Matthew 5.13-20

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Today we begin a sermon series, leading up to Lent, looking at Jesus' parables. Now in the last few weeks David and I have been building up to this by setting out ways in which we can communicate our faith to others and (understandably) this has caused some concern to some of you. So I thought it might be helpful if I begin with an explanation of why and what my overriding message will be. And I should say that this is not a directive from the pulpit, but the start of a conversation and the continuation of the partnership we have been building since my arrival.
The idea was conceived by David Jones in response to a news item about some young women from Birmingham who had converted to another faith. Now, they were, of course, entitled to do that, but what stung us was that they had felt that the Christian community had nothing to say on the deep questions of their lives. And I believe that this is quite a widespread problem - people are looking for answers (or at least for help in formulating enlightening questions), but the Christian community's silence about its beliefs is letting people down, giving the impression that we don't care and have nothing useful to say.
For too long now, the Church of England has given the impression that our faith is essentially decent, but lacking in depth or substance. We don't do it deliberately, but we're so used to operating in a society where everyone knew about the Christian faith, that we've got out of the habit of explaining it. And now, I fear that our dignified silence is actually causing us to neglect people who need our help.
The trouble is that there is another side of the equation. The Church of England has always been a voice of quiet moderation and that is something most of her members (including me) value greatly. In world where religious fervour has too frequently spilled over into immoderate behaviour, hatred and violence, the Church of England has maintained a dignified, unruffled humanity that is not only more attractive to human beings, but is also (I believe) truer to the Word of God.
I, for one, believe in moderation and if we are going to raise our voice, we must do it in a way that remains true to our essential personality as the Church of England. I have no wish to turn our congregations into the sort of fiery-eyed zealots that most of us turn to the CofE to avoid.
But I do want people to know that the good old CofE, which they all take for granted, has at its heart a message of such wonder and majesty, that it really does provide the best way to live. That message is, of course, the gospel of Jesus - interpreted intelligently & humanely, with compassion, modesty, kindness, decency and moderation, not just because it's nice to be nice, but because we passionately believe that this was what Jesus intended for his humanity.
And that quiet, smouldering passion is what I want us to rediscover. Not a loud, brash passion, but a modest, compassionate passion. In a world where extremist voices clamour ever more shrilly for attention I want to raise a dignified flag for passionate moderation. If there is a phrase that sums up my spirituality, it is "passionate moderation".
I want to demonstrate, through my life and through my speaking, that there is a way of life that is decent and modest and restrained: not because we don't believe in anything, but because decency and modesty and restraint are wonderful values of fundamental importance to humanity, rooted in the very word of God. Our decency is not because we are watery and faithless, but because our faith has inspired us to live in a way that puts others first. Our modesty is not because we have nothing to say, but because we follow a God who embraced humility and taught us that love of our neighbour is a far more potent answer to the world's problems than all the razzmatazz of politics or the fervour of religious extremism.
And or restraint is not because we believe that anything goes, but because Jesus has convinced us that it is more important, as Francis of Assisi put it, not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
In other words, I am seeking to help us find ways of making manifest why we are who we are, but without ever deviating from our essential characteristics as Anglicans. My hope is that we might do that, not by tub-thumping, but by finding a quiet, distinct voice that will provide, for those seeking answers, an alternative to the voices of extremism, so that people know that at the heart of all our moderation lies not weakness, but strength; not agnosticism, but faith; not apathy, but passion. Passionate moderation.
So with that in mind, I turn to the first of our parables of Jesus. The word parable means literally "a word to throw alongside". In other words a parable is a story with a parallel meaning - what we see happening the story in some sense gives us the bigger picture of what is happening to us.
These parables are about salt and light, taken from the Sermon on the Mount and they introduce the main theme of his sermon. Now when he addresses the crowd as "you", he is referring initially to the people of Israel and he is throwing a parallel of what their calling is as God's Chosen People. But of course, through Jesus' own life, it now applies to us, his Gentile followers, as well. God's people are to be salt and light.
How salt? Well salt adds flavour of course, but above all (in Jesus' time) it was used to preserve, to stop things from rotting. And it needs to retain its saltiness to be of use. In other words, the purpose of being God's people is primarily to cling to a way of life that stops the rot. We are to be tenacious and unapologetic about our distinctive way of life and the faith that underpins it, because it stops humanity from rotting.
Secondly, like salt, we are to provide flavouring. As you may know, cooking is one of my passions and the correct use of salt is one of the keys to getting the dish right. Too little and it is tasteless, too much and you taste nothing but salt. Get it right and you hardly notice the salt, it simply brings out all the other flavours to perfection. Here then, is a manifesto for passionate moderation. Our saltiness is to be neither too prominent nor too hidden. Get it right and you won't notice us, but you will notice the difference our faith and our way of life makes.
How, then, about the light? We have all heard Jesus say that he is the light of the world, but in this passage, he is saying that we are the light of the world. How so? Well this goes back to the prophet Isaiah, speaking at a crucial point of Israel's voyage of self-discovery. At a time when they were overrun by nasty foreigners, God's word, spoken through Isaiah, called upon them not to fight against the foreigners, but to live in such a way that would show them the light - the right way to live. And he promised that their light would enlighten all the nations. Now Jesus embodied this way of life perfectly and through him, sure enough, vast swathes of the world (including us) have seen the light of God and live significantly more enlightened lives.
Jesus calls us to live enlightened lives - lives that shine through with his teaching and his presence within us. And he calls us not to hide that light, but to show it all around, like a city built on a hill (interestingly Jerusalem, famously, was built on a hill) on show, seen by all around. Now this passage is often used by preachers to show that we should be sharing our faith with nonbelievers - and so it is, but note that Jesus refers here not to our speaking, but to our deeds: "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." So those of you who have pointed out that our example is more important than our words are absolutely right - you are backed up by Jesus himself.
It was Francis of Assisi (again) who famously directed his followers to "go and preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words." Our way of life preaches the gospel most convincingly. We must cultivate ourselves as a community that deals graciously with one another, that welcomes the outsider, that controls the sharp word and speaks good of others (even if we don't feel it), that forgives, even at great cost. And, however they treat us, we must relate to society outside the church in the same way (because that is how our Lord treats us).
So our way of life, lived openly and in view, will be our greatest witness, even without us ever uttering one word about our faith.
But, to Jesus, words and actions went together. It is not an "either or". What we say is the product of what we have in our hearts. So it is, I think, a fair interpretation of this parable to believe that Jesus also wanted us to share our light with our words - and we will look at that next week.
But for now, I leave you with the first building block - salt and light. Living in a way that clings on to the life-preserving truth at the heart of our faith and demonstrates its potency by the way we ourselves live and the community we create through the graciousness with which we relate to others and through the decency, moderation and restraint with which we live, as inspired by Jesus.
But if we are to lives that shine through with Jesus teaching and his presence within us, that, in turn, brings us back to our themes of the past few weeks - loving study of his gospel and nurturing our relationship with him through prayer, so that we feed the life we believe in with the God who lies at its heart: not fostering extremism, but stoking up the heart-warming flames of passionate moderation.

Preached: - Bolton (all age), Cliburn, Great Strickland, 6 February 2011