09 February 2014

Being Salt & Light

Matthew 5:13-20

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
9th February 2014

Salt and light.  So ordinary.  So simple.  So basic.  Life is impossible without them.  Too little of each and we die.  Too much and we die.  The balance has to be just right.  Salt and light. These commonplace, ubiquitous elements of everyday life become elemental in Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God here in the Sermon on Mount (Matthew 5-7).

            Last week we looked at the opening verses of Jesus’ sermon, known as the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger for righteousness, blessed are the merciful and the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, and blessed are you when you’re persecuted for the sake of justice, for then you’ll know the joys of the kingdom (see Matthew 5:1-12).  When we are serving the ends of the kingdom, that it may be “on earth as it is in heaven,” (Matthew 6:10), we discover what it means to be blessed. 

            And last week I stressed a point that’s essential for hearing Jesus here on salt and light.  It might come as a surprise to many that being a Christian has little to do with acting or trying to be good.  The Christian life is more than an ethic; it’s more than an ideal that we strive after.  It has little to do with our desire or even capacity to be good.  It was the wise theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) who made this clear when he said, “Action in accord with Christ does not originate in some ethical principal, but in the very person of Jesus Christ.”[1]  In other words, to be Christian means that we are following in the steps of a person who gives us a particular vision of what it means to be human, who shows us what it means to be children of God, what it means to be alive in the kingdom of God.  Following Jesus, aligning our vision with his, walking in his steps, his steps in ours, will lead us to behave in ways that the rest of society might consider the opposite of good, as strange, even odd.  It was Bonhoeffer’s commitment to God’s kingdom that led him to reject the false Christianity practiced by Nazi Germany, which eventually led him to his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, a role that cost Bonhoeffer his life. 

            To be clear, following Jesus will yield an ethic, a particular way of being in the world, but we don’t start there, we start with him.  In fact, for the Christian there is no ethic void of him; to have an ethic apart from Christ means we’re not following him. Trying to live Christ’s ethic without him will break us every time. The Sermon on the Mount and all its demands are designed to make us depend on God and one another.

            Salt: sodium chloride.  A mineral essential for life.  Homer (c. 8th century BC) referred to it as “divine salt.”  Salt, rock salt, was certainly a godsend this past week as we contended with that crippling ice storm.  In many religions salt is holy.  It was required in the sacrifice rituals found in the Hebrew Scriptures (See Exodus 30:35 and Ezekiel 16:4.). Salt has been associated with water in the Christian experience.  In the Roman Catholic Church, salt mixed with water might be the origin of Holy Water.  Holy Water, with salt, is used in the consecration of churches.  In baptism, in some rites, salt is placed on an infant’s tongue.

            Divine salt is a preserving agent, the preserver of life.  In Jesus’ time, salt was very valuable because of its preserving qualities.  The Romans had salt works throughout their empire.  Salt roads, Via Salaria, were built to convey this precious commodity from production sites to markets.  The Roman legions were given money to purchase salt, from which we get our word “salary.”  Salt preserves.  Salt adds flavor—actually it enhances the flavor, draws it out.  Too much salt can overwhelm flavor, just the right amount allows our taste buds to explode with ecstasy.

            Light: electromagnetic radiation, visible and invisible, highly illusive yet constant, both particle and wave, essential for human life, for the life of the planet. It, too, is considered holy in many religions. God was described in our opening hymn as “light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”[2]  It’s a metaphor of wisdom, knowledge, and learning.  The psalmist said, “For with you [O God] is the fountain of life and in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9).  Jesus himself said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

            I can remember first learning the African-American spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine.”  It was in kindergarten at the First Presbyterian Church of North Arlington, NJ.  “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”  I remember learning the stanza, “Hide it under a bushel.” And the response? “NO!...I’m gonna let it shine.”  Then we came up with more stanzas, suggesting different ways we could hide the light. I remember one was, “Put it in my pocket.  NO!  I’m gonna let it shine.” 

            It’s a fun song, easy tune. Inspired, no doubt, by this text in Matthew.  But it gets something wrong, something fundamental:  The light isn’t mine.  It doesn’t belong to me.  I don’t have it, the light.  The light has me. And the degree to which I live in the light, I share in the light, and I am the light.  That’s maybe too much for a five-year-old to grasp, but that’s what Jesus is saying here to his students.

            You don’t have salt to give.  You are salt. 
            You don’t have light to share.  You are light. 

            When you’re following him, walking in his steps, allowing him to walk in you and you in him, you are salt.  Not just part of you, your entire existence.  When you’re following me, Jesus says, walking in my steps, allowing me to walk in you and you in me, you are light. When we align ourselves with Christ’s vision and the values of God’s kingdom we discover that our lives draw out and enhance the flavors of the world, we season the world and give it life; and we discover that our lives in alignment with God’s vision bring God’s light to dark places, offering hope.  Our capacity to draw out and enhance the flavors of the world is entirely contingent upon our status as disciples, our relationship with Christ.  Our ability to offer hope, illuminating the dark places in the world, is entirely contingent upon our status as disciples, our relationship with Christ.  

            Unless we are grounded in Christ, we can’t be salt.  Unless we’re alive within him, we can’t be light.  Apart from him we, we can’t be salt.  When we’re with him we are.  Apart from him we can’t be light.  When we’re with him, when he’s with us, we are light—naturally.

            It’s, then, in this context that we’re to understand the reference to salt losing its taste.  Technically speaking, this isn’t correct. Salt cannot lose its taste or properties.  But that misses the point.  And the point is this: without a kingdom vision the Church loses its saltiness and it doesn’t have much light to offer either. And when this happens, when a Church loses its vision, forgets why it exists, and what it is—salt and light—when this happens, what, then, are we good for?  Nothing.  Thrown out…trampled under foot, Jesus says (Matthew 5:13). Useless.

            But when we align our sights with Jesus’ vision and the values of the kingdom, when this becomes our work, our life, our joy, our passion, being God’s salt, God’s light—stand back and be amazed by what the Church can do! Then the world will stand back in awe of what the Church can do.  When we live as salt, people will take notice, people will know, they will see it and feel it, they will benefit from the way our life in him is enhancing and drawing out the flavors of the world, in tangible, life-altering ways. They will see us, but hopefully they’ll see more than us, they’ll see the one who has called us into the kingdom.  When we live as light, people will see and know and feel its impact, they will benefit from the way our life is shining—or struggling to shine—in the darkest reaches of the human condition, offering hope.  For, there are dark places that need to know God’s light.  And it’s your responsibility as light to shine there!

            And since we are that light, Jesus says, you can’t hide even if you try. As Bonhoeffer once said, so simply and beautifully, “It is the property of light to shine.”[3] To shine.  It cannot be hid.  We are called to live the light, so that others may see, see our actions as Jesus’ followers in the world, know that we are people of faith, disciples of Christ.  Don’t deny your saltiness; don’t run from this truth: your life is light.  When people see your kindness, when they see the depth of your love, when they see your courage, when they see your compassion and joy, when they see your acts of radical mercy, your struggle for peace, your passion for justice—do they know to whom you belong?  To be salt, to be light means we are visible.  As Bonhoeffer insisted, for the followers of Jesus to flee into invisibility is to deny the call.  “A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.”[4] Perhaps you’re thinking that it doesn’t matter too much if others know this about you, that you’re salt and light, only you need to know it.  But it does matter because when they see what God is doing in you and me and through us in the world then they will give praise—not to us—but to God!

            This is true for all of us.  Not some of us. Not just for ministers or priests. It’s for everyone who bears the name of Christ.  But it might be particularly true for those who are called to leadership in the church—ruling elders, deacons, trustees, who will be ordained and installed this morning.  It’s good to remember that our capacity to be salt and light is always contingent upon our life in Christ, our faithfulness to him. Through shared leadership, the burden and weight of these offices, they, together, help equip all of us in the church to remember who we are. We’re salty saints.  We’re brilliant, shining lights illuminating God’s goodness, reflecting praise and glory back to God.  Salty saints.  Shining lights.  Thanks be to God!

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, cited in Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 61.
[2] Walter Chalmers Smith’s 1867 hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” set to the tune ST. DENIO.
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 132.
[4] Bonhoeffer, 132.

02 February 2014

What It Means to Be Blessed

Matthew 5: 1-12

Fourth Sunday in Epiphany/ 2nd February 2014/ Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

“For some reason,” the novelist Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) once remarked, “the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes (Matthew 5).” He’s probably right. But why? Time and again, in various locations across the United States, we hear of demands, requests from a segment of the Church asking for the Ten Commandments to be placed in every courthouse.  Time and again we hear of protests in places where people want the Ten Commandments removed from courthouses.  There was one such incident in Florida just last summer.

The controversy over the Ten Commandments is viewed, by some, as a sign of the increasing secularization of American society, as a liberal attack on religion or on Christianity specifically. But why the emphasis on the Ten Commandments or Decalogue?  Sure, we as Christians are called to be guided the Decalogue.  But isn’t it odd that so much stress is placed on these ten laws, when, from a Christian perspective, there are plenty of other Bible verses and teachings they could turn to, be inspired by, such as the Beatitudes? Shouldn’t the Beatitudes be given a prominent place in our communities?  What about them?  I’ve never seen the Beatitudes carved in bronze on a courthouse wall.  There might be, but I’ve never seen one.  Perhaps you have.

            Maybe the Decalogue is better suited to the running of society, whether one is Jewish or Christian or Muslim.  Take away the references to God and graven images, they’re pretty good rules to follow. What about the Beatitudes, then? The same might be said of them.  Here we have Jesus’ teaching on mercy and peacemaking, good teaching for any society. 

            The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, 7) is often viewed as the Constitution of the Church of Jesus Christ.  This is the core teaching of Jesus and his followers; this is what the work of the Church entails.  If the Sermon on the Mount is the Constitution, then the Beatitudes make up the Preamble.[1]  It’s through these verses that the rest of the sermon must be viewed; indeed, it’s through the sermon that we find Jesus’ core message of what it means to be involved with the Kingdom of God. 

            So why aren’t the most vocal Christians eager to promote the Beatitudes? Why aren’t we?  Maybe because we sense at some level that what Jesus is talking about here is just too blasted difficult.  Maybe because what we think Jesus said about being blessed is just too tough, too demanding an ethic, an ideal that is simply unrealistic.

My allusion to Moses and the Decalogue is intentional here because that’s what Matthew is doing.  Matthew compares the teaching Jesus gives through the Sermon on the Mount with the teaching Moses received on Mt. Sinai, and Law he later shared with the people. Jesus is a new Moses who teaches with authority. But there’s a difference. What we have here in Matthew, in Jesus’ teaching, is not more laws to follow, more demands, indeed higher demands placed upon believers in God and followers of Jesus. Instead, what Jesus gives us here is something else.

            You see, it’s easy to misread these verses when we view them only as commands.  They’re not.  They’re not laws.  And it’s easy to misread these verses if we view them as an ethic, in other words, things we must do.  We misread these verses when we view them as some kind of ideal toward which we should all aspire.  Because if we hear them as command or ethic or ideal, and treat them as such, we will very quickly come up against the fact that what Jesus is talking about here is impossible for us to attain.  They will break us every time. They will defeat us every time. It’s then easy to believe that we’ll never know what blessing is like because getting there is just too difficult.  So what is one to do?

            The wise theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) once said: “Action in accord with Christ does not originate in some ethical principal, but in the very person of Jesus Christ.[2]  In other words, Christian action is not dependent upon an ethical principal, that is, it’s not dependent upon our capacity to do good or our desire to be good. 

It might come as a surprise to many that being a Christian has very little to do with acting or trying to be good. It’s not a heroic ethic.  It’s not an ideal.  The Christian life is more than an ethic; it’s more than an ideal.  To be a Christian means that we are following in the steps of a person who gives us a particular vision of what it means to be human, who shows us what it means to be children of God, and what it means to be alive—now— in the kingdom of God. Following Jesus, walking in his steps, will lead us to behave in in ways that the right of society might consider as the opposite of good, or at least strange or odd.  Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) once said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”[3]  She’s right.  That’s what happens when we follow him.  Don’t get me wrong, following him will yield an ethic, but we don’t start there because we have no ethic void of him.  To have an ethic apart from Christ means we’re not following him.  And there’s no way anyone or any church can even begin to know what Jesus is talking about here apart from him.  Apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5).  We can’t do any of this on our own.  Because what Jesus offers here is demanding and, that, too, is the point, “The demands of the sermon [on the mount] are designed to make us depend on God and one another.”[4]

            The sermon “is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.”[5]  When we gather around him, then we will live in a different way. “To be saved is to be so gathered.”[6]  The Beatitudes become the interpretative key to the entire sermon.  Jesus is actually describing his own life, his way. This is a description of his life.  He’s describing what happens when we, like him, seek and live in the Kingdom of God.  “No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek.”  Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of [God’s] Kingdom breaking into the world in Jesus, those who follow him are those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek. 

For it’s those who are poor in spirit—meaning, when we’re spiritual beggars, when we have nothing left in us to give or to trust or believe, when we’re at the end of our resources and have nowhere else to turn, when we’re completely dependent upon God and have to trust in God, when we live this way, then we will discover what it means to be blessed. 

And when we mourn because we have seen a glimpse of the Kingdom—when we really know what God’s love and mercy and grace feel like and then look at the world and see how broken and screwed up the world is, when we see how starved people are for love and mercy and grace, and then you begin to cry for the world, begin to lament over the hurt of the world, when you can grieve for the world, then you will know what it means to be blessed. 

It’s the meek and gentle soul who has no malice or a desire for revenge, who hungers, like Jesus, for righteousness, which means justice, who knows what it means to be blessed.  When we hunger for healing and thirst for wholeness, like Jesus, and allows these passions to drive us, then we will know what it means to be blessed. 

When, through Christ, you know personally just how merciful God has been toward you, then (and only then!) can you be free to be merciful to your neighbor or stranger or enemy or even oneself, when you live from God’s mercy, then you know what it means to be blessed—to receive mercy and then to share mercy.

When we know personally the kindness of God toward us, within—in our inner hearts—and then live from it, share it, become generous with our lives, then we will know what it means to be blessed. 

And when we know the shalom, the deep peace of God in Christ, then we will work for that shalom, share that shalom, we will work to end violence and war and not stand in the way of shalom, when we work to mend shattered, broken relationships, then we will know what it means to be blessed. 

Now here comes the especially tough part…when we are persecuted, mocked, ridiculed, excluded, shamed, and judged by the world for being troublemakers because we’re following an alternative vision of the world, because we’re serving the Kingdom and walking with Jesus, and there persecuted for pursuing righteousness, God’s justice, then, we, too will know what it means to be blessed.  Rejoice and be glad, Jesus said, for you’re in good company. This was the life of the prophets. They, too, knew what it means to be blessed.

            This is what it means for a life to be blessed in the eyes of God.  Not in some far off future, says Jesus, but right now.  We don’t have to have all of these blessings occurring in our lives at once in order to be blessed.  Just to know one or two or several is all it takes.  To be called into God’s Kingdom, to work for the Kingdom, to seek after God’s Kingdom, with Jesus, for Jesus, in Jesus, through Jesus, this is what it means to be makarios, blessed.  Some translate this word as “happy.” But it’s more than happiness.  It means “exceedingly happy.”  Or, the better word is “joyful,” deeply joyful, profound joy.  This is what Jesus’ life calls us to experience, deep, profound joy.  “The poor in spirit know profound joy for theirs in the kingdom….”

            This is what he calls us to when he invites us to follow him into the kingdom of God, which is all around us.  And this table is the joyful feast of the people of God, people will come from north and south and east and west to sit at table in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29).  Here is bread and wine to strengthen us for the journey, for the work God calls us toward.  Here in bread and wine we remember his presence within us and among us.  Apart from him we can do nothing.  With him, in him, through him, and for him, we are blessed, with joy too deep for words.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 46.
[2]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, cited in Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids:  Brazos, 2006), 61.
[3] Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955).
[4] Hauerwas, 61.
[5] Hauerwas, 61.
[6] Hauerwas, 61.