A Call to Active, Engaged Discipleship: a sermon on Matt. 5:13-20

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oBy the Rev. Anna Doherty

Whenever I hear Jesus say “unless you do this, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”…

I take it as a sign to examine carefully what is being said.

When the kingdom of heaven is at stake, it is a sign to sit up and pay closer attention.

This is something that Jesus takes seriously.

And so, in the last line of today’s gospel, when Jesus says “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees,

you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…”

Jesus says something very important about the nature of righteousness.

Now in Jesus’ day, there was no one considered more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees.

The scribes and the Pharisees were the people who followed the letter of the law and the moral code.

They dressed the way they were supposed to, they ate what they were supposed to, the worshipped the way they were supposed to, gave to the temple like they should…

and, more than that, these were scholars of the Hebrew scriptures, well versed in the teachings of their God.

The scribes and Pharisees were, according to the standards of their time, upright and righteous, wise, solid, good people.

And yet, Jesus says that the righteousness of his disciples needs to exceeds even that of the scribes and Pharisees in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Now, I would say that Jesus does indeed take seriously the nature of discipleship.

Jesus raises our expectations of what righteousness means.

Discipleship is difficult and it would be naive of us to think that Jesus doesn’t expect things from us in our life of faith.

But, when Jesus says that his disciples must be more righteous even than the scribes and the Pharisees…

Jesus is talking about a different kind of righteousness.

Rather than strictly adhering to a rigorous morality, a legal code, a religious ideal based largely on cultivating outward appearances….

…which is the kind of righteousness that the scribes and pharisees cultivate…

Jesus shifts righteousness to the outside, to how we live and participate in God’s work in the world.

Not to hold ourselves apart as a holier-than-thou kind of morality, but to get dirty and messy as God’s people in the world.

When Jesus speaks today about fulfilling the the law and the prophets, he talks not about living to the letter of the law in the way that the scribes and Pharisees do…

Jesus instead calls his disciples to a lived engagement with God in the world.

If we look at what the prophets actually say, as the truth-tellers of their own time and place,

we see that they call God’s people not just to rites of humility and morality, but to also to action.

As God says, through the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading,

“Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the binds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

This is, according to Jesus, what righteousness looks like.

Not the legal morality of the scribes and pharisees, but engaged participation in God’s work in the world on behalf of God’s people,

for the bringing about of God’s kingdom.

This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Jesus’ slightly enigmatic words today about salt loosing its saltiness and not hiding ones light under a bushel…

all point to paying attention to how we live and act in the world.

Will we make the world richer and more flavorful as God’s people, or will we live our lives of faith lacking saltiness?

Will we keep ourselves from being seen as anything other than outwardly righteous, or will we let our light shine in the world?

Even if it means sometimes shining the light on parts of ourselves and our world that we’d rather not see clearly?

As people of faith, we find ourselves living in a rather complicated time.

If Isaiah were living and writing now, I suspect that what he would have something to say about the way in which the reality of the world we live in is so at odds with God’s kingdom.

The bonds of injustice seem to be holding tight at the moment, and to shine our light into that kind of darkness might just disturb some spiders.

As people of faith, what is our role in this kind of world, in this kind of time?

Now, as a pastor I would say, that holding on to our deeply held beliefs, values, and religious practices are key.

Prayer makes a difference.

I’ve seen it in my own life, and I know that many of you have seen it in yours.

Dwelling and worshipping together in loving and supportive communities of faith make a difference.

Especially in a time of great division and strife, any opportunity to sit side-by-side with our fellow people of God in worshipping community helps to repair the breach.

Spending time with scripture and reflecting intentionally on God’s word helps to equip us to be better and stronger disciples in this world.

We are called not to abolish what we hold dear as people of faith, but to shift the expectations around what we do with our faith.

To raise the expectations of righteousness, as Jesus says.

We don’t pray only for ourselves, any more than we come to church only for ourselves, or spend time with scripture only for our own edification.

We do all this so that we can live more fully in the world, engage more deeply in God’s work and with God’s people.

Someone once compared the life of faith to the water stop in a road race.

I think it is a great metaphor.

Just as we stop and take a sip of water, so that we can get back into the race refreshed and rejuvenated…

We spend time in prayer, worship, and with scripture, so that we can get back out into the world

and run the race of discipleship, renewed, stronger, and with greater clarity of purpose.

But it is the race, not the water stop, that is the point.

It is how we live in the world, how we love and care for God’s people, how we help bring about God’s kingdom in the world…

that makes us disciples, not just the practices through which we do it.

So yes, we do have a role to play in this world, in our time and place as people of faith,

and it is to make God’s kingdom lived, tasted, seen and felt in this world.

Our righteousness is a righteousness of practice and action.

We are not scribes and pharisees, we are disciples of Jesus Christ.

And while the call to an engaged active discipleship might seem more of a burden than a blessing,

especially when the world seems so at odds with what we believe as people of faith…

What’s wonderful about this kind of lived, engaged life of faith, is that even as it is about serving God, God’s people, and making God’s kingdom a reality in the world…

We ourselves, as disciples, are caught up in God’s grace and blessing.

As God says through Isaiah,

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom by like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in the parched places, and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

We will be fed, even as we feed others.

Our own gardens will be watered, even as we water the gardens of others.

Our own streets will be restored and livable, even as they are livable for others.

We ourselves will be blessed, even as we seek to bless others.