Be Who You Are
(Sermon on the Mount, part 2. For part 1, 'It Begins with Blessing' click here )
Back in seminary, when I was doing my theology degree at St. Paul University, we had a course in pastoral counselling. It was a twelve week course, pretty comprehensive, with lots of theory and case studies and role playing. But the one thing that I remember more than anything else about that course was the starting point. That is, that when you are caring for someone, or offering counselling, your starting point, your posture toward that person, is one of unconditional positive regard. It doesn’t matter who they are or what they’ve done, you start from a place of compassion and affirm their basic human dignity.
It's an idea that is theologically rooted. We believe, and our scriptures tell us, that God created human beings in God’s image. That we are wonderfully and awesomely made, each one of us, each of us made by God for a God-given purpose. We are children of God, and we are to regard each other as such. It’s part of our baptismal covenant. We promise to respect the dignity of every human being and to serve Christ in all people. Unconditional positive regard is our starting point.
It's not an easy starting point. You know that. But that’s where we begin.
When Jesus emerged as an itinerant preacher in Galilee, probably the most pressing question that people had for him was the question of how we should live. Jesus’ response to that question will be a challenging one. Much of his teaching ministry, of his parables and his sayings and his actions, in one way or another, will be a response to the “how then should I live” question.
A couple of weeks ago we heard a summary statement of Jesus’ preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repent. Change your perspective, change your way of thinking, change your lives. Jesus will have a lot to say about how we should live, and especially about how we are to treat one another, and some of it will be very challenging for us. That’s the sort of thing we’re going to hear next Sunday as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount turns to the “How then shall I live?” question.
But it’s not where Jesus begins.
Jesus looks at the crowd that has gathered around him, the sick, the ones with poor mental health, those who are troubled, those who are poor in spirit, and their caregivers, the ones who have brought them to see Jesus, and the disciples, the ones who have left their fishing boats to follow him, and he begins with encouragement. With compassion. With affirmation. With unconditional positive regard, with the love of the Creator for those he has created.
Blessed are you. God loves you, looks upon you with favour and wants the best for you.
Jesus begins with blessing.
Then, in the section we heard today, Jesus moves to the question of identity.
Who am I? Do you ever ask yourself that question? We can answer the ‘who am I’ question in so many ways, can’t we? We have personalities, we have histories, we have relationships, we have roles, we have dreams, we have passions, we have talents and quirks and foibles. Who are you? How would you answer? Do you like who you are or are you trying to improve something? Or are you trying to be someone else?
Jesus likes who you are. He wants you to be yourself.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You’re not irrelevant, you’re essential, you’re needed for the life of the world. We can’t live without salt and light. Even a little pinch of salt brings flavour to our lives, even the smallest candle can be seen for a great distance through the darkness. That’s you. You are life-giving. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.
At the risk of geeking out on grammar, I want to talk a little here about verb tenses. Because the verb tense that Jesus uses is remarkable. He could have said, “Be the salt of the earth,” it could have been an order. He could have said, “you should be the salt of the earth,” and made it an obligation. He could have said, “you could be the salt of the earth”, you know, you’ve got great potential.” He could have said “you would be the salt of the earth” you know, if only you did this or that. He could have said “you will be the salt of the earth,” just wait for it. But he didn’t.
Jesus said you are the salt of the earth. And he said it to people who probably had a lot of questions about themselves, to people who had heard a lot of negative voices in their time.
You are the salt of the earth. Be salty! I mean, what’s the point of salt if isn’t salty?
You are the light of the world. Shine! No one puts a lamp under a basket.
You are salt. You are light. Be who you are. Because God created you that way, for a purpose. Be who you are, for the sake of the world.
It sounds so simple, but it’s a powerful idea. Because we spend so much of our lives not being ourselves. Sometimes we try to be who other people want us to be. Sometimes we try to be who we think we should be. Isn’t that what Instagram and TikTok influencers are all about? Isn’t that what the whole advertising industry is based on? Isn’t that why we’re always performing for one another or hiding from one another?
Jesus tells us to be who we are. Because God created us that way, and we are blessed. This is our starting point. God’s unconditional positive regard for each one of us.
How will you respond? For many of us it raises a question. Yes, the one I’ve already mentioned. How then shall we live?
Jesus says, “Don’t worry, I’m getting there. But first I need to tell you something else. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
Jesus is pivoting to the ‘how then shall I live” question. We know his answer is going to challenge us, challenge us to repent, challenge us to change our lives. But there’s something important that he has to tell us first. And that is that what he’s about to tell us, some of which is going to sound new, is actually consistent with and, more than that, the fulfillment of what God has been trying to tell us ever since he created us in God’s image.
What does it mean to fulfill the law and the prophets?
The law and the prophets are the whole of God’s teaching as it was given in the Hebrew scriptures, the first five books being known as the Torah, the law, and the next 20 plus books called collectively the Nevi’im, the prophets. To fulfill something is to embody it in such a way that it comes alive and its intended purpose is realized. To lift the words off the page and bring them to life. Jesus knows that much of what he is about to say may sound new to some people but he wants them, and us, to know that it is rooted in what God has intended all along, that what he will say about how we are to live together is the fulfillment of what God has revealed through the ages.
The true meaning, the purpose of God’s instruction to us, of the law given to Moses and the words spoken through the prophets, is to teach us how to live together as God’s people. To teach us how to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. On these, Jesus will soon say, hang all the law and the prophets. Jesus is going to fulfill God’s intended meaning and purpose of the law and prophets by teaching us, by showing us, by embodying what it means to live well together, to love God and neighbour, to be salt and light in the world.
How then shall we live? From here on, the Sermon on the Mount will get challenging, because, well, we don’t always live together well, and Jesus is going to hold out a high standard for us. He’s going to tell us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. He going tell us not to be angry with nor to insult those with whom we are in relationship. And this will challenge us.
But we face this challenge from a place of encouragement, affirmation, and blessing. That’s why in the Sermon on the Mount, the order matters. We begin with God’s blessing, God’s grace, God’s love, God’s unconditional positive regard for each one us. We begin with our God-given identities, in all their variety and diversity, and yet in one way or another, all life-giving, salt and light. We begin with God’s encouragement to be who we are, to be the people God created us to be. From this solid foundation, we dare to respond by asking the question, how then shall we live?
Next Sunday, get ready for the answer.
Homily Yr A P5. February 5 2022. Trinity
Readings: Isaiah 58.1-9a; Psalm 112; 1 Cor 2.1-12; Matthew 5.13-20
Image by Brendan Bombaci. Why a moose? Click here