Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]
Psalm 112:1-9  (4)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16] Matthew 5:13-20
A few years ago I listened to an interview with Walter Brueggemann. Walter Brueggemann is a highly respected Old Testament scholar and someone who follows Karl Barth’s dictum to read both, the newspaper and the Bible, and to read the former through the lens of the latter. Brueggemann is wise and it is for this reason that he is respected in the wider Christian community among so-called Evangelicals and Mainliners alike.
Brueggemann is now in his eighties and the interview was really about his life’s work which very much focused on Israel’s prophets. The prophets interpret their time through the lens of God’s covenant with Israel and the prophets have given Brueggemann voice.
Near the end of the interview Brueggemann is asked about the church’s homosexuality debate. He answers, “I’ve asked myself why (in the church) does the question of gays and lesbians have such adrenaline.
And I’ve decided for myself that that means most of what we’re arguing about with gays and lesbians has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It is rather that the world is not the way we thought it was going to be. I think what has happened is that we’ve taken all of our anxiety about the old world disappearing and we’ve dumped it all on that issue.
So I have concluded that it’s almost futile to have the theological argument about gays and lesbians anymore because that’s not what the argument’s about. It is an amorphous anxiety that we are in freefall as a society, and I think we kind of are in freefall as a society, but I don’t think it has anything to do with gays and lesbians particularly.”1
From time to time I read the blog of Morris Berman.2 Berman is an American cultural historian and he has observed and predicted the decline of the United States for a long time. In one of his posts prior to the last US election he expressed his conviction that both, Clinton and Trump would hasten America’s decline, but that with Trump the end would come sooner than with Clinton.
We may or may not share Berman’ analysis, and yet both Berman and Brueggemann articulate our anxiety. We live ‘between the times’. The old, familiar order is disappearing and a new order has yet to emerge.
Our Gospel reading continues from the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is given to the disciples. We always wonder what it was that made the disciples leave everything behind and follow Jesus. We usually assume that it had much to do with how they experienced Jesus. That is probably true. And it expresses our longing to be in the presence of Jesus. However, maybe they experienced the same anxiety we experience – after all they lived in chaotic times just before the destruction of the temple – and this anxiety allowed them to be open to God’s future. Perhaps they somehow knew that things were not going to go on as they always had but that change was coming and they wanted it to be God’s change.
Last week we talked about the Beatitudes and how the Beatitudes describe the life of Jesus.
We also said that the Beatitudes consist of two parts, of cross and of resurrection, separated by a comma. And we said that the comma is the place where we live, and that the closer we are to the cross, the closer we are to the resurrection.
It does feel like we live in the comma. It does feel like we live between the times, knowing only what was but not what will be.
But while we may not like it, it has been the life of the church from the beginning. Sure, sometimes people felt like they lived in times of great stability, yet the stability was not always what they wanted.
The Book of Acts has been described as the biblical book about the church which lives between the first and the second coming of Christ, informed and guided by Christ’s first coming and presence of the Holy Spirit but in anticipation Christ’s return when God will restore all of creation.
In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks in the indicative. ‘We are the salt of the earth, we are the light of the world.’ Jesus describes the role of the church. We are at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus lays out how our life must be shaped. The One who shapes it is God.
These instructions are given to the disciples, to the church. They are not instructions for individuals to live but for a community to live. They are not about accomplishment but about the shape of our community. The Old Testament law was given as God’s gift to shape Israel as God’s people. When Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, he is saying that the gift of the law to shape us into God’s people remains.
These are important words for a church that experiences great anxiety. We know that we live in times that are post-modern, post- Christian, post-industrial, post-truth, but uncertain as to what will be.
The Sermon on the Mount is good news because it says to the church that we don’t have to watch passively, don’t have to be absorbed by the news that come at us, but that the church has a role as the church. This role is not liberal or conservative but it is to be the light in the midst of darkness and salt in the midst of blandness.
Let me return to Karl Barth. Karl Barth was instrumental in the confessing church’s response to Hitler (and I am not suggesting that any person of our time should be compared to Hitler). The Barmen Declaration of 1934 is unthinkable without Barth.
Barth was a Swiss pastor whose published commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans had catapulted him into the centre of the theological debate. His commentary was a rejection of the “God with us” theology of liberal Protestantism that had prevented the church from distinguishing between church and nation, word of God and word of man.
When Hitler came to power, Barth was teaching at the University of Bonn (a position he lost when he refused the oath on ‘the Führer’). In 1933 Barth wrote that they must continue to ‘do theology as if nothing had happened.’
For Barth this did not mean that the church should be indifferent to the world, but that the only way the church could speak and live the truth was by the enduring goodness of God (as opposed to an ideology, whether left or right).
By doing that, Barth robbed Hitler and his henchmen of their pathos. Barth sought to live his life in response to the Gospel, not in response to chaos.
Those are wise words for our time also.
Therefore, being a follower of Jesus is not simply about a personal faith, or going to heaven, or believing certain propositions, but it is about being a community that is a light on a hill, a community that allows God to shape us in our life together, so that the church indeed be the alternate community God intends it to be. A community that is open to the world but lives by the story and the life of Jesus.
1https://www.onbeing.org/programs/walter-brueggemann-the-prophetic-imagination/, retrieved on 3 February 2017