A sermon preached at Evensong by Canon Dr Tom Clammer, Precentor
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be now and always acceptable in thy sight, our Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
I became a Christian in my mid-teens. I guess I was about 15. And I discovered quite quickly that being a Christian at school wasn’t a huge amount of fun. I went to a fairly standard comprehensive school in Gloucestershire. Very few people did exceptionally well in their exams, but very few people got their head flushed down the toilet either. But being a Christian was a fairly good way of making yourself stand out, and making oneself the target for the occasional jibe. Most of the comments thrown my way were not particularly theologically robust, or abounding in nuance, but I do remember one debate, or argument I had with a particular chap in school which was actually quite good fun.
Basically his criticism of Christianity was that it was “pie in the sky when you die”, as the phrase puts it. He thought that Christianity was basically an insurance policy against the misery of this life, and that what it did was to basically help you to ignore the mystery of the world, in the hope of a Halo, a set of wings and a comfortable four-wheel-drive cloud when you get to heaven. He didn’t want “pie in the sky when you die”; he wanted steak on the plate while you wait.
Is Christianity a clever way of dodging the reality of the world by holding in front of gullible people, the promise of a better life in heaven?
Well this evening’s second lesson is a useful antidote to that kind of thinking. This section of the Sermon on the Mount begins with one of the most famous passages from the new Testament: the Beatitudes, and in them Jesus seems to be saying, yes, if you’re having a lousy time now don’t worry, because there’s good stuff coming in the future. Blessed are you who mourn, for you will laugh. Blessed are You who are persecuted, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
But then he goes right on to say a lot about how that doesn’t mean we just have to to endure our present. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Keep the commandments and teach them. It’s a really useful bit of the scriptures this: it is quite clear that Christianity, Christ, has something to say about what next, but also a lot to say about what’s now.
Being the salt of the earth is about being that recognisable presence, that fact in our environment which is distinctive, is identifiable as different and drawing out the flavour. Being the light of the world is about being visible. It is not about cowering under the basket, it is about being present, confident in having something to say about he who gives the salt its taste, he whose light we are bearers of.
I think it is quite helpful to read this passage in reverse: salt and light first, and then the Beatitudes, which tell a bit about the character of the people called to be salt and light in the world. Lest we be tempted to arrogance or smugness or judgementalism: true saltiness, true light is meek, merciful, pure in heart, and so on.
It’s a tremendous calling, a privilege, a challenge in school, university, the workplace or at home. And it’s far better than even the finest steak while we wait.