Sermon - Sunday, 9 February 2020

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 9 February 2020

Readings: Isaiah 58: 1-9a / Matthew 5: 13-16

Text: Jesus said, You are the salt of the earth………….you are the light of the world            (Matthew 5: 13, 14)

IN THE NAME OF GOD, FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

 

You have made God small, said the poet,

You have made God small

setting him astride

 a pipette or a retort

 studying the bubbles,

absorbed in an experiment

that will come to nothing.

 

I think of him rather

 as an enormous owl

 abroad in the shadows,

brushing me sometimes

with his wing so the blood

 in my veins freezes, able

 

to find his way from one

soul to another because

 he can see in the dark.

 

Entitled Raptor the poet is R S Thomas, a man of deep Christian conviction but also a man who was willing to test the boundaries and to explore the edges of his faith, to point out inconsistencies and contradictions in what he believed and in what the church teaches.

Like his namesake Thomas, the disciple Thomas, doubting Thomas, the poet Thomas liked to wonder and explore and ask questions and often did so with a harsh and sometimes unsentimental clarity.

Thomas is concerned to get to the heart of things - or at least as close as he can to the heart of the human hunger for the sacred and the mystery we call God.

And so in his poetry he would often explore paradoxes, God’s presence and God’s absence, God’s shadow and God’s brightness, God’s word and God’s silence, and within the creative tension try to discern something of God’s promise and purpose in our lives and in the world.

You have made God small

In Raptor Thomas fears human thought and liturgy and theology has confined, restricted, domesticated, tamed and made God small.

Thomas prefers to think of God as an enormous owl – but like the owl we often hear but never see about the Manse garden – Thomas’ owl-God is abroad in the shadows and difficult to spot.

The owl-God brushes the poet with his wing, touches him in flight – it is the merest touch but it is enough to stop the poet in his tracks, enough to freeze the blood in his veins.

The-owl God can see in the dark – but more – the owl-God can see into the darkness of the human soul and he can find his way there, one soul to the next.

Evocative, powerful, beautiful, elusive and disturbing – Raptor is all these things and more.

And because it is all these things and more, it resonates with the gospel because it too is evocative, powerful, beautiful, elusive and disturbing.

Jesus said…………….

And if the blood doesn’t freeze in your veins as you hear Jesus calling us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world then let me suggest it is because your God is too small.

It is surely significant Matthew places Jesus’ words about salt and light immediately after the Beatitudes, that wonderful collection of Jesus’ teaching which highlights the different people and the different ways of living blessed by God.

In the ancient world – and today too – salt was an indispensable preservative as well as being a means of purification.

Salt permeates and alters whatever it touches, it seasons and brings out the flavour.

And to this image of salt and saltiness Matthew adds a second cluster of sayings around the theme of light.

Matthew’s readers would know Jesus had been described as the light of the world.

They would also know how a simple candle could illuminate a large room.

They would understand immediately Jesus saying that rather than being hidden away under a bowl, light belongs on a lampstand where it can serve its intended purpose.

Salt and light, salt of the earth, light of the world: and one of the things Matthew is exploring is the intended purpose of the church, the community of people who follow Christ?

Is the purpose of the church to purify and preserve itself and avoid dirtying its hands engaging with the world?

Is the church to keep its light for the people of faith and them alone?

Or is its raison d’etre to provide both seasoning, illumination and a point of reference so the world and its people can see clearly how best to live well with one another and in harmony with creation?

This commentator puts it well when he writes;

The mission of the church is not to preserve itself, but to preserve the world, not to point to itself, but to illuminate the way and bring glory to God[1]

We live in a culture of entertainment, one in which celebrity is important and the needs of the individual take priority over and against the needs of the wider community.

In such a culture the individual, the celebrity, becomes the focal point such that what really matters is what I want and what I think and how I self-identify and what I decide to do and how I choose to live and not what matters to the wider community.

In the last few weeks, as south eastern Australia has been on fire with all that suggests about the climate crisis facing the world, and while tensions in the middle east, Iran, Iraq, could hardly have been greater with all that suggests about the power play of global politics, how much newsprint, how much social media and how much television coverage has been given to Harry and Megan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

What does that tell us about our culture, our society, our values and our priorities?

So welcome the false god of gloss, a first cousin to the god of celebrity, who looks to the beauty and surface of things, offers all sorts of labels and creams and who makes us confuse our wants with our needs.

The perfect home, the perfect wardrobe, the perfect relationship, the perfect body, the perfect love life – the god of gloss offers perfection.

Or does she?

Obese is the god of gathering and acquiring, always wanting better, always wanting more, never satisfied, never content, even when we are already bloated with what we have and don’t use or really need half of what we own.

Fast food,  24 hour sound bite news, a click of the computer mouse, an app on your ‘phone – what name do you suppose I might give to the god of now, always in a hurry, always rushing, the god who does not make time to ponder and listen and wonder and meditate and slow down and pray.

What too of the god of division and violence and conflict, the god who values martyrs with their suicide vests or drones with their missiles, the god who despises vulnerability and weakness and for whom any mention of human rights never mind human responsibilities is anathema.

What name should we give this god?

As Jesus’ first disciples thought about, discussed and reflected on what he had done and said on their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, they came to realise what he proposed was a very different way of living, a very different way of understanding the world and their place within it.

Far from being a world in which the poor in spirit were crushed, the meek were left behind, the merciful were trampled over, the peacemakers were ignored and those who hungered and thirsted for justice, peace and righteousness were left whistling in the wind – the all too familiar world of human experience – Jesus called his disciples to aspire to different values and to see in one another, and in the world around, something of the presence and image of God.

So then or now the question becomes how the church and its people, you and me, can be salt and light in the world today, uncovering the world’s false gods and deceptions, and illuminating powerfully and brilliantly God’s presence and promise and purpose in the world?

In the culture of entertainment, so the narrative goes, if you are a person of Christian faith you are living in the past, intellectually limited, emotionally retarded.

Today’s world, so we are told, no longer has time or use for foolish God-talk because there is nothing there to inform the mind, deepen the heart and awaken a sense of mystery and wonder, beauty and truth.

Meanwhile the fires burn, the conflicts rage and the tides of human misery lap every shore.

Salt of the earth and the light of the world - the need could hardly be more urgent – and perhaps for us the starting place is to stop making God small.

 

I have heard him crooning

to himself, so that almost

I could believe in angels,

 

those feathered overtones

 in love’s rafters, I have heard

him scream, too, fastening

his talons in his great

adversary, or in some lesser

denizen, maybe, like you or me

 

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen

 


[1]   Stanley P Saunders Preaching the gospel of Matthew, Proclaiming God’s Presence Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, USA, 2010, p37