Texts: Isaiah 58:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
I got to thinking how I might address this. Clearly the problem is with the bike, yes? Obviously, it is falling down on the job. Being a preacher, I decided to use the skills I’ve got to my advantage; I preached a sermon at my bike, to put the fear of God into it so that the tires quit going flat.
After the hellfire sermon I gave it, I realized how silly this was. It wasn’t the bike’s fault the tire kept going flat. IT WAS THE TUBE! The bike is doing exactly what it is supposed to; the tubes are what keep letting me down. So, I preached another sermon at the tube. In fact, I lined up all the extra tubes I have and preached the sermon to all of them, so that when their turn came, they would know the eternal punishment that would await them if they didn’t do what I commanded.
But did you hear that in Jesus’ words today? Did you hear him say that unless we do a better job, we won’t get into heaven? If you did, it’s probably because whoever taught you how to read this text had been taught by someone else to read it that way. Over the years, the Church has forgotten how to hear Jesus words because we have forgotten the meaning of the word “righteous.”
Because of how we use it, we might associate the word “righteous” with arrogance or with religious extremism. But the root of the word “righteous” is “right;” it simply means the state of being right, or in right relationship to others, the world, or God. You can think of righteousness as a way of describing a thing that is fulfilling its purpose.
For example, the function of an inner tube in a bike tire is to hold air. When it does that, it is a righteous tube. When it leaks, it is not doing what it is designed to do. It is unrighteous; and I, as the rider, make a judgement that the unrighteous tube must be replaced with a righteous one. This is not because I hate the tube or desire to punish it, but simply because I need a righteous tube in order to ride safely and smoothly.
This is what Jesus is talking about when he is teaching about discipleship. Just like a bike tube, each of us was created by God to be who we are; and who we are, Jesus says, is salt, and light, and a city on a hill. He is not telling us to become those things, or to try harder to be better salt or brighter light, he is making a declarative statement about who God created us to be. In the same way that manufacturers make bicycle tubes for the purpose of holding air in tires, God has made us for the purpose of being in harmonious relationship with God and one another. When we are doing that, it’s not because we are being exceptional people, but because God brilliantly made us to be who we are and put us in the place where we belong as a part of the beautifully designed whole, like a tube inside a tire on a bicycle.
Likewise, when we are not righteous, it is often because we are lacking something we need, or there is something from outside of us that is keeping us from fulfilling our purpose. We commit sin because we are estranged from God by the sin of the world. My bike tube didn’t give out because it was lazy or selfish or mean. It gave out because somewhere along the way, I had ridden over a small piece of metal which poked through the tire and punctured the tube. In order for the tube to be righteous, I had to remove the thing that didn’t belong: I had to remove the sin. Had I simply replaced the tube without removing the piece of metal, it would have punctured the new tube, as well. I know this from experience: ALWAYS CHECK THE INSIDE OF THE TIRE BEFORE REPLACING THE TUBE.
Mostly, we sin because we do what we know, and what we know is sometimes wrong. For example, that warped message of self-improvement to attain the goal of heaven can make us unrighteous. It is a message not of righteousness, but of self-righteousness, of the need for us to make ourselves better. If we are self-righteous, we have no need for God’s righteousness. In order to be healed, that message to be refuted, unlearned and forgotten; like a punctured tube, it is not fulfilling its purpose.
When you hear Jesus’ words, I hope you hear in them not threat or condemnation, but hope and encouragement. Just like it’s silly to preach at a bike to be a better bicycle, it’s silly to preach at Jesus’ disciples to be better disciples. We can only be what God has already made us to be! Jesus is reminding you that you are who you are because God made you that way and is continuing to form you in that way through baptism and worship; you have been brought to the place where you are because God has placed you there. To continue our metaphor, not everyone is a tube; some of us are tires, or handlebars, or brakes, or pedals. God is the one who puts each of us in the place where we will, by virtue of being who we are, make the entire bicycle work in the best way possible.
So rather than asking, “Am I salty enough?” perhaps this sermon is inviting us to ask, “why has God sprinkled me here?” What is it about you that God intends to use where God has put you? What are your gifts and skills? What are your passions and predilections? What resources do you have that God can use in this time and place to bring peace and justice?
These are questions about vocation, the mission to which God is calling you at this place and time. If you are in school or working at a job, that might be part of your vocation; or it might not. Maybe your school or job is what allows you to fulfill your vocation outside of your career. If you are retired, this may be a question with which you have been wrestling: without a timeclock to punch, what is God calling you to do with your life?
Just as each of us individually has a vocation, all of us together as a congregation also have a vocation. What is God calling Agnus Dei to do and be in this time and place? How is God using our congregation to season Gig Harbor and our wider Church and the world? Just as each of us have a special place and vocation within this congregation, this congregation has a special place and vocation within the wider community. A tire tube’s vocation is to hold air; when it fulfills its vocation, it does its part to make the whole bike work. The bike’s vocation is to carry a rider from one place to another. In his sermon, Jesus is encouraging us to listen for and think about our vocation both as individuals and as a community.
The law is one tool for figuring that out. God created the world with a vision; like a bicycle, God envisions all the parts working together to allow creation to move in a certain way. One way God’s law can be useful is as a sort of schematic that tells us how the parts are supposed to work together. The parts don’t work together out of obedience to the schematic, but because they are righteous; because that’s how the manufacturer designed them. When we are righteous, we are like lights shining in the darkness, revealing God to the world through God’s loving design for the wholeness of creation.
But we’re not always righteous, are we? We are all both righteous and unrighteous, completely saint and completely sinner. And that’s what’s truly amazing and beautiful about God’s vision: the righteousness with which we illuminate God’s vision is not ours, but God’s. God’s vision is not one that excludes sinners, but which reconciles us. Because we are sinners, we shine more brightly with that light because it is our inclusion as unrighteous people into God’s plan for salvation that demonstrates what that plan looks like. Our borrowed righteousness is evidence of what God is doing. That is the kingdom of heaven.
And that is how Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. He does what the law and our obedience to it cannot do on their own: he reveals who God is by giving us God’s righteousness. By following him, learning from him, getting to know him, we can have a relationship not just with God’s vision, but with God’s ownself.
That’s what I hope you hear in his sermon: not that you need to try harder or burn in hell for falling short, but that Jesus himself has come to give us a righteousness and a vocation—a form and a function—that we can’t give ourselves. He has come to do for us what the law cannot: he has come to bring us into right relationship with God.