Monday, January 31, 2011

Lectionary Notebook for Matthew 5:13-16

 Thoughts on the Gospel Reading
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
See TEXT below Matthew 5:13-16

The Lectionary Gospel reading for Sunday calls upon the church to consider our current footing as a partner in the Jesus-way of walking in the world.

In this text the Master challenges his Hebrew hearers to live faithfully to their calling as GOD'S chosen people, and by extension this text also falls to his twenty-first century followers as well. We too, somehow, must faithfully fulfill our calling to be salt and light within an increasingly desperate world at war with itself. The church, if it is at all to be church, must give itself away in order to bring glory to the Father in heaven. This text, therefore, puts the church on the spot. Here we are pointedly asked, is the church, is our church, faithful to the Gospel?

Please note that we are here building upon the foundation we laid in last week's homily on the Beatitudes, when we identified those powerful promises of blessing as an occasion to allow Jesus' words, and that of the Jesus-follower Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to demand from the church a final and full allegiance to the Christ, and not to ecclesiastic survival.

This idea is critical, and in point of fact may be the most important means by which the church will return to the ways of the Christ instead of the futile exercise of standing vigil at the death of Christendom. And make no mistake, Christendom -- and by that I mean the structures that prop up the church within the culture -- is dying right before our eyes. This is so very evident that all one needs for proof is to discuss the current challenge of being church in the West with someone say, over fifty years old, someone who has been "in church" a long time. By asking what has changed with church you quickly discover just what has been lost and how this loss is felt viscerally. But what you also discover is that much of what is lost has little to do with the Gospel walk of life, a walk that lives out redemption and reconciliation before the watching world.

The dispute I am describing, which is clearly active within the church and within our  own hearts, is grave. In a time when we see our beloved church institutions fading with the sunset zenith of modernity, the bias to save our churches -- our positions of social power, our properties and buildings, our job security -- is actually the impulse and addiction that is most preventing us from the incarnational plunge that the gospel of Christ demands. Here the questions are stark: Will we as church give up all to follow Jesus? Will we offer our blood and treasure so that the church truly becomes salt and light? Will we as church seek our own glory or GOD'S?

Spoken in terms of the text, what is at stake is the question of hiding the light of the of the Gospel --  the living presence and continuing incarnation of the Christ -- under the bushel of worldliness. That is to say, if the church operates out of fear -- fear of what we may lose -- then defeat is present already. And, if the church continues to live out a faith which has been locked away into the dead thought-forms of a distant and past generation, then the salt of the Gospel, at least in the West, will increasingly be trampled under our own feet.

The term worldliness is here chosen with great care, but it should be noted that in this context it means something considerably different from that of the religious fundamentalist. Within the lexicon of this message, worldliness is a sustained willingness by the church to identify with ways and means of our American manner of life, and then to call this gospel. It is succumbing to the selfish values that surround us and somehow finding in Jesus a way to justify this stance. It is allowing the culture of greed and self-absorption to take over within the church, so that we offer the Christ a nod and a wink and not our very lives. It is cultural captivity.

Said differently, a gospel which costs the church nothing is no Gospel at all. A gospel which merely reinforces ones own political agenda -- either from the left or the right -- is not the Gospel of Christ. A gospel that has as its primary purpose institutional survival in the face of a steep social decay that everywhere confronts us, has nothing whatsoever to do with the, “Come, follow thou me,” from the lips of Jesus.

To repeat part of what I shared last week: What the church faces here are the very serious questions of incarnation: Will the church offer ourselves for the world?  Will the church suffer (and this is the correct word) the loss of all things for the sake of the Christ?  Will the church forgo our own peace, prosperity and safety for the sake of this world? Will the church abandon our own rights for the sake of the another? Knowing that only GOD can change the world, will the church become deeply part of that world (taking the unantiseptic risk) in order that he may do so? Will the church stand beside the outcasts and the weak, those who have no champion, no alternative and no way out.  Will the church center ourselves on the call of the Christ and go where we are sent? And finally, will the church station ourselves against violence, and even willingly suffering persecution for the sake of the Christ who called us?

Here, I am reminded of the crowd jeering at the cross and saying:“He saved others, but he cannot save himself.” Yet, in this poignant moment of the cross, to save others he must not save himself. This was the entire point of the Gospel. And it is now the church’s moment to walk this same lonely road of self-denial (“take up your cross”) and to suffer the wounds of sacrifice (follow me).

Matthew 5:13-16
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You are the salt of the earth.
But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world.
A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
it is set on a lampstand,
where it gives light to all in the house.
Just so, your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”