Show your work – a sermon

Unlike some Episcopal priests I know, I have always enjoyed math.  For the most part, it comes naturally to me, though I’ve often had some help along the way.  Coming of age in the mid-1990s, I found myself reaping the benefits of the Texas Instruments graphing calculator.  In high school, I had a TI-83, the swankiest model available at the time.  It could do algebra, trigonometry, and graph parabolic functions.  Of course, the favorite feature for me and my friends was that you could program it to play Tetris.  In preparation for studying engineering at Pitt, I upgraded to the TI-92 for use in my calculus courses.  College calculus was the first time that math didn’t just make sense to me, and so I used my TI-92 as a crutch through Calc 1.   Why they let me use it, I have no idea, but it made it all the more difficult when I got to Calc 2 and the professor uttered words that struck terror into my soul.  “Show your work.”

92-big

No longer was it sufficient to have the right answer, which my TI-92 could so easily provide, now I had to show the stuff below the surface.  My professor had a good point, even if I didn’t like it very much.  The key to math isn’t getting the right answer, but learning the process by which every right answer will come.  One’s motivation shouldn’t be an A on the exam, but the reward of having learned the concept inside and out, and that can only be proved by showing your work.  The same is true in the life of faith: it isn’t about doing the right things so you can get to heaven when you die.  Instead, it is about what is happening on the inside, the unspoken motivations, the work of holiness.

Last Sunday, Jesus invited his disciples to show their work, and just like when I heard it from my calculus professor, I really wish Jesus had never said it.  “I tell you,” Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Now mind you, the scribes and the Pharisees were the professional interpreters of the Law.  They were the ones who defined the right answer.  How far is too far to walk on the Sabbath?  Ask a Pharisee.  Do I wash this pot or that spoon first to keep kosher?  Ask a scribe.  These men were the holders of all that was right and holy, and Jesus was so bold as to say that we should be more righteous than that.  How could anyone possibly live up to that standard, we could reasonably ask.  Jesus answers my concern with six of his own interpretations of the Law that at their core teach the profound truth that having the right answer, living the right way, isn’t really enough, it is about knowing what underlies that right action that really matters.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.”  Jesus was not one for subtlety, but rather he jumps right into the deep end on this line of teaching.  One of the Big 10, “thou shalt not murder” is as well known a law as any of the other Commandments.  It is also one of the easier ones to keep.  Most human beings are not predisposed to taking the life of another human being in anger.  It would be fairly easy to feel morally superior for having not murdered anyone, but Jesus pushes it further, “show your work.”  “If you are angry with your brother or sister, you are liable to the same judgment,” Jesus says.  It is a lot harder to hold oneself as smugly self-righteous if the bar is now “being angry.”  Who hasn’t felt anger toward a brother or a sister, be they actual siblings or figurative ones?  If you insult your brother or sister, literally in the Greek it says, “if you call your brother an idiot,” you can be brought up on charges.  If you say “you fool,” you’ll go to hell.  I am liable to the fires of hell thanks to my ride into work on Thursday morning, but I’m sure y’all are better Christians than I am.

Notice what Jesus is doing there, he’s not abolishing the law, but taking it to its core.  The commandment “thou shalt not murder,” isn’t about killing someone in anger, it is about the destruction of relationships.  If we are really honest with ourselves, a whole lot more damage is done on a daily basis by those who harbor anger, who hang on to resentment, and who look down on their sisters and brothers than any murderer can accomplish.  God cares deeply about our relationships, and in order to make them life giving and fulfilling, we are called to show love and compassion rather than anger and contempt.  In fact, God cares so much about our relationships, that in verses 23 and 24 Jesus says he would rather we spend time tending to our broken relationships than come to church.  Jesus is serious about us showing our work, checking our motivations, and examining our hearts in this relationship stuff.

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” Another perfectly reasonable commandment from God that Jesus takes deep to its roots.  “But I say that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  It isn’t enough to simply not have sex with someone who isn’t your spouse, but it is about how we treat our neighbor.  God did not create human beings to be used by others simply to satisfy the desires of the flesh.  In fact, the way we treat one another is so important that God would rather us injure ourselves before we harm someone else.

The same is true for divorce.  In Jesus’ day and time, women could be divorced by their husbands for any number of ridiculous reasons including burning a loaf of bread.[1] Jesus is clear, just because there is legal precedent for something, doesn’t make it right.  People aren’t disposable; we can’t just throw them away when they no longer meet our needs.  Show your work, check your motivations, and know that these life-long relationships matter deeply to God.

Finally, Jesus turns his attention to the swearing of oaths.  “But I say to you, do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Here again, Jesus cuts down deep to the fundamental meaning of the commandment not to bear false witness by asking us to consider why an oath is necessary at all.  It seems to me there are two possible reasons.  On the one hand, we swear oaths because the stakes are too high not to.  In a court of law, a witness is asked to swear to tell the truth because the ramifications of lying are so very profound.  When an elected official takes their oath of office, they make solemn vows because the ultimate threat of treasonous activity is the end of the Republic.  On the other hand, and more, I think, to Jesus’ point is the need to swear an oath because one can no longer be taken at their word.  If one cannot be trusted to keep one’s word on small things, the whole of their character is called into question.  If I have promised to love my neighbor, and later I am seen treating her with disrespect, how then can I again be trusted?  Worse yet, how is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ negatively impacted.  Indeed, how is the whole of the Gospel tarnished when one disciple fails to live up the standard of yes means yes and no means no.

Jesus invites his disciples, and by extension each of us, to show our work when it comes to developing fruitful relationships.  It isn’t enough to sit comfortably and say, “Well, I haven’t committed murder or adultery” when inside our hearts there exists a cesspool of anger and lust.  It isn’t enough to simply fulfill the letter of the Law, but as followers of Jesus, we are invited to go deeper, to check our motivations, and to work to make our inner-lives match our outer-lives.  Of course, this ethical standard is so high as to be impossible, and Jesus knows that, but it is the work that matters.  By constantly examining our own hearts and our deepest motivations, we learn, slowly but surely, the core concepts of holiness, and in so doing, we find ourselves coming ever closer to the heart of God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033

Advertisements

Facebook is for Murderers

best-buffet-logo

If we are really honest with ourselves, every disciple of Jesus subscribes to a smorgasbord theology of holy Scripture.   That is, we pick and choose what we like, and leave behind that which we don’t.  Both sides, if there is such a thing, accuse the other of this all the time.  The right says that the left chooses to ignore Scripture’s moral code.  The left says the right forgets about the love stuff.  The truth of the matter is that both are true.  None of us is perfect, and so all of us fall short of the ideal of living out God’s will in every facet of our lives.  This is playing out with blatant obviousness when one reads Jesus’ difficult words in Sunday’s third installment of the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Compare these words with what you see on your social media news feed and it quickly becomes clear that there has been a whole lot of murdering by anger and insult of late.  This is not me be all judgey either.  This is something of a confession of my own behavior, even as I see many of my sisters and brothers doing the same thing.  There is something all together too safe and too easy about hurling insults on social media.  Yet, if we were taking Jesus’ words seriously, we would take pause.

Is what I’m about to say true?  Is it up-building?  Is it judgmental or angry or insulting?  Because if it is, I probably shouldn’t say it.  Is it something that I would say to my brother or sister’s face?  Because if it isn’t, I probably shouldn’t post it.  Maybe we should all take a breath, re-read this section of Matthew 5, and slow down a bit.  The world is already a pretty angry and hate-filled place, perhaps we shouldn’t add to it.  These words from Jesus are difficult to swallow, and I’m sure we’d all rather leave them on the buffet, but the truth of the matter is that we don’t get to choose what we want to leave behind.  The commandment to love is a call to moral impeccability.  We can’t accomplish it on our own, but through  Christ, perhaps we have a chance to stop being murders on social media. 

Choosing Mercy – a sermon

Shortly after my arrival in Foley, a parishioner named Wayne asked to meet.  He had been serving on the board of the local educational enrichment foundation and asked if I could attend a meeting with him and the Principal at Foley Elementary School.  In that meeting, in Dr. Lawrence’s cramped office that he shared with his administrate assistant, I learned for the first time what it meant to be a Title I school.  At that time, 75% of Foley Elementary School students received free or reduced lunch, a key poverty indicator.  More than 50% of the children didn’t have a dad living at home.  Just less than half came to kindergarten with no pre-school experience.  Nearly 25% came from homes where no English was spoken.  As a result, most incoming students were already a year behind: they didn’t know the alphabet, couldn’t count to ten, didn’t know blue from red, and often, had never held a crayon or a pair of scissors ever before.  My heart was broken, but I was afraid the task was just too big.  I could feel the doubt creeping in, and Dr. Lawrence could too.

“I have to tell you,” he said with dead cold seriousness, “you are the third church to come to my office and ask what you can do to help.  I never heard from the other two again. I hope you are serious about coming back.”  So much for sneaking out the door quietly.  Whether we wanted to be or not, the Holy Spirit had just committed Saint Paul’s to adopting Foley Elementary School.  For almost a decade now, there have been Saint Paul’s members all over that school.  Most help in kindergarten, helping the least and the lost get on that first rung of the ladder.  My favorite part of my nine years in Foley is easily the hour I spent in Mrs. Cashion, Mrs. Davis, and Mrs. Laurendine’s class rooms.  Watching kids who couldn’t recognize the letter A when I first met them read “Tap, Rap, Bam” to me by the end of the year was a gift.  Seeing our volunteers, many of whom had grandchildren who were grown or lived far away, fall in love with these kids was a gift.  Even as my heart broke for the kids who I knew hadn’t had a clean shirt since Monday or whose shoes were clearly third generation hand-me-down, or who I wondered if they had anything to eat from Friday lunch until Monday breakfast, God’s blessing was always present in that place where there should have been despair.  I can’t help but think about Foley Elementary School every time I read the beatitudes because they remind me that God is always present where we least expect him.

A funny thing happens when you start to spend time with people different from yourself: you begin to care about the things that affect them uniquely.  After several years of being blessed at Foley Elementary School, we found our Latin American friends in the middle of a crisis.  In 2011, the state of Alabama passed HB56, a draconian anti-immigration law that was intended to make brown-skinned people second class citizens.  Its impact was as far reaching as it was uninformed.  Some of the provisions of the bill included making it illegal for a landlord to rent to an undocumented immigrant.  As a priest, I was eligible for prosecution if I gave any kind of aid to an undocumented immigrant.  Under HB56, I could have been arrested for using my discretionary funds to help someone stay in their trailer, keep their lights on, or feed their children.  At Foley Elementary School, the law struck fear into the hearts of many.  Schools were required to check and keep track of the immigration status of all of their children.  “We’ll never ask you to turn in your students,” they said, but Dr. Lawrence and his teachers didn’t put much faith in that promise.  Mothers would tearfully ask teachers to take care of their children if they were arrested during the school day.  Children were afraid to get on the bus, unsure if anyone would be home when they got there.  Over the first weekend after HB56 was signed into law, some 50 Foley Elementary school children disappeared into the dark of night as their families fled in fear.  It was heartbreaking, and yet, God was in that heartbreak, calling us to show mercy.

The IRS is very clear about what I can and cannot say about politics from the pulpit.  Saint Paul’s, like Christ Episcopal Church, was a rich tapestry of political and theological viewpoints from Tea Party Conservatives to Bleeding Heart Liberals and yet that Sunday my Rector and I decided it was time to take a stand.  This wasn’t a political issue, it was a gospel issue.  Hundreds of thousands of Latin-Americans were made to feel less than human because of the color of their skin or the accent on their lips.  In that moment, we had a choice.  We all have a choice.  Do we stand with the oppressed or with the powerful?  Do we use our positions of privilege to lift up those who have been cast down or do we sit comfortably and give thanks it isn’t us?  That Sunday, we chose to speak out on behalf of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We invited our people to stand up for what was right, to show God’s love to everyone, especially those young children at Foley Elementary who were so scared, and we let them know that despite a state law to the contrary, we would continue to show mercy to those who were in need, whether they could prove they were in this country legally or not.  It was what we were called to do as followers of Jesus and ministers of the Gospel.

This morning is another one of those mornings when a choice has to be made.  Will we sit in relative comfort as a thousands of Muslims right here in Bowling Green, both Arab and European, along with 1.6 billon Muslims worldwide are told that they are less than human?  Will we allow 55 million Latin and Mexican Americans live in fear of harassment or arrest just because of their appearance or accent?  Or will we use our positions of privilege to do what is right, to show the love of God and to respect the dignity of every human being?  Will we be a church that is too afraid to stand up for the Gospel of love or will we take a risk by showing mercy to the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the outcast?

During his inaugural sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus explains to his disciples the basics of blessedness.  Among the items on that list are things to which we might be called for a season: mourning, meekness, and persecution, for example.  Others are things that I believe all disciples are called to seek at all times: a hunger for righteousness, peacemaking, and especially, showing mercy.  We live in a time in which being merciful has gone out of fashion.  It has become increasingly easy to casually label and dismiss our neighbors be they Muslim or Jew, Hispanic or Black, straight or gay, rich or poor.  As a nation, we have lost sight of what it means to show mercy, to offer compassion, and to see the good in one another.  And as a result, we’re seeing more and more unmerciful legislation and, in recent days, executive orders, demanding that we show less and less mercy to the vulnerable among us.

In the beatitudes, Jesus is clear that his disciples are to stand up against such things, by showing mercy to the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  In the beatitudes, Jesus declares God’s blessing on those who seek after the heart of God, who came in the form of a baby, born in a stable to an unwed mother, who fled to Egypt as a refugee when the powerful tried to kill him, who declared God’s love to sinners, tax collectors, Samaritans, and Centurions, who died on the cross that all might come within the reach of his saving embrace, and who invites each of us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in his grace.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus, we who claim God’s blessings of forgiveness, we who have received mercy, are called to show mercy to all because God cares not just about those who are in power, but especially for those who are most vulnerable.  “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says, “for they shall receive mercy.”  Will we choose comfort over blessedness?  Will we show severity instead of mercy?  The choice this day is us ours.  Amen.

Our Sainthood Problem – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon for All Saints’ Sunday is now available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.

The Episcopal Church has a sainthood problem.  The problem started somewhere in the late 1970s, when for the first time since 1549 and Thomas Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer, the Church decided to add names to its calendar.  With the exception of a few years during the reigns of Edward and Mary, for the better part of 430 years, the calendar of the Church included only a handful of Saints, each of whom, at the very least, were mentioned in the New Testament.  Because of the overall lack of saints in Anglicanism, the void was filled by the overwhelming number of Saints in the Roman Catholic Church.  Most us, whether we were ever Roman Catholic or not, default to the sainthood model that requires two verifiable miracles that occur after the person’s death.  Many of us are also familiar with the patronage of saints, like Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes; Saint Valentine, the patron saint of lovers; and Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things.  What is often overlooked is the fact that of the three, only Saint Jude actually appears on The Episcopal Church’s calendar.  We talk with affection about Saint Francis and Saint Patrick, but neither is actually titled a saint in The Episcopal Church.  If you read the most recent stuff coming out of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, it is clear that our problem with sainthood is that we are still struggling to figure out what sainthood means.

With that in mind, and in preparation for today’s All Saints’ celebration, I’ve spent a lot of time this week trying to answer the question, “What makes a saint?”  I’ve come up with this definition, “A saint is a disciple of Jesus who strives to live into the Kingdom of God.”  The first thing you’ll notice is that this definition is in the present tense.  You don’t have to be dead to be a saint.  In fact, if you are waiting until you die to become a saint, you’re doing it wrong and you’ll probably never get there.  The Apostle Paul uses the word saint forty-one times in his letters.  Every single time, it is used to refer to the living, not the dead.  In fact, he uses it not in reference to special people doing extraordinary things for the Gospel, but as a way of describing everyone who follows Jesus as Lord and Savior.

So, what does it mean to follow Jesus?  We could look to last week’s gospel lesson and say quite simply that following Jesus means loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself, but as comforting as those words are, I feel like we need to hear more about what that look likes in real life.  Certainly we could point to the Baptismal Covenant and say that following Jesus means believing in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; being a member of a worshipping, praying, and learning community; striving to resist evil, but falling back on the grace of God when we fall short; sharing the Good News of the Kingdom; serving our neighbors; and striving for justice, peace, and dignity for all of Creation.  But if we wanted even more, there is no better place to turn than Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

This morning’s Gospel lesson comes from the very beginning of that most famous sermon.  As news of Jesus spread far and wide, the crowds that followed grew larger and larger, until one day, Jesus climbed up a mountainside, sat down, and began to teach the saints what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.  From Matthew 5:1 through to chapter 7, verse 29, Jesus teaches his followers about being salt and light, about judging others and loving our enemies, about prayer, fasting, and stewardship, and he sums up his teaching with the Golden Rule saying, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”[1]  His teaching begins, not like Moses’ mountainside sermon with a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots, but with a description of what Kingdom people look like, and it is a very surprising and rag-tag bunch indeed: the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those who seek after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted and reviled for following Jesus.  Being a saint means following Jesus into all sorts of unexpected situations in thanksgiving for the love of God showered upon us.

During his sermon on Wednesday, Keith shared a short poem by Nobel Prize winning author and poet, Rabi[ndranath] Tagore that in three short lines sums up sainthood for me:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy

I awoke and saw that life was service

I acted, and behold, service was joy

Sainthood is a life lived in the joy of service.  It doesn’t mean we’re perfect.  It doesn’t mean we have it all together. It doesn’t mean we don’t feel burnt out or tired or frustrated from time to time. It means, as I said before, that saints find joy in striving for the kingdom.  Saints do their best and let God do the rest.  The history of Christianity is full of saints who weren’t perfect but found joy in serving a God who is.

Take the much beloved Francis for example. He was the son of a rich and powerful family who had rich and powerful friends and, for a while at least, lived a rich and powerful lifestyle. As his spiritual devotion grew, so did his discomfort with his worldly lifestyle until his own Father took him to court to try to force him to remain in the family business. It was only then that Francis finally threw off all the trappings of his old life, literally stripping naked in front of the court proceedings, and vowed a life of poverty. The sainthood of Francis came in fits and starts, but it was his faithfulness and joy in service that eventually led him into ever deeper commitment to the kingdom.

The same can be said for all of us, I think. Our slow progress toward sainthood has its ups and downs, two steps forward and three back sometimes, but in the end it is in the striving that we become blessed, that we become holy, that we become saints.  As I thought about our sainthood problem, the names of saints who continue to strive after the kingdom came flooding into my mind.  There’s Bernice and Esther, who give up their Sunday mornings to make sure our youngest members know that God loves them; Franklin who, among other things, ensures that our fellowship is joyful with plenty of donuts; and Carol who was here at the crack of dawn this morning to make sure the altar was properly set for the Feast of All Saints’. There’s Lyle’ who in between teaching her young sons to read, write, and ‘rithamtic, shares the never ending stream of activities going on here through the E-Pistle; Stan who drives all over God’s creation picking up day old bread to feed the hungry; and Cassie who not only coordinates Follow the Word but puts up with me as well.  There’s Doris and Pem who drive 30 miles each way to come worship with their church family no matter how ugly the weather might be; John and Ruth who redefine what it means to find joy in the service if others; and Jim who with the faithfulness of a grandfather clock shows up at Foley Elementary to help children learn their abc’s. The list could go on and on, and it includes each one of you who gives of your time, your talent, and your treasure to build the Kingdom of God right here, right now.

The Episcopal Church has a sainthood problem, but it most certainly doesn’t lack for saints, I can guarantee that. “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”[2]  Amen.

[1] Mt 7.12

[2] Lesbia Scott, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God

The Confession

In the space between the invitation to confession and the actual words of the prayer, whether it is Morning Prayer Rite I, Compline, Holy Eucharist Rite II, or even the service of Holy Eucharist laid out in Enriching our Worship, there is a rubric that reads, “silence may be kept.”  For this low churchman, “may” is mostly a helpful word in the rubrics, it keeps me from being brought up on Title IV charges, but in this circumstance, I wish the rubric had been made without the wiggle room.  “Silence shall be kept.” Or “Silence is kept.” would be my preference, and here’s why.

I’m a sinner, and I need sometime, sometimes lots of time, to reflect on my sinful nature before I join with my parish family in confessing those sins corporately.  I need that silence to be long enough and awkward enough to search the depths of my heart to find the places where I’ve committed murder through anger and unkind thoughts; where I’ve become liable to the fires of hell; where I’ve failed to be reconciled with my brother or sister before approaching the altar; where I’ve committed adultery by paying more attention to how a woman looks and what she’s wearing than her inherent goodness as a created child of God; or where I’ve failed to trust in myself, my God, or my neighbor by insisting on oaths and pinky swears.

The challenge of this week’s Gospel lesson is that it makes very clear the fact that we are all, in some way or another, fallen, sinful people.  It is impossible to read the sermon on the mount and walk away convinced of one’s own perfection.  You can’t have Matthew 5:21-37 and Ecclesiasticus 15.  So this Sunday, as I serve as celebrant at Saint Paul’s, you can be sure that I’ll leave enough silence to make us squirm just a bit.  After all, as the beatitudes tell us, it is when we are most vulnerable that God is present to bless us.

Let Your Light Shine – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon on Matthew 5:1-20 is now available on the Saint Paul’s Website.  If you prefer, you can read it below.

One of the things that I love about the Anglican tradition is its repetitiveness.  Many see this as a problem area in Anglican liturgy, and I get that.  They think that because we say the same things day after day, week after week, year after year, they become rote and we don’t even think about it anymore.  We know that there is some truth in this fear, which is why as Keith and I plan our liturgical life, we make sure to make seasonally appropriate changes: in the opening rite; the Prayers of the People; the Confession; the Offertory Sentences; the Eucharistic Prayer; and often, the Blessing.  For me, however, there is something deeply powerful in the practice of saying and hearing these words over and over again.  They ingrain themselves within me and become a part of who I am.  Often, they come out in my sermons – phrases like “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” or “live and move and have our being” or “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”  Throughout seminary, it was expected that we would attend chapel every day, and while I didn’t quite achieve that goal, I did attend Morning Prayer with enough regularity that the Psalms and Canticles almost became second nature to me.  Some of those memories have since faded, but there are two liturgical phrases that I still hold very dear.  They have been with me since my childhood – phrases recited by two dear clergymen, both now passed on to larger life.  The first comes from Deacon John Baldwin who whenever he preached began every sermon by reciting a paraphrase of Psalm 19, verse 14, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.”  These words still echo through my mind every time I prepare to step into the pulpit.

The second comes from my childhood priest, The Reverend David Powers Thomas, who invited the people of God to the make an offering not just of their money in the plate, but of their whole lives by paraphrasing the King James Version of Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  As I read through the prescribed lessons for this week, these words from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount were the first thing that jumped out at me.  “You’ve got to preach that line,” I thought to myself, “you’ve just got to.”  As the week went on, however, it became clear that although this line has been formative for me, it ought not be read in isolation.

In isolation, it reads as if it is one more “thing” that we have to do in order to secure God’s favor in some way.  In isolation, it sounds an awful lot like Jesus is adding yet another law to the 613 commandments already put in place by the Pharisees.  In isolation, these words feel heavy, but like I said, they ought not to be read in isolation.  Instead, this morning we hear these words from Jesus as part of the opening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a three chapter long sermon that Jesus gives at the beginning of his ministry in Matthew’s Gospel.  We’ll spend four weeks here, but we should have had five.  The Feast of the Presentation meant we missed hearing the Beatitudes last week, so I threw them in with this week’s lesson for good measure.  What we find in these first twenty verses of the Sermon is Jesus laying out the main theme of the next three years: God’s deep and abiding love for humanity means he’ll meet you where you are, but he won’t leave you the way he found you.

It all starts with the Beatitudes, nine statements of blessing that assure the hearer that God will make himself known in the most unlikely of places.  Are you poor in spirit: at the end of your rope?  God is there to bless you.  Are you mourning: have you lost the thing most dear to you?  God is there to bless you.  Does your heart ache when you see a world full of injustice and unrighteousness?  God is there to bless you.  Do you find yourself being persecuted because you believe that God cares even for the least and the lost?  God is there to bless you.[1]  If the Beatitudes tell us anything at all about the nature of God, it is that his love knows no bounds: God will make himself known to the corrupt politician and the unethical businessman just as sure as he’ll make himself known to the junkie in the gutter or the single mother on her last two pennies or the high school football captain who only looks to have it all together or the young executive who is losing the work/life balance game.  In the incarnation of Jesus, God shows us that he is willing to go anywhere to give you his blessing.

Jesus goes on to tell his followers that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  You’ll notice that he didn’t tell them “If you want to be salt and light, you have to do this…” or “before I’d even think of calling you salt and light, I need to change these things…” Instead, Jesus uses the present tense to tell them and us that we are salt and we are light.  He then hammers the point home with two absurd hypotheticals.  You are the salt of the earth, but if salt loses its saltiness, it is good for nothing.  Can salt ever lose its saltiness?  It is a mineral, millions of years old, mined from the ground.  No, salt can’t lose its saltiness and neither can you.  You are the light of the world.  When you light a lamp, do you cover it up?  No, that would at best snuff out the flame and at worst start a fire.  You are the light of the world and even if you work to hide your light, it won’t go out.[2]  Jesus invites his disciples across the ages to live into their identities as salt and light.  He loves us and enters into relationship with us no matter what, but our response to that love should be to get about the work we’ve been called to do.

As salt, our job is two-fold.  The most common and important use for salt in the ancient world was as a preservative.  In the days before refrigeration, it was the job of salt to keep the very limited meat supply from going bad.  As the salt of the earth, followers of Jesus are tasked with the preservation of creation: working to ensure that God’s good work is kept sacred and wholesome for generations to come.  The other use for salt is, of course, as a seasoning.  Salt makes bland food taste descent and good food taste great. My cooking idol, Alton Brown, says that salt turns up the volume on our taste buds by way of some sort of electrochemical reaction.  I don’t know the science behind it, all I know is that last week, when Cassie and I were eating only seven foods as part of our study of “7: An Experimental Mutiny on Excess”, salt kept me from going insane.  As the world’s flavor enhancer, Christians are meant to be filled with and share the joy that comes from life in Christ.   Following Jesus isn’t meant to be boring, but rather it is a chance, as Bishop Curry said in The Big Class, “to be truly you.”  That means being the student, softball player, mom, doctor, teacher, sales rep, grandfather, or hospital golf cart driver God created you to be.  Do it to your fullest potential.  Do it because it brings you joy.  Do it to the honor and glory of God.  Do it with a smile.  Enhance the experience of life by being the salt of the earth.

As light, our job is simply to help others see how the love of God enters their lives.  We do that, not by shaming them or guilting them, but by being present with them, even and especially in their darkest hours.  And while just showing up is 90% of the task, we only fully shine the light of Christ in the world through our good works of care and compassion.  Which brings me back to that phrase etched on my heart from childhood: a phrase not to be taken insolation, but to be heard alongside God’s promise of blessing and our commissioning as the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  Let it shine. Let it shine.  Let it shine.  Amen!


[1] Some of the expansive imagery in this section is borrowed from Eugene Peterson’s The Message.

Can Salt Really Lose its Saltiness?

During the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I had the great privilege to travel to Germany for three weeks in a foreign exchange program.  It was, ostensibly, our reward for sticking with our study of a language that would be of no use to us as adults (though if this was the reason, I’m not sure why French 4/5 students didn’t get to go France for a year).  One of our stops during the three-week whirlwind tour of Bavaria and the Alpine regions of Switzerland and Austria was a trip to the Salzburg mines.  There, deep below the surface of the earth, we saw where salt comes from.  Frankly, I don’t remember much of the tour other than sitting on leather pads to slide down to the bottom of the mine, but what I can infer from my fuzzy memories is that salt is a very resilient thing.

Salt is, according to the Biblical scholars I’ve read this week, the only mineral that humans consume in its natural state.  This may or may not be true, but what I’m sure of is that after millions of years of compression underground, being mined by heavy machinery and conveyed to the surface, being separated from contaminants, packaged, shipped, and sold, salt is still salty.  In fact, I can’t think of a way in which salt become unsalty.  It could, I suppose, become contaminated and rendered useless.  It could be dissolved, but then its saltiness is spread throughout that which dissolved it.  It can’t become unsalty.

And neither can you.  In this Sunday’s lesson, we hear Jesus tell his disciples (or the crowd. or both.) that they are the salt of the earth. Period. Full Stop.  He then goes on to name the absurdity of salt not being salty (the Greek word there is where we get “moron” – read more on that here and here), in order to prove to his listeners that they have been commissioned.  Their responsibility then is to live out their saltiness: to preserve and season God’s good creation.

How do you live out your calling as “salt of the earth?”