The Least of These

Matthew 5:13-20
David A. Davis
March 5, 2017
Lent I

In response to the threats, acts of hatred, and vandalism directed at the Jewish community, my friend and colleague Rabbi Feldman and I wrote a letter to the local media outlets. When discerning whether to respond, we both knew that our members would want, would expect us to say something, to do something. I haven’t seen the letter anywhere yet so perhaps we missed deadlines or used wrong emails or maybe the rabbi and the minister were just too verbose. Allow me to share a portion of what we wrote:

We know from studying history and from each of our own traditions why it is so critical to love your neighbor as yourself, to accept the orphan, widow, and stranger, and to demonstrate respect for people of different faiths and backgrounds. We hear the hate speech coming from too many places in our country and we want to counter that speech with language of love and trust and acceptance and honor.

We know of Muslims who feel threatened today by certain policies and statements being made in many public forums and then this week we witnessed acts of hatred directed at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. This is not only disrespectful to the deceased and their families but it also violates so many of our religious traditions of demonstrating honor to people after they pass away and honoring religious institutions. These actions must stop.

In Princeton, we are proud of the multi-faith voices that come together to celebrate certain national holidays and to unite in support of certain values that are key to our religious traditions and to our country. When the times call for us to speak out against religious discrimination and anti-Semitic acts like we have witnessed this week – we do so as well.

The letter ends with a prayer from the Jewish Prayer Book which in part prays for the day when “all who live on earth shall realize we have not come into being to hate or to destroy. We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.” We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. It’s pretty fundamental: to praise, to labor, to love. Sums up the necessities when it comes to being a child of God, a people of God. Almost a kind of stating the obvious, or establishing the baseline, or it’s in the DNA. As the people of God, at the very least, called to praise, to labor, to love.

When you are reading the Gospel of Matthew and you come upon the phrase “the least of these,” one would expect to be in Matthew 25. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these…” “The least of these” you heard this morning in Matthew is also from Jesus but it comes in the early stages of the Sermon on the Mount. “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” The least of these… commandments. Matthew’s Jesus affirming his fulfillment of the law and the prophets. A continuity with the establishment of God’s people. Rather than abolishing the hows and the whats and the whys of the covenant relationship between God and God’s people, Jesus comes to fulfill, re-establish, embody, deepen, live out even the least of these commandments. The least, at the least, at the core, the basics, as simple as to praise, to labor, to love. Anyone who does the very least of what it means to be a child of God, to be the people of God, they will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

When I was getting ready to move from elementary to junior high school, it came time for me to pick an instrument to learn. The junior high band director — his name was Mr. Salerro — was scheduled to visit my school and meet with anyone who was interested so they could get started over the summer. I had determined that I wanted to be trumpet player and that’s what I reported to the rather intimidating junior high band director. Mr. Sellaro looked at me and said, “What a beautiful embouchure! You are a trombone player.” Translated, that means your lips are too fat to play trumpet. It wasn’t until much later that I realized it likely had nothing to do with my lips. It was more of a head count. The band director needed trombone players. Fuzzy Graffam’s lips weren’t any fatter than mine. He became the tuba player. I don’t remember anything else from that meeting but I know I went home from school that day carrying that big, blasted trombone case. It was an example of what in the philosophy of communication they call “Speech Act Theory.” With those words, with that declaration, “You are a trombone player”, I was a trombone player.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” Right there in the Sermon on the Mount, after the blessings of the Beatitudes and before all the instruction yet to come. “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” Before “Let your word be ‘yes, yes,’ or ‘no, no,’” and before turning the other cheek and going the extra mile, “You are the salt… You are the light.” Before love your enemies, and not letting your left hand know what your right is doing when it comes to giving alms, and the Lord’s Prayer, and the lilies of the field. “You are the salt… You are the light.” Before the log in your own eye and ask and knock and do unto others as you would have them to do you, Jesus said, “You are. You are.” Salt. Light.

Preachers like me have the tendency to take the images, the metaphors of salt and light and absolutely squeeze the life out of them until they are just hanging there in a sermon like a dried, smelly dish rag hanging on the faucet the morning after a nice dinner party. So I’m going try not to do that. I’m just going to go with this: when it comes to salt and light, you don’t get any more basic, fundamental, necessary. When it comes to life, to the existence of life, light and salt represent the basics. Jesus and his speech act, establishing the people of God, bringing the people of God to life as salt and light to the world. That the most basic, necessary qualities and characteristics of life in God are in you, part of your DNA, to praise, to labor, to love. At your birth, at your baptism, each day by God’s grace and in God’s Spirit, you are a trombone player! Which is to say, whether you know it or not, whether you believe it or not, you are God’s praise, God’s labor, and God’s love in the world! You are! You are the praise, the labor, and the love of God in the world! You are! You are! Salt. Light. You are because Jesus said so.

I was in the grocery store early one morning a week or so ago. I was in line at the registers in the back of the store just inside the rear entrance. It was before 8:00 a.m. and there was only one cashier working. There were maybe four or five of us in line. One person in line just ripped into the cashier about the line, and not enough help, and time wasted waiting there. “I know it’s not your fault and I shouldn’t be yelling at you!” the person yelled at the cashier.

I was getting off a plane in Newark and most of us had gate-checked our carry-on. So the passengers dutifully lined up along the wall up the jet-way, which is the rule and etiquette of the occasion, while we waited for our bags to be brought in the door. One guy, who looked a lot like me expect bigger and taller, he came off the plane and just stood on the other side by the door. Eventually, someone had to say something like “the line is this way.” The man didn’t move, he just huffed and puffed and said, “Yeah, what are you going to do about it!”

I was driving back to the church for a meeting just last Thursday night. It was dark. I stopped in the center of town on Witherspoon Street there at the crosswalk for several groups of people to cross. I inched forward preparing to turn right and come up through Palmer Square. On the sidewalk was a couple with a stroller. I was checking to see if they were coming out and they waved me on. As I turned my head back, and started to move a bit, a young woman was in the crosswalk already. I stopped as soon as I saw her. I guess she wasn’t sure if I would. She stopped in my headlights, looked right at me, and made a vulgar gesture with her hand.

I can’t be the only one who has noticed that the world could use a lot more salt and light lately. Yes, among the nations. Yes, among leaders. Yes, in governments and policies and decisions. Yes, in the public square, and in local disagreements and debates, and certainly on social media, and, yes, on campus and in schools and in faith communities. But also, more salt and light a whole lot closer to home, more salt and light coming from you and me. A whole lot more of the most basic, necessary qualities and characteristics of life in God. You and your praise. You and your labor. You and your love. You are!

Every one of us knows what it is like to get cranky, snippy, irritable because we’re hungry or thirsty. Every parent has watched a child have a meltdown and then felt guilty because the baby was just hungry. The toddler, the teenager, the college kid, the spouse just needed to get some nourishment, needed to eat something. Like that Snickers commercial where the person turns back into themselves, to their own DNA, after a snack. I’m not sure I could argue theologically that the Lord’s Supper works that way. But it is interesting to think about it that way. Feasting on Christ’s promise, coming back to his table of self-emptying love, nourished again by his goodness, his grace, his mercy so that you can once again be salt and light in your slice of the world, in your corner of life, in your house. So that you can be sent out to praise, to labor, to love. O taste and see that the Lord is good. Filled at this table so you can offer to the world, to your world, the most basic, fundamental, necessary, the “at the very least part” of being a child of God, a disciple of Jesus. You are saved by his grace. You are claimed by his love. You are salt and light! God knows the world could use more, that we could all use a bit more salt and light.

That letter, the letter I shared, maybe it will make it out there, maybe it won’t. The Apostle Paul wrote to one of his congregations, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts” (II Corinthians 3:2-3). When you are expecting your church, your pastor, your rabbi to say something, do something, make sure you’re doing it too. Talk to your neighbor, call your co-worker, stop your classmate, have dinner with friend, the folks you know who are Jewish, and tell how you are really sorry for all that’s happened in the news this week. It’s the least we can do.

This is my body broken for you. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.