Sermon Archives

Monday, February 6, 2017
The Fifth Sunday after The Epiphany (RCL Epiphany 5, Year A)
The Reverend Vicki Hesse, Associate
Promises Not Commands

I know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I come to you in fear and trembling – not with plausible words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit so that your faith might rest on the power of God.[1]  Amen.

The other day, I was looking for a recipe.  Well, you know how one google leads to another?  Before I knew it, I was looking up uses for salt. Some of you chefs may know that salt is used to preserve foods[2], not only in packing, but also in pickling or brining. Salt is one of the oldest methods of preservation, most notably for curing fish and meats.  Salt is used because unhealthy organisms cannot survive in a highly salty environment.  Any living cell in salt will become dehydrated and die or become temporarily inactivated.

The metaphor of actually “being” salt has an old history[3].  We know that in 722 BCE, the Jews were forced into exile by the Assyrians and were scattered throughout the empire, never to return, lost to history.  Yet the Jewish faith holds that the lost people remembered the basic moral practices of their Law, their Torah. In remembering and practicing this morality, they were a preserving force for the good of the world.

When Jesus tells his audience in today’s gospel that they are “the salt of the earth,” they already know this history. Jesus reminds them that observing Torah is not just for religious reasons, but because, “Torah observance is good for the world – it makes communities gentler & more orderly, and makes human beings kinder & more tolerant.”  The long-lost Jewish relatives of that audience had preserved the world by being who they are, through the Torah observance of welcome & hospitality.

Jesus reminds them, “You are the salt of the world – the preservers of the kind world for strangers (including immigrants and refugees) who are to be viewed first as the cousins, as sisters, as grandmothers who were exiled and lost.” In today’s gospel we also hear with contemporary ears about light and being seen.

As Jesus addressed his audience, he addresses us today, here. You are the light, he says.  You cannot pretend that you are not. Everyone will see what you do because you are faithful people.  As Bob Dylan sang in 1963, “the whole world is watching.”[4] And this is a moment when our light has shown in the mission of the United States, enshrined on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

You, my sisters and brothers, are the light.

Today’s gospel message is so full of promise. And it is notably not full of commands.  Did Jesus say “you should be” the salt & light? Did he say, “you have to be” or “you better be”…? Jesus said, you are. You are the salt. You are the light.  Even if you don’t know it. Or you knew once, but forgot. Or even if you have a hard time believing it.  You are. It’s a promise!

And in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made salt and light promises to his disciples about who they already were.  He was not commanding, or cajoling, or manipulating, or threatening.  Sadly, many people – both here and in the world – only know God as a divine law-maker and rule-enforcer and not a generous gift-giver. That gift-giver is the God that we worship, the God who loves you.

Through these gifts, Jesus promises grace about who we ARE – our very being.  Out of our being, our doing follows.  So, before we get into our response as human doings, we can reflect. Think about the ways that LAST WEEK God used you as you ARE – as salt and light in the world. You offered encouragement to a family member. You reached out to a friend who was ill.  You were faithful working at your place of employment. You volunteered and served.  You noticed. You prayed. You protested. You kept your promises.

One time, a friend of mind volunteered, for a short three months, as a chaplain at a hospital. She did nothing remarkable, per se. She sat in the waiting room and chatted with people. She laughed with the bored ambulance drivers working the night shift.  She handed out Kleenex when families came to be with their loved one who had died.  She offered breathing lessons to a nurse, stressed about the computer system. At the end of her time, she received a note from one of her colleagues.  He wrote, “your light shines brightly.  May you always put it on a lampstand for all the world to see.”  She told me how this little note, even today, raises her spirits. He saw her light, even though she had forgotten.

However you preserve the faith, however you shine your light, remember these ways may seem small but they are not insignificant.  God most often uses “small” to change the world.  And small matters.

Because, if ever we needed salt and light blessings it is right now.  You don’t even have to read headlines. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…any news source offers an unusually pervasive sense of dis-ease in our world.  The divisions in our country are not skipping over our congregation, either.  We do not all agree what “being salt and light” looks like.  I have pretty strong opinions on that and maybe you do, too.  The hard part is that some of the people I know who feel differently are the people I know very well and love.  Close family members, fellow 12-steppers, respected people in the community – and I find it hard to reject their opinions without rejecting them.

Does this happen to you?

Well, what to do.  Do we offer general encouragement? Do we sit in silence the best we can so that all feel welcome?  Well, perhaps we have some options.

First, we can recognize that faith communities – and this congregation in particular – can be a place where all kinds of folks with all kinds of opinions can come together.  We might look pretty homogenous, but we are diverse in terms of our political views & intergenerationality – well, more than most spaces in our country.  Perhaps God is calling us to be a place that gathers people who might differ on “how” to be salt and light and a place committed to prayer and conversation for deeper understanding, wisdom, & courage, to speak and act in line with the gospel – with our faith, and for each other.

In 1 Cor reading, Paul writes this wonderful line: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Isn’t that our common call? In this way, Paul addressed the deep divisions of the people of Corinth and invited them to listen to each other and to share in proclaiming the gospel.

Second, recall last week’s gospel text. Remember the first sentences of the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes? Jesus called “blessed” all kinds of people that the world doesn’t usually call blessed: Those who mourn and those who are meek. Those who are poor in spirit & those who are merciful. Those who hunger & thirst for righteousness.  In those people we know the presence of God.  Those are the ones that God blesses and calls us to bless, too.[5]  Those are the ones in the Isaiah reading today.

Later, in The Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus calls us to discover his presence among those who are without shelter, without adequate food and clothing, who are in prison and lonely.  That is the place we, as a congregation, are called to go and be. That is where we offer salt and light. That is our shared calling in the gospel, in our faith, here and now.  Even when we disagree “how;” we have a common gospel of love.

In this difficult time for so many people and for so many reasons, you are given these gifts.  Salt and light is exactly what the world needs, so give that away, too.  You are loved so much by God. You are blessed to be God’s hands and feet in the world, making communities gentler & more kind, making the kingdom of God come about.

God is not done with you yet!

You are the salt of the world. You are the light of the world.

Jesus promises that!

Amen


[1] Excerpt from 1 Cor 2:1-2-5

[2] Cited at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salting_(food) on February 4, 2017

[3] Portion inspired by Richard Swanson at https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/a-provocation-the-fi... cited on February 4, 2017

[4] Cited at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_whole_world_is_watching on February 4, 2017

[5] Portions inspired by Pastor David Lose at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/epiphany-5-a-promises-not-commands/ on February 2, 2017