There, on that mountainside so long ago; there where the people gathered around Jesus for what would become known as the Sermon on the Mount – we started talking about this last week; there on that mountainside where the people gathered around Jesus – who had already been seen to heal and heard to teach about the kingdom of God come near; there on that mountainside the people were gathering in worship – for what we today would call “church.”
And there on that mountainside, in the tradition of great prophets like Isaiah who had come before him, Jesus preached and exhorted – “exhorting” meaning, according to Merriam Webster, “to incite by argument or teaching” – in the tradition of great prophets who had gone before him, Jesus preached and exhorted the people who gathered around him to live lives that would give praise to God. Where necessary, make changes to life so as to better give God praise. To repent – that is ask forgiveness, and make changes with God’s help. We begin almost every worship service with Confession and Forgiveness – repentance of all that we have done badly or left undone when it should have been done - and hearing the assurance of God’s forgiveness work made possible through Christ - remembering that although we always fall short of the glory of God, God chooses us again and again in and through and for love and in order to make God’s love to the world known, manifest.
Jesus was calling the people to remember that they are intended – we are intended - to be the salt of the earth; God’s blessings for those around them. When we gather around Jesus to worship and learn again about God’s teachings, and when we are sent by Jesus to worship and praise God throughout our days and in all aspects of our lives.
This exhortation echoes the prophet Isaiah, who called the people of his day not to give lip service to God, not to pretend to themselves that they were praising God by observing a fast day while in reality in their hearts were still looking after their own interests, even oppressing their workers. Isaiah says that a true fasting - practices intended to give praise and glory to God as part of rededicating our lives to God’s service; Isaiah says that such practices should include “loosing the bonds of injustice…and letting the captives go free.” Sharing bread with the hungry and helping the homeless.
As church folks and secular folks gathered together this past Monday night to read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” we heard again Isaiah’s prophetic words, and the clarion call of our Savior Jesus to participate in God’s desire to bless those most in need. In a way, this past Monday, we of all sorts of different backgrounds and beliefs were gathered for church. Hearing from Dr. King and reminding each other that what we do, or don’t do, matters. Not just on the national holiday set aside to remember Dr. King. Not just during Black History month here in February, but all day, every day.
Then, Isaiah says, then “your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly.” (Isaiah 58:8) And Jesus echoes this image of light as he says, “you are the light of the world, a city on the hill.” And again, Isaiah says, then you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
There are all kinds of ways to be church. There are churches in coffee shops and churches that have coffee shops in their entry ways. There are churches that rent space from schools and churches that have schools housed in their buildings. There are churches that demolish or boldly adapt their buildings to create affordable housing alongside spaces for gathering and worship. Most churches that live on past fifty or hundred years of age – that live on to praise God in all they do and all of who they are, these churches are communities that continue to adapt as they listen together for where God is leading them. Leading us. And these churches are populated by people who continue to be willing to let God change us. To bring us to repentance not of the sake of guilt, but so that in letting go of all that does not serve God we might be better positioned to let God show us where we are needed – as salt and light and cities of hope for the world.
You are a city on the hill, dear people gathered here at Redeemer, New Paltz. You are intended to be the light of the world so as to glorify God who is in heaven and God who seeks through the resurrection work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to be a present hope and trust for all people here on earth. For you see, although Jesus spoke in a manner that echoed the great prophets like Isaiah before him, Jesus was not just another prophet. Jesus was and is the Messiah and because of this there is a whole different narrative now unfolding within the timeline of this world. The millennia, the centuries, the months and the days and hours of evil’s triumph are numbered. The evil that roams this world and even at times captivates our hearts and minds is even now being sliced through, taken apart, broken down by the redeeming work of Christ who gathers us together so that we might be made new again. So that we might hope again. So that we might learn again that to praise God is not a Sunday morning activity alone, but an all-the-time, every-day, helping-other-people-along-the-way activity.
And we undertake this great work of love, this work of salt and light that is the church’s calling even as it is your calling and my calling, as we sit at the feet of our Savior. As we follow in Jesus’ footsteps, seeking to learn how to share the language of love by caring for neighbor. In this way we praise and worship. We praise and worship. Amen.