A sermon by the Vicar of the Close, Charles Mitchell-Innes
Sunday, 9 February 2014
(1 Corinthians 2: 1-12; Matthew 5: 13-20)
You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world.
(Matthew 5: 13-14)
Salt and light – vivid images; everyday ideas, yet arresting metaphors. It is characteristic of Jesus to employ simple pictures to express significant messages, and these two are rich in meaning, especially for his original audience. We may think of salt as somewhat off limits, bad for one’s health if not taken in moderation; bad for the nation’s health if you are a manufacturer of crisps. In Jesus’ time it would have been somewhat off limits too, but then because of its great value and expense. In its pure form it was valuable not only for bringing out and enhancing the flavour of food but also for preserving it.
Jesus’ implication, I take it, is that as salt preserves and enhances food so our presence as Christians in the world should strengthen and affirm others. We are to encourage them – not least in their faith – by who we are as much as by what we say.
But salt has a further property, that of healing wounds. In Isaiah’s words, echoed by Jesus, our tradition has stressed the importance of ‘binding up the broken-hearted’, ‘to set at liberty those who are oppressed.’ (Isaiah 61: 1; Luke 4: 18). Our healing ministry here, Sunday by Sunday, addresses what frees the spirit as much as what binds up wounds. In that sense we may all be people who heal, who reconcile, who make whole.
St Paul encourages us in today’s Epistle to be doers rather than elegant proclaimers, of God’s word and work. He admits his own inadequacy as an orator: no ‘lofty words or wisdom’ for him, no ‘plausible words . . . but with a demonstration of the spirit and of power.’ (1 Corinthians 2: 1, 4) I suppose that should be my cue to shut up and leave the pulpit, but I’m afraid you will have to listen for a bit longer. I need, for instance, to tell you about St Francis, who, although excellent at preaching to birds, preferred to engage with his fellow humans by visiting the sick, mingling with people on market day, helping, listening – occasionally giving advice – and generally taking an interest in them. As a friar he was a brother rather than a pedagogue to them: engaging with them was his preaching. It seems to me that this is a good model for our personal reaching out and our civic responsibilities.
In this way, today’s Gospel reminds us, our light can shine out as a witness to the world. Light, like salt, was a precious commodity, not to be squandered, in the ancient world, and this gives value to the image. What makes it particularly striking is that it’s an image that Jesus uses of himself in St John’s Gospel: ‘I am the light of the world’ he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ (John 8: 12) Now in St Matthew, he confers his qualities, his calling and his ministry on his followers and entrusts his work to them – to all of us, in fact.
But that does not mean that we are left to our own devices. The light we shed in the world also reveals God’s light, which lightens our own path.
‘We see the light but see not whence it comes’,
says TS Eliot.
‘O Light Invisible, we glorify Thee!’
Just in case this is all too high-flown, the collect today returns us to earth with a bump. Placed by Cranmer at just this time of the year, when we are likely to slip on ice or – in current conditions – be bowled over by gales, he reminds us that ‘by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright:’ who says the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer did not have a sense of humour? The petition is for ‘strength and protection’ to ‘support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations’. And that will surely be granted. Does not St Matthew’s Gospel itself end with Jesus’ words, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world’? (Matthew 28: 20)
It is through His assurance, His affirming and healing that God has always given people glimpses of Himself – and continues to do so today. The poet Lynette Bishop puts it like this:
When was it
That we first glimpsed God?
Was it in the red, wrinkled smallness
In the half light?
Or later in the strong feet
Striding across hills
Which a few aeons ago
He had called into being?
Or with a strange thrill
In the hand which reached out to touch some
And make it whole?
Or in a sudden contact
With those searching eyes,
Splitting men’s hearts like pea-pods
To pour in?
Or was it yesterday
When in a moment of forgetfulness
We lost ourselves
And came across him
‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven’. (Matthew 5: 16)