Epiphany 5 Year A
February 5, 2017
In the time that I’ve been aware of it, advertising - both in print and on television - has by-in-large been about marketing to our feelings of fear, inadequacy and insecurity. Commercials for "anti-aging" cream, hair color, cleaning products . . . you name it . . . the beer we drink, the cereals we eat, the cars we drive. These ads are meant to stir up in us a sense that we are lacking something very important: flawless and wrinkle-free skin, glossy hair with no gray streaks, a germ-free organized home, a sense of machismo, fiber or some essential healthy minerals that will make us grow up big and strong, or a fast, sexy car. Advertising, like this, is meant to create a feeling in us that we don't have "enough;" enough youth, enough sexiness, enough speed, enough health. And of course, the remedy to these shortcomings in our lives is whatever it is they are selling. Over and over again, we are told that we are not enough. It’s a powerful message. And our patterns of consumption pretty much tell us that we believe it.
But, according to Jonah Sachs’ book, "Winning the Story Wars," there's a completely different trend in advertising – though used much less often – called "empowerment advertising." It's still advertising, so don't get me wrong, they are still trying to sell you their product. But rather than selling through conjuring up feelings of inadequacy, these marketers are seeking to sell by empowering their audience. Commercials like Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign, which speaks about our inner beauty rather than some marketer's false beauty ideal, or Nike's "Courage" campaign, which shows athletes overcoming unimaginable obstacles, conveys the message that "everything you need you already have inside," and all you and I – average athletes at best – have to do, is “Just Do It!” This year’s Amazon commercial, where a priest and an imam share tea together, commiserate about their sore knees during prayer, and then send each other a gift of kneepads (through Amazon, of course) is another example. These commercials look to pull up in us a sense of empowerment, give us an extra drive toward seeking the "good" in society, and leave us with feelings of hopefulness and abundance.
Well, way back in first century Palestine, Jesus was already in touch with this kind of "empowerment" advertising, and he used it in today's Gospel. This passage from Matthew presents Jesus’ "theology of empowerment." And yes, while It's easy to misread – mishear - this passage in terms of the law, hearing it as if Jesus is telling his disciples (and yes, his use of the word “you,” includes us as well) what we should or should not do, that we'd better be the salt and light of the earth, or here’s how to become the salt and the light. But that’s not what’s going on here at all. What Jesus says here is sheer declaration and promise. Empowerment. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. That salt and light are already in us; it’s who we are. It’s Jesus’ Empowerment Advertising. And because that’s true, Jesus says, we can't even help but do things that salt and light do – preserve, add flavor, illumine, guide.
I know, at times, that this can be difficult to see and believe. Day after day, after all, we see enough evidence in the lives of those around us – and, truth be told, in our own lives as well – to recognize that we don’t always live up to Jesus’ pronouncement. We fall short, hiding our light, and wonder how in the world Jesus’ promise could possibly be true.
But that’s precisely, I believe, why we’re here. In church. Week after week. Year after year on Sunday mornings. It’s not just because going to church is a good thing to do (which of course it is). And not simply because God wants us to go to church (although I’m certain God desires our worship). But it’s here that we are reminded that whatever our successes and failures, whatever our good deeds or misdeeds, whatever we’ve done or has been done to us . . . our essential identity as God’s beloved children, called to be salt and light to the world, has not changed. And it’s only after wading in these waters, having that message wash over us every Sunday, that we are commissioned once again to go and be that salt and light for the world. It’s a wisdom, of course, that the airlines know. Put your oxygen mask on first, before placing it on others. Hear and believe that you ARE God’s children of light, and only then, go out and offer that light to the world.
Now, one more thing about this church, this community. These days, I think it is important – critical even - to acknowledge that we are all being stretched in our lives. Stretched by the news and politics. Stretched by the pain of others. Stretched by our commutes. By traffic. By density. By diversity. Stretched financially. And so, thanks be to God, we come here. To this church, to this community, to the Sacrament and Scripture, and it is – and must continue to be - our place of recovery. A true sanctuary. Where we are reminded through our love for one another that we are Jesus’ beloved children, and where we have a safe place of transformation. Where our salt and light can increase and be lived out more fully.
Because that transformation is precisely where the Gospel writer Matthew is heading. He has a trajectory – a larger goal - for his Gospel. And yes, we may only be in chapter 5 today, but Matthew’s crescendo is leading up to Chapter 25. You know that chapter. Where Jesus returns to the world in glory, and gathers all nations – everyone – to himself. It’s there that he separates them, and celebrates those who offered him food when he was hungry, those who gave him a drink when he was thirsty, who welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, and visited him in prison. But the righteous answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty? A stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And Jesus answers them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ That is the highpoint of Matthew’s Gospel and it is the answer to what it means to be salt and light of the world.
We are salt and we are light. And the world today so desperately needs our light and salt, for us to be beacons of healing and hope. Bearers of love and forgiveness. Bold witnesses to joy rather than fear. Our call to be light and zest in the life of the world means loving the neighbor we have to deal with every day but also caring for the "stranger," for those who are hungry, for victims of violence and poverty, even for the earth we inhabit. Being salt and light empower us to do this work, to be this in the world. Thanks be to God for this place of safety and transformation. Because of you, we can be that transformation in the world. Amen.