When I was studying religion both an undergraduate and in seminary, we talked a lot about the Historical Jesus and the question of what we can really know about who Jesus was. Thirty years ago there was a big push among scholars to get to the heart of the historical Jesus and they were asking questions like this: Did Jesus of Nazareth really exist? Was he really a carpenter? Was he really crucified? Did he do those miracles like raising the dead and walking on water? These are great questions to ask. And I think we should always bring questions like this to our faith.
So these scholars got together and looked at the historical evidence relating to Jesus Christ. And by the way Christ is not his last name, just in case there’s any confusion about that. So they looked at what sources said about anyone in history named Jesus of Nazareth. They looked at what early Christian writers said. And they looked at what the Bible said. And most scholars agree that there is evidence that there was a person named Jesus of Nazareth. And that he had a large following which spread into a social movement.
But it’s interesting – because not every scholar agreed about the miracles. I guess it’s hard to find concrete, verifiable evidence for miracles. But most every scholar agreed on one thing – that Jesus was an amazing speaker.
Throughout history, there have been people who have an incredible way with words, whose presence before an audience can cause that audience to be moved to tears and inspired to act. Here as you remember Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached several years ago. And if you hear good preaching like his, you know the power that it has. A great sermon can lift you and carry you away on words.
And that’s the image I have of Jesus speaking with this group of people today, that he is lifting them and carrying them toward something. And all he is doing is preaching, but something amazing is happening. Often we are so focused on the miracles of Jesus that we forget about the power of his words.
Last week in the Gospel we heard that Jesus went up on the mountain, he sat down, and he began to speak to the large crowd. And he talked about the beatitudes, the blessings upon people in their various states of life. And this week he picks up from there.
His message is similar to last week’s. And I would say that the message of Jesus today is really two things: It is about the value that every human being has in the eyes of God. And it is his introduction to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Part of the reason why Jesus’s message is so powerful and part of why his words continue to speak to us today is that Jesus has no agenda aside from his desire to share love. Everything Jesus does is out of love. Everything he says is to convey to the audience the amazing love of God for each and every one of us, including sinners, and especially for the outcast and the downtrodden and for the prisoners and for the poor. That love comes through the beatitudes and it comes through the passage today.
You are salt, Jesus says today, which is a way of saying: you are the most essential thing there is to any meal and to all of life. You are not something extra. Salt is essential. Salt is what we live on. Nations fall and rise based on salt. I remember a cartoon from the New Yorker many years ago of a couple who were sitting at an elegant outdoor picnic with the picnic basket before them and all this food spread on the blanket around them. And the woman is looking in the basket and she says, “whoops I forgot the salt.”
Today we know the dangers of too much salt, but Jesus’s point is still true – people are essential, every one of us. And there is this warning in the Gospel that if salt has lost its taste, how can the saltiness be restored. If you lose your spirit, if you lose that essential part of you, Jesus is saying, how do you get it back?
People who have lost their saltiness are not the ones living on the street. It’s not a matter of losing your money or losing your identity or losing your way. It’s a question of losing your humanity. Losing your saltiness, as Jesus pictures it, is a complete disconnect from all that makes us human.
I heard this week about a man who is a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. Years ago, he was arrested and found guilty of being a currier for the Taliban, and he served time. And he is still there even though his sentence has ended, because they are having a difficult time finding a country that will take him.
And it made me think of this Gospel because you have to wonder, how is this person going to be when he comes out? Not only has he been in prison where he was tortured, but he has served years beyond his sentence, like many of the other prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. And a person being can only take so much before they lose their salt and all that makes them human.
Look at the way we treat prisoners, the way we treat many immigrants, the way we treat those experiencing homelessness, the way we treat the poor, the way our culture treats members of the LGBTQ community. After a while, the way we treat people can wear them down to the point that all that’s left is an empty shell devoid of humanity. I think of the veterans who have come back from the horrors of war with PTSD who have this long stare just looking into space trying to process and figure out what’s happened to them.
And you want to take people like this, like the man being released, and wrap your arms around them and say to them, it’s going to be okay. For you are loved, and God loves you and I love you as a fellow human being. And you are of immeasurable value. And to say to them, as Jesus says, you are light, the light of the world. And not meant to be hid or put in the corner or mistreated or rejected but meant to be put on the lampstand so you can shine like the gift to the world which you are. Don’t lose your saltiness.
And Jesus knows that in the crowd there are many people who have been abused, or mistreated, or neglected or just worn down by life, back then at that time just as there are today, people who are perhaps on the edge of slipping into losing their saltiness. And so this message is meant to pick them up and take them to that someplace new.
It is a message of love and a message of hope and one which does what all good and true sermons do – it transports you. Jesus’s sermon on the mount is a conveyer belt. It is a tram. It is a bus. And the destination is the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom of Heaven, also known as the Kingdom of God, is that place to which Jesus guides and directs us through his words. We first hear about the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew chapter 3, when John the Baptist appears and says: repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. He doesn’t say where the Kingdom of Heaven is. He doesn’t describe what it looks like. But you know it’s on its way.
After John the Baptist, we next hear about the Kingdom of Heaven in Chapter 4 of Matthew where Jesus has begun his public ministry which includes going throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.
And so the people at this point might say, What is the Kingdom? I don’t see any Kingdom. And if you think about it, it is a little big nebulous, this Kingdom of Heaven. I remember a professor saying that the Kingdom of Heaven has these fuzzy edges, which I always thought was an interesting term, fuzzy edges. Which means it’s not perfectly definable.
Jesus uses parables to talk about the Kingdom of Heaven. He talks about what it’s like, and what it’s not like, and what it can be compared to. And he says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a King who wants to settle accounts. He says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a Merchant searching for pearls. He says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.
This year Matthew is the Gospel we will most hear on Sundays, and Matthew’s Gospel is filled with illusions to the Kingdom of Heaven. But Jesus never says exactly what it’s like. So we’re just going to have to find out for ourselves. And the way to find out is not to wait until we’re dead, because the Kingdom of Heaven is not about the next life, it is about this life.
The way to find out what the Kingdom of Heaven is like is to let the Word of the Lord take us there. This passage is Jesus’s first chance to introduce to people to the idea that around us and within us there is a better way to live.
And today he says he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets. He’s not doing away with everything that is. In the Kingdom of Heaven I’m still Tom. You’re still you. The church is still the church. But on top of this and running throughout it is this notion that we are loved. And we are light. And we are valued. And there is this place where we will know this is true.
I remember an exercise we did in seminary where the professor invited us to just make suggestions about things you could find in the Kingdom of heaven. And at first the students weren’t sure how to respond, because, after all, it is pretty vague. And you didn’t want to say – well surely there’s Coca Cola and pizza and twinkies in the Kingdom of Heaven, which may be true but it just sounds self-serving. And so one student said: well there must be cats. And the professor asked why? And the student said, because my cat sits with me when I’m sick and loves me no matter what. And the professor said – yeah, that sounds like the Kingdom of Heaven.
But the truth is, we don’t know. And the list of things that could be found in the Kingdom of Heaven is infinite. But I’m pretty sure there will be no prisons. And there will be no torture. And there will be no war. And no one will freeze to death on the streets. And no child will go hungry.
And one way you might find for yourself the size and shape of the Kingdom of Heaven is to let Jesus’s words touch you. Jesus’s miracles and his healings are meant to restore people to health. And Jesus’s sermons and his words are meant to show us the Kingdom.
I wonder, where do you go when you find yourself lifted and inspired by powerful words? I wonder, what vision God gives you for that place that is the destination of your heart? That’s the Kingdom.
I invite you this week to take some time and look at what Jesus says to the people in the Gospel, and to think, in particular, about what he is saying to you. How is his love talking to you and the situation in your life right now. How is his love talking to us as a country and as a people and as a nation? And where are we being led?