Sermon: Preacher Obvious

Photo shows a circle of small candles in glasses arranged in a circle with a cross through the center, with words in German around the edge meaning "light of the world."

February 9, 2020
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 5:13-20

by Eric Anderson cannot be credited with the creation of Captain Obvious. The Urban Dictionary has entries going back to 2003, and I seem to remember using the phrase while a public school student, which was not, shall we say, during this century.

Captain Obvious, whether it’s the character on the commercials or a sports commentator or the person you just overheard, is the person who says something that is so glowingly true as to be completely un-newsworthy. Water is wet. Rock is hard. The sky is blue.

I did have an extended argument with a four-year-old once about whether the sky was blue or not, but let’s skip that, especially because I’m not sure she was convinced by the end of it.

Even when one wins a debate with a four-year-old, the rewards for stating the obvious are, shall we say, limited. Who wants to hear the same thing again? Who wants to hear what they already know? Who wants to hear that the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture tonight will be the one that received the largest number of votes from the Academy members?

The Beatitudes, now, there’s an exciting kind of Scripture, one in which conventional wisdom gets stood on its head. Blessed are the meek – that’s news. Blessed are those who are persecuted, because their persecution certainly doesn’t look much like blessing. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because, well, to state the obvious, they’re still hungry and thirsty, so what a blessing it is that they’re blessed.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, however, we find Jesus turning from the sensational to… the completely obvious. Salt without flavor is useless. A city on a hill cannot be hid. Putting a lamp under a basket will not light the house. Jesus did not come to abolish the directives of God or the history of salvation, but to bring it to its greatest fullness.

This week, I’m not Captain Obvious. I’m Preacher Obvious.

Here’s the further obvious thing to say: So are you.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the city set on a hill. You are the light of the world. You are the ones whose words are heard and whose deeds are seen and whose actions represent the Church of Jesus Christ. You and millions of others – but you are the only one who matters to the people watching you at any given moment.

Matt Skinner, writing at Working Preacher, doesn’t feel that you and I serving as examples of the Church is quite so obvious in one sense, at least. He writes, “If Jesus’ words about the effects his hearers are going to have on the world aren’t enough to amaze you, consider who the audience is for the Sermon on the Mount. There are no obvious world-changers gathered around him on the hill. It’s a crowd of ordinary people. Probably a lot of disappointed people. Definitely some desperate people. People who’ve been told they don’t count for much. Scared people.

“No seminary professors who insist on the power of theological precision or their pet orthodoxies.

“No celebrity authors who make a comfortable living writing and speaking to large audiences.

“No famous preachers who seem to produce effortless eloquence every time they ascend a pulpit.

“In fact, if we take Matthew 5:11-12 as our cue, Jesus is speaking to people who are (or who are about to be) ‘reviled’ and ‘persecuted.’ Singling out that category of people as ‘the salt of the earth’ and ‘the light of the world’ seems absurd. But so too were the Beatitudes at the beginning of his sermon.”

Of course it’s absurd that anyone could consider you – could consider me – as the representative of the Church, or the representative of Jesus, or the representative of God. But you may have noticed this: people do absurd things all the time. One of them is to make one represent the many. In its most evil forms, this is racism, sexism, nationalism, the prejudices that oppress people through individual acts of bigotry and through the creation of discriminatory systems.

At its best, could it be: us?

Well, let me state the obvious. It’s going to be us anyway. Let’s make the best of it, let’s make the best of us, let’s make the best of the faith we profess and the faith we live.

The consequences of our failure to do so? Well, listen to these words:

“The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.

“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.”

That was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., writing to church leaders from a jail cell in Birmingham in 1963 (the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”). That view about the church among young people has only increased in the last fifty-six years.

Amy G. Oden writes at Working Preacher about some of the reasons why we might be obscuring our light: “Or perhaps the bushel is the self-absorption of internal conflicts. While conflict is an expected part of any human organization, when conflict becomes an excuse for unproductive institutional self-absorption, then it is a bushel that prevents our light from shining.

“Or perhaps the bushel is the fantasy church in our minds. This sort of bushel is seductive because it seems so positive and feels so good. Such holy longing for an imagined future can indeed fuel us. However, it is equally likely that we indulge in lots of incantational speech without any concrete action or effort in the present. Our church fantasies can leave us unable to build a common life with the real people around us. Magical thinking covers our light.”

Yes, indeed.

I can come up with some other ways that hide our light, that diffuse our salt. Self-righteousness is a popular one, the assertion that I, and only I, have the truth, and that I am not subject to the review or critique of anyone else. I believe we’ve seen some examples of that this week. The desire for or the protection of our power is another one. It’s so stunningly obvious when the powerful act to protect their power that some don’t even bother to dispute accusations of hypocrisy anymore. I believe we’ve seen some examples of that this week as well.

Karoline Lewis writes at Working Preacher, “What Jesus needs from us, evidently, is a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. ‘No!’ we might say, ‘Jesus didn’t really mean that.’ But what if Jesus did? What if Jesus’ intention was for us as disciples to imagine and live into a righteousness that makes the kingdom of heaven possible? If this is true, no wonder Jesus tells this to his disciples from the beginning.”

We are supposed to be different. We are supposed to be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees – that is, more righteous than the people with the highest reputation of righteousness. Which means that, in America, we’ve got to be more credible than nurses.

According to a 2018 Gallup poll, that’s who Americans find the most trustworthy. 82% said nurses have and hold high ethical standards. That’s better than the polling for doctors, I’m afraid, at 65%, and much better than for clergy at, ahem, 42%. My profession still did better in public opinion than bankers, newspaper reporters, business executives, and lobbyists.


What we’re seen to do makes a difference. What we’re seen not to do makes a difference. What we’re not seen to do makes a difference.

Ignatius of Antioch wrote in the second century, “It is better for a man to be silent and be [a Christian], than to talk and not to be one. It is good to teach, if he who speaks also acts” (“Letter to the Ephesians”).

“Who are ‘salt’ of the earth?” asks Emerson Powery at Working Preacher. “They are the humble, the ones who mourn, the meek, and those who thirst after doing what is right in the world.  Who are ‘light’? They are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who receive abuse for standing up for what is right.”

They are us. We are seen. We are heard. We are not ignored. We are representatives of the Church. We are representatives of the faith. We are representatives of God.

When we walk humbly, meekly, in sorrow for the state of the world and with a deep thirst for its redemption, then we are the salt that gives it flavor. When we are the merciful, when we purify our hearts, when we make peace and when we face the consequences for standing for love, then we are the light of the world.

Take your place on the lampstand, my friends, and shine.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Preacher Obvious

It may be obvious, but the preacher doesn’t quite stay with the prepared text. Apparently.

Photo of candles in the cathedral in Bremen, Germany, by Immanuel Giel – Own work, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on February 9, 2020

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