciform lives, we start each day as a new creation. This new community is not a “new and improved” version of the old community. Rather, it is a reconciled and beloved community. A community where there is no room to treat others as a means to an end. It is a community that is reconciled and set free in Christ.

You are free, therefore you do not need to harbor anger in your heart.

You are free, therefore you do not need to question motives.

You are free, therefore you do not need to look at another person as an object to fulfill your desires, whether that desire is the desire of lust or the desire of blessing.

You are free.

You are free, therefore you do not need to swear oaths to one another. Let our words be ‘yes yes and no no.’ Anything more than this comes from the evil one.

And believe me, trouble and friction will try to enter in here. We here at Peace Lutheran are a community that is trying to learn how to live cruciform lives, lives lived for God and for one another. Temptation will seep in. Anxiety will go up for some reason, and old habits will sneak in, like the Hebrews in the desert, begging to return to Egypt, or melting down their jewelry. Old habits will crop up, and we will forget that we are free, we will forget that we can treat each other as Kingdom people.

We will forget, and we will fail to live cross-shaped lives. We might hold onto anger, or we might fail to trust one another. But God knows that this happens, and Christ has carried all of that to the cross for us. So that we can be free. Christ has carried all of that to the cross for us, so that each time we gather, a new thing begins. We do not have to dwell in the habits and hurts of the past. They do not define us. They are not our identity. They are not our blessing.

We are free. Free to love one another. Free to trust one another,

not just with small things, but with hard things. Free to speak the truth in love. Free to live lives of integrity. I trust your intentions. I trust that you are looking after the best interests of both me and the community. You trust me for the same things.

Jesus is calling us to be a Kingdom community. A community that is reconciling in Christ. We begin each day as a new creation, because of what God has done for us, because of the cross-shaped lives that God has won for us.

Names Matter, or How Are You, Pt. 2

How are you? I am blessed.

Who are you? I am blessed.

For those who were here last week, you will know the answer I’m fishing for there. In the first section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus named us. All of us. He told us that we are blessed. Whether we are grieving or poor or persecuted, peacemakers and reviled alike, you are blessed. Right where you are, as broken, hurting, and needy as you are. God has named and claimed you as God’s own child. Blessed you.

Who are you?  You are blessed. Names matter. When our son Holden was born, it took us days to name him. With our daughter Grace, it was easy. We somehow knew her name almost as soon as we knew to expect her. She once introduced herself to a friend of ours by saying, “I’m Grace Elisabeth. I’ve always been Grace Elisabeth and I’ll always be Grace Elisabeth.” But with Holden it was harder. We had a list of names, and we tried them all on him over the course of several days. We tried switching their order,putting a middle name first, but the names we tried just weren’t sticking. They didn’t suit him, somehow. And so, when we left the hospital with our two-day old baby, his official name was still Baby Boy Appell. I think he was about 4 days old before we settled on Holden Alexander. And it suits him. I don’t know if he grew into the name, or the name grew into him, but I suspect it’s a bit of both. In any case, I can’t imagine him with any other name.

Names matter. What you call someone matters. There are a lot of different names that people get throughout their lives, some fleeting, some that stick. And they matter. All of them. If you don’t think it’s true, ask anyone who has been bullied, or verbally abused. Even little things make a difference. Studies suggest that for every negative message an elementary-aged kid hears about himself, he needs to hear ten positive ones to restore his sense of self to where it was before. Imagine how that number increases for teenagers! And it’s probably not so different for adults, either. Because names matter. What people say about us, tells us what they expect of us. What others expect of us in turn affects our expectations for ourselves.

So what is expected of you? What do you expect of yourself? Most of us are our own worst critic. And there are plenty of messages in the culture that reinforce those internal voices. If you watch TV for more than a few minutes, you will realize that what you should want to be and what you are, well, those are very different things. Prettier, richer, more powerful, happier, more fun, less smelly, thinner, healthier. All these expectations float around you, telling you that what you are, is not good enough. It’s hard not to internalize that. It’s hard not to take that to heart, and then to begin to live as if you are not good enough. But, by those standards, is there ever any “good enough?” Do you think anyone who actually lives and looks like those standards, feels that they’ve gotten it all? Reality TV pretty much answers that question. It’s always an uphill battle.

But whatever the world has called you, Jesus has called you blessed. Whatever the world tells you that you are, Jesus has another name for you. Salt. Light. These are not new names, different names from last week’s. They are an explanation of what it looks like to be named Blessed.

But because we usually read all of Scripture as an instruction manual for how to get on God’s good side, we tend to read this as a passage about everything that we have to do to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. Everything we have to do to be blessed.

And we forget that we have already been named, already been claimed. This is not an explanation of what we have to do, it is an explanation of who we already are.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

Jesus has named me, and names shape us. Like Holden, we are named for what we are, and for what we are becoming.

You are salt. Not you are like salt, or you could be salt. You are salt. This is a name that God says belongs to you. Like Grace, you are salt, you have always been salt, you always will be salt.

So what does that mean? What are the salt and the light that Jesus is talking about? Firstly, salt and light are both basic necessities for life. Especially in the ancient world, where salt was rare enough to be used as money, and light was not available at the flip of a switch, these were precious things. So precious was salt that the word “salt” was often used as a metaphor for the Torah, the law, which was salt, something necessary for life, for Israel. By the same token the rabbis, teachers and religious authorities were often called the “lights” of Israel. They helped to illuminate the path for the nation. I think these metaphors are especially useful in understanding today’s Gospel reading, and indeed the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is talking about the law and the prophets, and about justice and righteousness. But he is about to take all of that, and flip it on its head. Because, he tells us, you are salt, you are light. He has come, not to abolish the law, or as the Greek says, to set the law loose. No. He has come to fulfill the law.

Of course, that could mean a lot of things. But let’s take our cue from Jesus himself. When he was asked what the law was, his answer was quite simple: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, whatever else is written, if it doesn’t point to the love of God and the care of neighbor, then it is no longer doing its job. If we misuse the law, misapply it, use it to hurt our neighbor, or if we raise the law and our love of it over and above our love of God, then we have missed the point of the law.

And, as the prophets tell us, we do that all too often. If the law is salt, then we are guilty of rubbing salt in the wounds of our neighbors. If the teaching is light, then throughout history we have used that light to blind as often as we have used it to illuminate. The prophets point it out throughout scripture.

In today’s Isaiah passage, the prophet rebukes the people for fasting and claiming piety, even as their neighbors go hungry. “Is this not the fast I choose –to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” According to Isaiah, God would rather see us loving our neighbor as ourselves, even if that means not following the specific proscriptions of the law, such as fasting on fast days. Jesus brings that to light as well. Throughout the New Testament, from the parable of the Good Samaritan to the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus points out that the people of his day (as the people of all days) have placed the letter of the law above the intention of the law. They are no longer loving the Lord their God, they are no longer loving their neighbor. What they are loving is their own righteousness. They have made an idol of the very law that forbids idols.

When Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets, this is what he means. When he tells us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, this is what he is talking about. Interesting that the word for “righteousness” in Greek is also the word for “justice.” We are called to live the law as it was intended, as a guide for justice, as a guide for being in right relationship, both with God and with one another. And we are equipped to do it. As Jesus says, “you are salt. You are light.” While the law on paper may be your guide, the law is now written on your hearts. You have become the law. Not the law that belittles or shames or instills fear, but the law that fulfills God’s intentions. The law that teaches justice, the law that lives in right relationship, the salt that brings life to others, the light that shines in the darkness. You have been named and claimed as God’s own, as God’s salt for the earth, as God’s light for the world. The waters of baptism have sealed this name in you. Today, we welcome sweet little Arthur to the waters of the baptism, to be named and claimed by Christ. Like each of you, he is named “blessed,” he is claimed as the salt and the light of this world, and he will be eventually be sent out to share his blessing with the world.

Names matter. How we name someone affects what they will become. And what Jesus has named you, what you are and have been and will be, is the salt of the earth and the light of the world. You are and have been and will be the law of God and the teachers of the law, the law that brings light and life to our community, to our neighbors, to the hungry and the impoverished, to the poor in spirit and the mourners, to the meek and the persecuted.

Let your light so shine before others that they may see, and glorify your Father in Heaven.