It’s hard to know for sure exactly which hill Jesus and his disciples climbed for “the Sermon on the Mount.” In fact, the Sea of Galilee is surrounded by rolling hills and it could have been any one of them. And almost certainly, what we get in Matthew’s Gospel as “the Sermon on the Mount” (you may remember that in Luke much of the same material is delivered on the plain) wasn’t just all preached in one place on one afternoon anyway. Matthew reconstructs these materials some fifty years or so after they took place. Jesus had a public ministry that lasted three years and in all that time he probably went away with his disciples to escape the crowds more than once. So maybe they went to various places around the lake. Or maybe they did have one favorite spot as many of us do, in the mountains or by the water. Either way, Jesus taught his disciples over time, and they remembered what he said. Eventually, decades after his death and resurrection, those teachings were passed along from the first-generation of disciples to the second generation of disciples and the people (or more accurately the communities) we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John so that generations to follow could read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these teachings as well.
Now all that by way of introduction and by way of saying that we cannot know with certainty where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, or if he did it all in one day. But at least since the fourth century, pilgrims have traveled to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. A few years ago I had the chance to become one of those pilgrims and to spend an afternoon on what is now called the Mount of the Beatitudes. Whether or not it was originally the holy place, it has without a doubt become a holy place as pilgrims from north, south, east and west have gone there to pray for at least sixteen hundred years now. It is what is sometimes called in the Celtic spiritual tradition, a “thin place” where the hills are alive with the sound of music. It’s a holy place.
The current church on that site, built in 1938, is run by the Franciscans. It’s a quiet and peaceful place that overlooks the lake—which is really a more accurate name for the Sea of Galilee. As you look down the hill you can see in panorama so many of the places prominent in Jesus’ ministry, including Capernaum, where he made his home. The gardens at that Church of the Beatitudes are meticulously kept and you can walk and think and pray. It’s quite conducive to “considering the lilies of the field” and the “birds of the air.” So whether or not it is the place, I can attest to you that it is most definitely holy ground.
On the warm afternoon I spent there about four years ago, a busload of Chinese Christians arrived. Their spirituality was not nearly so contemplative as our group of Episcopalians. In fact they were downright boisterous and at first I thought a little annoying: didn’t they know I was there to silently meditate on the Sermon on the Mount? But as I I watched them posing for a group photo, I was profoundly conscious of the fact that it cannot be easy being a Christian in China and was even harder a generation earlier. Clearly being able to come as a group to the Holy Land made their hearts glad; and that made my heart glad too; glad enough to cut them a little slack.
Whether or not you’ve had a chance to travel there, I want to invite you to go with me in your mind’s eye and to remember that the teachings of Jesus are rooted in a real place and time, among people who fished for a living and collected taxes, women and men who didn’t know they were going to become part of the Bible—but who were simply trying to be faithful to God and who saw this Jesus as the Promised One, whom they were willing to follow even if it led them on the way of the Cross.
As Matthew tells the story, Jesus saw the crowds and was trying to get away…so he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. It is to them—and by extension to us—that this sermon is delivered. Last weekend if the Feast of the Presentation had not trumped our regularly scheduled program, the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany would have been those familiar blessings Jesus spoke of, that we call the beatitudes. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…
Today’s gospel reading is a continuation of that time apart, as Jesus goes on to say the words we heard today:
You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“You are salt. You are light.” Elsewhere, he will use the image of yeast as well, the Church as leaven that makes the whole loaf rise. Notice that all of these are little metaphors, metaphors of smallness. If you want to make a loaf of bread you don’t just start opening up cakes and cakes of yeast. It doesn’t take that much. A little bit of leaven is all it takes in some warm water, with a little sugar or honey to get it going.
We all know the health problems that too much salt can cause us. But in the ancient world, before refrigeration, salt quite literally helped to preserve life. Low sodium diets are good and smart and healthy today. But you can’t live with zero sodium. You will literally die trying. In addition to being a preservative, salt just tastes good—as long as it’s used in moderation. The late, great Lutheran Bishop, Krister Stendahl was fond of saying that Jesus told the church to be the salt of the earth, not to make the whole world into a salt mine! His humorous words suggest that our mission is not to make every person on the planet a Christian. Rather, Jesus challenges those of us who do claim Jesus as Lord to act like we mean it; to be practicing Christians. Because “if salt loses its taste, then what good is it?”
Perhaps the most powerful of these metaphors, at least for me personally, is our vocation to be light. The Church is called to be a light that shines in the darkness as a beacon of hope. You don’t need me to tell us about the darkness of this world. This world is God’s world and it is filled with beauty. But it can also be a pretty scary place: a place or wars and rumors of wars, of violence and degradation. Sometimes it can feel like someone has shut out the lights. Even darker still is the dark night of the soul. There are times in our lives when the darkness seems too overwhelming; and it’s not that external darkness, but the internal kind, that we most fear.
And yet, we have two choices when the world is dark: we can curse the darkness or we can let our little lights shine. And even though we are prone to forget it sometimes, one little candle in a darkened room really does change the whole space. What was scary and dark can, in an instant, become a holy and luminous place. One tiny little flickering candle can guide us on our way, and helps others find their way as well.
We are called to be salt, and light, and yeast. These are metaphors of smallness, and I think that is truly good news. Even in that first setting, Jesus is away from the crowds and with just the twelve. Jesus doesn’t start a mega-church; rather, he forms a dozen disciples. Don’t ever doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. The fact that you and I are here today is proof that it can be done, and it isn’t done with smoke and mirrors. It’s done one little step at a time. From day one of his public ministry around that Sea of Galilee, from the moment he called Peter and Andrew and James and John, Jesus asked a small group of ordinary people to do extraordinary things, with God’s help. He called them apart to teach them how to be light and salt, and yeast.
So here we are, in this small but beautiful and historic parish of our small diocese, part of a small denomination. What can we do? We can do what the Church has always been called to do: we can be yeast, and light, and salt for the sake of the world. That work that Jesus and his disciples began on a hill overlooking the lake continues to unfold, here and now, in this place, among us. That is the message, the “good news,” that we are entrusted as members of Christ’s Body to pass along to our children and our children’s children.
We are witnesses to the wonder and gift of smallness. We are called to be faithful, one day at a time, one step at a time, in small ways that really do make a huge difference in this world.
We live into our calling to be salt, and light, and yeast every time a Sunday School teacher prepares a lesson, and then welcomes a new child into the room with a smile. It happens when someone knits a prayer shawl or sends a card to a shut-in, or picks up the phone to reach out to someone who needs an encouraging word. You and I are not called to do great things. We are called to small things well, the things that are right before us. Jesus talks in the Sermon on the Mount about the Church’s vocation to be salt, and light, and yeast. Elsewhere he talks about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed. They are of a piece. When we live these words, the Kingdom of God is very much in our midst: and we are transformed and healed and strengthened for the journey. By God’s grace, that mustard seed grows into something larger, but the work to which we are called is about the little stuff, the stuff it’s easy to overlook.
This is why the Church doesn’t need superheroes, just saints—the kind you can meet in shops and in lanes and at tea, the kind who are fishermen and doctors and teachers and classmates and snow plowers and insurance salesmen. The ones who are our neighbors. Did you all hear about that school in Salt Lake City, Utah that threw out that food rather than feed it to kids whose parents were behind in paying for their lunches? Well, in the aftermath of that, you perhaps you also heard about the "lunch angel" from Houston, Texas who paid off all the elementary school lunch debts in a school where he tutors. It cost him $465. He didn’t appear to be a particularly wealthy person, but his comment was that it was the best money he ever spent. No big deal.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Don’t worry about doing big things. Let God worry about the big stuff. Just pay attention. Just keep listening to Jesus, who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Just keep on doing the work that God gives you to do today, wherever you may find yourself.